There was a time when the notion of a computer capable of not just running programs, but modeling human intelligence was purely a feature of outlandish science fiction. But recent years have shown that an ‘artificial intelligence’ isn’t just a figment of sci-fi imagination, but to many, an inevitable discovery. It’s even the main subject (and threat) of the Johnny Depp-led Transcendence.
Whether it’s skepticism, fear, or simply the need for villains that has turned the notion of ‘A.I.’ into a great and terrible thing, blockbuster films have relied on the idea of an inhuman, unfeeling, artificial brain for their conflicts. The trend of killer movie A.I.s doesn’t show any signs of stopping, so we’ve decided to narrow the roster down to a list of our favorites. It should go without saying that spoilers lie ahead.
- The A.I. must exist, either explicitly or implicitly, outside of a single body or form.
- The A.I. must be portrayed as a singular intelligence which may have spawned subsidiary extensions, but not the other way around (a hive mind).
- The A.I. must exhibit decision-making capabilities as a sign of intelligence, not simple programming.
- The A.I. must, through either means or ends, seek the destruction of human life.
Now that we’re all on the same page, read on for our list:
10. ARIIA, Eagle Eye (2008)
D.J. Caruso’s Eagle Eye begins with a common enough premise: what seems like a massive frame-job and conspiracy surrounding Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) takes a twist when he’s contacted by a mysterious woman (the uncredited voice of Julianne Moore) offering him a way out. The woman is soon revealed to be a government-created supercomputer, dubbed the Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst – ‘ARIIA’ for short. Using autonomous aircraft, automated traffic and surveillance systems across the United States, ARIIA moves her pawns – human and otherwise – into place for a truly sinister attack.
ARIIA’s desire to eliminate the President of the United States and the rest of the Executive branch is par for the course in political thrillers, but her justification for the attack under the Constitution and Patriot Act are something new. The filmmakers weren’t going for any meaningful political statement, but it’s a nice change from the usual ‘kill humans’ justification.
9. Auto, Wall-E (2008)
Pixar’s WALL-E casts human beings in a poor light from the start, as corporations and excess (specifically due to big-box retailer ‘Buy ‘n’ Large’) have left Earth one massive garbage dump, with humans vacationing off-world as the hero of the film tackles the trash. But when the humans aboard the spaceliner Axiom are finally revealed, the true menace to both them and the robotic leads is exposed.
Coddled by the overwhelming guidance of Auto – the ship’s A.I. autopilot – humanity has been reduced to helpless, morbidly obese passengers, with Auto resorting to deception, robo-homicide, destruction of evidence and brute force to keep humans from ever returning home. The film itself garnered critical acclaim, and with Auto influenced by both 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s homicidal A.I. and Apple’s line of computer products (with Auto voiced by the company’s MacinTalk speech program), the A.I. pilot is an homage to the trope’s best examples, becoming one in the process.
8. V.I.K.I., I, Robot (2004)
The film may share little in common with Isaac Asimov’s original story, but I, Robot tackles the same question: can robots – even those which must protect, not harm humanity – ever really be trusted? What begins as a clear-cut murder case is complicated when America’s supply of cutting-edge robot servants are controlled remotely, orchestrating a military coup to turn humanity into cattle under the protection of United States Robotics (USR).
The final twist comes when USR’s Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (V.I.K.I.) is revealed to be the mastermind, not defying the Three Laws of Robotics, but realizing that to best protect humanity freedoms must be sacrificed. That justification is a common one in sci-fi action, but with an army of robots at her disposal, V.I.K.I. is more than memorable. And her logic is undeniable.
7. WOPR/Joshua, WarGames (1983)
One of several films focusing on global nuclear war, and the American/Soviet standoff during The Cold War, WarGames showed that inhuman computers can be just as flawed as the humans protecting the world’s population. When a teenage hacker (Matthew Broderick) causes NORAD’s War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer – ‘Joshua’ to his friends – to simulate global thermonuclear war, all hell breaks loose as the US Army believes war to be imminent.
Although Joshua’s simulation proved the futility of nuclear strategies like The Atlantic Heavy, The Italian Takeover, or The Canadian Thrust, they don’t quite constitute intelligence. However, Joshua’s attempts to trigger global war prove his lethality. But his ability to discover and realize the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, proved he was capable of learning; not just a simulation program.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Comic book fans knew that when Swiss scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) acted as Red Skull’s right-hand man in Captain America: The First Avenger, it could have been the first of many appearances by the mad scientist. When Toby Jones confirmed Zola’s return in The Winter Soldier, and that the character had found a way to “defeat time” itself, it seemed like fans might see the supervillain encased in his comic book robotic suit.
What fans got instead was a bank of dated computers onto which Arnim Zola had uploaded his consciousness. Luckily, the transition from real intelligence to artificial intelligence didn’t lessen Zola’s sassy demeanor, embodying the wit and snark he did when still boasting a pulse. With the green monitor providing something of a nod to the comics, the character might even have proved more memorable in A.I. form. And that’s a feat.
5. Master Control Program, Tron (1982)
Beginning its life as a simple chess program, ENCOM’s Master Control Program (MCP) was given new purpose when the devious and dastardly Ed Dillinger (David Warner) came to power, and made the MCP the supervisor of all of the company’s digital assets. As absolute power often does, the MCP was completely corrupted, instilling a ruthless dictatorship within the computer realm of TRON, but the program soon set its sights on the real world.
By the time the events of the film begin, the MCP has already turned Dillinger into a quivering servant, threatening to expose the Senior Executive’s darkest secrets if he attempted to interfere with the program’s hacking of the United States Pentagon. We have to admire the MCP’s resolve, attempting dominance that characters in TRON: Legacy would later repeat, but with significantly fewer resources.
4. V’Ger, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Easily the most mysterious entry on our list, the artificial intelligence/galactic phenomenon known only as V’Ger – the central antagonist of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – is one that every Trekkie will remember. First storming Federation Space and defeating Klingons without breaking a sweat, the massive cloud of light and energy was like nothing Starfleet had ever encountered. And once its origins and purpose became clear, the confusion multiplied.
Beginning its existence as the unmanned space probe Voyager 6, the probe’s quest for information led it to an unknown race of sentient machines. How or why the race turned the probe into a massive intelligence is unknown, but V’Ger’s quest for knowledge led to unparalleled destruction. Until, that is, it ascended to a higher form by merging with one of its human ‘creators.’ To what end? It seems we may never know…
3. The Machines, The Matrix (1999)
Some sci-fi fans may immediately take issue with the definition of The Matrix‘s machine overlords as a single artificial intelligence, but regardless of how vast their numbers became, their origins are singular. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) explained mankind’s downfall as stemming from the birth of “A.I. – a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines.” Any doubt that the race of sentient machines was subject to one intelligence was erased when Neo (Keanu Reeves) came face-to-face with the enemy in The Matrix: Revolutions.
Sure, a metallic baby face isn’t the most intimidating A.I. visage. Yet you can’t argue with results; dominating the human race and bringing them to the brink of extinction more than once is impressive. But concocting a mental prison to turn slaves into power? That’s ingenious on a new (and chilling) level.
2. Skynet, The Terminator (1984)
The Matrix may have brought the idea of a machine uprising back into the conversation, but it owes plenty to the success of The Terminator. Every sci-fi fan knows the legacy of Skynet by now: the military artificial intelligence that used its newfound self-awareness to trigger nuclear war. Where WarGames‘ WOPR only simulated global destruction, Skynet made good on the concept.
Surprisingly, Skynet itself has almost never been seen in the Terminator series, using its line of T-800s and other robotic war machines to impose its will. But knowing that what one Terminator sees, every Terminator sees just adds to the odds stacked against humanity. The murderous A.I. may have lost in the end, but it’s the deadliest one we could ever encounter.
Image Credit: JJasso on Deviant Art
1. H.A.L. 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It may not be the most bombastic or openly violent A.I. in movie history, but among murderous computer ‘servants,’ 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000 is beyond comparison. Officially named for his function as a ‘Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer,’ the artificial intelligence trusted with overseeing the spaceship Discovery One and its crew was immortalized as soon as the film first hit screens. Represented solely through red, unblinking eyes, and speaking in a calm tone no matter how frantic the situation, HAL is as off-putting as ‘simulated intelligence’ can get.
The A.I.’s legacy is still alive and well in just about every piece of science fiction dealing with a warm, trustworthy computer program meant to simulate a human personality. But no matter how warm or fuzzy they may get, HAL 9000 proved that the most endearing A.I.s can hide some of the darkest intentions.
That’s just a sample of the movie A.I.’s we could name as particularly memorable, so be sure to name your own favorites in the comments.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.