Artificial Intelligence may be more timely than ever, but it’s been around for a while in cinema. Which is unfortunate, because filmmakers keep telling us how dangerous it can be, and we pursue AI anyway. The mere concept of such technology is inherently fascinating because it is an intentional emulation of humanity. As such, the subject innately invokes conversations about human nature.
Also, it is always intriguing to imagine what our relationship would be with such a unique mirror. Over the years, movies have contemplated many such relationships, from the apocalyptic to the romantic. Many times, it offers some criticism of ourselves. Here are the ten best movies that explored AI in a contemplative, interesting way.
This may seem like an odd choice, but this Disney film was surprisingly rich with thematic ideas. It certainly doesn’t paint humans in a very positive light. There is, of course, the obvious premise that humans abandoned Earth after we environmentally compromised it. Ultimately, we rely on AI for survival and mundane tasks alike.
We become mindless drones with minimal interaction, while WALL-E conversely finds love with EVE and adores musicals. It’s surprisingly romantic, given WALL-E’s nervousness, and dedication to both protect and pursue her. Humanity, meanwhile, has been stripped of personality altogether. It’s a neat dichotomy but includes plenty of family-friendly charm and comedy.
9 The Matrix
The Matrix is easily one of the best movies ever made, no easy reputation to garner. It incorporates countless philosophical references and conversations via easily digestible, creative action. Morpheus directly questions the nature of reality itself; the film is endlessly debatable. But metaphorically, even a surface level interpretation of The Matrix itself was important for the time.
We were already becoming overly reliant on machines, which now control basically everything we do. In The Matrix, human beings become the fuel for machines, after hubris leads us to block out the sun. Intriguingly, the AI is unsympathetic, yet wholeheartedly interested in survival. Further, the apparent sentience and individual goals of the program Agent Smith is equally startling and creative. This extraordinarily ambitious story is uniquely large in scale, both visually and thematically.
8 Ex Machina
This is an intriguing take on artificial intelligence. It plays out as a horror movie, isolating the protagonists with a volatile threat. It stars Oscar Isaac, known for Poe Dameron in the current Star Wars saga. He brings a similar level of charisma, but Alicia Vikander delivers a surprisingly standout performance. She is convincing, nuanced and terrifying when necessary.
Given that the premise is to directly evaluate the humanity in her character, the study is blatantly rich. Although there are more elements of a thriller, this claustrophobic chess match discusses how we might treat something so similar to humankind. With sexuality and ethics at the forefront, it’s a compelling nod to Kubrickian storytelling.
7 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
This is a classic action movie, to be sure, full of James Cameron’s visual flair and humor. But although the first half is essentially a big-budget remake of the first Terminator, there’s far more thematic substance. This is largely due to the focus on Miles Dyson and the ethics of his invention. It points out how innocently so many dangerous creations can begin.
But the movie also features an intriguing parallel between the T-800’s increasing interest in humanity and Sarah’s dangerous similarities to a robotic assassin herself. The T-800 becomes curious, while John can’t so much as expect a thankful hug from his mother. Even Sarah contemplates the practicality of the T-800 as a protector because he misses human flaws.
6 Blade Runner 2049
This was a surprising sequel in many ways. Firstly, the original Blade Runner’s ending was altered so many times, it felt conclusive enough any which way. Secondly, the director actually mustered an intelligent, visually arresting story that fits the original by refusing to imitate it. Instead, it’s very ambitious in its own right. And yet, it very distinctly exists in the same universe.
This time around, we very clearly follow a Replicant protagonist. So, every decision he makes is subject to analysis. The focus of the film, and most interesting, is his love life. Not only does it simply exist, but it explores one AI’s relationship with another AI.
5 Blade Runner
This Ridley Scott classic is possibly one of the most famous sci-fi films ever made. The gritty, neon city is a perfect backdrop for this incredible adaptation of the Philip K. Dick source material. The Replicants are simply interested in self-preservation; every move the antagonist makes is brutal but conceptually sympathetic. Even compared to protagonist Rick Deckard, a broken and generally cold man who begins to question if he is actually human.
Intriguing rules are established for the minds of artificial intelligence, as well as many other science-fiction cornerstones. It’s a fierce, stylistic, philosophical exercise, predominantly comprised of immersive worldbuilding. The sheer overwhelming artistry radiates from every scene.
4 I, Robot
This is more of an accessible popcorn blockbuster than most films about AI but stokes contemplation nonetheless. Isaac Asimov’s legacy of the “Three Laws of Robotics” is invaluable. The entire film is hinged on these laws, which were designed by humans, and thus fallible—like AI itself. The protagonist’s bias against AI is warranted. A robot rescues him instead of pursuing a girl, as they both drown. It’s an example of the flaw in logic-based existence—it is unsympathetic.
This is the premise for the antagonist, initially Sonny. Sonny is a fascinating character, who doesn’t understand why he transcends his peers. These differences ask the limits of AI’s capacity for unexpected growth. Also, the worldbuilding is thorough and plausible. The film discusses interesting aspects of our relationship with AI, including friendships, murder, and judgment. After all, the old models we callously threw away save the protagonist.
This is a sadly plausible film, which illustrates just how disconnected humans already are. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is brilliant throughout, which is astonishing given that his co-star is simply a voice-over. The protagonist’s relationship with AI Samantha is more charming than most rom-coms find on an annual basis.
The mere premise that we might construct our own ideal relationship by submitting personal information is a fascinating vice to explore. Although the film depicts human relationships as seedy and unfulfilling, our romances with AI will always be a falsehood. Better than most, this is a blatant commentary on the flaw of AI relationships—AI is simply far beyond our understanding, and will result in total unpredictability.
2 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL-9000 is arguably the most recognizable, referenced and imitated artificial intelligence in cinema. The film goes out of its way to make human conversations relatively tangential and uninteresting. Instead, the calm and soft-spoken HAL is given all the personality, which is a very intriguing experiment. His reserved voice is certainly a terrifying contrast to his mercilessness. HAL frequently defeats the expectations of an AI. He reads lips, rejects being disconnected, and thinks critically to plot survival.
It’s unclear if HAL genuinely desires survival, or continuation of his duties, given the pleading in his death scene. Either way, it’s also clear that he was hiding a secret message, revealed in death. That secret may have been HAL’s undoing. Besides foolishly allowing him extreme control, human programming could easily be responsible for his violence. These ideas are monumental, directly influencing every subsequent AI on film.
1 A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Steven Spielberg has directed some of the most iconic science-fiction films, like Minority Report. He was also friends with Stanley Kubrick, who correctly decided this sentimental endeavor was better suited for Spielberg. The film examines many different relationships, to an unprecedented degree. Most significantly, it’s the story of an AI boy who wishes to achieve humanity, due to programmed love.
It’s easy to question how real it is, and the journey leads him to apparently befriend another AI. Then, there is the family dynamic, as the boy was purchased to console grieving parents. Spielberg finds consistent pathos and startling drama as the AI fails to fit in. The parents span the full spectrum of realization—fooling themselves into acceptance, then coldly rejecting the epiphany of the truth. Almost every possible interaction we can have with AI is explored. From a talking teddy bear to male prostitutes, to senseless circus shows. It is plausible, profound, and deeply moving.