With the WGA strike successful and seemingly resulting in a (to be confirmed) deal with AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA shouldn’t be far behind, and that means the controversy around A.I. will be pushed down the road a short distance. But A.I. isn’t going away, and we all need to prepare for what comes next. And weekend, The Creator opens in theaters and brings us yet another what-if about human-A.I.-human warfare. So what better way to prepare for the coming of A.I. and for the latest theatrical look at human-A.I. relations, than a look at the essential movies to watch about A.I.?
There are many movies about machine intelligence, robots, and A.I. Some are stark warnings about the dangers of sentient machines, while others elicit empathy and compassion for A.I. So my list will try to include a little of everything.
The key condition to qualify for the list is that the movies must focus on the idea of A.I. becoming sentient and how humans respond. The A.I. must be a real character in the story, and the fact of the A.I.’s existence and role in society cannot merely be a presumed element in a story that doesn’t address the existence or role — for example, Star Wars has all manner of sentient robots and computers, but those things aren’t what the story is about, and the fact of their sentience and relationships to humans isn’t a plot point or theme at all.
I’m only including one film from any given franchise, so in some cases you might be surprised to see a well-known and great film omitted from this list, but that’s so I can cast as wide of a net to offer film suggestions that don’t wind up representing mostly just two or three franchises. Otherwise, franchises like Terminator, The Matrix, and Blade Runner would account for at least half of the list.
So here they are, 10 essential movies to watch about A.I. First up, my top five…
- Ex Machina — One of the most misunderstood films on the list, including by a large portion of its fans, is the best about the structural flaws in how we approach the development of and discussion around artificial intelligence. Prejudices, presumptions, and transactional power dynamics are deconstructed, as are empathy, consent, until who you thinks is the victim or the hero becomes self-revealing.
- Bicentennial Man — A criminally underrated examination of a life fully lived, and among the few films to imply the question “where is the line between machine and human?” comes down to a simple line, so the only thing remaining is to ask where that line exists, and to understand that our inability to identify the line is meaningful.
- Blade Runner 2049 — While fans might question including the sequel over the original, the first film is more interested in asking what it means to be human than what it means to be a machine. The latter is what this list is for and what the sequel does best with a glorious statement that the answer to both may wind up the same.
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day — This entry in the genre says more about what it means to be human and what it might mean to be A.I. than the rest of the series, and is most interested in what lessons we need to learn from all of it. It suggests that the worst the machines could do to us is merely what we already do to ourselves.
- Ghost in the Shell — Surely one of the most innovative and influential anime and sci-fi stories in film history. If you love The Matrix (and who doesn’t?), this is one of the biggest sources of inspiration and influence for that film. It holds up perfectly as a brilliant, gorgeously rendered, visionary masterpiece of animated storytelling.
Next, here are the rest of the list…
- The Matrix — One of the best sci-fi movies of all time, mind-blowing in its innovative VFX, it popularized simulation theory in mainstream pop culture.
- Her — Perhaps the most direct examination of the arrival, evolution, and end result of A.I.’s introduction into human civilization.
- Colossus: The Forbin Project — Among the first films about sentient A.I. that tries to take over the world, it’s brilliant and an inspiration for The Terminator series.
- I, Robot — Barely recognizable as an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s work, it still takes the underlying concepts and tells a cool, exciting story about A.I.’s role in civilization.
- A.I. — While I’ve been critical of the ending, the film overall is a serious and emotional examination of A.I. longing to understand what it means to truly be alive.
For fun, here are a bunch of honorable mentions that didn’t quite qualify for the list or weren’t able to edge out one of the list entries…
- Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Brian and Charlie
- Free Guy
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- The Iron Giant
- Tron: Legacy
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- War Games
And there you have it, dear readers, plenty of great films to watch about A.I. and how the world reacts and lives with the arrival of machine intelligence and consciousness. I hope you watch a few you haven’t seen, as you prepare for this weekend’s release of The Creator — and for whatever our future has in store in the next few years.