Robots in Cinema: Artificial Intelligence and the Moving Image

MetropolisThe recent release of the trailer for the new Robocop remake started me thinking about the many films that deal with notions of artificial intelligence and robotics. From Frankenstein to Transformers, the creation of consciousness (accidental or otherwise) has been a part of the popular imagination for well over a century. While many have merely used the notion of mechanised consciousness as a narrative gimmick to create scary monsters, others have set out to explore deeper issues and/or ideas.

And so, with a deliberate attempt to avoid some of the most popular and tired examples, I’ve decided to pull together a list of ten of my favourite films about (or at least involving) artificial intelligence.

Robocop (1987)

Paul Verhoeven’s tongue-in-cheek vision, a corporate dystopia in the not-too distant future, is one of the finest science fiction films of the 1980s. The film’s genius comes from a combination of brilliant action-filmmaking, a screenplay drenched in near-perfect comic irony, and a narrative that rivals the great Greek tragedies for pathos. At the film’s crux is the tale of Officer Murphy (Peter Weller), a young cop who endures horrific tortures before finding himself thoughtlessly resurrected by corporate interests like a mechanised parody of Christ, then programmed to bring peace and justice to the city of Detroit.

In a perverse irony, haunted by fragments of memories from another life and enslaved by the digital doctrines that have been stamped upon what remains of his mind, Murphy (now Robocop), must turn on his creators in order to fulfil the laws which they feigned to believe in.

This is pulp-art at its finest. Soon to be remade, but the odds of equalling the original for its thoughtfulness, emotive power and/or sheer entertainment value are low.

THX-1138 (1971)

George Lucas’ first feature-length foray into the science fiction genre is also his most sophisticated. Using a minimalist approach to broadly outline a dystopian world in which people are controlled through medication and frivolity in its most absolute terms, Lucas populates his world with an array of seemingly mindless authoritarian robots carrying out the orders of an entirely automated civilisation. The robotic confessional is a highlight.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Western filmmakers, especially those working within the boundaries of popular cinema conventions, are limited in the way in which they can overtly engage with more complex philosophical concepts. This is not the case in Japanese anime, where characters can freely postulate on the nature of existence and the philosophical ramifications of artificial life for minutes at a time. Such is the case in Ghost in the Shell, probably one of the more significant entries on the topic within the science fiction film canon.

A.I. (2001)

Spielberg has taken a bit of a beating over the years for picking up this unfinished Kubrick project, a fairy tale about an essentially immortal robotic boy, abandoned by his family and left to wander the world with his most deeply programmed desires (to be loved by his mother) remaining forever unfulfilled.

Apart from the fact that Kubrick had likely intended to only produce the film and have Spielberg direct anyway, the criticisms levelled at the production seems violently unjust. Spielberg does an admirable job of creating a character whose impossibly deep needs raise questions about the morality of creating artificial life, and the obligations that must follow.

Dark Star (1974)

The feature film premiere of the now legendary John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon is an aesthetically modest affair (to put it kindly). In fact, at face value, this science-fiction comedy appears modest on every front. But this ragtag collection of lazily assembled vignette-like scenes, somehow manages to capture a sense of madcap science-fiction satire that is hard to forget.

The most striking scene involves a nuclear warhead that (or who) has developed a sense of consciousness at the exact wrong moment. Delivering a bizarre monologue that begins with the Cartesian and ends with the biblical, the bomb reaches a fascinating conclusion about the nature of the universe.

Robot and Frank (2012)

Perhaps most interesting for the way in which the film suggests that its protagonist finds a relative degree of peace through a friendship with a robot, at the same time that it rejects the notion that the robot possesses any kind of consciousness. A fascinating film that uses the idea of the robotic as a tool for reflection on the self, rather than on the mystery of the mechanical other.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

There is little need to praise Kubrick’s visionary meditation on the equally powerful human habits of progression and self-destruction, suffice to say that this is one of the finest pieces of cinema ever produced. Ironically however, the most human character in 2001 is not a human being but HAL, the ship’s computer wrestling with the horrifically powerful forces of consciousness, fear and inescapable programming. HAL might very well be considered an allegorical microcosm of the film’s greatest theme.

Westworld (1973)

Yul Brynner has the unique honour of being the greatest robot-cowboy villain in cinematic history in this under-appreciated science-fiction classic. In a wonderfully analogue vision of a futuristic world in which adults can go on holidays to a theme-park populated entirely by robots decked out in period gear, things soon go awry for reasons that are not entirely clear. When two park visitors visit Westworld and jokingly antagonise the local villain, they aren’t fully aware of the hell that they are about to face.

Directed by Michael Crichton, author of the original Jurassic Park novel, it’s hard not to compare the two. Both are about theme parks that utilise technological innovations, only to have unforeseen circumstances cause a total implosion. But personally, I’ll take Brynner over the T-rex any day.

Metropolis (1927)

The notion of mechanised intelligence found its first truly popular form in Fritz Lang’s German silent classic, Metropolis. This early dystopian vision might seem a little naïve to the modern world, but there is no denying the striking imagery of the film’s robotic villain and the effect that it has had on cinema subsequently.

Alphaville (1965)

This typically disjointed film from France’s most widely recognised auteur, Jean-Luc Godard, is as loveable as it is incoherent. While casual viewers will miss the endless textual references around which the film hangs, there is still room to enjoy the film as a decidedly French parody of both film-noir and the dystopian text in general.

Central to the film’s premise is the anti-freedom artificial-intelligence that rules over Alphaville, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 is the star here, with a series of croakily delivered lines that become increasingly elusive. My personal favourite: “Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.“

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

18 thoughts on “Robots in Cinema: Artificial Intelligence and the Moving Image

  1. I like this list. In it’s quirkiness and slight obscurity, it prompts the reader to think back over other film artificial life, adding to the experience. Naturally, it leaves out the obvious ones and cliches which clearly don’t belong. Way to go!

  2. A great compilation. When ‘Metropolis’ was to be screened at the Irish Film Institute, I really wanted to see it. It didn’t work out but hopefully I would see it another day. A.I. makes me always think of the animated ‘Metropolis’ (2001), directed by Rintaro, with this struggle to define what makes us human. It is a beautiful story. Highly recommended. You can find the trailer here:

  3. A very worthy line-up of AIs! Guess I’m gonna have to give Alphaville another chance. You’re the second film-fan in two weeks who has mentioned the film…I’ll need to study up on the textual references you mentioned. If you could point me in the right direction to get started on that….

  4. A good list, at least based on the ones I’ve seen, which is shamefully only about half of them.
    Watching it now, I think one of the most interesting things about Westworld is that it raises the idea of people wanting to escape into convincing alternate realities. It’s something we push towards harder and faster every day, but the technology we use for it is so different it would have been inconceivable at the time. These days it’d be a computer virus instead of Yul Brynner, and far less entertaining for it.

  5. A very interesting and compelling theme James, and you included my personal favourite, ‘Metropolis’. Also nice to see someone else shouting out for ‘A.I.’ which I also thought was very harshly dealt with. I would respectfully suggest that you missed two of the best examples though. The Replicants in ‘Blade Runner’ (OK, I am biased there), and the daddy of film robots, ‘Robbie’, from ‘Forbidden Planet’.
    Great stuff, I really enjoyed it. Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete!

      Yes, I thought of Blade Runner immediately – but I’ve referred to it so many times on this blog I thought I’d take another route.

      Forbidden Planet came to mind – not sure why it didn’t make the cut 🙂

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