Robots are a common factor in many sci-fi movies, as they’ve always seemed like something a futuristic society would have. Of course, as society progresses, there are some real life robots now, maybe even within your own home. While we may have numerous examples of artificial intelligence nowadays, one thing we still haven’t discovered (for better or worse) is making these robots actually sentient, something we still only see in fiction.
While this topic remains fictional, there are many movies who like to play with the idea of robots coming to life and gaining their own sentience. There are many different ways to play with the subject too. From starting the AI as sentient to showing them gain it over the course of the movie, from making them good, bad, or anywhere in between, there are a lot of good stories to make, and there are a lot of good movies that have already been made.
I, Robot is based on the famous Isaac Asimov novel and takes place in the year 2035. Intelligent robots are common around the world, filling in various public service positions. To keep them in control, they operate under three rules intended to keep humans safe. Detective Del Spooner (played by Will Smith) is investigating an apparent suicide of the robotics founder, coming to believe a robot has broken one or more of these rules and murdering the man.
As he delves further and further into the case, he begins to uncover a plan that could turn the robots against the entire human race and turn them into their slaves. With some public robots becoming sentient due to hardware upgrades which allow them to override the rules, to others existing long enough to have evolved around the rules on their own, the high stakes in this movie are definitely attributed to the AI.
Ex-Machina follows computer programmer Caleb Smith, who wins a contest at work. The prize gives him a week’s vacation at the private estate of the company’s CEO (an amazing Oscar Isaac). Caleb soon discovers that the CEO has made an AI and programmed a robot, Ava, with it, and expects Caleb to take part of the Turing test along with a few other tests on her capabilities.
As he talks with her, however, he learns that she is a lot more sentient than he anticipated, and discovers that the CEO may not be who he seems. Ava is without a doubt in the middle of the story here, fighting for her safety and freedom in the only way she knows how. The movie even won an Oscar for its visual effects, most of which went into the makings of the robot.
The story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by the great Philip K. Dick is the inspiration behind Blade Runner. Rick Deckard, a former police officer, is brought back to the station and asked to do one last job. They need his help in hunting down and disabling four replicants, which are bioengineered humanoids made specifically to work in the space colonies. Four of them left and returned to Earth illegally, now hiding among the humans.
Despite having done this for most of his career, as Deckard chases down these four, the line between normal humans and the bioengineered begins to blur, and he wonders if these humanoids aren’t essentially humans at their core. Though the robot aspect of this movie isn’t as obvious as some others on the list, there’s no doubt it was one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.
Simply set in the near future, Her follows the story of Theodore Twombly (played by Jaoquin Phoenix), who is lonely and depressed after the end of his marriage. He makes a living by writing letters for other people who don’t want to, and his writing is struggling because of the emotional state he’s in. To try and cope he buys a new operating system that is intended to develop alongside the person who buys it and becomes a unique entity meant to fit in with the person who bought it.
Upon starting it, she names herself Samantha (a tender Scarlett Johansson) and they quickly grow to be friends. Despite essentially being his computer, their relationship soon develops deeper into a more romantic situation, and Theodore begins wondering if this is even sane. Her was a rather unique take on AI that stole the hearts of its viewers. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and Golden Globes, and it also won Best Screenplay at both.
The Matrix is a classic AI movie. The film follows Neo, a computer programmer who soon discovers and questions what the Matrix is, as he’s discovered it several times. He is contacted by Trinity and Morpeus and, upon deciding to learn more instead of returning to his life, he discovers that humans have been enslaved by machines and harvested for their bioelectricity, and the world they were living in was just a simulation their brains were forced to run through.
Neo then joins the pair to fight against the machines and every obstacle they throw at the team to try to free the humans from their control. When talking about evil robots taking over the human race, it doesn’t get much better than this. The movie won the Oscar for special effects, which brought this strange world to life and revolutionized sci-fi for the new millennium.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, large, indestructible obelisks seem to exist throughout space, radiating certain frequencies that humans are very interested in. The first one held the secrets of technological advancements, showing the early humans how to create weapons out of bones. When another is discovered on the Moon and suddenly sends a radio signal out into space, efforts are made to begin exploring where the signal went to, and maybe even why.
A team of astronauts are sent on this mission without being told exactly what they’re doing, leading them to soon distrust their computer system, HAL 9000, as he knows the secrets and will do anything to keep the mission going. The brilliant Stanley Kubrick movie was praised for its realistic depiction of space travel, and HAL is a perfect example of a sentient AI doing terrible things for what they think is the right purpose, lacking the emotions and empathy that sometime cause actual humans to stop being logical and start being moral.
The animated movie WALL-E follows the titular robot with his lonely life on Earth, the last robot remaining that still functions among a sea of trash. He and others like him were made to try and take care of the overwhelming trash issue on Earth while the humans left in spacecraft to cruise around the galaxy. When a space probe robot lands on Earth on a mission to see if there is any plant growth so that humans can return, Wall-E is quick to fall in love.
When she’s picked up again, he doesn’t want to let her go, so he hops aboard the shuttle and ends up on a journey across the galaxy to win her hand and help the humans return in the process. It’s a nice change of pace from a lot of the other movies on the list, bringing a sweet, whimsical side to AI as Wall-E begins to meet other robots and humans alike, finally not alone anymore. The movie won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Saturn Award, among others.
There’s no doubt that The Terminator is the perfect example of an AI movie. The cyborg assassin known as The Terminator is sent through time itself by Skynet, a sentient machine that is trying to kill the human race in the future. Skynet believes that by sending the Terminator back in time and killing Sarah Connor, the soon-to-be mother of a son who rallies the remaining humans against Skynet and leads the resistance that is gaining the upper hand.
If Sarah is gone, then her son would be too, changing the future and bringing Skynet everything it wants. However, another time traveler from the resistance works against it to try and save Sarah and keep the timeline intact. With two antagonists that are robotic, even if only partly, the AI threat is certainly real in this movie, and it’s definitely one of the classics.