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The film industry has told many stories about Artificial Intelligence, about little helpers and big helpers, benevolent and malevolent robots, and human-like machines. Here you can find seven sci-fi movies that are real milestones in AI movie history.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s masterpiece is based on the science fiction novel of the same name “Metropolis” by writer Thea Gabriele von Harbou. The silent film paints a picture of a bleak future in which a selfish inventor builds the android HEL to mislead oppressed workers and seize power in Metropolis. The visually stunning scenes at the time feature towering buildings, large machines, advanced transportation, and human-like robots.

Metropolis was the first feature-length science fiction film. It influenced genre films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix. In 2010, a 95 percent restored version of Metropolis came out. Unfortunately, the complete version of the film is no longer extant.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

British author Douglas Adams once wrote that one of the distinctive features of Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the future was the absence of keyboards. Among many other special features, it is probably the HAL-9000 supercomputer that made the science fiction classic so influential.

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HAL accompanies an expedition to Jupiter and is supposed to help the space travelers in their investigation of a black monolith. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that HAL values the success of the mission over human life. HAL’s interactions with the main character, Dave Bowman, can be seen as a prototypical representation of an artificial intelligence that harms humans because of an inaccurately formulated goal.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who was involved in the screenplay, published three follow-up novels. One of them (“2010: The Year We Make Contact”) was made into a film in 1984.

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic is based on the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick. Released in 1982, the film only developed into a major success in the years that followed. Today it has cult status among sci-fi fans.

In the film, agents called “Blade Runners” hunt human-like, artificially created “replicants” who surpass their programmed lifespan of four years. Blade Runner Rick Deckard is tasked with finding some former replicant soldiers and taking them out of circulation. The androids are hardly distinguishable from humans, are stronger, and can be highly intelligent.

The original film as well as the sequel “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) ask fundamental questions about the difference between artificial and biological life. The lines between replicants and humans blur precisely in the tests supposed to debunk replicants. Visually, the first film shaped the image of the continuously neon-lit dystopian city of the future, where it rains non-stop.

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The Terminator (1984)

In James Cameron’s action film, the artificial intelligence Skynet sends the android T-800 back in time to kill the mother of human rebel leader John Connor before he is born. The film series that resulted from the huge success of the original continues to shape the images of the human-like killer robot and a malevolent super AI that wants to wipe out humanity.

Released in 1991, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” shows the human side of the reprogrammed T-800, the inhuman side of young mother Sarah Connor, and the unenlightened side of engineer Miles Dyson, who unintentionally enables Skynet with his supposedly harmless invention of the “Neural-Net Processor.” The thesis that humanity could accidentally create a killer AI is common among AI fearful people – and probably rightly so.

The Matrix (1999)

In the science fiction classic “The Matrix”, hacker-rebel and office worker Thomas Anderson learns the truth about the world he lives in: it is a computer simulation and he is just a battery. As such, he – and the rest of humanity – unwillingly power an artificial intelligence that took control of the world long ago.

Within the simulation, AI agents led by “Agent Smith” try to stop the rebels. Smith is portrayed throughout the film series as a self-aware program with its own goals – an AI working against the interests of its creator AI.

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Pretty meta, right? It is, but not at all unrealistic: AIs that create new, better AIs are a major topic in AI research and already in use.

In 1999, The Matrix offered a new narrative take on the classic “AI-wipes-out-humanity” story and a modern adaptation of philosophical thought experiments in the tradition of French philosopher René Descartes. In his “Meditations on First Philosophy” of 1641, Descartes thought about a demon that fools people into believing in reality.

The Matrix was originally a trilogy. An animated collection of shorter related stories came out later, followed by a fourth film in 2021.

Her (2013)

In the romantic science-fiction drama “Her,” hapless protagonist Theodore Twombly tests out a new AI assistant named Samantha. The nice AI voice from the loudspeaker gets to know Theodore better and better. Friendship turns into love.

The film does without spectacular effects and instead illuminates positive and negative aspects of a romantic human-machine relationship. “Her” shows how a disembodied AI could express love – and how difficult it would be for humans to accept this love.

Ex Machina (2015)

Director Alex Garland puts the android Ava at the center of the film. She is the creation of eccentric tech entrepreneur Nathan, who introduces her to his employee Caleb. Caleb is tasked with determining whether Ava is conscious. The film shows how a relationship develops during the long conversations between Ava and Caleb.

Ex Machina plays with recurring motifs in narratives about artificial intelligence: consciousness, manipulation, betrayal, and claim to power.

Through the isolated setting in a remote research lab, Garland manages to focus the film on the essential questions: What is consciousness? Can a machine be conscious? How can consciousness be tested? And what actually happens when it is? Garland delivers an entertaining film adaptation of the Turing test with an exciting twist.

More sci-fi highlights about artificial intelligence

  • World on a Wire (1973): A research institute simulates a small town with 9,000 AI inhabitants who think and feel like humans but don’t know they live in a simulation.
  • Westworld (1973): Wild West, amusement park and rebellious androids. The inspiration for the series.
  • Star Wars (1977): R2D2 shows how quickly humans can fall in love with moving metal boxes.
  • Wargames (1983): Fun turns into nuclear war. What happens when an AI system can’t tell a game from reality.
  • Ghost in the Shell (1995): The “Puppetmaster” controls cyborg bodies in a strange way: Is he a ghost or an artificial intelligence? Either way, his lineage is mechanical.
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): An android child must love. Can it?
  • I Am Mother (2019): an AI system takes on the role as a loving robot mother who wants to raise a better humanity. What could possibly go wrong?

Cover: Metropolis

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Max is managing editor at THE DECODER. As a trained philosopher, he deals with consciousness, AI, and the question of whether machines can really think or just pretend to.
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