With the release of Wally Pfister’s Transcendence this week, and what I hopelessly hope will be the comeback of the tired and uninteresting Johnny Depp, it might be worth it to take a look at some of the artificial intelligence stories that came before that may have helped inspire this movie about a man’s consciousness that gets transferred into a computer. While it’s not technically artificially constructed intelligence that the film explores, but rather an intelligence made artificial, its merely another side of an old and compelling idea. Ever since the concept of robots were invented, the thought of sentient machines has been a constant source of fear and wonder among the human species. Here are a few movies that explore our deep running fascination with our future children; A.I.


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6. The Outer Limits: I, Robot (1964/1995)

This is the same story that the lackluster Will Smith blockbuster is based on, except told in an hour long format and to much greater effect. Its the story of an artificial human (aka robot) named Adam who is accused of killing his creator. Adam is put on trial to determine first his right to a fair trial and then is tried for murder. The arguments put forth by the lawyers and witnesses are thought provoking and logically dazzling. If there are ever artificial humans in the future, I imagine there might be some amount of debate as to whether these machines count as humans and if they are owed the same rights and privileges as the rest of us biological machines. Interestingly, there are two different versions of this story, the first from the original The Outer Limits  series in the 60s and the second from the rebooted series in the 90s. Leonard Nimoy happens to feature in both versions, so you can’t really lose either way.


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5. Toys (1992)

So this movie isn’t about artificial intelligence per se, but there are a lot of freakish and threatening robotic creations and crazy scientists. What makes this a story about A.I., though, is Joan Cusack’s Alsatia Zevo and her relationship with her brother, Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams). While Alsatia’s behavior is oddball and unconventional the entire movie, we come to accept them as a normal part of her character, coming to love her for her quirks and funny habits. It turns out that some of this is due to her being a robot. Her brother knew all along, of course, which never made a bit of difference to him. He still called her sister and loved her just as much as if they had been flesh and blood relatives. And there was never any question as to whether Alsatia’s dedication and fondness for her family was merely an aspect of her programming – she had just as much free will as anyone else and owned her personality like few humans ever have the courage to do.


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4. Alien (1979)/Aliens (1986)/Alien: Resurrection (1997)

These movies deal in part with prejudice against artificial intelligence and how the androids and humans deal with that prejudice. I suppose you could throw Prometheus in there as well, considering that Michael Fassbender’s David played a pretty heavy role in the events that unfolded, the ultimate death of the crew, and the evolution of the aliens we have come to know and love from the original series. Either way, these movies casually track the civil rights movement of the androids from property, to outcast, to rebel fighters. At the same time, Ellen Ripley progresses from suspicion and hate to suspicion and acceptance. Its not a perfect solution, but it at least tracks a progressive curve. I suppose it doesn’t help that the androids keep screwing everyone over, though.


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3. Tron (1982)

Not only is it a great A.I. story, but its one of the best science fiction movies of all time and had some of the most technologically advanced special effects for the time of its release. You may not remember, but the whole thing started because the Master Control Program became sentient and defended itself by scanning Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) into its inner workings. It is inside the computer where Kevin meets all sorts of programs he had been interacting with from the outside and teams up with them to take down the MCP to free the oppressed bits and bytes from their gladiator like tyranny. Its pretty outrageous and a heck of a lot of fun, especially to see mundane computer processes personified in another, smaller universe we take for granted every day. The Master Control Program is played by the ever dry and superior David Warner, which is worth the price of admission alone.


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2. Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Measure of a Man (Episode 02.09)

If you watched those Outer Limits episodes, this premise may seem familiar to you – at least in the sense that an artificial being is put on trial to determine his rights and humanity. Anyone who knows The Next Generation knows that it didn’t get really good until season three, and often times downright sucked before that. This episode is a pleasant surprise, coming in at the midseason mark of season two. It is a damn good episode – smartly written, well directed, expertly acted, and genuinely compelling – and perhaps the first of the series that makes you perk up and look forward to what comes next. The idea is that the android Data (Brent Spiner) chooses to resign Starfleet rather than have an unqualified scientists tinker with his insides. This scientist believes that Data has no rights of his own, being the property of Starfleet, and must submit to his tests. Picard defends Data’s right as a human while Riker is forced to act as the prosecution. Its classic Star Trek at its best and certainly a very relevant and thought provoking debate that you wouldn’t see in the blockbuster reboots.


AI Movies

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

No list about A.I. would be complete without the ultimate story of a robot gone wrong. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you know about HAL and his friend Dave, and how Dave had to put his poor malfunctioning friend to sleep with a song about Daisy. Its all our worst nightmares about artificial intelligence, the threat of malfunction, the danger of free will, and the advantage of greater intelligence. Imagine a computer that controlled your life, that really and truly could prevent you from doing anything that you might want to do that the computer had decided you shouldn’t. As in 2001, HAL prevents the crew of the space station from performing maintenance that he feels is threatening and even kills to prevent it from being carried out. In every day life, that sort of control is a big deal. In space, its unthinkable.


BONUS: Battlestar Galatica (2004)

It would have been number one, but there is too much to say. Just know that it is incredible and transcends this inadequate rating system. It is beyond number one. Battlestar Galatica: watch it.