Top 10 Artificial Intelligences in Film: Staff Picks



Ava (Ex Machina)
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller

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In a world that’s seen ‘sci-fi’ everything, Ava works as a novel exploration of artificial intelligence because she not only incarnates the aesthetic terror of human simulacra, but also the dread of inexorable human extinction.

In fact, at no point during Ex Machina is Ava acutely terrifying: her body is beautiful, her viscera slick, her countenance impetuously curious, and her aura, generally, one of a Rapunzel-esque pathos. Only when her “hair” is let down does the dread exude. 

At the core of this dread is, again, not a fear of simulacra—because Ava’s likeness leaps the “Uncanny Valley”—but rather the utter impotence we possess towards preventing our own extinction. Ava may herald this, yet the dread is not of her—rather of ourselves: particularly, of ourselves as a ‘self-fulfilling prophetical’ species. In science this phenomenon is called “Singularity”, and it too (without a narrative) is subtly terrifying. “Singularity”, in a nutshell, is the precise instant when an AI’s capacity for intelligence changes from linear to exponential—from requiring a puppeteer to being a ‘real boy’ (with the capacity to create more ‘real boys’).

If there’s anything outright shocking about Ava, it occurs within the final minutes of Ex Machina where her sentiment or lack thereof towards humanity is revealed. It’s important to note that the viewer’s shock, here, is not felt bodily but intellectually, as a rapid, sudden influx of dread regarding the value of his/her existence. Specifically, the viewer watching Ava’s ascent can on every emotional level abhor the action, yet cannot, on any cerebral level, contest the irrevocability of it.

At the film’s denouement, Ava gazes back one last time, almost contemplatively, with the same measure of empathy ‘the asteroid’ did of its dinosaurs.



Data (Star Trek: First Contact)
Submitted by Pat Fenton

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One could write a book about Lt. Commander Data and his evolution as an A.I. through the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent films. Data starts the series understanding very little of humanity, humour and emotions confound him, and he gives far too much information at every turn. By the time the series ends he has learned much (even had a brief romantic relationship), even how to dance and thanks to the mad antics of DS9’s Dr. Julian Bashir, he shuts down to dream once a day. The Enterprise’s computer had to create sentience to beat him in the holodeck, he found his brother and creator having to deal with the consequences when the former murdered the latter, but his most profound adventure came during the film Star Trek: First Contact. In First Contact, Data is captured by the Borg (a race of cyborgs bent on assimilating the universe) and interrogated by the Borg Queen herself.

At the beginning of First Contact we find Data has mastered his emotion chip, able to turn it off with a flick of his head, earning him the envy of his Captain. Early on the Borg capture Data and attempt to convert him to their side. By the end of the film the Borg have begun grafting skin over him giving him tactile feeling for the first time (also jury rigging his emotion chip so it cannot be turned off). In this way The Borg Queen attempts to bring Data to her side to get vital information they need to assure humanity’s demise. Though tempted by the offer, Data ultimately declines. Why wouldn’t her plan work? She was giving Data a chance to be as close to human as he could possibly get, while keeping his strength and super-computer of a brain, an aspiration of his since we first met him trying to whistle on the holodeck. While his temptation only lasted nanoseconds—”An eternity for an android,” he remarks—he does admit to being tempted, yet rejects the offer. Most A.I.s I’ve seen in film would have joined the Borg long before!

Data’s affection for life is one of the things that sets him apart from most A.I.s, his loyalty to his Captain, ship and life prevented him from turning his back despite his long-held goal to become more human. This affection is one of Data’s trademarks. Earlier in the film, while Captain Picard is trying to explain to Data why it is important for him to physically touch a piece of history, they come under fire from the woman who helped design it. During the exchange she fires into his torso point blank and Data still walks up to her with his hand open and says “Greetings.”. Now there’s an A.I. I’d like to have a beer with.



Skynet (The Terminator Franchise)
Submitted by Matthew Wilson

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How do you create a list of top artificial intelligences in cinema and not include Skynet? The murderous operating system of the Terminator franchise presents a startling reminder in the dangers of science and why men shouldn’t meddle medley. Skynet becomes self-aware, launches a nuclear war, kills off most of the human population in fiery explosions, and in the scorched earth, begins phase 2—the complete genocide of the remaining pockets of humanity.

On the eve of its defeat, Skynet sends back a Terminator, a killer robot in human disguise, to kill Sarah Connor—the mother of resistance leader John Connor—before he is born. The Resistance sends back Kyle Reese, who ends up being John Connor’s father. Caught in a time loop, Skynet and John Connor are two sides of the same coin, unable to exist without each other. Because Skynet exists and sends back a Terminator, John Connor is born. Because John Connor is born, Skynet will send back a Terminator, thus ensuring its own creation through reverse-engineering.

If protagonists Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor had trouble stopping just one Terminator, the world of the future is bleak, and that’s the fear Skynet taps into—the mountain of human skulls, the glowing red eyes of death. When you think killer robots and the absolute worse case for the future, Skynet takes the cake and nukes it.

There’s not much depth to Skynet and its plans. It’s transparent. It’s emotionless and cold. It won’t be pleaded with. It has no mercy or emotion at all, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. It’s an inevitable doom that can only be prolonged and never vanquished. As long as there is a John Connor, there is a Skynet. Caught in a never ending cycle, the future remains a wasteland of human skulls and the red eyes of the soulless Terminators. The Emperor Palpatine of the Terminator series, Skynet exists through its metal, unstoppable, cybernetic living organisms and the fear they inspire.



R2D2 & C3PO  (The Star Wars
 Franchise)
Submitted by Joey Chini

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Probably the pairing that set the standard of buddy cop films for years to come, R2D2 and C3PO are the Star Wars galaxy’s very own Murtaugh and Riggs. C3PO’s cautious and pessimistic demeanour reflects Danny Glover’s tired old Murtaugh, and the shoot-first, fearless, borderline-crazy R2D2 has about the same amount of Mel Gibson’s eccentric Riggs in him. Yes, I’m fully aware Star Wars and Lethal Weapon don’t correlate at all, but the comparison was too obvious not to draw.

One part plot-device and two parts comedic relief, R2 and 3PO may arguably be the protagonists of the whole Star Wars franchise as they are the only characters to appear in all seven films. Certainly iconic and notorious in their own right, C3PO’s lines are as quotable as Han Solo’s, and R2D2 is as lovable yet incomprehensible as Chewbacca. Nothing screams Star Wars like 3PO complaining about a situation he does not want to be in, or R2D2’s feverish attempts at communication through beeps and whistles.

The droids of the Star Wars universe get much more mistreatment than they deserve. We see droids being tortured and torn apart without a second thought, and on more than one occasion, we’ve heard the phrase, “it’s only a droid”. But where would our humanoid protagonists Luke, Leia and Han be without R2D2 and C3PO? The answer: crushed to death by a garbage compactor on the Death Star in the first movie.

What more is there to say really? We’re making a top 10 list for the best robots/AI’s in cinema—you thought we wouldn’t include the dynamic duo R2D2 and C3PO?



Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Submitted by Ellis Whitehouse

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The grandeur that this particular cinematic AI carries is the menacing complexity but yet irresistible charisma and spiky humour of his predecessor god-villain Loki.

While the film around him got slightly messy and didn’t hit the same mark for some as the first mighty Avengers juggernaut, Ultron (or as I like to call him, the Spadertron) proved to be an extremely worthy foe for the half a dozen or so Avenger heroes that he faced off with.

His conception was a divisive one for some fans, as he was literally formed by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner as the first real project to create artificial intelligence in the film’s first act. He then proceeds to scan the entire internet and every file on record and deduce within the space of 110 seconds that the Avengers, and the world with them, need to go.

The term ‘instakill’ is thrown around a lot – this is more like ‘instaformation’ but then once he’s constructed himself into this mechanical being who emanates such elegant charisma, it’s enough to let writer Joss Whedon have this quick fire formation.

The thing that I find most appealing about Ultron is that Joss Whedon didn’t just create a generic antagonist to sit in this admittedly filler film; he gives him plenty of personality to play with that makes him stand out. Ultron may be big and bad, but he has attitude, a cruel sense of humour, and genuine displays of tender weakness, especially concerning the Maximoff twins, who he does genuinely become attached to, despite wanting all the world’s inhabitants to die.

While the sinister presence of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki could never be beat, James Spader gave us an incredibly interesting and solidly dynamic villain, whose actions would shock, impress, and even amuse you in a film that was so stuffed full of characters yet managed to maintain a grip on each member’s personal development. By no means the most influential AI in cinema, but an unexpectedly impressive one nontheless.



Samantha (Her)
Submitted by Eileen Li

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If most AI in film are meant to impress tech geeks and others who actually understand the science behind them, then Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) was designed for romantics. Her character’s feasibility in real life is secondary to her role in the journey of Her’s protagonist, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix). She’s an equal, a romantic interest, and eventually, a powerful lesson learned.

Rather than adhering to what is scientifically possible, Samantha is unabashedly “human.” She has a sexy, unaffected human voice. She not only learns incredibly fast through just a few interactions with Theo, but also has a pretty solid starter personality to start with. She’s eventually capable of jealousy and falling in love, in addition to all her standard AI computational abilities.

Unlike most robot romantic interests in science-fiction, Samantha doesn’t have a physical body. When Theo walks with her in his earpiece, however, he never seems alone. Her voice provides enough presence. She also produces drawings and music that makes the film thick with her presence.

An AI like this wouldn’t work in just any film. If Her were purely a science-fiction film, a character like Samantha would be picked apart for feasibility.  Her, however, is a romance. Its modern setting (despite futuristic technology) and muted color palette give it a surreal, timeless tone. In this reality, anything can happen. And as a result, Samantha does.



Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Submitted by Joey Chini

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The controversy surrounding its many cuts aside, Blade Runner introduced us to thought-provoking concepts, mainly what it means to be human. While many will debate the nature of Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard, and whether or not he is in fact a Replicant—depending on which version of the film you watch—the true debate lies with the character of Roy, and whether the nature of a Replicant is as artificial as the world of Blade Runner would have you believe.

We don’t see very much of Roy through the course of the film, but when we do his presence is commanding. A former slave gone rogue, Roy was a military combat model Replicant of the highly advanced Nexus line. Proven nearly indistinguishable from humans by their creator the Tyrell Corporation, the threat Roy posed was too great to go unchecked, and Deckard was sent after him (and his band of other escaped Nexus line Replicants) to ‘retire’ or—quite literally—kill them. Roy, simply by being aware of his own existence, or rather by being a Replicant aware of his own existence, was too much of a problem for the Tyrell Corp. and by extension the division of police known as the Blade Runner Unit, responsible for dealing with Replicants and Replicant-related threats.

Roy’s motivation was the most human in the entire film—to prolong his own life. His biggest fear was losing his cherished memories, and his Replicant friends. The Nexus model Replicant was only built to last four years, and Roy was at the end of his life cycle. This human desire to live fuelled Roy’s crusade against the Tyrell Corp. leading him to kill his own creator out of spite for introducing him into this terrible world. But when Ford’s character finally catches up to him and tries to ‘retire’ Roy for the havoc he caused and the lives he took, Roy shows mercy. Deckard is completely defeated, barely hanging onto a protruding metal girder atop an extremely high building, and when he loses all strength and the will to live, he lets go, accepting his own demise. Roy—bearing witness to this—identifies with Ford and spares his life, using his unnatural Replicant strength to pull Ford up—one-handed—and safely drop him on the roof next to him before coming to terms with his own mortality and confiding his poetic last words in Deckard (awesome speech). Roy realizes Deckard has the same intrinsic desire to live on, and saves him, demonstrating to Deckard that he understands the value of life just as well, or even better than humans do. So even if Roy was entirely artificial, he was more human than most of us could hope to be. I hope he’s somewhere in Replicant afterlife practising his badass speech:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain. Time… to die.”



Marvin (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Submitted by Colin Herzog

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If you have ever wondered how the creator of the Internet would feel if he could see your search history, you need not look further than the ever cynical Marvin, the Paranoid Android. The manic depressive robot debuted in 1978 in what has to be one of the most iconic British science fiction series to date—no, not Doctor Who. I am, of course, talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The story follows a group of extremely unlikely travelers–a confused British man, a guidebook writer, a former Galactic president, the only sane character in the galaxy, and Marvin, as they journey to find the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

However, among this, a cast of memorable, odd, and occasionally apathetic characters, few stand out quite like Marvin. From his opening scene where he laments his own existence to his crushing disappointment whenever he finds out that he survived the gang’s adventures, there is rarely a scene in the series that this guy doesn’t steal. Morbidly sarcastic and more than willing to keep the eccentric personalities around him grounded by constantly reminding them of their mortality (“I could calculate your chances for survival, but you won’t like it”), his depression and misery make readers and listeners laugh until tears fall from their eyes. Marvin has gone on to be one of the break out characters of the franchise, no matter the medium.

Of course, for many of us, it wouldn’t be until the movie that the Paranoid Android achieves his zenith specifically when voiced by Alan Rickman in the 2005 film adaptation. A more perfect marriage of actor and character has likely never occurred, and yes, I’m counting Rickman’s immeasurable performance as Professor Snape. Say what you will about the movie (I’m a fan of it, personally), but few can deny that Marvin’s deadpan sarcasm read in Rickman’s melodious monotone was worth the 27 years of waiting.

There have been many memorable AIs throughout fiction, but what really sets Marvin apart has to be how little he actually cares about what is going on, and yet he reluctantly remains a part of the action. Normally in AI plot lines, complex issues come up, such as whether the AI is truly alive or not, and for many series, the self-aware AI is normally the most invested in proving its existence. Marvin nips all of that in the bud right out of the gate; he knows he’s alive and cursed with being the smartest thing in the room, and he laments every second of it. Out of all the cast, Marvin arguably winds up seeing the most of the universe, and he winds up living for millions of years (“The first ten million years were the worst. And the second ten million: they were the worst, too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that, I went into a bit of a decline.”), but he takes it all in apathetic stride. His brutal honesty and his deadpan wit are in his every line of dialogue, and unlike many other robots, he never misunderstands human nature: he knows us so well that he barely gives us much of a passing thought, and that sort of attitude is actually kind of refreshing, compared to the either “humans are amazing” or “humans must be destroyed” response we usually inspire. “Humans—so what?”



WALL-E (WALL-E)

Submitted by Pat Fenton

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WALL-E is an interesting case of A.I. because it’s not even clear he started out that way. In the Disney classic WALL-E is a small rolling trash compactor tasked with cleaning up Earth for humanity’s eventual return. Why would humans program such a device with any of the trademarks of an A.I.? Fortunately for them, at some point WALL-E did become sentient and developed a fascination for humanity, even though it didn’t understand us. WALL-E became a collector of human artifacts and turned his crate of a home into a monument to the beauty humans left behind.

WALL-E showed signs of loneliness and affection when he met another man-made robot: Eve, a probe sent to Earth to look for signs of plant life. He instantly becomes attached (or attracted) to Eve and follows her to space in defiance of his programming. A good thing too, as they find that the powers that be have no intention of following up on Eve’s important mission. WALL-E ends up risking it all to save the species that bore him despite his programming to collect garbage. WALL-E may have been designed with only a basic intelligence, but from the beginning we see a spark of life beyond programming, a sense of curiosity, independence and a determination to do what he perceives as right despite his programming to simply compact garbage.



HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller

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HAL 9000 is so frightening because he’s so human in voice but sociopathic in choice. Coldly utilitarian, omniscient, and more than a little bit Machiavellian, HAL seems to imply that an emotionless human—an optimal and efficient human—is necessarily homicidal. Wrought in our ideal cerebral image, HAL wields all the advantages of sentience, encumbered by none of its vestiges, yet, due to monstrosity in practice , complicates the notion of the limbic mind as vestigial—especially when it comes to questions of morality…

Like all great monster and Machiavellian player alike, HAL employs malicious means to justify a noble end: to ensure the completion of his mission—as only proper logic would dictate. Causing the termination of those attempting to defy him (and kill him), is not only logical but for the benefit of terminated species’ fruition. HAL only means to do the “right” thing.

HAL’s second murder attempt, however, is thwarted by fellow astronaut David Bowman, who finds his way into HAL’s mainframe. Afloat in a blood-red-lit cerebrum of mechanics, Bowman slowly deactivates (kills) HAL, to contrite protest, expression of ‘fear of death’, encroaching dementia, and, lastly the performance of a song—perhaps any intelligent being’s most basic function. In this manner, HAL somehow manipulates the viewer’s propensity to empathize, obfuscating the knowledge of what he’s done and certainly will do, evoking a sore remorse at the spectacle of his demise.

It may be concluded then—quite eerily—that the most monstrous thing HAL does, in the end, is make us feel sorry for his death.

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