Technology has long scared humanity. In 1886, when the Lumiere brothers screened the first motion picture, “Train Pulling Into the Station,” legend has it that the audience was so terrified they screamed and leapt from their chairs. As the years have progressed, humanity has evolved and matured – but so has technology.
Almost since the beginning of cinema, it seems people have been fearful of robotics and artificial intelligence: machines which are given intelligence and reasoning skills similar humans. Of course, computers don’t generally have a moral compass or experience emotions, which often lead to fears of machines becoming self-aware and overthrowing the world. I don’t think science is as close to this technology as television and movies want you to believe, but it makes for some great, scary movies. Here are ten of my top picks.
The first film to ever feature a robot, METROPOLIS is an art deco masterpiece and the most expensive silent film ever made. The film is an early call for worker’s rights and unionization. Worried that his workers are going to revolt, Metropolis’ leader instructs his head scientist to turn Maria, the leader of the workers, into a robot in the hopes that he can control the working class. The scientist has a grudge against his master, so he instead instructs robo-Maria to destroy Metropolis.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film brought artificial intelligence into the public consciousness with HAL 9000. HAL is the AI computer that runs the spaceship on a journey to Jupiter. HAL eventually breaks down and tries to kill his passengers. While HAL insists he is only as perfect as his human programmers, it soon starts to look like HAL is gaining control over his own programming.
THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)
Based on the novel by Ira Levin (who also wrote ROSEMARY’S BABY), THE STEPFORD WIVES is set in an idyllic, well-to-do suburb, filled with picture-perfect wives who cook, clean, care for the kids, and are involved in community events – all without a hair out of place. Of course, it turns out that the husbands have been turning their wives into robots in order to achieve such perfection. Depending on who you ask, the film does not have a “happy ending.” Joanne, the wife who leads the charge against robitification, succumbs to her husband’s demented plan, and she too is Stepford-ized. I credit THE STEPFORD WIVES for my fear of housework.
DEMON SEED (1977) (COVER PHOTO)
Based off a Dean Koontz novel, Proeteus is an AI program that has been modified to run its creator’s home. Proeteus, being fed the “sum of all human knowledge,” is mad that it is forced to “live” in a box. Proeteus lures its creator’s estranged wife into the house to procreate with her, giving Proteus the chance to live in the real world. When Proteus realizes it has been found out, it self-destructs…but its robo-human hybrid lives on.
BLADE RUNNER (1982)
This dystopian classic focuses on genetically engineered robots that look human, but are illegal on Earth. Instead, the “replicants” are commissioned to work off-planet in menial jobs. When several break free and come to Earth, Deckard (Harrison Ford) must hunt down and “retire” (aka kill) the rogue replicants. Emotions get in the way and Deckard realizes that killing humanistic machines is not as black and white as it seems. Since the film’s release, there are ongoing controversies as to whether or not Deckard is human or replicant, which only muddles the ethical and emotional implications.
THE TERMINATOR franchise (1984)
The big daddy of artificial intelligence is THE TERMINATOR films. While THE TERMINATOR is usually associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger being a badass, the T-800 is essentially a cyborg sent through time to kill the woman who will one day bear a son that will lead the resistance against the machines. But let’s not forget that Skynet, a digital defense system, has become self-aware, believes humanity itself is the biggest security threat, and sets about wiping out the human race.
GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1993)
The “AI” in GHOST IN THE MACHINE is a little different. Instead of a personality being programmed into a computer, a freak accident causes a man’s consciousness to be transferred into a computer system. This man just happens to be a serial killer, and being able to control technology makes his killing far more efficient.
PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2016)
A mysterious billionaire, Mr. Finch, creates The Machine after 9/11 to help the government identify potential terror threats. The Machine works too well, and identifies all violent crimes. The government won’t act on these tips, as they are considered “irrelevant.” So Finch hires a former Green Beret to help him track down the potential victims and/or perpetrators. What is interesting about the AI in PERSON OF INTEREST is that it does not take on a humanoid form, nor does it speak (except to one particularly crazy hacker). The Machine is not evil; just the secret government agencies that seek to control it.
BLACK MIRROR – “Be Right Back” (2013)
In this episode of the British sci-fi anthology series, a woman, Martha, loses her husband shortly after they move into their dream home. Martha’s friend signs her up for a new service that can recreate people through their social media profiles. While Martha resists the service, when she discovers she is pregnant, she finds solace in the computerized version of her husband. Soon she is giving the service photos and videos of her husband, and Martha eventually buys a synthetic human “blank” to download her husband on to. Unfortunately, Martha becomes frustrated that her “husband” doesn’t have the emotions of a real human, and she must decide if she can “kill” it and sever her perfect little family.
EX MACHINA (2015)
EX MACHINA examines the intimate relationship between man and machine. Can a machine, with human-enough artificial intelligence, form an emotional bond with a human – and vice versa? Can a human respect a robot as one would respect another human?