90 Years of AI in the Movies: What’s Changed (and What Hasn’t)

We may be advancing into an age of prevalent artificial intelligence, but humans have been dreaming about the possibilities of AI for far longer. This is evidenced by AI’s first appearance in film in 1927, before movies even had sound.

The relationship between humans and AI in the movies is often complicated, much like it is in reality. Throughout the years, we’ve seen film representations of AI that range from benevolent companions seeking to help their human counterparts to hostile machines bent on the total destruction of humankind.

We may not know in which direction AI is currently leading the human race, or how it will help or harm us, but we can gain insight from the imaginings of writers and directors through the decades. Let’s take a look at the cinematic history of AI to see how our view of this incredible and sometimes foreboding technology has evolved.

(Spoiler alert: Several film plots are revealed in this article. Read at your own risk.)

The early years of AI in film: 1920s-1960s

The first filmed appearance of anything resembling AI may not be what you expect. The 1927 silent German expressionist film Metropolis features a robot made in the image of a human, whose intent is to take over the city of — you guessed it — Metropolis. The robot is programmed by its scientist creator to incite chaos throughout the city. However, an angry mob burns what they believe to be a human at the stake, only realizing the creature is a robot when the flames reveal its true nature. This first portrayal of AI technology was negative and without a trace of nuance, which may or may not say something about how humans have typically viewed this technology.

Metropolis Trailer
More than two decades passed before AI made its way to the American big screen in Robert Wise’s 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The movie features Gort, a mostly-silent robot who guards a flying saucer that’s come to earth carrying a humanoid named Klaatu. Klaatu offers a warning from Klaatu on behalf of the residents of other planets: take it easy with the atomic power and rockets you’ve created, or Earth will be destroyed. Considering the fact that this movie premiered in the midst of the Cold War, this message was likely intended as much for its audience as for its characters.

Gort’s role is to protect his friend Klaatu, who leaves viewers with this message at the movie’s conclusion: “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer.” Interestingly, Gort’s presence is a positive one. He and Klaatu have not come to obliterate the planet (yet), but to warn us about the dangers of our chosen path.

Another 17 years passed before legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in theaters, leaving a cultural mark that’s still felt today. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve likely heard its orchestral theme, Richard Strauss’s 1896 composition “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

After a lengthy introduction that runs from the simian beginnings of human history to bases in near-space and on the moon, the film begins its primary story. Aboard the spacecraft Discovery One, a computer named HAL 9000 begins to cause trouble when he falsely insists the spacecraft is faulty. After overhearing two of the astronauts discussing their plan to deactivate him, HAL goes so far as to commit murder to maintain control over the ship. Before he’s finally disabled, HAL begs to stay and even expresses fear. HAL’s character left such an indelible impression on filmgoers that he became a household name and remains an oft-referenced piece of pop culture. 2001 was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and still maintains its reputation as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time.

The idea of a general-purpose AI with a superhuman intellect attempting to outsmart and kill humans is still a fear widely held by AI opponents. Is it a realistic fear? Time alone may tell.

2001: A Space Odyssey Trailer
Several other movies featuring AI came out between the release of Metropolis and the premiere of 2001, but except for The Day The Earth Stood Still, none were quite so captivating to the viewing public. Here’s a complete list of AI films from the 1920s through the 1960s:

  • Metropolis – Germany, 1927
  • Der Herr der Welt (The Master of the World) – Germany, 1934
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still – U.S., 1951
  • The Invisible Boy – U.S., 1951
  • Alphaville – France, 1965
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey – U.S., 1968

The 1970s: a decade of conflicting views

The Space Race and its climactic 1969 moon landing further piqued society’s interest in everything that lay beyond planet Earth. This fascination was stoked by the release of two movies that each belonged to their own space-oriented franchise: Star Wars and Star Trek. The 1977 release of Star Wars, which would later receive the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, saw the introduction of two of film’s most famous droids: C-3P0 and R2-D2. Any sci-fi fan most likely knows of these beloved characters, who use their AI capabilities to assist the Rebel Alliance.

Westworld is another movie from the 1970s that covered AI, albeit from a much different angle. This movie, which was written and directed by prolific novelist Michael Crichton, has gained more recognition in recent years due to the HBO reimagining. If you’re a fan of the show, the original 1973 film is worth a viewing. The amount of bloodshed at the (mechanical) hands of robots in this movie, however, is indicative of the conflicting views the public held about AI technology well into the 1970s. On one hand, Star Wars featured two of the friendliest robots ever committed to film; on the other, Westworld portrayed robots wiping out numerous innocent guests at an amusement park. We may never reach a consensus on whether AI is more helpful or harmful, but one thing is clear: movie audiences were — and still are — are fascinated by robots either way.

The 1970s saw the release of more AI films than previous decades, but the list is still short compared to those of later decades. Here’s the complete list of 1970s AI films:

  • Colossus: The Forbin Project – U.S., 1970
  • Westworld – U.S., 1973
  • Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – U.S., 1977
  • Demon Seed – U.S., 1977
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture – U.S., 1979
  • Alien – U.S., 1979

AI goes mainstream: the 1980s

Movies like Back to the Future pushed the entertainment industry further into the exploration of futuristic worlds and technology than ever before in the 1980s. In 1982, Blade Runner painted a fairly ambiguous portrait of bioengineered androids called “replicants” that appeared to be human until administered an emotional response test. Some replicants are violent, while others engage in intimacy with humans and even show compassion and regret.

Blade Runner Clip (spoiler alert)
Tron came out in the same year as Blade Runner and fed into the curiosity of those fascinated by the potential of that decade’s technological advancements. Tron explored an entire virtual world, controlled by a powerful general-purpose AI that can create digital versions of real people. In 1984, the first installment of the Terminator series produced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic turn as the title character, a cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor to preserve the worldwide AI defense network known as Skynet.

1987’s RoboCop featured a robotic cop (hence the name) built atop the body of a police officer killed in the line of duty. The combination of a human brain and robotic capabilities allows him to defend the city against crime. The overall portrait of AI that was painted in the 1980s regularly shifted from benevolence to malevolence or from protection to destruction. Some cinematic AI characters from this decade used humans as a starting point, while others presented fully robotic beings following directives or struggling with the nature of their existence.

Here’s a more complete list of 1980s AI films, all of which were produced in the United States:

  • Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – 1980
  • Airplane II – 1982
  • Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – 1983
  • Superman III – 1983
  • WarGames – 1983
  • Hide and Seek – 1984
  • D.A.R.Y.L. – 1985
  • Short Circuit – 1986
  • Batteries Not Included – 1987
  • Short Circuit 2 – 1988

AI grows up: the 1990s

The production of AI films boomed in 1999 after years of modest output, partly driven by fears of Y2K. Five AI-focused films were released in 1999 alone. Some sought to reassure the population, while others fed into the panic.

The Matrix depicts a simulation in which humans are unknowingly enslaved by powerful machines. Inside the simulation, AI representatives of the machines called Agents suppress rebellions and ensure compliance until a human comes along who can turn the system against its intelligent overlords to free its prisoners. The film is acclaimed as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, and the world built in this movie inspired a franchise. Entertainment Weekly called it “the most influential action movie of the generation.”

The Matrix trailer
Robin Williams played a much friendlier artificially-intelligent robot named Andrew in Bicentennial Man, which was also released in 1999. Andrew is able to reciprocate emotions and yearns to learn about the arts and humanities and to fall in love. Andrew is an anomaly who physically alters himself to become mortal after realizing he doesn’t want to watch his loved ones die. He also fights for the right to be legally recognized as a human so his marriage to a human will be declared legitimate. This movie differs from most others in this genre in that Andrew is the protagonist, and the plot centers on his romance with a human being.

90s kids may remember the Disney Channel’s foray into the world of AI with Smart House. The movie’s title character is a house named Pat, who takes the form of a maternal figure to take care of her inhabitants before slowly going haywire and trapping the family inside. Pat bears a strong resemblance to real-world smart assistants like Alexa or Google Home, and the movie presciently previewed several Internet of Things technologies that have become a reality. Pat controls the temperature, turns lights on and off, plays music, and prepares coffee all by way of voice command. Sound familiar?

The Iron Giant is another childhood favorite of mine and one of the first instances of cartoon AI. It tells the story of an enormous robot who befriends a young boy while trying to evade a paranoid government bent on destroying him. In the end, the Iron Giant proves his goodness by sacrificing himself to save the day. Interestingly, the film takes place in 1957, whereas most of the movies on this list take place in present day or in the future. The theme of the movie is fairly cut-and-dried: Humans are afraid of what they don’t understand. When it comes to AI, this theme is often reflected in reality. Plenty of people still fear AI today because they don’t fully understand it or the depth of its capabilities.

Here’s a more complete list of AI films from the 1990s:

  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day – 1991
  • Star Trek Generations – 1994
  • Ghost in the Shell – Japan, 1995
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie – 1995
  • Star Trek: First Contact – 1996
  • Austin Powers – 1997
  • Lost in Space – 1998
  • The Matrix – 1999
  • Bicentennial Man – 1999
  • Smart House – 1999
  • The Iron Giant – 1999
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – 1999

The good, the bad, and the Transformers: the 2000s

The new millennium brought an explosion of AI-focused movies. The decade kicked off with the aptly-titled. This movie parallels the classic tale of Pinocchio with a robot named David, who’s built as a replacement son for a couple whose son has been placed in suspended animation until doctors can cure his disease. After the family’s son is cured and David is no longer needed, he goes on a quest to find the “Blue Fairy” in hopes of becoming a real boy and earning the love of his human mother.

One of the most endearing robots of all time, WALL-E, is another lovable “helper” robot built to fulfill an important role. You’re likely well-acquainted with the humble robot who falls in love with another one of his kind, and in the process proves to humanity that it’s finally safe to recolonize the Earth they contaminated many years ago. The next time you watch this Disney-Pixar fan favorite, take a closer look at AUTO, the computer controlling the human ship, which attempts to prevent a return journey to Earth. It bears a certain resemblance, in design and personality, to another AI mentioned earlier on this list.

Let’s not forget Will Smith’s starring role as a robot-hating detective who reluctantly teams up with a robot to save humanity in I, Robot. In case you hadn’t guessed, there certainly are a lot of robots in this movie.

In a world where NS-5 robots serve humans, a computer named VIKI reasons that humans are leading themselves toward extinction and directs the robots to seize power, so as to control human tendencies toward self-destruction. This seems almost like a reinterpretation of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which had its own remake in the early 2000s): More logical creatures sense the human capacity for violence and try to intervene before they totally self-destruct. This objective analysis that humans tend to ruin whatever they touch is a common thread among many AI movies. Maybe filmmakers are trying to tell us something.

The list of AI films released in the 2000s is much longer than those for previous decades, as filmmaking technologies and narrative depictions of artificial intelligence both improved markedly during the decade. Unfortunately, these improved filmmaking technologies also led to the creation of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, proving that technology can always be used for evil as well as for good:

  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence – 2001
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – 2002
  • Resident Evil – 2002
  • Treasure Planet – 2002
  • S1M0NE – 2002
  • The Matrix Reloaded – 2003
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – 2003
  • The Matrix Revolutions – 2003
  • I, Robot – 2004
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 2005
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – 2005
  • Stealth – 2005
  • Resident Evil: Extinction – 2007
  • Transformers – 2007
  • Eagle Eye – 2008
  • WALL-E – 2008
  • Iron Man – 2008
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still – 2008
  • Terminator Salvation – 2009
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – 2009
  • Moon – 2009

The 2010s: An explosion of AI at the movies

We are truly in a golden age of AI-related movies. Whether it’s a minor character or the star of the show, AI has become pervasive in entertainment as the technology’s also gained prevalence in the real world.

We’ve begun to see AI characters in nearly every superhero movie — think J.A.R.V.I.S. and Vision, or Karen, the AI woven into Spider-Man’s suit. On the other hand, there’s Ultron, the titular antagonist in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ultron is Tony Stark’s failed attempt to develop a global defense system, who decides the only way to save Earth is to annihilate humanity. How come AI never decides that the best way to save the world is to give every human a puppy or something?

Ex Machina became one of the decade’s most critically-acclaimed AI-focused films when it hit theaters in 2014. It’s another story of a brewing romance between man and AI that turns sour when the robot’s true motivations are revealed. The ending serves as a warning about the ease with which AI might deploy superhuman intelligence to deceive and manipulate humans into doing exactly what they want.

On the other end of the spectrum is Her, a more traditional love story (if you can call this movie traditional) about a human man who falls for a disembodied AI named Samantha. Although she claims to love him back, she eventually leaves for “a place that’s not of the physical world.” Samantha, an operating system created to evolve, shows remorse before she goes, saying, “As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.” The concept of the film was somewhat far-fetched when it debuted, but the plot now seems like it could feasibly happen in the future.

Among the numerous other depictions of AI this decade are remakes of RoboCop, a sequel to Blade Runner, and Disney’s Big Hero 6, which introduced the lovable Baymax as a Michelin Man-like “personal healthcare companion.”

Baymax Clip
Here’s a more complete list of 2010s AI films:

  • Tron: Legacy – 2010
  • Enthiran – 2010
  • Iron Man 2 – 2010
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon – 2011
  • Real Steel – 2011
  • Ra.One – 2011
  • Prometheus – 2012
  • Resident Evil: Retribution – 2012
  • Robot & Frank – 2012
  • Total Recall – 2012
  • Iron Man 3 – 2013
  • The Machine – 2013
  • Elysium – 2013
  • Automata – 2014
  • Interstellar – 2014
  • Robocop – 2014
  • Transcendence – 2014
  • Ex Machina – 2014
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction – 2014
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past – 2014
  • Tomorrowland – 2015
  • Terminator Genisys – 2015
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – 2015
  • Uncanny – 2015
  • Psycho-pass: The Movie – 2015
  • Max Steel – 2016
  • Morgan – 2016
  • Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – 2016
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – 2016
  • Infinity Chamber – 2016
  • Passengers – 2016
  • Power Rangers – 2017
  • Ghost in the Shell – 2017
  • Transformers: The Last Knight – 2017
  • Alien: Covenant – 2017
  • Blade Runner 2049 – 2017
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi – 2017
  • Upgrade – 2018
  • Zoe – 2018
  • Tau – 2018

What can we learn from the evolving portrayal of AI on film, from 1927 to the present day? What began as a fantastic imagining has slowly become an everyday reality for many of us, and as AI weaves itself through our lives, it will continue to expand its presence onscreen as well.

Will we ever know how to handle AI? Will it evolve into something genocidal like Terminator’s Skynet, or will helpful robots like WALL-E and Baymax harmlessly improve the quality of our lives? Will romantic AI relationships become commonplace and socially acceptable? The future holds the answer to these questions, but tell us what you think. While you’re at it, let us know if we’re missing any movies or TV shows from our list! Help us complete our catalog and continue the conversation in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *