Artificial intelligence (AI) has always been one of the main staples of science fiction movies, and yet what was sci-fi a decade ago looks increasingly normal nowadays.
AI and robots even made their debut in the early days of cinema, stretching back to Metropolis (1927), and few people will not be a little familiar (even if they have not watched the film) with ‘Hal’ in Stanley Kubrik’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey, from 1968.
If we take ‘2001’ as the genre’s starting point, then we have more than 50 years of AI in movies to watch and re-watch.
Films like Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ (2013) shine in a different light if you have spent time with ChatGPT, now celebrating its first birthday, and robotics advancements in 2023 have made possible what could only have existed as CGI a decade ago.
Our selection of films below each highlight various facets of AI — either to help understand how concepts such as machine learning, machine bias, or deep learning work or simply cautionary tales on how the power of these new technologies can be used.
10 Best Films to Understand How AI Works
10. Her (2013)
‘Her’ hits differently for audience members who have played with ChatGPT and generative AI, despite the film arriving a decade before the tools became available.
With large language models (LLMs) now allowing us all to converse with AI, and this year seeing the growth in AI by voice, the burgeoning relationship played out by our two main characters — one of them being an AI-powered virtual assistant called Samantha — feels like an extreme version of a long conversation with ChatGPT.
If you find yourself saying “thank you” to an LLM on a regular basis, ‘Her’ will certainly ring much closer to home than it did in previous years.
READ MORE: 6 Open-Source LLMs to Watch in 2024
9. M3Gan (2022)
One of the most recent films on this list, and while landing in the horror genre, M3Gan has a very smart screenplay with plenty to say about advances in the last few years.
Themes it uncovers include how Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), when left unchecked, can allow a machine to learn in its own direction and choose its own motives without ethical considerations (something we have recently discussed in relation to OpenAI).
We also see ethical discussions about outsourcing emotional and parental care to AI, using AI for surveillance, and the potential for AI to manipulate and control human behavior.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
We can’t discuss AI and movies without citing what is one of the most influential films about sentient intelligent machines.
Much like Jaws hurt the reputation of sharks (something the writer Peter Benchley later regretted) — A Space Odyssey gave us a dark perception of AI that has seeped into the culture.
With AI being a technology with so much power, maybe the genre beginning with a cautionary tale isn’t the worst start.
The AI protagonist, HAL 9000, only appears in a portion of the movie. Still, modern-day viewers may see glimpses of AI hallucination buried in its story, along with the popular trope of self-preservation to carry out its directives.
7. I, Robot (2004)
Purists will rightly decry the assassination of Isaac Asimov’s series of Robot novels and short stories, with very little of the subtleties on display when Asimov repeatedly tested the “Three Rules of Robotics” through prose.
Still, when viewed through a blockbuster lens, it has some intelligence — it plays as a tale of the ethics of human-machine collaboration, questions what happens if we pass too much power to AI to govern society, and then leans into the idea that robots will deserve rights once they reach a level of emotional intelligence.
6. Minority Report (2002)
While taking the concept to a level of science-fantasy, Minority Report has aged well in its exploration of AI, particularly predictive technology.
As we enter a world where police forces are now using AI to monitor CCTV em-masse, there are more than a few cases where innocent people have been arrested on AI identification alone.
The theme of being confidently accused by a machine with far more data to hand than yourself gets more relevant each year.
5. Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Widely seen as among the best movies about AI, both Blade Runners give us the Turing Test personified — the test of whether an AI can pass for human or not.
Alan Turing started with the question, “Can machines think?” and turned it around to be, “Can a machine be so advanced that a human cannot tell whether they’re talking to a human or machine?”
These two films take the premise and run with it, with directors Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve (in the sequel) running through various permutations of the idea with Harrison Ford.
4. The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991)
While trying to avoid too many blockbusters on this list, you can’t ignore the films that most people associate with artificial intelligence and robotics — however dystopian “AI takes over the world” they are.
Terminator 2 excels at showing us man and machine friendship and a filmmaker’s version of machine learning. If you have coded and corrected using ChatGPT or other LLMs, then watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator figure out how to converse and course-correct in the sequel feels a little familiar.
Skynet itself is the ultimate definition of rogue AI, in as much as its only purpose is not even its own survival but the quintessential extermination of all life forms.
The sequels that came after also get to show Skynet as a neural network, but the trade-off is watching films without James Cameron running the story and the camera.
3. Moon (2009)
Director Duncan Jones’s meditative film landed in a transitive moment in filmmaking.
Movies in the AI genre across the 2000s had been mainly flashy, CGI-engrained blockbusters (see I, Robot and Minority Report), and we were still five years from the more cerebral films of Her and Ex Machina (next on our list).
Moon, with knowing nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, was one of the first recent films to really delve into reasoning and working within the confines of a machine’s programming — including what appears to be a dash of human empathy on the AI’s part as the film progresses.
Watching an AI struggle between the human’s reasoned arguments vs. its head company’s strict compliance laws is as good a thriller as any.
The film is overlooked nowadays, perhaps thanks to the voice of the AI being Kevin Spacey before his fall from grace, but if you can get past that, this is a thoughtful (yet tense and scary) dialogue between man and machine.
We should probably name-drop Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) as movies that also grapple with man-machine relationships deep in space.
While they do not appear on this list, the android Bishop is an iconic representation of a sympathetic AI, and the line “Not bad… for a human” is likely to be deployed by LLMs with a humor chip whenever they get the chance.
2. Ex Machina (2015)
Again, arriving in the years before we got to experience AI ourselves, Ex Machina plays out like an extended Black Mirror episode, where a programmer has to determine how successfully a — very realistic — android called Ava can pass the Turing Test.
The film’s dark heart is working out whether Ava is genuinely conscious or simulating it — perfectly — every second. Whether we reach artificial general intelligence or even true machine consciousness in our reality remains up for debate, but within the confines of this film, it’s a real possibility that Ava is conscious, let alone a genius.
That question is enough to power the movie alone, but it is surrounded by a question of ethics: Should Ava remain a prisoner in the house? Or is she no more of a prisoner than your average vacuum cleaner?
In a dark, beautifully crafted film, that last question lingers as the film draws to a wrenching finale.
If you need a palette cleanser after watching it, then 2001’s Spielberg-directed “AI: Artificial Intelligence” movie hits similar themes with a slightly more optimistic beat.
1. The Artifice Girl (2022)
Extremely underrated and under the radar, The Artifice Girl is a rare film that, arriving in 2023 (although shown at festivals in 2022), seems imbued with some of the learnings we’ve taken from AI over the last few years.
The writers are versed in the terms and concepts that are now spilling out of the tech world, and even if it was filmed before ChatGPT arrived, it sits nicely in the generative AI world forming around us.
Cherry, the girl of the title, starts life as a virtual chatbot, bringing down hundreds of child predators online with perfect LLM-based traps before — as the years go by — getting her chance to interact in the real world.
The Artifice Girl places high on this list partly because it feels like the first film to arrive in an AI-literate world. If AI has made you think about the future over the last year, this film feels part of that conversation.
Never has a cinema genre shone in a new light than the difference AI has made to the world between 2019 and 2023.
To varying degrees, 50 years of science fantasy have moved to “everyday reality”, and while futuristic films always push imagination to its limits, you can relate to the movies above in a new way — they are all worth watching or re-watching.
The erupting AI industry will inform the next generation of filmmakers — indeed, we’re probably not too far off AI getting a creative credit itself on a film in the next few years.