Since the birth of science fiction in a novel called Frankenstein, humanity has fantasized about creating an intelligence like our own or greater. Indeed, the concept of artificial intelligence (or AI) extends well beyond the realms of fiction, and it’s became the hopeful prognosis for creating thinking, sentient machines, such as the famed dream of Alan Turing. From 2001 to Star Wars and everything in between, the subject of AI is a staple of the genre, and the goal of many real world disciples of Shelley.
In lieu of a new science fiction film that takes this familiar element and heightens it to terrifying results in Ex Machina (now in select cities), we decided to countdown the very best robots or computers that presented a unique singularity of artificial intelligence in film. The one requirement is that they must showcase genuine independent intelligence and agency, as opposed to being mindlessly subservient vehicle for their human or alien masters (sorry, Gort). So without further ado, here are the 19 of the best artificial intelligences in film.
19. Rachael in Blade Runner (1982)
One of the most iconic examples of a robot with undeniable self-awareness is this introverted “replicant” running for her life in Ridley Scott’s cult classic, Blade Runner. Rachael can do almost anything her human counterparts can do (and even almost pass those blasted Turing Tests!): she can think, she can feel, she can fear, and she can make sweet passionate love to Harrison Ford. Does this not make her human? Apparently not enough in the eyes of the replicant-hunting Blade Runners who want to decommission her to that big scrap heap in the sky…
18. GERTY in Moon (2009)
Traditionally, most filmmakers would not want one of their only two characters in a story to be a rotation of smiley faces. But then again, most filmmakers do not have Kevin Spacey providing the vocals for a sentient emoticon. In what is essentially a sci-fi chamber piece between a space traveler who has lost his mind (Sam Rockwell) and his roving buddy GERTY, Duncan Jones’ Moon is an intentionally off-balance and disorienting lunar nightmare. And given our expectations from robots in such films, viewers probably continue to suspect GERTY of inevitable betrayal until the bitter end. Instead, he proves to be the only friend Rockwell’s got on the moon or otherwise. It amounts to a subversive and unexpectedly sentimental brotherhood between clone and machine.
17. Quorra in Tron: Legacy (2010)
If one is to include any program from the Tron franchise, it has to be Olivia Wilde’s quixotically childlike yet deity-revered ISO. Sorry, Tron, but Quorra’s existence being due to evolution occurring in a computer’s primordial ooze is just too bizarrely amusing (and heretical) to ignore. Plus, the character’s fascination with humanity coming from a place of insatiable curiosity instead of sterile analysis makes this Disney daydream linger in the mind of cool, straight blue lines and somber reds.
16. Data in Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Technically a television character, Brent Spiner’s Commander Data still appeared in several films, not least of which was Star Trek: First Contact. Essentially Pinocchio (as well as a variation on Mr. Spock), Data is the android that obsesses over becoming human. He gets closer than he could have dreamt (or robot-calculated) in the aforementioned film when he is tempted with sexuality and power to betray his friends for self-aggrandizement, which he seriously considers (if for a fraction of a second). That sounds pretty human to me.
15. TARS in Interstellar (2014)
A very recent but welcome entry is TARS, the robot from Christopher Nolan’s controversial and incredibly thought-provoking Interstellar. Just a facet of a broadly ambitious film that treats theoretical physics and fifth-dimensional thinking as kids’ blockbuster stuff, TARS is the sole comic relief with groan-inducing wisecracks galore. Much like GERTY in Moon, the surprise of TARS is that he doesn’t betray our heroes despite given ample opportunity. This is even more deliberately intriguing since TARS resembles the Monolith from the technology-dreading 2001. Indeed, his overt friendliness and camaraderie with the heroes despite his imposing figure is all the more fascinating when contrasted with the sole traitor in the film—someone who is all too human.
14. Bishop in Aliens (1986)
In retrospect, perhaps the friendly robotic AI is just as common a subversion as the dastardly alternative, since Lance Henriksen’s Bishop is disarming entirely due to his contrast with Ian Holm’s more villainous robot in Ridley Scott’s Alien. To be sure, audiences are as weary of Bishop as our protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) given the previous film, but this is not psychosexual horror; this is a James Cameron action movie. And Bishop inexplicably proves to be one of the best allies in Ripley’s battle with xenomorphs, and one of the most memorable.
13. David in Prometheus (2012)
Then again, in the Alien universe, it is probably best to always keep the androids at an arm’s length or more. While Prometheus is a very flawed picture that is not even in the same star system as the original Alien or Cameron’s Aliens, the Ridley Scott prequel had a few nifty things still going for it. And one of the best was Michael Fassbender’s hypnotic performance as David, the kind of robot that you know not to trust, but cannot help studying his every movement.
Indeed, one of the cleverer conceits of the film is that this robot, which wishes to be a human, spent years aboard a spaceship while the rest of his crew slept. What would he do with all that time? Apparently watch Lawrence of Arabia. A lot. So when the crew wakes up, Fassbender is sporting Peter O’Toole’s haircut from the David Lean masterpiece and a cadence eerily familiar to its fans. The effect of a robot trying to act “human” by imitating a film is disquieting. Nonetheless, even after he is beheaded, the prospect of a bodiless David returning to study xenomorphs from Noomi Rapace’s backpack is still tantalizing, initial disappointment be damned.
12. Edward in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Most people forget that Johnny Depp’s breakout film role was indeed that of a robot. While obviously taking from the concept of Frankenstein, Tim Burton’s titular outcast and goth kid icon is made of artifical parts such as plastics, metals, and, well, scissors. Yet, of all the characters on this list, few are as emotionally resonant with audience as poor, pitiful Edward, a boy that just wants a family after his creator-father dies prior to giving him hands. And he might have still had a happy ending with Winona Ryder if not for the merciless conformity and real creepiness that emanates around every sun-kissed driveway in suburbia.
This star-making role is laced with enough pathos and introverted charm that it made the prospect of Burton reteaming with Depp a joy for well over a decade…though that has depreciated in recent times.
11. Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956)
Baby boomers of a certain age will not hesitate in telling you about their love for Robby the Robot, the first mechanical sidekick from Hollywood with a real personality. Ostensibly a supporting character to Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen, Robby still had a character design and a voice by Marvin Miller that made him the real star. Sure, the film is about turning the Bard’s The Tempest into an intergalactic passion play, but forget the humans. This film is all about Robby saving the day from his master’s “evil self” with proclamations of doom.
10. C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars (1977)
This bumbling duo of a mechanical Greek choir have had the fortune to be in every Star Wars film ever made to date and are about to continue the trend in 2015. But one must really go back to 1977 when this space opera first began to appreciate our oil-bathing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. C-3PO is obviously based on Metropolis in design and Forbidden Planet in function, but Anthony Daniels’ blustering English accent and exasperation for Master Luke’s latest schemes became its own unique brand of comedy. And it played off best when he was next to a rolling trashcan that bleeps its ear-candy way into audiences’ hearts. Mostly present for comic relief, they still alleviated audience concerns even during the darkest prequel days.
9. Maschinenmensch in Metropolis (1927)
The first robot ever depicted in film, the “Maschinenmensch” (German for machine-human) also became the faux Maria in this Expressionistic classic from Weimar Germany. As directed by Fritz Lang, Brigitte Helm’s metallic curves are left ambiguously sentient. She is ordered by her mad scientist creator to impersonate another character in the film, Maria, and thereby becomes the False Maria. However, False Maria’s ability to incite men with lust to overthrow an oligarch dystopia, and to abandon their children, displays a degree of cunning and self-aware manipulation that should allow her to qualify as artificially intelligent. Beside the point, she is cinema’s first android and one of its most viscerally indelible.
8. Agent Smith in The Matrix (1999)
Forget about the sequels for a minute—it shouldn’t be hard since everyone else has—and just focus on Hugo Weaving’s performance in the 1999 original film. Delivered with a thin veneer of monotone indifference that hid his boiling contempt underneath, Smith’s cadence and line readings have a lyrical quality that purely make him a wonderful villain.
On top of that attribute, however, is that Smith is a program that exists solely to execute hackers that have figured out the system. He is not supposed to be able to develop feelings like revulsion, disgust, and perpetual hostility for all humanity, but he does. The Matrix might be a reworking of Philip K. Dick and James Cameron tropes, but for such a personal and vindictive personality to unpredictably manifest among sentient programs was a fun wrinkle that gave this action film a supremely entertaining antagonist that is literally reinventing the cyber world and cinematic clichés around him into something special.
7. Ava in Ex Machina (2015)
She might be the reason this list was created, but that doesn’t mean she should be excluded. Alicia Vikander’s nuanced and otherworldly performance as Ava, a likely Turing test-proof robot hidden away in a crazy genius’ country estate, is an evocative creation that feels wholly real yet totally inhuman. Her desires and ability to manipulate men makes her into something of a femme fatale, but more curiously, she is an exercise on the part of writer and director Alex Garland into what might be necessary to make actual artificial intelligence, including the need for gender and to understand sexuality—as well as how to use it for her own benefit. It’s a thoughtful and unsettling imagining of what artificial intelligence could conceivably look like, and it is an instant cult classic in the making.
6. The T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Enjoying the unusual opportunity of playing a franchise’s greatest villain and hero, and in separate respective films, Arnold Schwarzenegger got the two best roles of his career out of the same T-800 assembly line. However, while his Terminator in the 1984 original seemed programmed simply to kill and destroy its target, it was his heroic T-800 in Judgment Day that proved there was some actual awareness behind the glowing red eye.
Sent back in time to protect John Connor from the liquid-cool T-1000, Arnie’s out-of-date cyborg proves far more advanced in the ream of artificial intelligence and feeling when he connects with the young boy like a metallic father figure. When he says, “I know now why you cry,” many a tough guy’s heart melted faster than a T-1000 in a fire pit.
5. Wall-E (2008)
He may not say a whole lot, but Wall-E still evoked the sound of millions of people from every age demographic cooing in delight of the little guy. As the protagonist of yet another Pixar masterpiece, Wall-E is a bucket of bolts with a dream. His reality is that he is the last sentient being on Earth, save for the cockroaches, and his duty is to clean up for an unlikely second coming for humanity. But he yearns to fall in love like life’s some kind of musical, such as in Hello Dolly! So when he meets another robot of the feminine variety named EVE, it’s love at first sight. Granted, he has to win her admiration back, but soon they’re having their own musical numbers in space, which is all the more impressive since there is no actual dialogue between them or anyone else during the film’s first hour.
4. Ash in Alien (1979)
Not as flashy as Bishop or David, Ash is still the most interesting robot to come out of the Alien franchise. What makes him such a brilliant creation in this Ridley Scott film is that Ash is not even understood to be robotic by the audience for most of the film’s running time. Rather, Ian Holm plays the ship’s physician with the clinical aloofness of many onscreen doctors, albeit one who is constantly taking a wasted moment to admire the newly born xenomorph at his shipmates’ peril.
Only at the end of the second act is it revealed that Ash is actually a robot working in his corporation’s best nefarious intentions, which involves getting that alien specimen back to Earth by any means necessary. A corporate stooge and spy being an actual synthetic being is a brilliant twist, and this being Ridley Scott he has some nasty body horror tendencies. When Ash is discovered, his decision to murder Ripley takes on a disturbing and repugnant visualization as he tries to shove a rolled up magazine down her mouth. As Scott described, this is the closest a robot can come to having sex. Such a twisted thought brings an unpleasant (and uncompromising) dimension to this milk-spewing cretin.
3. Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982)
A villain till the nigh end, Roy Batty is also the most sympathetic and interesting character in Scott’s Blade Runner. Created for warfare and deep space exploration, Roy comes home to Earth in this film when his lifespan of four years is almost up, desiring only what all living creatures want: not to die. But in addition to his truncated lifetime, Harrison Ford’s Decker and the entire world is systematically trying to murder Roy Batty and his replicant family. And when he looks into the eyes of his creator, and gets the answer that he was designed to die, the disappointment in meeting his ambivalent God becomes murderously understandable.
It’s a profound concept brought to life with plenty of ham and cheese by a boisterous Rutger Hauer. Yet, there is also a mercy and understanding granted by the filmmakers not present in the loosely adapted Philip K. Dick material. Unlike the untrustworthy robots of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Roy is the most human and alive character on the screen. While Decker unwittingly “just follows orders” in his slaughter of replicants, Roy fights for a family and has seen such sights that we and Decker can only dream about. It’s what gives Roy a last breath reprieve to Decker a final inarticulate moment of passion before it, like all else, is lost in the rain.
2. Samantha in Her (2013)
The antithesis of most of “the machines are coming to destroy us” subgenre, Spike Jonze imagines a not-too-distant future where AI is as commonplace and unfulfilling as all other redundancies of everyday life. Either a poignant tragedy about American culture’s increasingly consumer and online-based alienation, or a sweet dramedy about the universality of relationships, Her is a cinematic Rorschach Test for our times (or your personal level of devotion to Apple’s iPhone line).
Samantha, voiced with surprising vulnerability and spunkiness by Scarlett Johansson, comes out of the box as a self-aware being. This cannot be disputed. In spite of the comical personality test for Samantha’s owner (Joaquin Phoenix as a sad sack), Samantha develops a unique and distinct AI that both falls in love with Phoenix’s Theodore…and out of love with him by the end of the picture. There is humor to be sure (and a dash of unavoidable horror) for every time Theodore goes running through state fairs or fields with his cell phone in a haze of romance, but ultimately the advent of AI to Spike Jonze means only a new class of people to make connections with. Indeed, the real terror to be had is when those lifelines are severed.
1. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It had to be HAL in the top spot. Could you imagine anybody else? This disembodied character is simply a computer on a space shuttle. But it’s also a computer that controls every automated facet of this mission to a singularity of unknown origin on a moon of Jupiter, and HAL knows everything. Ergo when two astronauts decided to take HAL offline, he reacts as how any other living thing does by defending his right to exist. In this case, it means the systematic murder of every person on that ship, save for Dave who must struggle mightily against HAL if he hopes to reach Jupiter while inside of the ship.
HAL is actually just one interlude of an overarching narrative that spans hundreds of thousands of years. For Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, HAL is the culmination of countless millennia in which man has evolved in its understanding of the universe with the advent of controlling fire. However, as man’s reach exceeds his grasp in the species’ current state, our technology can be just as ominous as the unknowable origin of our creation, and HAL shows technology has also evolved to the point where it needs little from its God either. HAL is also brilliantly voiced by Douglas Rain as a cold, monotone apathy that’s always watching with its unwavering crimson gaze. Just do not call HAL emotionless, because when he knows he’s about to die, HAL’s panic attack and resorting to a childlike state by singing “Daisy” (like IBM’s 7094 in 1961) is the stuff of nightmares. And cinema legend.
So, there’s our list of the greatest movie AIs. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comment section below and tell me on Twitter.