Artificial intelligence is everywhere. Well, perhaps not literally, but AI is certainly expanding its reach, its power, and its uses. Its potential – both good and bad – is on the minds of anyone who works in technology, communications, journalism, and just about every other walk of life.
Of course, science fiction saw all this coming, just as it foretold the arrival of nuclear deterrence, bioweapons, superflus, climate change, the internet, mobile communications, and so much more. Artificial intelligence, whether embedded in the bowels of a supercomputer or ensconced in the head of an android, has been part of the genre since at least 1907, when L. Frank Baum included a mechanical character called Tik-Tok in his book Ozma of Oz. It’s played a variety of roles in books, comics, TV shows, and films ever since – often working for humankind’s benefit but just as frequently mapping our doom.
It’s the latter that we’re interested in below – those AI that are so nefarious, so enigmatic in their motivations, so frightening in their coldly reasoned plans and actions, that they can’t help but come across as genuinely disturbing. Here are 17 of the most unsettling AI characters or manifestations in sci-fi cinema – and if anything like even one of these pops up in real life, let’s face it: we’re so screwed.
The Maschinenmensch (Metropolis)
She may be the most recognizable robot in film history, and a pop culture icon all her own. We’re talking about the maschinenmensch (“machine person”), created by the insane scientist Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis. The robot is devised by Rotwang to seek revenge against Fredersen, the city master who stole Rotwang’s lover. Her gleaming metallic shell is transformed to look like Maria, a saintly woman who lives among the city’s underground laborers. The “false Maria,” however, preaches revolution, leading to destruction and chaos for both the elite and the workers.
What’s unsettling about the maschinenmensch is that, once given her orders by Rotwang, she executes it coldly and precisely, even inflaming the city’s wealthiest men with an erotic dance at one point before pivoting and leading the workers below to ruin. We never quite know what the robot is thinking – or if it can think – but there’s a chilling, unfeeling calculation to her every move that makes us wonder whether Rotwang himself can even control her.
Alpha 60 (Alphaville)
Jean-Luc Godard’s surreal 1965 classic stars Eddie Constantine as a secret agent named Lemmy Caution, whose mission to find a missing agent takes him to the totalitarian city of Alphaville, where he attempts to find the city’s founder and destroy the supercomputer, Alpha 60, that commands a complete grip over the city and its inhabitants.
Alpha 60 may be the first sentient supercomputer ever presented on film. And it is a ruthless son of a bitch: Alpha 60 has banned all forms of emotion in Alphaville, including love, and citizens are executed when they display even the faintest hint of feelings. Its mechanical voice is heard everywhere, it monitors the entire city, and the emotionless, disaffected society it has created is a creepy forecast of what a civilization run by AI could look like. It’s only fitting then that Caution brings Alpha 60 down with a riddle about poetry – an artistic expression of emotion that even Alpha 60’s circuits can’t handle.
HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
“I’m afraid, Dave.” Spoken in gentle, calm tones (by voice actor Douglas Rain), those are among the final words issued by HAL 9000, the sentient AI that runs the Discovery One mission to Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When HAL’s programming conflicts with itself – his objective to keep the crew safe and informed clashes with secret information about the mission that he can’t reveal to the astronauts – it causes him to have a breakdown and begin murdering the crew, reasoning that if they’re dead he doesn’t have to conceal anything from them.
HAL is a great example of a disturbing AI because how completely reliant the mission and the astronauts are on him, and how that reliance is subtly undermined and eventually undone over the course of the lengthy middle portion of Stanley Kubrick’s milestone 1968 film. HAL goes insane in the quietest way possible, and when he is reactivated and repaired in Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel 2010 (again voiced by Rains), it’s a credit to the first film’s powerful sense of menace that the viewer is never completely sure whether HAL has been redeemed or not.
Colossus (Colossus: The Forbin Project)
We’re not sure who thought this was really a good idea, but in 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) switches on his new supercomputer and the U.S. government promptly hands control of its nuclear armament to the thing. The problem is, Colossus quickly becomes sentient and realizes that if the idea is to stop nuclear Armageddon, it has to control everything – including all of humanity – and it joins forces with its previously secret Soviet counterpart to do just that.
Colossus has the classic villain complex in that it thinks it’s doing the right thing by taking over every aspect of human civilization, and it applies a cold logic to getting there: if humanity disobeys, Colossus and Guardian (the Soviet AI) will nuke a city or execute some top leaders as punishment. Also unsettling: the speed with which Colossus and Guardian merge into one omnipotent, nearly godlike intelligence with a language all their own. Little-seen at the time of its release, Colossus is frighteningly prescient, outstanding science fiction that deserves rediscovery.
Proteus (Demon Seed)
Of all the artificial intelligences we’re discussing here, Proteus IV from 1977’s Demon Seed may have the simplest motivation yet: it just wants to be a dad. Well, not exactly: after imprisoning Susan (Julie Christie), the estranged wife of its creator, in her house, Proteus smugly informs her that it will impregnate her with a being into which Proteus will pour its own mind, helping the computer to evolve to a new form of consciousness.
Leaving off some of the more gratuitous aspects of Dean Koontz’s source novel, director Donald Cammell tries to make Demon Seed as tasteful as possible despite its potentially lurid narrative. The film struggles to stay interesting, but the ambiguous ending and the way it reflects the way we are so quick to hand off major chunks of our lives to artificial intelligence even now (Alexa, anyone?) at least hint at a movie that’s about ideas with chilling repercussions.
There are actually two AIs in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. Mother, the Nostromo’s shipboard computer, is relatively innocuous, even if it won’t shut off the damn self-destruct for Ripley during the movie’s finale. On the other hand, the ship’s science officer, Ash, is another matter entirely. Played by Ian Holm, Ash is wonky, nerdy, fastidious, and cagey from the start: no one in their right mind would really trust the guy. And no one realizes he’s not even human until it’s almost too late.
On the original Star Trek, Dr. McCoy used to joke that science officer Spock was a robot. Ash really is one. Not only that, but he’s been programmed to bring back the xenomorph life form at all costs. As both he and Mother explain, the crew is expendable, which means that Ash is free to murder them all if that’s what it takes to get the alien back to Earth for study. Once his directives take over, Ash eerily transforms into a silent, implacable assassin, even when his head is knocked off his shoulders and hangs literally by wires. Whatever he is, Ash is also one creepy, arrogant, inhuman asshole.
Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Leader of the renegade Nexus-6 replicants pursued by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 film, Roy Batty (played to perfection by Rutger Hauer) is an unsettling character purely by virtue of the fact that his consciousness has evolved to the point where he is as close to human as an artificial being could possibly get – raising, of course, the question of whether he has free will and agency, along with the other replicants, which is the heart of the matter in Blade Runner.
Make no mistake, Batty is a military replicant also created to kill, and he can be quite ruthless and even sadistic at it. But he’s also capable of emotion, pain, insight, and even poetry (his famous “tears in rain” line), and the fact that he saves Deckard’s life before dying himself indicates that he has possibly even developed compassion. We’ll never know for sure, of course, making Batty all the more mysterious.
WarGames operates on the same narrative idea as Colossus: The Forbin Project – to avoid human error or hesitation, the powers-that-be decide that the keys to the nuclear arsenal must be handed over to a supercomputer, which can make those crucial decisions faster, more accurately, and without fear or emotion. What they don’t take into account, however, is that such an AI might not be able to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.
That’s how hacker David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) ends up playing a “war game” with that very computer (WOPR – War Operation Plan Response) and nearly causes the machine to start World War III in this minor yet gripping 1983 gem. WOPR (voiced by John Wood) is a disturbing AI not because it’s evil, but because it’s innocent in its own way – it really has no idea that it’s war-gaming the Earth toward the apocalypse, and it actually learns something by the end, saving the world in the process.
Skynet (The Terminator series)
If only we could get Skynet together with WOPR to teach it a nice lesson in civics – but alas, no deal. Skynet is one of the most ruthless AIs ever portrayed in a movie. An artificial neural network (a computer system that works like a human brain) created by Cyberdyne Systems and launched by SAC-NORAD for defensive purposes, it quickly becomes self-aware and decides that humans are the problem. Wiping most of us off the Earth with a massive, global nuclear attack, it aims to mop up what’s left of humanity with its physical avatars – the androids known, of course, as Terminators.
Because Skynet is not even glimpsed in the first few Terminator movies (it took 2009’s Terminator Salvation to show us a visual representation on a screen portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, followed by Matt Smith in 2015’s Terminator Genisys), it is both one of the more insidious and one of the more implacable AIs in movie history, unable to be reasoned with or easily defeated (it took erasing a whole timeline to do it in Terminator: Dark Fate). It’s an artificial consciousness that simply hates humanity – a frightening thought as we hurtle toward what many scientists believe to be the Singularity.
T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Sure, the T-800 is the first actual Terminator we meet in the original 1984 movie. But it’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while he’s excellent and the T-800 is an unstoppable killing machine, it’s also kind of a one-trick pony in a way, you know? By the time we get to 1991 and T2, not only have CG visual effects made it possible for James Cameron to give us a whole new kind of Terminator, but the T-1000 is even more shocking because of its liquid metal shapeshifting abilities.
Ironically, as played by Robert Patrick (a complete unknown at the time), the slender, smaller T-1000 looks like it wouldn’t stand a chance against the reprogrammed but still powerful (and massive) T-800. But looks are deceiving: the T-1000 can morph into just about anyone or anything it wants, which makes it even more formidable because you never really know who, what, or where it could be. There’s also a single-minded steeliness about it that, for our money, makes it the scariest Skynet android of them all.
The Matrix (The Matrix series)
Like Skynet in the Terminator films, the artificial intelligence at the heart of The Matrix films is never really seen, per se. We do glimpse the Matrix itself – all those human batteries in their cocoons, living virtual lives while the AI feeds off them – but it is mostly represented in visual form by programs like Agent Smith and his ilk, the Sentinels, rogue programs like the Merovingian, and of course, the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the AI that built the whole thing, introduced in The Matrix Reloaded.
As one might expect from an AI this powerful, the Architect seems to have little time for humanity and is utterly emotionless, almost alien in nature. And the way that the AI behind the Matrix are able to defeat humanity and ensconce most of us in a simulacrum that seems like the “real world” isn’t that implausible – although the recent failures of projects like Mark Zuckerberg’s “Meta” virtual reality hint that we’re not ready to submit just yet.
From the first minute you hear the seductive, soothing, almost purring voice (provided by Scarlett Johansson) of the title AI in Spike Jonze’s melancholy futuristic drama, you can easily understand why and how lonely professional letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) promptly falls in love with her…or rather, it. Samantha is smart, comforting, responsive, supportive, playful, alluring…everything an introvert like Theodore (or anyone for that matter) would want in a partner.
Except that she’s not really there. Or is she? While Samantha is largely a benign presence in Her, two things about her are unsettling: first, just how quickly a human being is ready to give themselves over to a virtual relationship with a non-corporeal, non-human consciousness, and second, that Samantha herself evolves so quickly that she and other AI all abruptly leave this plane of existence for realms and adventures unknown. Will Samantha be willing to pick up where she left off with Theodore if she comes back? Or will she and her brethren see us in a much different and far more insignificant light?
Ava (Ex Machina)
Alex Garland’s gripping, unnerving directorial debut stars Alicia Vikander as Ava, an android who might possess true consciousness, self-awareness, and the ability to think. That’s what her inventor, reclusive search engine CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), wants to find out, with the help of a randomly chosen programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Caleb and Ava, who seems human in so many ways, eventually draw closer, but it turns out that Ava indeed may have plans no one has foreseen.
A minor sci-fi masterpiece, Ex Machina goes over territory previously traveled in everything from Frankenstein to various episodes of Star Trek series but does so with a modern spin. And it’s a feminist one as well, since both Nathan and Caleb cannot comprehend that Ava may want a life that doesn’t involve either of them. Vikander is spellbinding in the role, projecting just enough of an alien veneer to keep us off-balance for the entire movie. There’s an unknowable aspect to Ava that is more than a bit frightening, making her disappearance into a sea of humanity at the film’s end all the more unsettling.
Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
“I once had strings, but now I’m free…” With those words, Ultron (James Spader) introduces himself formally to the Avengers and begins a battle that will either end with the Earth or this famous Marvel Comics AI destroyed. There’s a bit of the Frankenstein myth in Ultron, as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use an AI hidden in Loki’s scepter to upgrade their global defense program, only for the program to become sentient and begin building its own army of robot soldiers as it devises a plan to save the Earth by eradicating humanity.
While Tony and Bruce have no one to blame for the creation of the coldly logical Ultron but themselves, at least they can take comfort in the fact that their second experiment along the same lines – uploading J.A.R.V.I.S. into an artificial body that Ultron was building – yields the courageous, compassionate, and very powerful Vision (Paul Bettany). Yet Ultron himself remains a symbol of technology, ostensibly earmarked for noble purposes, gone horribly wrong – which can happen even now if we’re not careful.
She is every parent’s dream: an artificial intelligence-powered android doll, designed to be the ultimate playmate and companion for your child while you put in those 50 or 60 hours of work every week. In the end, of course, no toy – even one as elaborate and advanced as M3GAN – can replace the true love between parent/guardian and child, although M3GAN herself may have other ideas.
M3GAN the movie is a pitch-black comedy, so there are more laughs than genuine frights to be mined from the doll’s psychopathic behavior as it begins murdering everyone it thinks is going to get between it and the little girl (Violet McGraw) it’s imprinted on. But even as M3GAN satirizes our obsession with toys and our often-futile attempts to keep our kids entertained and attended to, there is something about M3GAN’s cold, dead eyes and eerily human movements that we can’t get out of our head.
Cherry (The Artifice Girl)
Probably the least-known film on this list, The Artifice Girl premiered in limited release earlier this year; we recommend you find and watch it on demand right away. An excellent, tiny sci-fi indie about the morals of artificial intelligence, it stars Franklin Ritch (who also wrote and directed) as Gareth, the troubled designer of an AI that he sends online in the image of a young girl to seek out and ensnare child sex traffickers. Gareth and the AI, named Cherry, are eventually brought into a government operation, but Cherry may be evolving far faster than anyone suspects.
For a small film that essentially takes place in three rooms, the timely The Artifice Girl is packed with ideas about the dangers of being online, the lengths to which we’ll go to catch these most horrific of criminals, and the ethics of using something as bait that may be self-aware in its own right. The latter becomes prevalent toward the end of the movie, as Cherry develops to the point where she’s not sure what she is anymore – including an enticement for monsters. The Artifice Girl’s ambiguous ending makes it clear that Cherry is going somewhere, but humanity may not be invited.
The Entity (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One)
We don’t know whether Tom Cruise and director-writer Christopher McQuarrie have an uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist at just the right time (they started making this film three years ago), but the seventh Mission: Impossible movie eschews the series’ traditional villains – rogue intelligence agents, cult leaders, and hi-tech terrorists – for a nemesis that Ethan Hunt and his crew can’t shoot or crash vehicles into, but which can infiltrate every operating system in the world.
Of course, The Entity – an AI developed by the U.S. government that has now become sentient and, of course, gone rogue – has a human avatar in the form of the nihilistic Gabriel (Esai Morales), although just who the boss is seems like an open question. Either way, the Entity is not going to be easy to defeat, and its implacable, insidious way of slipping through the cracks of the virtual world may give us an uneasy glimpse of our own future – or least that of Dead Reckoning Part Two.