Many years ago, Ben Bogart asked the question: “What do you consider the most seminal representations of AI in cinema of all time?”
At the time I thought the best was yet to come. And I still think that.
But this is not going to be me complaining about movie AI (Artificial Intelligence) being fake based on my research and experience of real AI and robots.
No. See I’m also a filmmaker.
This is a quickie from the point of view of what can fiction give us that’s interesting and really gets to the essence of what an AI is and what it could do. And how can we as human viewers comprehend it?
The basic elements for an interesting AI in film:
- The alien aspect.
- Some connection with humans.
The Alien Aspect
The AI should not be a human or some other animal (although it can be very similar).
That may seem painfully obvious, but this is in film language terms. It shouldn’t just be a human character doing human things but they put silver paint on her and say “oh yeah that lady’s a robot.”
Of course in the story it should also by definition be “artificial” either created by humans or extraterrestrials.
But in fiction, at least, the rules can be broken. For instance the Transformers are intelligent robots with no biological parts but are also natural in their origins…unless their mysterious creators, the Quintessons, are biological but I think they’re robotic too.
The Human Connection
The movie’s AI should demonstrate some connection with humans (or a human), e.g. humanity created them for a job, or this particular human character created this particular AI for some reason, etc.
This is the difference between the screen AI being just another sci-fi alien (extraterrestrial, previously-unknown terrestrial monster, et cetera).
As human viewers this also gives us a hook to grok the text.
The robot R2-D2 (Star Wars universe) superficially meets these requirements: we know it’s intelligent, yet it doesn’t speak English. As a viewer we usually can tell what R2 is conveying, so it’s not too alien. And it interfaces with ships and computers which may have been cool in 1977 but seems run of the mill in films now and it just doesn’t seem that mindblowingly alien. Another hit against it being ideal is that its connection with humans is not really used in any interesting way—it’s a really trusty sidekick but doesn’t change much as a character. And if the history stories are true, R2-D2 and C3-PO are just metal copies of the peasants from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).
There’s plenty of movies where the AI gets revenge on the human characters, or simply “wakes up” and decides to enslave humanity (Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Matrix, Terminator series). You might argue those are great exploitations of both the alien aspect and human connections. But those are just human desires and fears mapped onto the AI in a literary way where the AI could just as easily be replaced with golems, monsters, demons, etc.
I will give a shout out to the Vision character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if you don’t consider him to be a pure AI because of the magic stuff. They show his alienness, and how that makes his growth as a character interesting (and sometimes funny) and the ways his nature and misadventures (to put it lightly) affect Wanda as it goes on.
Automata (2014) and Tron: Legacy (2010) both check off number 1 and 2. They both make meager attempts to show AI emerging and evolving and trying to figure out their own way that’s not quite the same as for humans. Showing the alien aspects develop makes AI characters a lot more interesting. And it’s an interesting challenge for screenwriters—can you make a character arc that is alien compared to a human character arc, but still somehow recognizable by viewers?
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) showed some mildly interesting evolutions of human / AI relationships, for instance the conversion of robots that used to be part of the bad AI to become friends of humans. It also had the wild ride of the new AI Morpheus: Neo created a simulation within the Matrix (a “modal”) and built a mixture of Agent Smith (bad guy) and Morpheus creating a new flamboyant Morpheus who becomes a good guy and then pops off the stack—not once but twice!
Yet still, I don’t think any of those contenders really knocked it out of the park for “ideal film AI.” Still plenty of room for new movies in these areas, cerebral or not.