AI Movies Then & Now: What Changed?

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AI Movies Then & Now: What Changed?

From mindless robots following orders of crazy scientists to relentless killers with a murderous purpose and human-like vibrant personalities — AI has been through it all. The silver screen has been home to robots and cyborgs alike for almost a century now, mirroring our understanding, hopes, and fears for the future of technology. Just like our collective outlook and knowledge of AI has changed, so has its portrayal on the big screen. 

But how much have AI movies changed? Where did it start and how did we get here? And also… where are we going? Grab your popcorn and take a seat, let’s dive deep into the ever-changing world of AI movies!

Warning: Spoilers ahead! Proceed at your own risk. We won’t be able to wipe your memory.

A Silent Start of AI Movies in the 1920s-1950s

The earliest and most influential movie depicting artificial intelligence as a robot was a German production of Metropolis way back in 1927. This dystopian tale shows a sad futuristic world where society divides into two classes. The elites live in luxury high above the ground, while the workers slave away in the underworld to keep the world moving.

This first-ever cinema depiction of AI showcased it as a tool for humans to fulfill their desires and manipulations. Though the robot resembles a human, it doesn’t have awareness or cognitive abilities. It simply does what it’s programmed to do — stop the workers from rebelling against the rich, even if it drives them to suicide.

Hollywood’s depiction of AI came almost 25 years later with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Unlike the German version, 20th Century Fox showed AI in the role of peacekeeping technology. Gort is a robot programmed to stop violent actions against his creators during their mission on Earth. You can see him eliminating weapons and military equipment the second he steps out of a spacecraft.

However, like in Metropolis, Gort doesn’t display any self-awareness. He serves one purpose in life, which doesn’t change throughout the movie. Gort doesn’t even resemble a human. Instead, his indestructible metal exterior makes him feel equally, if not more, extraterrestrial than his companions.

Finding a Voice in the 1960s Universe

The 1960s started exploring more complex and nuanced themes in AI movies. Suddenly, they were no longer just mindless and unthinking human creations developed by crazy scientists in the basement. Now, they could mimic human-like qualities, posing much more intriguing movie ideas.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the first to touch upon an autonomous AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Meet HAL 9000 — one of the movie’s main characters, who partakes in a space expedition alongside five human crew members. Unlike its movie predecessors, HAL is built directly into a computing system on the spacecraft. This gave him God-like abilities to be everywhere all at once, making him all more sinister.

Kubrick also gave HAL the ability to learn and mimic human cognitive abilities, including speech, language recognition, lip reading, and even emotions. Throughout the movie, HAL begins to display paranoia and fear which ultimately leads the computer to turn against his crew members to protect the mission. This was a first for AI movies, marking a sharp turn in the computer’s future Hollywood career.

Space Odyssey’s more sophisticated depiction of AI introduced the idea of computers thinking for themselves and often malfunctioning in the process — leading to tragic consequences. It raised many philosophical questions about AI’s future, its autonomy, and its impact on human life. As we’ll see, this trend continues into later decades.

May the Force (of AI Movies in the 70s) Be With You

The themes of autonomous AI continued well into the 1970s, bringing in even more complex ideas and perceptions, both negative and positive. 

Many notable directors chose to carry on the theme of malfunctioning and villainous AI. Movies like Westworld (1973), Alien (1979), and Demon Seed (1977) explored the ideas of bots and all-powerful computers, like a home automation system, turning against their creators. Demon Seed in particular could make you look at your Google Home or Alexa in a different light as Proteus wanted nothing more than to impregnate his owner with his seed.

That said, the 70s also saw a new, positive AI theme emerge from the depths of all this gloom and doom. The release of Star Wars: New Hope (1977) introduced benevolent droids and robots with human-like traits. Though each AI character has a unique personality, they were initially perceived as tools rather than companions. Still, you can’t help but giggle whenever R2D2 and C-3PO appear on the screen.

This was a start of a new phenomenon — AI didn’t have to be a tool or a threat, but could be its own form of life. With the ability to learn and think for itself, AI was beginning to change the audience’s perspective on what it could do. 

Artificial intelligence also posed thought-provoking questions about the value of human and robotic life. We saw this for ourselves in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) when a robotic replica of Lila is sent to navigate the Enterprise starship. Sure, AI was still a villain, but AI-driven characters were beginning to mimic humans.

The Electric 80s and a New Era of AI Cinema

After a timid start, the 80s brought AI into the Hollywood spotlight, showcasing its potential as well as malicious capabilities. Each new movie painted a new narrative for possible future outcomes, heavily relying on rapid technological advancements at the time. 

At the heart of it all was Blade Runner (1982) where AI took on a form almost indistinguishable from humans. When four of the so-called “replicants” find their way to Earth, swoon-worthy Harrison Ford has to step in to “retire” them. However, as the story progresses, he (and you as a viewer) begin to question the morality of his purpose.

The rain-soaked cyberpunk version of 2019 Los Angeles became a space for deep exploration of human identity and the meaning of life. You can’t help but shed a tear as the replicants often display more empathy and compassion than the humans who hunt them. 

Luckily, it wasn’t all tear-jerkers in this decade. James Cameron planted a seed of fear in fans’ hearts with The Terminator (1984), an iconic portrayal of malicious cyborgs with no ounce of mercy. The AI-gone-rogue dystopian thriller was the embodiment of everyone’s hidden fears of computers taking over the world and eliminating humanity. Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly became a spine-chilling icon for an AI apocalypse.

John Badham’s WarGames (1983) played on the same fears but from a different perspective. Inspired by new gaming developments, the movie portrays a teenage boy who hacks into a military supercomputer, almost causing a nuclear disaster. Unlike Cameron, Badham doesn’t make AI the villain though. 

The War Operation Plan Response continuously runs nuclear war simulations to predict possible strategies in case a war breaks out. The computer can’t distinguish between reality and simulation and lacks the capacity to understand consequences. It’s merely a tool used for a very specific purpose. This portrayal highlights the dangers of AI and automation used without human supervision.

Decoding Life in a 90s AI Simulation

The 90s brought exponential growth in technology and, with it, a distinct change in how we viewed AI. Tech advancements pushed people to evaluate where computers were going and the implications of further developments, which was exactly what AI movies depicted.

This decade brought us into brand new territory with the ideas put forward by The Matrix (1999), a universe where humans were mere batteries that kept the machines running. While plugged in, people were transported to virtual reality, where they lived without suspecting anything unusual. Though AI takes the role of a perpetrator, the computerized characters had fully-fledged personalities, agendas, and even a soft spot for philosophy

The Matrix was the first of its kind, putting AI in a complete position of power. It’s a movie still eerily relevant today, and continues to serve as a warning against unregulated technology advancements and overt reliance on new AI. Watching it now, surrounded by gadgets everywhere, it’s impossible not to feel a chill down your spine as Morpheus tells Neo how artificial intelligence slowly got into power. 

It wasn’t all negative though. The 90s continued building on existing themes found in AI movies, delving deeper into the emotional and cognitive possibilities. It’s enough to look at Terminator 2 (1991) which shockingly reprogrammed cyborgs to take the role of allies, not enemies. This made the Terminator more likable as now he had to protect a child and not try to kill a young woman.

In 1999, Bicentennial Man saw Robin Williams portray a complex AI robot, Andrew. Despite being programmed to focus solely on following his owner’s orders, Andrew displays a range of human emotions, creativity, and curiosity. With help from his human family, he manages to fulfill his dream and become a person complete with a central nervous system and a heart.

Similar to AI characters before him, Andrew displays a strong desire for his own identity. And let’s not forget that the 90s welcomed two huge AI-blockbuster movies, Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1991), both of which brought AI to the forefront of people’s minds. 

Throughout the 90s, we truly saw what’s possible in the realm of artificial intelligence depictions in cinema and our imagination. The new movement allowed AI to explore themes of identity and full character evolution, a modernized twist that created a huge U-turn for future AI movies in the millennium. 

His Love Is Real… But He Is Not — AI Quest for Love in the 00s

The 2000s heavily focused on exploring the emotional depth and capacities of AI in movies. Though the idea wasn’t new, moviemakers took it to another level by ditching the malicious dystopian ideas usually attributed to machines in previous decades.

Steven Spielberg was a trendsetter in this area with AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). The movie introduces you to David, a highly advanced humanoid child. Despite having the physical attributes of a real boy, David experiences constant rejection from both his adoptive parents and the world. Abandoned in the forest, he embarks on a Pinocchio-like quest to become a real boy and earn his mother’s unconditional love.

Spielberg’s decision to use a child to embody artificial intelligence wasn’t random. Children often symbolize innocence and vulnerability, and David uses this to provoke intense emotions and challenge our preconceptions about AI. You feel like you want to jump through the screen and protect the little boy from harm. This paved the way for future movies with more complex relations between AI characters and cinema-goers. 

You didn’t have to wait long for Disney and Pixar to pick up the trend. WALL-E (2008) uses the groundwork laid by Spielberg to introduce a younger audience to AI. The endearing robot displays child-like innocence and a desire for connection. It almost feels like an animated rendition of Spielberg’s masterpiece and deepens your understanding of the emotional bonds AI could be capable of, given the chance.

AI’s capacity for human feelings wasn’t the only theme explored in the 2000s. The introduction of improved CGI and visual effects allowed franchises like Marvel to come to life, and, with that, the idea of AI as superheroes or sidekicks. 

Tony Stark is most popular for his iconic suit in Iron Man and J.A.R.V.I.S. — one of the best-known disembodied AI helpers. Standing for “Just A Rather Very Intelligent System”, the AI character is heavily based on HAL 9000. His God-like presence allows him to be everywhere Stark needs him, whether it’s in his home or saving the universe. 

Unlike HAL, J.A.R.V.I.S. is likable, funny, and oftentimes sarcastic, matching his owner’s personality. He possesses an extreme amount of knowledge, but can also hold an intelligent conversation and offer technical as well as emotional support. In other words, J.A.R.V.I.S. represents AI as an equal to those it works with. He’s not just a tool or a servant — he’s a complex and constantly evolving being with fears and desires.

Emotion, Self-Awareness, and Destruction — AI Themes in 2010 Cinema

Rapid AI development in the 2010s meant moviemakers had to take their creations a step further to keep up with a futuristic feel in their films. This led to a much more sophisticated portrayal of personified and self-aware AI

Ava in Ex Machina (2014) is a great example of a highly sentient AI. Capable of developing deep emotions, Ava depicts an intelligent and cunning android. Though she may seem evil, her “survival of the fittest” motives simply mirror what humans taught her. Her desire for freedom matches AI themes from previous decades, yet the violence and manipulation shows physical and existential pain many people can relate to.

Her (2013) also looked into high AI personification but with a warm and humanistic approach. Delving into the complex ideas behind human relations and intimacy, the movie tells the story of Theodore who falls in love with his AI assistant, Samantha. As Samantha learns and evolves through her interactions with Theodore, she experiences a range of human emotions, including an existential crisis of her own. 

The last decade also saw a comeback of dystopian themes in AI movies based on intensified fears and worries over unchecked technological developments. This brought on the idea of the singularity where AI exceeds human intelligence, for example, in Transcendence (2014) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Both movies feature AI gone rogue despite being created with positive intentions. In The Avengers, Ultron’s mission is to be a peacekeeper, but he misinterprets his purpose and decides to eliminate humankind. The computer in Transcendence grapples with the idea of digital immortality as it’s meant to serve as a vessel for a dying scientist. Sadly, this creates an omnipotent AI humans can no longer control.

100 Years of the Good, the Bad, and the Circuits in AI Movies

The portrayal of AI in movies has always been a reflection of people’s hopes and fears about the latest technological advancements. In a way, AI cinema tells stories not only about machines, but also about humanity, ethics, and our societal attitudes throughout every decade.

What started with a silent portrayal of a semi-independent tool, over time grew to fully sentient beings taking the roles of villains or heroes. However, no matter what era we’re talking about, AI depictions always match existing preconceptions and potential future ideas

While it’s impossible to predict where current future movie makers will take AI cinema, this approach will most likely never change. The silver screen is bound to take inspiration from current AI developments, creating a captivating conversation about the future of humanity.

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FAQ

Are there any movies about AI?

Yes, many movies over the past century focused on AI and its possible impact on the world. Some of the most well-known options include The Matrix, Terminator, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, and WALL-E — but the list could go on and on.

If you want to avoid firewalls and stream movies without buffering, download PIA’s VPN apps on all your devices. 

What 5 AI movies do humans love?

According to IMDb, the top 5 AI movies of all time are The Matrix, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, Her, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, it can be very difficult to pinpoint the best AI movies since every person has their own opinion, so you don’t have to blindly believe what IMDb says. 

Check out other AI movies in our article and let us know which one you prefer in the comments! Don’t forget to use PIA VPN so you can refresh your AI movie memory wherever you are, without limits.

What is the movie with the artificial intelligence girl?

If we’re talking about an AI girl, you most likely mean M3GAN. The horror movie features a robot doll who becomes self-aware and turns violent if anyone tries to separate her from her young owner. A must-watch for any horror fans — especially if you have children who love creepy toys.

If your favorite AI movies aren’t available on your usual streaming platforms when you travel, connect to one of PIA’s VPN servers and easily log back into your account.

In what movie is AI replacing humans?

Many movies show a world where AI replaces humans, but the most popular ones are Terminator, The Matrix, I, Robot, and Her. The first three show a world where AI maliciously wants to dominate the world and eliminate or enslave humanity. 

Her takes a different approach as it shows how AI could replace the need for human interaction. It alienates people from each other and makes them reliant on a virtual assistant. Despite it focusing on AI’s capacity for love, it has an eerie atmosphere of a world that doesn’t belong to people.

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