Culture | A look back at the history of Artificial Intelligence in cinema
Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyessy.  Photo: YouTube trailer
Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyessy. Photo: YouTube trailer

Life … but not as we know it

Filmmakers have long foretold of disastrous consequences with advances in AI, but will reality soon imitate art

April 9, 2017 3:10 PM (UTC+8)

There’s a high chance we’re already living in The Matrix. Elon Musk admits it, some of the greatest scientific minds agree. Brexit, Donald Trump, Leicester City, even the Oscars – we’re facing some serious glitches as of late. But the movies did warn us.

Ever since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis broke cinematic sci-fi ground way back in 1927, they’ve been telling us about the horrors of artificial intelligence.

Smart devices that would track our every movement, robots who turn from helpful to harmful, and eventually, the whole virtual façade coming crashing down. So before the next major glitch happens and you wake up in some human-harvesting field covered in goo, prepare yourself with warnings of the coming storm.

Here is our Short History of AI movies:

Cold War Computing, Or: How 2001 started the (r)evolution
Dime-store novelists and cult German expressionist filmmakers had long predicted AI’s frightening powers, but it wasn’t till Cold War paranoia kicked in that it all went mainstream.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) might’ve only partially dealt with the possible ramifications, but HAL 9000 and his sociopathic, ubermensch-like personality is now forever ingrained in our public consciousness. Nobody could top it for the next couple of decades; nobody dared in fact, save Westworld (1973), the awfully cheesy electric-cowboys flick that inspired the current hit TV show.

I’ll Buy That For a Dollar: The 80s Go Dystopian
As computers and gaming consoles appeared in every home and even the humble calculator became an everyday accessory, the 1980s and 1990s went AI crazy, with equal measures of philosophical explorations and brainless action fests.

Blade Runner (1982) was key, questioning Nietzschean ethics in its humanoid robots. It was a massive flop, of course, but when The Terminator (1984) did the same “bad robot” thing, trading in brains for brawn, audiences flocked. There was also Robocop (1987), once seen as an overly gratuitous violent epic, but now also appreciated for its era-appropriate jet-black comedy.

And of course, with all those new-fangled devices for kids, the movies had to cash-in: Tron (1982), War Games (1983) and Short Circuit (1986) all were aimed at educating our future warriors.

Millennium Bugs: Yes, it’s The Matrix
When did the new millennium clock tick over? We’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t on New Year’s Eve. It was the summer of 1999, when The Matrix hit screens. Here was the perfect blend, the ideal mix of age-old automaton fears and newfound paranoia of AI – plus kung fu, gun fights and dominatrix-style clothes, for good measure.

Mr Smith in a scene from The Matrix. Photo: YouTube trailer
Mr Smith in a scene from The Matrix. Photo: YouTube trailer

And even though the sequels sucked, the movie changed the very face of AI, opening the floodgates for sci-fi flicks that deftly balanced intelligence with action: Spielberg channeling Kubrick in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Will Smith doing Asimov in I, Robot and Pixar going dystopian in WALL-E were some of the noughties’ highlights.

Mass hysteria: our Modern Age
The ’10s? The second decade? What exactly do we call the 2010s? Probably the decade that our world started to end. Tiny computers in our pockets, devices that willingly bug our houses for the sake of convenience and a gee-whiz attitude to machines that could kill us at any moment.

Movies over the past few years have seriously started tapping into our stupidity: too many to list, but personal favorites include Michael Fassbender’s guiltless android in Prometheus, the frightening shocks of Ex Machina, Chappie’s B-movie leanings, and of course Her, which is probably the closest we’ll get to reality, with AI curing our loneliness (through porn, probably).

Michael Fassbender plays the guiltless android David in Prometheus. Photo: YouTube trailer
Michael Fassbender plays the guiltless android David in Prometheus. Photo: YouTube trailer

Plus, don’t forget two movies that will soon bring everything full circle: this month’s controversial whitewashed adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (the original inspiration behind The Matrix) and the inevitable summer sequel that nobody asked for, Blade Runner: 2049 (the one that arguably started it all).

Beyond that, who knows where AI movies will end up? Only our robotic overlords, who let us live in this computer simulation world where we meta-entertain ourselves with moving pictures.

A scene from Blade Runner 2049. Photo: YouTube trailer
A scene from Blade Runner 2049. Photo: YouTube trailer

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