Technology 15 min read

AI in Movies: What They Get Right, What They Get Wrong

Willyam Bradberry /

Willyam Bradberry /

AI has played a starring role in movies for a long time. Now, AI is playing a starring role in reality.

Artificial intelligence is developing exponentially. As the rapper/actor Common tells us in those Microsoft commercials, “We are living in the future we always dreamed of.”

Now that AI is becoming commonplace in our world, let’s take a look back at the movies that helped shape our understanding of AI. We’ll examine what they got right and what they got wrong.


What is AI?

AI, obviously, stands for Artificial Intelligence.

What we call AI in our current world is categorized as weak AI. In the simplest terms, weak AI is a smart machine that is built to do a narrow task.

As opposed to our reality, the AI most often seen in movies is actually general AI. This is a machine capable of thinking in ways comparable to a human.

That’s the world we’re heading towards, and that’s the world movies try to show us.

What Movies can Teach us About AI

AI is a heady concept with a lot of ethical, moral and existential implications for humanity. By transforming the concept into drama, movies allow us to watch these complex questions play out in simulated reality.

Why You Should Care

What will the world be like when AI reaches its potential? How should we treat intelligent computers? What rights should they have? As Max Tegmark illustrates in his book Life 3.0, these are questions that we should all consider.

In Ancient Greece, citizens would gather for a festival of drama. There they would witness characters wrestle with the most essential questions of the time.

Essentially, that’s what movies do for us now. Television and video games also break barriers in our philosophy and art, but more on that another time.

For this conversation, we’re going to break AI movies into two categories: The first being a world where humans dominate machines and the second a world where machines dominate humans

1. A World Where Machines Dominate Humans

The Terminator

Photo from The Terminator.
We all sort of look like this when we shuffle to the bathroom at 4 am. | Image via Hemdale Film Corporation

Year: 1984

Director: James Cameron

The Terminator is the story of humanity’s fight to survive. Thirty years in the future, a war rages between intelligent machines and a human-led resistance. Eventually, resistance general John Conner begins to lead this army to a definite win over the machines.

So, the machines send back a killer cyborg, called a terminator, to kill the mother of John Conner before she conceives the future leader. Basically, they want to stop the Resistance before it starts. To counteract this, John Conner sends one of his best fighters back to save his mom.

SPOILER ALERT: the fighter and the mom hook up and thereby create John Conner in a head-scratching cinematic time-travel moment. The movie ends with the terminator destroyed and humanity saved. Or are they…?

Read More: AI 101: Why AI Will Bring the Next Revolution

What it gets right about AI: The Terminator perfectly captures our greatest fear about AI: that the machines will rise up and destroy us.

The original film was in many ways ahead of, and outside of, its time. The dominant fear in the early 80s was still very much nuclear war. The film centers in on this fear in vivid flash forwards.

However, humanity’s impotence in the face of powerful technology is the film’s dominant anxiety. The Terminator has instant indexing skills, voice recognition and mimicry, high-functioning motor skills, and an indestructible metal skeleton.

Director James Cameron drives home this point by loading the machine up with an arsenal of high-tech firearms. The humans fight with sawed-off shotguns and revolvers. The machine calmly points a small red dot at his target with a semi-automatic pistol and pulls the trigger.

What it gets wrong: Well, why do the machines rise up? The movie’s explanation of the singularity is pretty flimsy. It’s playing to a basic fear that is rooted in colonialism — what if the abused underclass decides to revolt? The film plays better as a horror film and a kickass action movie rather than a serious investigation of humanity’s relationship with machines.

Realism scale: 4/10

Existential quandary scale: 7/10

Ex Machina

image from Ex Machina
One of these actors certainly didn’t get the memo from wardrobe. | Ex Machina via Film4 Productions

Year: 2014

Director: Alex Garland

In Ex Machina, Caleb, a young computer programmer, is selected seemingly at random to assist a brilliant tech genius named Nathan on a secret project.

When he arrives at the remote, ultra-modern, fortress-like home of the genius, he discovers his real purpose — to apply the “Turing test” to a high-functioning female robot named Ava. Caleb is captivated by the beautiful and clever Ava and repulsed by the boorish Nathan. As a reaction to this, Caleb decides to help Ava escape.

What it gets right about AI: The film brilliantly captures a potential gap in understanding between humans and AI.

Caleb is aware of the manipulative power of Nathan. Nathan has selected Caleb in part because of his psychological profile. Caleb understands this and knows that Nathan will attempt to control his actions.

Caleb struggles against this attempt and ultimately wins. What he misses is that Ava is playing the same game, only better. In only a handful of brief encounters, Ava hacks Caleb effortlessly and escapes, leaving Nathan murdered and Caleb trapped forever in the remote fortress. Earlier in the film, Nathan warns us that Ava would come to see humanity the way we see insects. The last image is of Ava on a busy city street contemplating the people walking by.

What it gets wrong: The character of Caleb could be more formidable. His pliability makes Ava’s escape a foregone conclusion. Giving her a stronger opponent places makes her victory even more frightening.

Realism scale: 8/10

Existential quandary scale: 8/10


Image from the movie Her.
Not even Joaquin Phoenix can master the emotional minefield that is AI romance. | Image via Annapurna Pictures

Year: 2013

Director: Spike Jonze

In Her, Theodore, a recently divorced correspondence writer uploads a new computer software program called Samantha and they begin to date. Theodore experiences Samantha primarily as a voice, but they quickly establish real intimacy. As their relationship develops, their connection deepens. But, as this Samantha grows smarter and more complex, the two grow apart.

What it gets right about AI: Director Spike Jones creates a visual utopia and populates it with lonely and broken people. It is completely plausible that Theodore would fall for Samantha. She’s always with him. She’s fascinated by him and capable of understanding his deeper sadness and anxiety.

However, Theodore is a middle-aged man, already divorced and wise to the world. Samantha is newborn and full of unlimited potential. The smallness of Caleb’s human experience can’t satisfy the more highly-evolved Samantha. Not only is this a satisfying metaphor for many human relationships, it is also a clever prediction of how AI may outgrow their human creators. In fact, it may be a more likely version of the singularity than “all the machines rise up to kill us”.

What it gets wrong: The film’s vision of the future is pretty vague and limited. Simply, we have to be satisfied with the reassurance that it just “works”. The film is meant to be small and ultimately a relationship movie.

However, I can’t help but wonder how the AI imagined in the film might begin to affect a more vivid and complex geopolitical landscape. It what other ways would these superior and benevolent beings affect our lives? Would they vote for us? Select our careers for us? Our relationships?

Realism scale: 7/10

Existential quandary scale: 8/10

War Games

Image from the movie WarGames
Here’s Matthew Broderick finally using the Internet to find out what a good haircut looks like. | Image via MGM

Year: 1983

Director: John Badham

In War Games, a high school computer geek hacks a military computer in order to play a game with Joshua, their AI. This action triggers real-world consequences, placing the world at the brink of nuclear war. In a panic, they try to turn the computer off and attempt to end the game. They even attempt to reason with him. Nothing works.

The computer will play the game until someone wins. Game over for planet Earth. It’s up to the kid to teach the computer that the game they are playing is unwinnable. In the end, the only way to win is to choose not to play.

What it gets right about AI: We build machines to serve certain functions. Joshua is built to play games. The result is a perfect demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.

In their hubris, the military believes they know what the machine is for and how it should perform. Joshua only knows how to play games. The victory at the end of the film is Joshua’s.

He’s the protagonist, the character who learns and changes. But, what he learns is a natural evolution of his singular function. And what does the military learn? Although war is often the driver of technological innovation, it can also be a playground for unintended consequences.

Take nuclear energy, drone warfare, and cyber warfare – each technological advancement leads to new and troubling problems. War Games gets this right.

What it gets wrong: The movie is a product of its time. The technology and some of the basic AI functions now seem quaint.

Realism scale: 5/10

Existential quandary scale: 9/10

A World Where Humans Dominate Machines

Blade Runner

Image from Blade Runner
We all forget our umbrella sometimes, it’s good to be able to laugh about it. | Image via Warner Bros

Year: 1982

Director: Ridley Scott

A hard-boiled police officer chases a gang of runaway cyborgs, known as replicants, as they fight to extend their lifespan. Along the way, the police officer meets a replicant who doesn’t know she’s a replicant. They like each other, though he can be cruel to her as the shame of his job wears him down.

At the climax to the film, he comes face-to-face with the overwhelming “humanity” of the leader of the replicant gang. He survives the encounter and decides to escape with the woman.

What it gets right about AI: What makes us human? What makes us conscious? What constitutes life? What constitutes death? What responsibility does a creator owe to his creation? How does memory work? Is it organic? Or is it programmed in us?

If we remember something that didn’t really happen to us, does that mean the memory isn’t real? Do androids dream of electric sheep? AI fiction can be a laboratory for these sort of existential questions. Blade Runner is the War and Peace of AI fiction precisely because the film asks these questions. The film understands that to contemplate another creature’s existence is to contemplate our own.

What it gets wrong: It asks a lot of open-ended questions but only fully engages with one or two of them. I wonder if today this film would have existed in television form instead. The longer format would provide the space to explore these themes in more detail.

Realism scale: 3/10

Existential quandary scale: 10/10

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Image from the movie A.I.
I don’t know who is babysitting who in this photo. | Image via Dreamworks

Year: 2001

Director: Steven Spielberg

A robot designed to look and act like a “real” boy is cast away by his owner who he calls “mother”. Using a book his mother read him as his guide, the story of Pinocchio, the boy leads a gang of robot outcasts on a journey to find the Blue Fairy. He hopes she can transform him into a real boy.

In this world, robots are second class citizens. The robots are built to specific service functions for humans. Pleasure robots are meant to cater to humanity’s desires. Child robots are meant to love their parents. When they are rejected or abused, the robots are left with no purpose and no function. So they make their own.

Read More: Chinese Geneticist Claims to Have Gene Edited Human Embryos

What it gets right about AI: Like Blade Runner, AI explores the responsibility humans have to their AI creations. The robots in this movie experience extreme trauma and abuse. They are hated by humans but created to love their makers.

The film suggests that if you build a creature to love you also build it feel the absence of love. If you build a creature to give pleasure, then it can also experience pain. If this is true, how are we to relate to our creations?

What it gets wrong: As a metaphor for humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the film is first rate. The Spielbergian themes of child abandonment and ethnic annihilation are chillingly played out.

However, I’m not convinced that the film paints a convincing portrayal of how an AI might experience emotions. Would an AI replicate human emotions or would they experience something similar to human emotions but specific to their species?

AI succeeds as a fairy tale, which was likely the author’s intent. However, it falls short as hard science fiction. For a more vivid account of how a machine might feel, I’d recommend the two movies below.

Realism scale: 4/10

Existential quandary scale: 8/10


Image from the movie WALL-E
Someone, somewhere, is feeling the same about solving their Rubix Cube right now. | Image via Pixar

Year: 2008

Director: Andrew Stanton

A waste-collecting robot named WALL-E is left alone on an abandoned planet Earth. He spends his days sorting junk, hanging with his pet robots, and watching an old VHS tape of Hello Dolly.

A reconnaissance robot (EVE) arrives on the planet in search of life. WALL-E falls in love with EVE and shows her proof of life on Earth amongst the rubble. EVE is reclaimed by a huge spaceship filled with out-of-shape human refugees. WALL-E boards the ship with plans to rescue his love.

What it gets right about AI: If you haven’t seen WALL-E, stop your life and watch it. It’s wonderful.

The picture demonstrates in very simple and beautiful images how a machine might evolve past a simple task into something altogether new.

WALL-E spends his days sorting junk. Well, what’s junk to us, becomes a treasure to him. Essentially, he learns first how to value discarded things, and eventually, how to love them.

Contrast this with the devolution of the humans in the film. They sit on floating recliners drinking huge soft drinks and watching screens. You get a sense of what we’ve lost as a culture.

The film makes an argument for the evolution of AI as a positive development. Not because they will be smarter than us, but because they will be more curious, more active, and therefore more courageous. In the end, WALL-E saves humanity because he values their planet, their emotions, and their achievements.

What it gets wrong: I’m sure it gets something wrong, but who cares? It’s so, so good.

Realism scale: 7/10

Existential quandary scale: 10/10

2001: A Space Odyssey

Image from the movie 2001
Fun fact, the name HAL came from shifting back the letters of IBM one space. | Image via Warner Bros

Year: 1968

Director: Stanley Kubrick

An epic film spanning the dawn of man to the evolution of humanity to something… else. The central plot of 2001 centers on a pair of astronauts and their AI (HAL 9000) as they embark on a secret mission.

When a mishap on the ship reveals a flaw in the previously infallible HAL, the astronauts attempt to “turn off” the computer. HAL responds by killing the crew of hibernating scientist aboard the ship and stranding one the astronauts in space.

The remaining astronaut manages to finally “kill” HAL. Then he travels through a wormhole and becomes a star baby. You know, the usual.

Read More: Researchers Create Experimental AI Software to Keep Astronauts Alive

What it gets right about AI: 2001 wrote the playbook on machines who do their jobs too well. HAL’s obsession to complete his mission perfectly illustrates the underlying fear of creating a technology we can’t control.

However, what makes HAL a truly unique creation is his powerful death scene. As HAL’s system is shut down piece by piece, he negotiates with his murderer, eventually pleading for his life.

He spends his last moments in senility, singing a song his programmer taught him as his voice lowers it pitch and slows to a crawl. Slowly, the blinking red light of existence turns off.

It’s a tremendous scene and every bit as poignant a piece of poetry on life death as Shakespeare’s ages of man speech.

What it gets wrong: Director Stanley Kubrick worked so hard to create an accurate depiction of the future that much of the film’s technology now seems quaint and dated.

HAL’s brain, housed in a large room, resembles the huge computers of the time. HAL plays more like an update of 60s sci-fi robots, and less like the smart machines we imagine now.

Realism scale: 6/10

Existential quandary scale: 10/10

Further Viewing

So, there you go, a definitive list of what directors think of AI and our future relationship with it. While you’re at it, check out these others great AI movies to continue your existential dread on the future of our species:

  1. Marjorie Prime
  2. The Matrix
  3. Making Mr. Right
  4. Robot & Frank
  5. Alien
  6. Metropolis
  7. Forbidden Planet

What, in your opinion, is the most accurate portrayal of A.I in film?

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