The world has been a bit obsessed with robots since the 1950s. Robots often represent one of two things: society’s uneasiness regarding the development of artificial intelligence, or whether it’s possible to manufacture real human emotions.
Not all such movies are well-made, but the good ones are really good. Here are our picks for the best movies about robots and artificial intelligence, from cute Pixar bots to evil computer villains.
10. I, Robot (2004)
The year is 2035. The boring jobs people don’t want have been filled by helper robots, who are given their own laws to live by.
When one of those robots is suspected of murder, Detective Del Spooner (played by Will Smith) is sent to investigate and uncovers a conspiracy that could endanger the entire human race.
While the title is based on Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection of short stories, I, Robot opts to take its own path—a decidedly different and less sympathetic attitude towards AI.
Not a surprise given that I, Robot was made to be an entertaining Hollywood sci-fi flick rather than a social critique of robot portrayals in literature (like Asimov’s book was). I, Robot is an easy-to-watch crowd-pleaser, grappling with the ever-present idea of man vs. machine.
9. WALL-E (2008)
There are few films that can grip an audience—let alone one comprised mostly of kids—with an opening hour filled with zero dialogue. But Pixar proved that it’s possible with their dystopian animation WALL-E, directed by Andrew Stanton.
WALL-E is a trash-compacting robot built to clean up an environmentally devastated Earth (society should probably take notes). However, these “Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-Class” bots weren’t enough, and humanity was eventually shipped out to live in space.
WALL-E is left alone in the world, desperate to find some form of company. He may not look human—and he can barely scrape two words together—but as he gazes into his new robot-girlfriend’s eyes and holds his own hand, we can’t help but adore him.
8. Moon (2009)
GERTY, the robot companion in Moon, is effectively HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey if HAL weren’t a supervillain.
When a lonely moon-bound astronaut (played by Sam Rockwell) approaches the end of his solar contract, he begins to hallucinate and crashes into a lunar rover.
His sole companion is an AI named GERTY, who’s a robot with an emoji for a face. Unlike HAL, GERTY understands the complexities of morality and sacrifices himself for the good of his partner.
Through this intertextual reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Duncan Jones raises a question: Must artificial intelligence have compassion to be a true AI? Without it, they are unable to make decisions of their own accord, which means they can’t be truly intelligent. Right?
7. The Terminator (1984)
This list wouldn’t be complete without James Cameron’s classic 80s sci-fi classic The Terminator.
In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the iconic cyborg assassin who’s sent back in time to 2029 to kill the mother of his unborn enemy. Don’t be fooled by the fact that he’s the protagonist: Terminator is definitely a bad guy (in the first movie, anyway).
When a superintelligence network becomes self-aware, a worldwide nuclear war is triggered to wipe out humanity. Terminator is determined to ensure this extermination takes place, while Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) tries to protect his target.
The Terminator is fast-paced, action-packed, and full of thrills—undoubtedly one of the greatest action films of the 20th century.
6. Ex Machina (2014)
In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson stars as a computer programmer who wins a coveted prize: an extended stay at his CEO’s grand estate. Upon arrival, he finds out he’s actually there as part of a test to determine whether an AI robot is truly capable of consciousness.
Alicia Vikander plays said robot, striding about her cell with a captivating human face. However, there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Alex Garland’s psychological drama is full of deceptive prescience, exploring high-tech issues through the framework of gender politics. The A24 indie-flick won an Oscar for its visual effects, coating its dark themes with a glossy sheen of modernity.
5. The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant is technically an alien, but he has the build of a robot so we’re including him on this list.
After crash landing on Earth, he’s discovered eating the electrical wires of a substation off the coast of Maine. The Giant befriends the nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes, who compares him to the likes of Superman.
Set during the Cold War, the xenophobic government attempts to track down the docile Giant and destroy him.
Brad Bird’s directorial debut has gathered quite a cult following despite releasing to mixed reception. The Iron Giant was adapted from the 1968 novel by Ted Hughes, using a fairy tale to critique modern warfare.
4. Her (2013)
In Her, not only does Theodore (an introverted writer played by Joaquin Phoenix) befriend an AI… he falls in love with her. This is particularly unusual given she doesn’t have a body—or a face.
Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is a virtual assistant that Theodore just happens to buy as part of a system upgrade. As a lonely man in a futuristic Los Angeles, Theodore chats with Samantha like a friend and falls for her after finding her capable of learning and emotions.
Of course, this isn’t a sustainable kind of relationship, and the reality of loving a machine soon comes crashing down. Spike Jonze’s romantic sci-fi film is swaddled in soft pastel colors, painting a dreamy film over Theodore’s lonesome existence.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey is basically pure evil in computer form. Short for HAL 9000, the glowing red fisheye is mega creepy considering it’s just a lens.
Voiced by Douglas Rain in an eerily monotone accent, HAL is devoid of any human emotion. In fact, it even goes so far as to sabotage Dr. Dave Bowman’s (played by Keir Dullea) space mission.
The plot is pretty difficult to sum up in just a few sentences as the film is notoriously elliptical, but it’s essentially an operatic vision of the future where mankind is at the folly of technology.
Based on a 1951 short story written by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic and existential sci-fi classic that pioneered both the genre and cinematic special effects.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
The Replicants of Blade Runner aren’t exactly villains, but they do pose a threat to society. Manufactured by the Tyrell company in a dystopian Los Angeles, Replicants are bio-beings who look just like humans and are able to do most human things better than humans can.
A subtle metaphor for immigration, Replicants are made illegal out of fear that they’ll take people’s jobs, homes and lives.
The protagonist Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is assigned to track down and terminate four illegal Replicants who have escaped their off-world colony. Unluckily for him, he falls in love with one, and by the end of the movie, it’s implied that he’s one too (without realizing it).
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? initially received lukewarm reviews, but soon gathered a huge cult following.
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Hulu offers a 30-day free trial so you can watch all kinds of TV shows and movies. Cancel at any time without losing the rest of the trial. Start your free trial!
Half the artificial intelligences on this list are villains, the other half are complex anti-heroes, and then there’s David.
Global warming is on the rise in Steven Spielberg’s beloved family sci-fi, and the world’s population is dropping. In response, spooky humanoid Mecha robots—capable of intricate thought but emotionally stunted—have been created. One of those robots is David.
Even though he isn’t a human, we can’t help but love David. Played by Haley Joel Osment, he’s given to a couple who have recently lost their son, and though their connection to David is initially uneasy, the two learn to love (or at least care for) him.
When the Mecha race is threatened with destruction, David escapes to a resort town alongside fellow robot prostitute Gigolo Joe. As David becomes increasingly realistic, we become more sympathetic to his emotions, especially when he wishes to become a “real boy.”