My love affair with Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece “Wall-E” is so absolute that it has inspired this list of my Top 10 Artificial Intelligence Movies, or savvy circuit-board flims. That is to say, more specifically films featuring memorable robots. It is entirely possible that robots and artificial-intelligence storylines have ultimately been best served by the very best of small screen sci-fi, in endless episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Doctor Who,” but over the years there have been some extremely interesting and philosophically profound films that attempt to deal with humanity’s curious destiny to recreate ourselves in the form of wicked smart machinery. So, dig in and as always tell us what you think.
10. Artificial Intelligence: A. I. (2001)
Movie magicians Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick teamed up just the once, and their undearppreciated effort received a mixed reaction from audiences. I defend the film on the strength of the ideas and themes it so boldly plays with, and not on the terrifying voicework cameo by Robin Williams. I still maintain that the film would be far more compelling if the film had ended with the Haley Joel Osment character entombed, frozen and alone for an eternity at the bottom of the ocean, but, robot or not, Steven Spielberg can’t just abandon a kid and then run the credits. The film’s art direction and visual style are brilliant, and the challenging narrative has all the hallmarks of top-notch philosophical science fiction.
9. Alien (1979)
One of the more memorable moments – outside of the alien exploding out of John Hurt’s chest – in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic “Alien,” is the big reveal that Ian Holm’s character, science officer Ash, is an android. For me, subsequent “Alien” pictures failed to capture the claustrophobic paranoia and creepy thrill of the original. And while only a part of the larger story, the skillfully crafted arc of Holm’s mysterious character proves yet again that he’s a total badass.
8. Robocop (1987)
Director Paul Verhoeven would go on to commit such celluloid crimes as “Showgirls” and “Hollow Man,” but in 1987 he was busy making a machine-meets-man classic in the original “Robocop” starring “Buckaroo Banzai” himself, Peter Weller. A 2010 remake is in the works, but I for one don’t need a rehash of this gem. I say leave well enough alone, unless of course they can see to it that “That 70′s Show” co-star Kurtwood Smith is the baddie again, at which point I may revise my previous statement.
7. Star Trek: Generations (1994), Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
While “Generations” was in many ways a superior film, both “Generations” and “First Contact” continue the Data (Brent Spiner) character’s search for self-awareness. The “Next Generation” series had more time to devote to Data’s ongoing adventures, but the films continue to explore the iconic android’s fascinating journey to find emotion and purpose. Sure, “Generations” boasts original cast members, but the thing “First Contact” has going for it is The Borg. Easily one of the Star Trek universe’s most righteous players, The Borg have burned the words “futile” and “assimilation” into the brain of any serious sci-fi fan, making them both educational and frightening.
6. The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski brothers went and completely besmirched the legacy of this film with uninspiring sequels, but the concept of an illusory world contained within a planetary wide computer matrix remains one of the modern era’s most undeniably original storylines. The computer brain is personified by Agent Smith, played marvelously by one of modern cinema’s finest support players, Hugo Weaving. Without the sequels, “The Matrix” goes down as a landmark film. With them it’s just number six on some silly list of movies about artificial intelligence.
5. Transformers (2007)
Everyone has their roles to play. Apparently one of mine is to defend Michael Bay films to an audience of film lovers. It’s not an admirable position, but I will attempt to fulfill my duties with what little dignity I’m allowed. There’s red velvet cake and then there’s a Hershey’s bar, there’s Tiramisu and then there’s Twinkies. Sometimes you want the fancy stuff with the depth and substance which can only come from skill and artistry, and then there’s the good stuff without all hassle that’s just pure sugary joy. Michael Bay movies are big screen candy and don’t usually take themselves too seriously, and frankly, sometimes that’s all I’m looking for. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There has never been a more perfect match than Michael Bay and the Transformers. “Transformers 2″ is an eminent reality, and I can’t wait to get back on the ride.
4. Wall-E (2008)
I absolutely hate it when self-important magazines include new albums on lists of the most important records of all-time. Long before time has had the opportunity to take a good wack at their standing, audacious writers want to be the first to call out Nirvana’s “Nevermind” or Radiohead’s “O.K. Computer” as classic works that will stand as pinnacles of achievement for decades to come. In the spirit of those brave souls, whose haste I so vehemently criticize, I nominate “Wall-E” as a film which will be remembered for its bold message and heavy themes, right there in a financially successful animated feature for kids. The filmmakers have balls as big as Texas to bite off the philosophically challenging story which is such a blatant indictment of modernity- and to do so with almost no dialogue whatsoever for the first half an hour. This movie is courageous and entertaining. And who knew that was still possible?
3. Blade Runner (1982)
During the time it took to write this list, there are two new versions of “Blade Runner” available on DVD and Blu-ray. This Ridley Scott masterwork, based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a must on any list of great films about “smart machines.” It doesn’t get much more intellectual than “Blade Runner” when it comes to literary science fiction on the big screen, which is why so few films have attempted or succeeded in chasing its tail.
2. The Original Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)
Let’s pretend for a moment that the prequels were all just a bad dream from which we are all about to wake. In this fantasy there’s no Jar-Jar Binks, no Trade Federation representatives with offensive accents, and no greenscreen acting from capable veterans and disappointing neophytes alike. Let’s think back to the good old days before George Lucas decided to direct the prequels himself and picture the original trilogy as it was in 1983, finished and perfect. There are a pair of droids that are excuse enough to land at the top of this list, but the circuit board standout in the Star Wars universe is obviously Luke’s pops. The Darth Vader character is, of course, one of the all-time greats in the dilemma of man and machine. Like Robocop, Anakin Skywalker is “more machine than man,” but somewhere amidst all the circuitry and wiring some vestige of humanity still lurks. Lucas was right to realize the Vader character’s transformation from man to machine, and back again, was strong enough to build six movies on, he just wasn’t able to recognize that Irvin Kershner (who directed “The Empire Strikes Back”) should have directed all of them.
1. The Terminator (1984)
Like “The Matrix,” this film, if taken all by it’s lonesome, is a monument of modern science-fiction storytelling. Humanity itself is faced with extinction, in the not so distant future at the hands of Skynet, a computer network that we created which has decided we’ve outgrown our usefulness. The inherent danger in creating artificially intelligent beings is that they might figure out eventually that the world just might be a more efficient place if there weren’t so many humans messing up the works. One of the problems with exceptional sci-fi is that audiences want more and studios are willing to give it too them, whether it dilutes the power of the original ideas or not. Half the films on this list prove that if humans could just leave well enough alone, we might all have fewer DVDs, but we’d also have a few more untarnished legacies to quibble about and defend at conventions.