The Best Movie Ever | Artificial Intelligence
Humanity was either created, or it was the byproduct of countless chemical reactions that merely happened to generate, over millions of years, something resembling “intelligent” life. Either way, all of us – as a species – place great value in our ability to think, reason, and examine our own existence. And as our capacity to create new technological wonders expands, we have begun to realize the formerly science-fiction fantasy of creating an “artificial intelligence.” That is to say, a very real intelligence that we invented ourselves, in a lab.
It’s a development with serious philosophical, ethical and social implications. Indeed, artificial intelligence is such an enormous bag of worms that storytellers have been exploring the possibilities for generations. One such example, Morgan, opens in theaters this weekend, and… since this is The Best Movie Ever, after all… it made us wonder. What is the best artificial intelligence movie ever?
We asked our panel of film critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani, Legion of Leia’s Witney Seibold and Collider’s Brian Formo – to pick just one film to represent the pinnacle of the genre. And this time, two of them actually agreed. Find out what they picked and why, and come back next Wednesday for another highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!
Brian Formo’s Pick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Artificial Intelligence is perhaps both the pinnacle of human intelligence and the trap door that makes humans expendable. Revering our own evolution and creation of technology, humanity looks for similarities to themselves in the animal kingdom, in the universe, and eventually by creating technology that would remove human error.
Most A.I. films chronicle machines attempting to love humans, our inability to love them back, and their urge to kill rising from it. But it’s the chain of events of the inherent navel gazing vanity of the human experience—from a reflection in a pool of water, to standing on the moon or listening for alien wavelengths—that Stanley Kubrick presents as the biggest drive of the intellectual human experience. It’s this sequence of events that he presents in 2001: Space Odyssey, as he shows tools created by man in response to this vanity—first a bludgeoning tool in an ape cave, then a space station on the moon—that lead to the creation of HAL, the A.I. red dot that monitors a vessel and learns to prioritize the continuation of “his” power above the human lives on board.
2001 was a game-changer for cinema and many of its details could be pulled as separate responses for various Best Movie Ever prompts. I already chose it once for Visual Effects. So why again for A.I.? Because Kubrick’s steely voiced, soulless, and corporate computer program became the template for presenting a fear of the rise of machines. HAL is not fleshy and life-like as our vanity has lead A.I. creations (and Turing test discussions), instead “he’s” omnipresent and without form. Because he lacks human physicality most read into his disruption aboard the Discovery One as a parable for how relying on technology blindly leads to computer malfunctions and human deaths, but HAL is functioning as a human, trying to keep his life force and (data) memories going at all costs. Vanity, much?
Witney Seibold’s Pick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
There is only one reason people object to the possibility of artificial intelligence, and it has nothing to do with morality, theology, or ethics. In actuality, it’s just… weird. The thought of a mechanically and/or electronically created being having the same depth of complexity and emotional intelligence as a human being is a notion that many people simply have trouble wrapping their minds around. Have we advanced to the point where we can simply… create? And what would our artificial intelligences think of us? How would a machine view a human being? Do they really appreciate our morals and values?
This anxiety is typically reflected in movies about artificial intelligence, which – more often than not – see intelligent machines as a threat, an alien creature, or a new being we are allowed to abuse. It’s only on TV shows about androids that we are really invited to empathize with an intelligent machine; think of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (or any machine on any Star Trek for that matter). In movies, conversely, we’re treated to creatures like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the best movies of all time.
2001 was an early adopter of that particular technofear, arguing that our machines will not have the complexity to understand our need to be a part of the infinite. Humans are the only ones who can handle entering the cosmic consciousness. But 2001 takes it further than mere paranoia about our impending machine takeover. It argues that our machines are necessary, evil, and also great. They are the things that cause us to grow and evolve. Our tools, in the most rudimentary, evolutionary sense. They will lift us up, but only so high. They will give us power for life and death. Artificial intelligence is more complicated than our fear of it, and 2001 – as only one of its many brilliant facets – addresses that.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Ex Machina (2015)
The concept of an “artificial” intelligence dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, and sure enough, it many of the stories we still tell about this concept today have an air of Pygmalion about them. Creating a new life form, exploring our relationship with it, possibly even falling in love (or at least lust); it’s the optimistic mirror image of the Frankenstein story that would be written millennia later, in which mankind is inevitably damned for daring to create a creature in our own image for a change.
Ex Machina is both stories, playing out at the exact same time. It is the story of a scientist (Oscar Isaac, who is in his own way quite mad, who has invented a robot and wants to determine whether or not it’s intelligent enough to be treated like a real person. He invites an underling at his company (Domhnall Gleeson) to an isolated location to perform the experiment, and together they interact with the robot, which has been given a female form for reasons that are – probably – as corrupt and sexist as we suspect they are.
Alicia Vikander plays the artificial intelligence, Ava, and we don’t get to know her very well, even though getting to know her is exactly what Ex Machina is all about. The film’s treatise is complex and far-reaching, and argues that Ava would be just as inscrutable to her creators as mankind was to its own. What’s more: in a society dominated by men, in which man has now created woman, her artificially selected “gender” will itself create a divide between humanity and whatever she really is. Will her male captors be able to overcome their bias and treat her the way she deserves to be treated? And really, if you think about it, does an “artificial” intelligence “deserve” to be treated any particular way?
Ex Machina lacks the cinematic grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it has a significant advantage over Stanley Kubrick’s classic. Alex Garland’s film has decades more thought put into it, from the perspective of actual science and the philosophies we have been elaborating on for generations through science-fiction. What is (perhaps) lacks in drama it compensates for in richness, making it the best film – so far – about the topic.