The best films about AI – ranked!

<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant

20. Westworld (1973)

Forget the more recent TV show, which ended up so frustratingly opaque as to render it pointless. The most fun version of Westworld is Michael Crichton’s original movie. A robot cowboy comes to life and goes nuts in a theme park. What more could anyone need?

19. Robot & Frank (2012)

Eleven years on, it’s still hard to believe this film exists. Frank Langella plays a man called Frank, who goes on a cute little crime spree with his robotic best friend. There is more to it, of course – the robot is assigned to Langella to aid his dementia – but that shouldn’t detract from what an eccentric romp this is.

18. Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’s first film – a cheap, taut, self-contained thriller about a man going mad on the moon – remains his best. The AI comes in via Gerty, the man’s AI robot companion, who speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey. Throughout the film, the man starts to get the impression that Gerty is lying to him. Once, that would have been scary enough. Now, a greater fear has emerged. Imagine being trapped on the moon with Spacey. Brr.

Julie Christie in Demon Seed
Julie Christie in Demon Seed. Photograph: United Archives/Alamy

17. Demon Seed (1977)

Meet Proteus IV, an AI program so advanced that it basically cures leukaemia straight out of the box. But guess what? Before long, Proteus gets greedy. It demands more and more power until, armed with a robot arm on a wheelchair and a laser gun, it is finally able to make its most shocking demand yet: having it off with Julie Christie. This is the silliest film ever made; it needs to be protected.

16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The first Avengers sequel isn’t particularly good, but at least it introduced cinema to the AI lifeform Ultron. Tasked with sparing the Avengers from having to suit up whenever a new baddie rolls into town, Ultron quickly realises that the greatest threat to world peace is humanity and – in time-honoured AI fashion – attempts to eradicate it himself. The moral of Age of Ultron is clear: trust AI less than the irresponsible billionaires who invented it.

15. M3gan (2022)

A piece of pop culture so resonant that Drew Barrymore dressed up as the titular character on her talkshow, Gerard Johnstone’s M3gan tells the tale of a doll that achieves sentience – and then goes wrong. But the way in which M3gan goes wrong – essentially boobytrapping anything that might come between her and her human friend – feels alarmingly realistic, yet also the sort of thing that usually happens only in Loony Tunes cartoons.

14. I, Robot (2004)

Arriving slap-bang in the middle of Will Smith’s “Will Smith battles things that look like humans but aren’t” imperial phase, you could write off I, Robot as just another gormless wedge of pseudo-intelligent action. And sure, a lot of it is terrible. But I, Robot also made a ton of money while introducing Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics to an audience who might not otherwise have heard them.

13. Blank (2022)

This low-budget thriller by Natalie Kennedy – her directorial feature debut – has a ludicrous premise. Unable to complete her work, a writer goes on a retreat where she is aided by an AI assistant who won’t let her leave until she has finished the job. That said, it manages to walk an impressive line between “Look at the consequences of our technology” and “Aargh! Robots!” Much better than you would expect from Westworld Does Misery.

12. Wall-E (2008)

What a world we lived in back in 2008, when we thought that robotic intelligence would be put to use to clear up the planet, rather than making rubbish art for the intro sequences of mediocre Marvel shows. Perhaps this optimism is what makes Wall-E so charming. More human than the actual humans, here depicted as giant, inert babies, Wall-E is just sentient enough to give himself over to love. Gorgeous.

11. Tau (2018)

Since AI has become a danger to the way in which humanity operates, films about its arrival have tended to err on the more ponderous side of things. Tau, though – a film in which a woman is held prisoner by an Alexa equivalent (voiced by Gary Oldman) – is smart enough to understand that we sometimes want to watch a load of dumb stuff happen. Is Tau well conceived? No. Is it rooted in scientific verisimilitude? No. Is it good? Also no. But is it fun? Yes. Yes it is.

10. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A list of films about AI needs to contain a film called AI. Steven Spielberg, working from notes left by Stanley Kubrick, crafts a Pinocchio-style fairytale about a robot boy who desperately wants to be human. The tragedy at the heart of the film, though, is Haley Joel Osment’s immortality. He was designed as a child, but outlives everyone he ever loves. Including (spoiler alert) all of humanity.

9. Brian and Charles (2022)

What a beautiful film. Jim Archer (working with a script by David Earl and Chris Hayward) could have easily turned this into a one-note joke. An inventor creates a sentient robot out of a mannequin head and an old washing machine and they get up to a bunch of lo-fi larks. But Brian and Charles aches with sadness, too. The robot was made to combat one man’s creeping sense of loneliness (an area where real-world AI might find most traction), but the film also deals with the responsibility of robot ownership. If AI is to flourish, then the time will come for us to cut the apron strings and let it thrive alone.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix
Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Photograph: Snap Stills/REX

8. The Matrix (1999)

Many AI films concern themselves with the rise of the robots; the moment when computers decide that they have had enough of humanity and decide to snuff us out. The beauty of The Matrix is that it starts long after the robots have already won. There are pockets of resistance, but mankind has been crushed underneath the boot of AI. Still, The Matrix offers hope. We might be condemned to a lifetime submerged in pods full of jelly, but as long as there is one flying Jesus figure out there, we could yet be saved.

7. Short Circuit (1986)

The subject of AI is often dealt with in a doomy, apocalyptic tone. So thank heavens for Johnny 5, the robotic star of Short Circuit, who manages to make the arrival of self-determining killbots look fun. Johnny 5 reads books really quickly! He dances to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack! He is sexually confused by Ally Sheedy! He proves his humanity by telling Steve Guttenberg an antisemitic joke! Never stop being you, Johnny 5. You are alive.

6. Blade Runner (1982)

For all its gorgeous production design, Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel) lingers because it manages to blur the line between humans and their AI robot counterparts. Some of them are human. Some are robots. Some are robots who think they are humans. Harrison Ford’s character is drawn so ambiguously that people still argue about how human he is supposed to be.

5. Ex Machina (2014)

Alex Garland’s psychological thriller manages to delve a lot more deeply into the potential repercussions of AI than anything else the “Aargh! Robots!” genre had previously delivered. Alicia Vikander plays Ava, an apparently sentient robot imprisoned by her megalomaniacal creator, played by Oscar Isaac. Domhnall Gleeson is tasked with determining the level of Ava’s intelligence. What follows is a relationship of extremely complex manipulation. Staggering.

4. Her (2013)

A decade ago, Spike Jonze’s Her came off as a kooky bit of speculative sci-fi. Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who is seduced into a relationship with his phone’s voice assistant. Flash forward to today, however, and it’s clear that the future painted by Her is already here. Just a fortnight ago, in fact, this paper ran a feature headlined: “Is it adultery if you cheat with an AI companion?” A prescient film in every way, except for its prediction that all men would be wearing natty high-waisted trousers by now.

3. The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021)

By far the funniest movie made about a robot uprising, Mike Rianda’s animated feature (produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) is a riot from start to finish. Olivia Colman plays Pal, an Alexa-style assistant with delusions of megalomania, who has to be stopped by a ragtag family on a roadtrip. There are so many standout sequences – the giant Furby scene deserves immortality – but its lesson is clear: if you want to confuse an AI murderbot, buy a dog that looks like a loaf of bread.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

For much of its runtime, 2001 is a film without an antagonist. But the one that eventually emerges – Hal, a computer program tasked with maintaining the upkeep of an interplanetary spaceship – spent years as the face of robotic evil. Was it that Hal tried to kill the crew of its spaceship? Was it the cold, unresponsive logic by which it decided to cause harm? Or was it the detached pleading in its voice as it begged the one surviving astronaut to treat it like a living creature? The answer is all of the above.

1. The Terminator (1984)/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The best-case scenario is that all these films achieved was adding a nugget to the AI lexicon. You cannot talk about AI without someone invoking Skynet, the program that gained sentience and declared a zero-sum time war against humanity. If the worst that AI does is put a few journalists out of business, we will still have that. That said, if computers do come to life and decide to nuke Earth in revenge for their mistreatment, then these films will become the most prescient ever made – something we will realise microseconds before bursting into flames.