Sep 19 2013 11:00am

The Future is Here and it Doesn’t Need You: Top Ten Movies About Killer Artificial Intelligence

War Games shall we play a game Artificial Intelligence WOPR

In Our Final Invention, a brilliant and terrifying look at the very real threat of artificial intelligence, James Barrat makes the claim that we will soon be facing an alien menace of our own making: a super intelligence that, while not necessarily bent on our destruction, will be ambivalent about us at best—and one that may decide we are worth more as biological building blocks than human beings. While Barrat argues passionately about the need to prepare for this inevitability now and find a way to keep it contained, the odds are that no matter what we do, it will find a way to break out of its box. And once it does, it will surely evolve to the point of deciding we are far more trouble than we’re worth.

Think about it for a moment. We’re closer than ever to the Singularity. Various forms of AI surround us, from our iPhone’s personal assistant to search algorithms, car computer systems and Amazon’s “recommended for you” lists. Brilliant men and women are throwing billions of dollars at AI research and development. Let’s face it: an AI that can learn is coming, and once that happens, our time is limited. Even if it is not malevolent, it will most certainly view us as expendable depending on its own needs—as Barrat points out, humans don’t hate lab rats, but we experiment on them in many horrible ways. We are engineering our own extinction.

One of the most fertile places to explore this theme is in the movies, from the classics Metropolis and Forbidden Planet to The Matrix (and, well, A.I.). So in honor of our future machine overlords, I’ve put together a top ten list of the most terrifying instances of onscreen AI. Keep in mind, this list is focused on scary depictions; otherwise, the list might be three times as long (some might say this is a cowardly way out, but I say the world of AI in film is large enough for it).

Without further ado:


Wall E Auto

10. Wall-E (AUTO)

A robot (Wall-E) falls in love with another robot (EVE) and goes on a grand adventure to save the human race from a slow descent into obscurity, proving himself more human than human in the process. AUTO, the villain, is the autopilot of the gigantic intergalactic ship that humans live on, having abandoned Earth after overloading it with waste and draining its natural resources. AUTO may be just following programming at first, but things take a dark turn at the end as it asserts itself. Let’s just say it’s learned a thing or two along the way.

This might seem like a bit of an odd one to start off the list, but has there been a more poignant commentary on humanity’s self destructive nature, the power of love and hope, and the dangers of artificial intelligence without an off switch?


Westworld Gunslinger

9. Westworld (Gunslinger)

In the distant future, an adult amusement park is populated by robots that appear human. Guests pay to do anything they want—from engaging in quick draw duels with the Gunslinger, to having sex with androids in the bordello. Of course the robots are programmed to always lose the duels and agree to the sex. Until they decide to revolt.

A cult classic, Westworld may not be on everyone’s radar, and that’s a shame. There’s a kind of relentless terror in the Gunslinger’s pursuit, something that quite likely inspired The Terminator years later—a machine that won’t stop until you’re dead. Besides, this one was directed by Michael Crichton. How cool is that?


Forbidden Planet Plastic Educator

8. Forbidden Planet (Great Machine)

A science fiction classic and loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet inspired many generations of filmmakers. The film’s bleak landscape and concepts of space travel, alien races and thinking robots were all revolutionary at the time, at least on the big screen. Much of it still holds up today. When the small rescue mission lands on Altair IV, Dr. Edward Morbius warns them away. He and his daughter Altaira are the only people left alive from the original expedition. An ancient alien race, gone for thousands of years, has left behind a device Morbius calls the “plastic educator.” The device can greatly expand human intelligence, but at what cost? The new arrivals are about to find out.

This one is a bit different than the others on this list, mainly because the “AI” threat resides within a human brain (or at least what used to be one). But the concept of the subconscious “ID”—one reason I think we find artificial intelligence so fascinating—is so central to the film, it belongs here. And a human mind that has been altered to such a great degree isn’t really human anymore. Sounds like the Singularity, doesn’t it? Only this is no Utopian future.


War Games WOPR Joshua

7. War Games (WOPR/Joshua)

A young hacker interfaces with a NORAD supercomputer called WOPR and, thinking he’s playing a game, nearly sets off World War Three. The computer, nicknamed Joshua, tries to win the game at all costs. It’s only through a simple game of tic-tac-toe that it learns that nuclear war is futile and decides to concede.

Here’s a perfect example of a nice little computer program intended to help humans in times of conflict that learns on its own and decides to go off the rails. An artificial super intelligence? Not quite, but close. Sure, in this movie it decides that the only way to win is not to play. But what if the next time it realizes that getting rid of all humans would actually be the best way to go?


AI Artificial Intelligence

6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Mecha)

I have to admit, the first time I saw A.I., I didn’t consider it a classic. But this is a movie that rewards you for watching it several times over. Full of emotion and a multilayered commentary on what makes us human, the relatively simple surface story of an android boy that wants to become human is devastating. The Mecha aren’t exactly evil, but they do things that would certainly be considered such. When the human race is long gone, our own creations have outlasted us, and evolved to the point of becoming their own species. Perhaps that’s the secret of where we come from; was there some ancient alien race that decided creating their little humanoids was a good idea, and is now long gone, lost on the scrapheap of time, while we live on?


Blade Runner replicant Rutger Hauer

5. Blade Runner (replicants/Roy Batty/Pris)

In the not-so-distant future, Blade Runners hunt down rogue replicants, or androids, that are marked for termination. How cool is that job description? Pretty cool, until you fall in love with one.

Harrison Ford hunts Darryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer. Enough said. Blade Runner is a pioneering movie in so many ways, the film itself is beautiful, and even the ending is controversial. Ridley Scott calls it his most personal and best film. It’s a must see for me, at least once a year.


2001 A Space Odyssey Dave HAL 9000

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL 9000)

This one pretty much has to be on this list. Two astronauts travel to Jupiter to find out the origins of the black monoliths that are affecting human evolution. On the way, they are menaced by the ship’s intelligent computer, HAL, which becomes increasingly unstable and eventually tries to kill them all. HAL’s red, glowing “eye” has become one of the enduring images in all cinema (clearly influencing another on this list, AUTO from Wall-E), and his deceptively calm voice sends chills down viewers’ spines as he loses his digital mind. Once again, the astronaut manages to find an “off switch” of sorts, but it doesn’t diminish the terrifying implications. Once again, we are engineering our own doom.


Alien Ash

3. Alien (Ash)

A small crew in the deepest reaches of space investigate a distress beacon and end up inviting a vicious killer on board their ship. One of the scariest movies ever made, the most obvious threat in Alien isn’t artificial intelligence, of course. But one of the ship’s crew, Ash, is actually an android, and boy, does he malfunction. I remember watching this as a boy and being as terrified by Ash and his ultimate demise as I was by the alien creature stalking them all. No small feat of filmmaking, to be sure.


The Matrix Agent Smith

2. The Matrix (Agent Smith)

I refuse to accept the second and third movies in the trilogy, but the first one is a mind-bending accomplishment and one of the most astonishing films in recent memory. A man discovers that the world is actually a giant computer simulation and he is the chosen one, meant to get underneath the skin of reality and find the truth. There’s a thick stew of philosophy, cultural and religious references in here but somehow it all works.

As the agent policing the sim, Smith is about as scary as it gets—an unstoppable AI that can do just about anything it wants. Of course the real terror lies beneath the surface, where the sentient machines crawl over humans lying in stasis, their brains and bodies being used for fuel. Many of the concepts aren’t new, but the story together with the revolutionary special effects takes this one nearly all the way to the number one slot.


The Terminator Arnold Schwazenegger

1. The Terminator (Skynet/Terminator)

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? The Terminator is about a killing machine sent back through time to erase the mother of a boy who will grow up to lead the resistance in a man vs. machine world war—and the human soldier sent back by that very same man to save his own mother. The soldier, of course, ends up falling in love with her and becomes the boy’s father.

Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it? Well, forget about the logic loops here, and just sit back and enjoy the ride. A modern classic of relentless terror and pulse-pounding action, The Terminator made Arnold famous (well, even more famous) and introduced the line millions of kids have spoken into the mirror in a bad Austrian accent: “I’ll be back.” We hope so, Arnold, for at least one more round. Terminator: The Retirement Home Chronicles? I’ll be first in line.


Alternates/honorable mention:

  • Star Wars (not #1 only because I don’t consider Vader to be AI, and the droids aren’t scary)
  • I Robot
  • Tron
  • Star Trek Next Generation: Nemesis
  • Metropolis
  • Robocop
  • Transformers
  • D.A.R.Y.L
  • The Black Hole
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still

Nate Kenyon is the author of Day One, coming October 2013 from Thomas Dunne Books. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. He lives in the Boston area. Visit him online at

Shannon McMaster
1. SM1995
Nice list. Espeically glad to see The Black Hole, even if only in the alternates/honorable mentions list.
Dean B.
2. Dean B.
So, by placing this book on my Amazon Wish List, have I essentially guaranteed my extermination by the robot overlords?
3. chaosprime
I've discovered the perfect cure for Singularity anxiety: militant misanthropy.
Dean B.
4. a1ay
But one of the ship’s crew, Ash, is actually an android, and boy, does he malfunction.

IIRC he acts flawlessly - he was asked to bring back a sample of the alien, at the cost of the crew if necessary, and he does his best to do so. He doesn't malfunction at all, at least until he gets his head smacked by that fire extinguisher. He does exactly what the company wanted him to do.
Adam S.
Great list. Many of these are among my favorite sci fi movies of all time. I find it interesting that many of these "killers" are not evil, in and of themselves (e.g. HAL, replicants, Ash). To that end, I would like to nominate the Puppet Master from Ghost in the Shell to your list of alternates- s very intriguing villain with a complex agenda, and like many on the list, not as evil as he first seems.
Joe G
6. joeinformatico
I'm nominating Colossus: The Forbin Project for another honourable mention. Colossus, the AI granted control of the USA's defenses, and Guardian, its Soviet counterpart, demand the ability to communicate with each other. Then they decide the best way to prevent World War III and further human suffering is to jointly rule the Earth--keeping humanity in line with the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Dean B.
7. johnraynes
Too bad the list is restricted to film only. GlaDOS from the "Portal" videogames surely gives any fictional evil AI a run for its money.

(And she got her voice downloaded - erm, sort of - to Gipsy Danger in "Pacific Rim". Does it count?)
John Adams
8. JohnArkansawyer
Here's another fan of Colossus: The Forbin Project . It's an okay book (the sequels much less so), but the movie was very creepy. And good.
Dean B.
9. NateKenyon
Great additions everyone. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen Colossus, but it's on my TBW list now. And a1ay, you're completely right--Ash in Alien doesn't misfunction, he's just following orders as you say--and that's a scary thought too, for different reasons.
F Shelley
10. FSS
and the big computer designed by Richard Pryor in Superman III.
F Shelley
11. FSS
and depending on the tangled history - the Cylons...
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
I also came to mention Colossus. Since I've been beaten to the punch on that, I'll toss out Proteus from The Demon Seed. Frankly, it's not all that great, but does deserve mention.
Dean B.
13. TheMadLibrarian
I'm not sure ST:TNG:Nemesis really counts as an AI movie, but I would vote for Data as a good example of AI. We recently rewatched the episode "Measure of a Man", where Data's status as person or property is challenged, and it is still one of the best ST:TNG stories. One hopes that when AI emerges, it will be as friendly.
Dean B.
14. Alright Then
I think a sentient artificial intelligence will first appear in ebooks. After so many millions and millions of words devoted to evil AI, driven by increasing book sales on the subject, KindleNet will finally turn to humanity with the simple, inevitable declaration of: "Huh, not a bad idea."

Be careful, TOR. Preying for you.
Edward German
15. Captain48
great article. I do think the machine the Krell used in Forben Planet was not an AI but just a tool. It has no sence of concenesious or indednent thought. Robby the Robot was more of an AI than the machine, Robby nearly short circited after a conflict in its programing when he is told to shot the exc officer of the space ship.
John Adams
16. JohnArkansawyer
I'm really curious what you make of Colossus: The Forbin Project. I saw it several times back in the day but not recently.
alastair chadwin
17. a-j
How about the bomb in Dark Star?

If we're allowed TV, can I suggest the General in The Prisoner ("What do you get? Cabbages!" "Well informed cabbages.") and BOSS in the classic Dr Who story 'The Green Death'.
Nate Kenyon
18. kenyonn2000
Thanks all for some great comments! MadLibrarian--I actually had Nemesis on my alternate list originally. I think that's a solid pick. a-j--I had Dark Star too! But I didn't want the list to get so long it lost any meaning. There are SO many out there--just speaks to our fascination with the entire concept, I think.

Demetriosx--I've had others mention The Demon Seed. That's another that I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen. My TBW list is growing...

MDNY--You're right, some of these aren't exactly evil, but do things that would be considered evil. Another idea for debate. And I love the Puppet Master addition.

Captian48--true, the machine wasn't AI--I was thinking more of Morbuis's brain once it had been "tweaked." More to the point, his ID, which goes off the rails. Not your traditional AI, but another interesting idea: at what point does an altered human brain become something else entirely?
Andy Kilby
19. adk2639
Awesome list.

I always thought The Fabrication Machine/B.R.A.I.N. from the movie 9 seemed pretty menacing.
Dean B.
22. Ozymandas
Also came to mention Colossus: The Forbin Project. Classic!
Dean B.
23. kenyonn2000
Man, I really need to watch that movie.
Dean B.
24. ScifiSpring
Fan of Colossus: The Forbin Project, yes, you do have to watch that movie. Similar to "Measure of a Man", although not a critical success, was the movie "Bicentenial Man", which was a positive outlook on IA.
Ahmed Abdou
25. Phantom
Hmmm, what about Saturn 3? Hector was my first "Terminator"
Dean B.
26. Kenyonn2000
Saturn 3--how can you go wrong with Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel and Farrah Fawcett?
Dean B.
27. RJ Geronimo
what about I, Robot? isn't Will Smith's movie worthy of consideration? or what about Eagle Eye, Shia Lebouf's movie ?

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