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a century of ai in the movies

The History of AI in Film

Sep 19, 2018

As technology improves, the discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) and its capability becomes more and more prevalent. From Siri to ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft, AI is already part of our everyday lives, but its depiction in film is significantly different and has been a focal point for nearly 100 years.

First AI Films

AI made its film debut in Metropolis in 1927. The robot, Maria, was programmed to incite chaos across Metropolis. Don’t worry, I won’t give you any spoilers about what happens next; you’ll have to watch it on your own.

Although Metropolis is heavily praised today, it wasn’t well received upon its release and AI didn’t make another notable appearance in film for decades.

It wasn’t until 1951 in The Day the Earth Stood Still that Gort, an 8-foot tall silent robot, came to Earth with Klaatu, his humanoid, warning humans to either live in peace or be destroyed. Whether it was the way AI was depicted in this movie or the overall message (having been released during the Cold War), Gort became the first household name for an AI character.

AI was also present in the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. This film is noted as being the first AI film to feature a scientifically accurate depiction of spaceflight and went on to win an Academy Award for its visual effects.

Space AI Films

After the space race, the sci-fi genre exploded in the 1970s with legendary film franchises Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Wars became the first film featuring AI to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Then, in 1979, Alien implemented AI in an entirely new way when it revealed that Ash was actually an android after leading us to believe he was human.

 Believable AI Films

As decades passed, the ways that AI was implemented progressed. In the 1980s, the improvement of special effects made AI more believable. Tron and The Terminator were among the most popular films of the decade.

Fun fact: The Motion Picture Academy refused to nominate Tron, the first full-fledged simulated world in film, for a special-effects award because the Academy felt the filmmakers cheated for using computerized effects.

Y2K AI Films

In the 1990s, AI was portrayed both positively and negatively, and Hollywood profited from the Y2K hysteria. The Matrix paints a picture of what the world would look like if AI took over, while Bicentennial Man portrayed AI in a more humanistic way by making an AI character a protagonist.

Playful AI Films

What’s up with all the serious or scary portrayals of AI? Can’t we cast AI in a more kid-friendly way? If you asked similar questions, 2000s cinema answered them. A.I. Artificial Intelligence was the first representation of childlike AI in 2001 and Pixar’s Wall-E became an instant classic in 2008.

Also in 2008, Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with its use of AI and we all know how dominant the MCU has become over the last decade.

While increased technology and AI are becoming a significant part of our everyday lives, AI is also being seen more frequently at the box office, a 144% increase since 2010. It will be interesting to see its portrayal in future films.

A huge thank you to Brian Thomas of Enlightened Digital for creating these infographics and allowing us to use them in our post.

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