Artificial intelligence has long been the realm of science fiction: In a world where computing power increases exponentially with every passing year, how long would it take for computers to match or even exceed us — in mind, in body, maybe even in soul?
Questions like these have permeated the last fifty years of cinema, if not longer. And at a time when open-source generative AI programs like OpenAI and ChatGPT threaten to upend the ways we work and live, it’s enlightening to see the ways cinema has explored these questions.
This month, streaming service The Criterion Channel has seen fit to release a collection of films that tackle these existential quandaries head-on. From pulse-pounding cyberpunk thrillers to New-Wave soaked ‘80s comedies to meditative indies and romances, Criterion’s A.I. collection offers a snapshot of how filmmakers worldwide have responded to this revolution — with equal parts fascination and fear.
To help you sort through the daunting 17-film collection (including a music video and two shorts), we’ve jacked into Criterion’s mainframe and sifted through gigabytes of data to guide you through this brave new world.
Can You Fall In Love With a Computer?
These films approach the possibility that our human instincts for romantic and sexual connection can be met — in whole or in part — by artificial beings.
Spike Jonze’s haunting, melancholic romance centers on a lonely, divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who develops feelings for his phone’s new AI assistant (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Come for Phoenix’s performance and the keen aesthetics of its near-future world; stay for thorny questions about whether algorithmically-fulfilled needs actually constitute love in the truest sense.
Making Mr. Right (1987)
Susan Seidelman’s screwball followup to Desperately Seeking Susan presents a career-minded publicist (Ann Magnuson) with the lifelike android Ulysses (John Malkovich), whose path towards emotion makes her wonder whether she might be falling in love.
Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s anthology film may not technically take place in the future — its imaginative futuristic sequences are our window into the love stories written by Tony Leung’s character (reprising his role from In the Mood for Love). But one subplot, featuring Faye Wong as a “gynoid” robot that Tak (Takuya Kimura) falls in love with on a futuristic train, tests the unrequited nature of artificial amore.
Os humores artificiais (The Artificial Humors) (2016)
This Portuguese short offers a deceptively funny take on artificial intelligence and Indigenous identity, as a young girl (Margarida Lucas) falls in love with a floating robot head who moonlights as a standup comedian. Does it love her back? Or is their romance one big cosmic joke?
Can a Computer Love You Back?
We may be able to love a robot, but the real test of artificial sentience is whether it can develop those feelings right alongside us… and whether we’ll accept them if they do.
Electric Dreams (1984)
Bud Cort voices Edgar, a PC that begins to explore its humanity (and sexuality) in this ‘80s-tactic rom-com from music video director Steve Barron. As he watches his owner Miles (or, as Edgar calls him, “Moles”) fall for a beautiful cellist (a luminous Virginia Madsen), he begins penning electronic love songs for her. He becomes something of a cyber-Cyrano, before fighting “Moles” for her warm, human hand. (If you like New Wave, the soundtrack — which features original songs by Culture Club and Giorgio Moroder — is full of bops.)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Arguably one of Steven Spielberg’s most beautiful, slept-on films, this collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick is a futuristic Pinocchio story about a robotic boy (Haley Joel Osment) on an odyssey to find the human mother (Frances O'Connor) his programming tells him to love. Visually stunning and heartbreaking, with a killer supporting turn from Jude Law as the cad Gigolo Joe.
Multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson made this camp tale of computational lust, with Tilda Swinton in a quadruple role as a sexless scientist and her three Self Replicating Automatons (SRAs), who must literally collect semen from the real world to stay alive. Three guesses as to how they collect it?
All Is Full of Love (1999)
Industrial robotics meets primal sensuality in one of Björk’s most iconic music videos, as two lifelike androids meet on the assembly line and curl together in a congress of cybernetic lovemaking.
Will AI Destroy the World?
These films present the darker, Skynetty side of artificial intelligence — exploring our fears of a sentient machine that might then turn around to destroy us.
Dark Star (1974)
John Carpenter’s first film, an extension of his USC student film, is both a stoner-comedy riff on 2001 and a precursor to star/co-writer Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. It’s got alien beach ball creatures and space slackers, but Dark Star’s cargo hold also features a complement of artificially-intelligent bombs that cheerily launch themselves to their inevitable doom.
Sure, you’ve seen the pics of a mustachioed Sean Connery in his skimpy red bikini and thigh-high leather boots. But John Boorman’s post-apocalyptic odyssey is notable for depicting an idyllic society of immortals run by an AI overlord called The Tabernacle — whose micromanagement of humanity leaves them idle, bored, and deeply corrupt—'70s sci-fi paranoia at its weirdest and finest.
Demon Seed (1977)
Julie Christie is imprisoned and impregnated by an artificially intelligent computer called Proteus in this sci-horror cautionary tale. The ending alone is bonkers enough to merit a watch.
Computer Chess (2013)
Andrew Bujalski used analog equipment, nonprofessional actors, and an improvisational mumblecore style for this 2013 mockumentary about a computer chess tournament in the 1980s. The matches are less critical than the nerds’ free-flowing conversations about whether A.I. can outthink humans in chess matches or elsewhere… and a sex worker whose true identity greatly ties into these questions.
Ennui ennui (2013)
A tongue-in-cheek satire of the Obama era and America’s Draconian drone warfare policies, this French short gives a drone operator a Predator it treats like its own daughter, and the rest goes from there.
Or Change What It Means to Be Human?
Whether through the physical process of transhumanism — combining man and technology until the lines grow inevitably blurred — or our emotional relationship to technology and time, these films explore how AI’s mere presence alters our perspective.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime bends the lines between man and machine with its future world of cybernetic augmentations and a sentient computer virus that changes those it infects—one of the essential anime texts, absolutely unmissable.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Years before The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plugged into this messy but endearing adaptation of William Gibson’s short story, about an information courier whose wet-wired brain mod gets filled with too much stolen secret data — data the Yakuza and other bounty hunters will kill to get. (Criterion also includes the Black & White version released a couple of years ago, which gives the film a noir vibe that greatly aids its hokey effects.)
Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021)
Created in the Unity game engine, artist Ian Cheng’s hour-long anime plus an AI into the brain of a neural engineer’s ten-year-old daughter. As “BOB” begins to solve her daily problems, the film questions what would be left for mankind if it was spared from any and all conflict.
After Yang (2022)
Video essayist Kogonada’s patient, humanistic drama follows a near-future family (featuring patriarch Colin Farrell) whose android companion Yang (Justin H. Min) breaks down one day. In their zeal to repair him, they begin to rediscover their connections to each other and learn more about Yang's lives before being sold to them—heartwarming and thought-provoking, with a brilliantly organic production design that blends nature with technology.