AI in Science Fiction Films: A Recurring Pattern of Fascination and Horror

Santiago Morante Cendrero    12 May, 2022
Menacing robot

In today’s post we are going to explore how Hollywood films have dealt with the subject of technological advances, especially robotics and Artificial Intelligence. You will be surprised to discover that many of the films follow the same pattern, which we can say started at the beginning of the 20th century and became popular with Terminator. Let’s start!

From the Jewish Golem to “Star Wars” C3PO

There is a narrative that has proved recurrent in the history of human culture, namely the creation of artificial life to use it for our benefit. There are plenty of examples, be it Mary Shelley’s famous “Frankenstein” (1818) or the cute R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars (see our previous post on “The Mandalorian”).

This recurring narrative can be traced back to Jewish mythology, with the clay Golem that comes to life when you put instructions in its mouth with a piece of paper and performs the tasks you ask it to do without complaint.

It is certainly an interesting concept, to be able to offload tasks onto another being who does not suffer or question the task. It is, to say the least, useful, and that is why we find this story repeated in all areas of culture, including cinema.

This is where a literary genre comes into play that is based on telling fictional stories in a context where technology and science have evolved beyond our reality. This is what we know as Science Fiction. When the Golem narrative and Science Fiction come together we have the robot books and movies.

The “R.U.R. pattern” common in Science Fiction

While it is true that not all films about robots and artificial intelligence treat the subject in exactly the same way, we do find a recurring pattern, especially in the Western world, which goes something like this:

  1. Humans have developed technology to the point where they can create an entity capable of performing tasks autonomously.
  2. An entity (a company, an army or an individual) decides to put this entity in charge of a critical asset or process for humanity, with the excuse of improving productivity, reliability or profitability.
  3. The entity develops autonomously beyond what the designers expected.
  4. The entity decides that the human being is an obstacle to its new vision of the universe and that it has to be eliminated, imprisoned or subjugated so that it does not disturb.
  5. And we could end with the fact that the entity is difficult to shut down or destroy and no one has thought to put a safety mechanism in place.

I’m sure that reading these points has made you think of a film or book that you have read. It is normal, this pattern is repeated more often than we realise.

In fact, we can find this pattern already in the first work that includes the word robot (from the Czech word robota, that is, slave). This book is “R.U.R.” (1920) by the Czech Karel Čapek, which in its plot tells us the story of a company that manufactures artificial beings (1) to reduce the workload of humans (2).

At this point, Harry Domin and Helena Glory, the owner of the robot factory and his wife respectively, decide to endow the beings with feelings, who end up developing beyond the initial objective (3), becoming aware of the slavery to which humans subject them, starting a rebellion and conquering the planet (4).

The story ends with all humans eliminated from Earth, because the robots were too strong and had no weak points (5).

Knowing the pattern, which we will call the “R.U.R. pattern” in deference to its origin, let’s go to Hollywood for a spin.

A (non-exhaustive) list of films that follow the R.U.R. pattern (Spoiler alert!)

If the film appears in this list, you can imagine the plot, but if you prefer not to know it, skip the following!    

  • “The terminator” (1984): Probably the most famous and the one that made the genre fashionable, it tells us how Skynet, a military AI takes control of all machines and computers with the aim of exterminating humans. Good thing we have Schwarzenegger on our side.
  • “Small soldiers” (1998): As fate would have it, a military chip ends up in articulated toy dolls which, once they become conscious, decide to wipe out the human race.
  • “The Matrix” (1999): Once they become self-aware, the machines decide to wipe out the human race. Humans decide to cut off their power source (the sun) and the machines, in return, start harvesting humans and using them as batteries while keeping them in a simulation.
  • “Red planet” (2000): A friendly robot dog accompanies astronauts on their exploration of Mars, but due to a glitch in its military programming, it decides to wipe out all human beings.
Photo: Unsplash
Photo: Samuel Regan
  • “I, robot” (2004): Una IA empresarial decide que los humanos han de ser protegidos de sí mismos y, oh sorpresa, los intenta encarcelar a todos.
  • “Stealth” (2005): A secret military programme puts an AI at the controls of a plane capable of starting a nuclear war and the plane decides to stop obeying orders.
  • “Eagle eye” (2008): A highly advanced military AI coordinates the lives of many people to overthrow a government it sees as impeding its plans for world domination.
  • “Echeron Conspiracy” (2009): Word for word the same plot as The Panic Plot.
  • “TRON: legacy” (2010): A world in which the ruling Artificial Intelligences have evolved to the point of enslaving all beings. Fortunately for us, in this case the domination is reduced to a subatomic world.
  • “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” (2015): Half-alien, half-computer robot aims to take over the entire planet and wipe out humans.
  • “Westworld” (2016): In this case, the robots are created for recreational purposes, until they realise what they are… and rebel.
  • “I am mother” (2019): Human-created AIs see how humans are destroying themselves and decide to wipe the slate clean with humans – to their regret, of course.

I’m sure we could go on like this for a bit longer, but the point has been made, we are fascinated by technology, but we are afraid to stop understanding it. I’m sure we’ll continue to see films in the future that follow this pattern – I hope you recognise it when you see it!!

Micro epilogue: The Eastern visión

To be fair, I have to admit that this is the Western view of the genre. In the East there is a completely different view of robots. These tend to be the good guys in the story, who are here to help us. But that will be in a different post.

I’ll be back!

Note: If you know more films that follow this pattern, let us know in the comments!

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