With Season One ending this week there’s probably a ‘Westworld‘-shaped hole in your viewing schedule right now. So the following are 11 movies to help plug that gap – science-fiction flicks about sentient robots, the dangers of playing god, Turing Tests, the rules of robotics, and a variety of futures where man’s dominance is being challenged by machines. Oh, and one film in which a bottle of bubbly turns a computer sentient.
1. Westworld (1973)
Guess this is a pretty obvious choice, but if you haven’t seen the original Westworld movie, it’s well worth checking out. Written and directed by Michael Crichton, the film features elements that fans of the TV show will instantly recognise, from the pair of businessmen making their cowboy dreams come true to Yul Brynner dominating the screen as a very different ‘Man in Black.’ But the film expands the universe, with Westworld only one area of a theme park that includes Medieval World, which is full of knights and damsels in distress, and Roman World, where decadence and pleasure are the name of the game. However, rather than doing a deep dive into the psychology and morality of creating artificial intelligence, the film is action-heavy, ending in an epic game of cat-and-mouse.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made, Ridley Scott took Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and turned it into a sci-fi masterpiece that you’ll be thinking about long after the wonderfully ambiguous final scene. Of the Directors Cut, obvs. The year is 2019 and earth is an overcrowded neon nightmare, prompting much of the human race to migrate to off-world colonies. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a ‘Blade Runner’ charged with the task of hunting down and ‘retiring’ a group of bioengineered androids – or replicants – who have escaped from one of those colonies in an effort to extend their brief life-spans. That story unfolds in the style of a film noir, but as the replicants start to display more humanity than their earthly counterparts, it becomes a story about what it really means to be human.
3. Electric Dreams (1984)
We’re not suggesting that every film on this list is as good as ‘Westworld‘. Indeed, we’ve thrown in a couple of duds, with Electric Dreams being the worst. But there’s also an innocent charm to this tale of a love triangle between man, woman and computer. Miles is a shy architect who buys a personal computer to help with his work. But when one day it overheats, Miles pours champagne over the keyboard, in the process turning the computer sentient. The pair then both fall for the beautiful cellist in the upstairs apartment, triggering something of a war between man and machine. It’s all very silly – and at times painfully unfunny – but does feature this absolute banger of a song.
4. D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)
D.A.R.Y.L. stands for Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform. It’s also the name assigned to a young boy whom the American government has big plans for, having created Daryl in a lab and given him a powerful microcomputer for a brain. Daryl is the prototype for an army of super-soldiers, possessing speedy reflexes, the ability to interact with other computers, and mad Pole Position skills. He escapes however, and ends up living with a couple who teach him good old-fashioned all-American family values. Which causes issues when Daryl is re-captured by the government, with the boy displaying emotions and free will that make the experiment a failure in their eyes. But might just make Daryl human after all.
5. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
A central theme in the Terminator movies is the way in which machines are evolving, and whether or not they’ll ever possess human traits and emotions. In Terminator 2, John Conner takes the T-800 under his wing, teaching and guiding him so that as the film progresses he exhibits empathy, concern, and even humour. But is Arnie’s character learning and evolving? Or is he simply emulating what he sees? It’s one of the major questions at the heart of the Terminator movies, and an issue that ‘Westworld‘ returns to time-and-time again.
6. Bicentennial Man (1999)
Loosely based on Isaac Asimov’s novella of the same name, Bicentennial Man revolves around a robot called Andrew who enters a family home to work as their housekeeper for the next 200 years. He therefore starts out as something of a slave, but as Andrew learns about the world around him he develops emotions, becomes creative, and eventually asks for his freedom. When that’s granted he searches for other robots like him, falls in love with the great-granddaughter of that original family, starts looking a lot like Robin Williams, and petitions the World Congress to declare him human. Unfortunately, while that story is intriguing, the script is soppy and sentimental, making this one something of a missed opportunity.
7. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A lot of these films are loosely inspired by The Adventures of Pinocchio, with robots wanting to be human in much the same way that Geppetto’s wooden puppet wanted to be a boy. But A.I. is directly informed by the fairytale, as well as Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. In a future where advanced robots – called Mechas – are capable of emulating human thoughts and emotions, Haley Joel-Osment plays David, an android child who is programmed to love and who is adopted by a family whose own child is sick. But David arouses fear in those around him – maybe because he never blinks – and so ends up being abandoned by his mother, and embarking on a quest to become human so he can truly be loved back.
8. I, Robot (2004)
Asimov again, this time with something a little less mawkish than Bicentennial Man. 2004’s I, Robot takes inspiration from his short story collection of the same name, cherry-picking elements from those narratives and depositing them in a big-budget Will Smith action pic. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of both the book – and the film – is Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. They play a key role in the film’s plot, and influence both incarnations of ‘Westworld.’
9. Automata (2014)
Where I, Robot has its three laws of robotics, Automata features a pair of security protocols that serve much the same purpose: 1. A robot cannot harm any form of life. 2. A robot cannot modify any other robot. The year is 2044 and solar storms have turned the earth’s surface into a radioactive desert. To aid our survival we’ve created a line of robots called the ‘Automata Pilgrims,’ charged with the task of building and maintaining the walls and mechanical clouds that protect what’s left of man. But robots are appearing without that second protocol, so insurance investigator Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is sent to find out why. What follows is an average thriller that’s Blade Runner-lite, but the film does feature some riveting conversations between man and machine, and a startling scene in which a Pilgrim effectively commits suicide via self-immolation.
10. Chappie (2015)
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This distinctly odd mash-up of hard sci-fi and slapstick humour doesn’t really succeed on either front, but does ask some thought-provoking questions about robotics. A young scientist creates a prototype A.I. that mimics the human mind, expressing opinions and emotions and even exhibiting a form of consciousness. He’s then stolen by gangsters who name him Chappie and train him for a life of crime, prompting Chappie to spend the rest of the film trying to tell right from wrong. But while the film poses those aforementioned questions about the nature of humanity and sentience, it fails to come up with any meaningful answers.
11. Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s startling directorial debut has much in common with ‘Westworld‘, as a troubled genius creates artificial intelligence that he then struggles to control. Here the creator in question is brilliant recluse Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who has made what he believes to be the world’s first true AI in the shape of AVA (Alicia Vikander). He invites employee Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) to his remote retreat to try the Turing Test on AVA, whereby one challenges a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence comparable, or indistinguishable from, a human. What follows is a tense psychological thriller that slowly morphs into a horror; one that – much like ‘Westworld‘ – is largely concerned with the dangers of playing god.
Those are a few sci-fi flicks to fill your time until ‘Westworld‘ returns, which should be at the end of 2017 or early 2018.