Computers. As is the case with sentient robots, cinema has warned us repeatedly that the instant we give our Macs, iPads, X-Boxes and missile defense systems the ability to think on their own, that’s pretty much the end of humanity as we know it. Film after film, from sci-fi warnings to horror fantasias to action adventures, self-aware computers have been portrayed as instantly godlike beings who quickly recognize the obsolescence of human beings, and become hell-bent on our destruction (often sending California governors back in time to assassinate our teenage saviors). In fact, there have been so many berserker computers in cinema that we were able to cull together a list of our favorites—in the insane-computer-genre, these baddies rank as the best.
10. The Ultimate Computer (Superman III, 1983)
Ok, usually, in the berserk computer genre, it’s the computer that’s totally insane. There are, however, exceptions—such as the case in Superman III, in which it is the film itself that is, for lack of a better term, nuts. Imagine this: Supes foils new villain Ross Webster’s plans to control the world’s coffee bean supply (seriously, it gets even better). In a rage, Webster hires tech wiz Richard Pryor (really) to generate some Kryptonite, which accidentally splits Superman into two men—a “good” Supes and a bad “Supes.” Pryor then builds the Ultimate Computer, a device which should be able to zap both Supermen with a Kryptonite ray and kill them (deep breath, this is only half the madness). Pryor then changes his mind at the last minute and destroys the Ultimate Computer’s Kryptonite ray, and so the computer does the only logical thing—it eats Ross Webster’s sister and spits her out as a killer cyborg in the film’s most deranged scene. Yes, you read that right—ate her, and digested her as a cyborg. You just can’t top that.
9. ARIA (Eagle Eye,2008)
Let’s be honest—Eagle Eye is pretty overwhelmingly terrible. Its ridiculously convoluted story would take up about half this post, what with it’s tale of ARIA (that’s Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst, to you), a self-aware missile defense system that can control any networked device in the world (from cell phones to automated construction cranes) that decides to wipe out the entire executive branch of the U.S. government because the president willfully bombed civilians in the middle east. What makes ARIA a keeper, then? Her ultimate goal (for reasons too confusing to go into here) includes the murder of Shia Labeouf and his twin brother. Two dead Shias for the price of one movie? Bless you, ARIA, bless you.
8. Queeg 500 (Red Dwarf, 1988)
In the oddball sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, we watch the cast and crew of the Red Dwarf starship get by with their “intelligent computer,” Holly. However, when Holly’s inefficiency (due to “computer senility”) puts the crew in danger, the back-up computer system, Queeg 500, kicks in to bring some efficiency to the RD. However, Queeg’s style leaves a little to be desired—he forces the crew to scrub the ship before any food will become available, and morning workouts become mandatory. After seemingly killing Holly, Queeg disappeares—turns out he was just a prank pulled by Holly, who wanted to teach the Red Dwarf crew a lesson about appreciating a slightly less efficient (but much less insane) computer.
7. Master Control Program (Tron, 1982)
Come on—it’s the original Tron. And it’s the villain, which is also cool. And it’s voiced by David Warner, which is even cooler. And it decides to—of course—take over the world because it can run things “900 to 1,200 times better than any human.” And it’s a giant spinning red face! So, to recap the MCP: Tron, bad guy, David Warner, world domination, big weird spinning head. How awesome is that?
6. Proteus IV (Demon Seed, 1977)
Scientist creates Proteus IV self-aware computer system to cure leukemia. Proteus IV grows and learns at an exponential rate. Proteus IV kidnaps scientist’s wife. Proteus IV (deep breath) impregnates scientist’s wife. Seriously, you just have to see it to believe it. Oh, and you’ll probably want to take about 50 showers afterwards.
5. “The Machines” (The Matrix franchise, 1999 – 2003)
There’s no real name for the collective of self-aware machine baddies who, after a prolonged war with humanity, eventually succeed and begin harvesting humans for the energy our bodies naturally generate. They did give a name for our prison, however—The Matrix, an artificial reality that keeps humans under control by allowing them to believe that they are living out their lives in the late 1990s. We see a few faces of the enemy throughout the franchise—from the evil, insane Agent Smith (who goes from policing the Matrix to attempting to control it) to the arrogant and pompous Architect (the program which designed the Matrix itself). And while the last couple of films in the series were major fumbles, the original Matrix—and the ominous, mysterious artificial intelligence that was behind it—remain high-water marks of sci-fi cinema.
4. WOPR/ Joshua (WarGames, 1983)
In WarGames, early ’80s teen hacker Matthew Broderick hacks into a computer system that he thinks is related to the video game industry, and begins playing several of the games, including one called Global Thermonuclear War. One problem, however: Broderick didn’t hack a gaming company, he contacted a self-aware system belonging to the U.S. military called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), and WOPR isn’t playing any game—Global Thermonuclear War is a real program, and WOPR thinks that it is now at war with Russia. Broderick must then convince the entire U.S. military, along with the WOPR’s creator (who refers to it as “Joshua”) of what has happened, as well as convince WOPR/Joshua that it kinda sorta isn’t really totally necessary to go and start World War III, and to pretty please not obliterate Russia. An instant 80s classic.
3. V’Ger/ Voyager 6 (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979)
In what is probably the most fascinating back story in this list, V’ger began life as Voyager 6, a 20th century NASA probe. One day, Voyager 6 flew into a massive black hole and ended up on the other side of the universe, where it encountered a planet populated only by “living machines.” Assuming that the primitive probe was some kind of kindred spirit, the machines programmed Voyager 6 (which they called V’ger, as the “oya” in Voyager was obscured by space-dust) to “learn all that was learnable,” and, once that was accomplished, “return to its creator.” So V’ger spends a few hundred years with an infinite storage capacity learning everything there is to know about the universe, becomes self-aware, and generates a forcefield cloud around itself the size of half our solar system. Then it decided to return to Earth to find its creator, which V’ger assumes is God. Instead, V’ger finds William Shatner’s hairpiece and Leonard Nimoy’s fake ears and decides to wipe out the Earth in a rage. All of which is yet another reason why we probably shouldn’t let our PCs get too religious, apparently.
2. SkyNet (The Terminator franchise, 1984 – 2009)
Really, Arnie said it best in Terminator 2:
In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes online on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware 2:14 AM, Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
After that, SkyNet nukes, well, the whole planet, and deals with pesky resistance leader John Conner by sending cyborgs in the past to murder him as both a fetus and a teenage boy. Then SkyNet decided the best way to torture and destroy humanity would be by releasing some of the most awful sequels to great films ever, Terminator3 : Rise of the Machines, and Terminator: Salvation. Humanity has yet to recover.
1. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
Come on—you knew Hal would be No. 1 on this list. An AI computer onboard a spaceship bound for Jupiter in a mission which may lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Hal runs the day-to-day operations of the vessel. When the crew discover there may be a flaw in Hal’s circuitry, the smooth-talking computer does what any living would try to do—protect itself. However, Hal goes the extreme route, and decides killing the entire crew would be the smart way to go, before he begins to go a bit insane. But hey, when he finally does get shut down, he shuts down in style, singing a showtune as he slowly powers down. Both sympathetic and disturbing, Hal is king of the crazy computers.
What is your favorite out of control computer in cinema?
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