Five Movies About AI That Will Make You Cry
A short lineup of films that remind us that intelligent machines don’t aways have to be bad for the future of being human
Think movies about AI and it’s easy to conjure up images of dystopian futures, dominated by intelligent machines that have decided that the one thing they really can’t stand, is people.
Yet there are a surprising number of films where AIs pull on our heart strings, and that hint at a future where smart machines can and do bring out the best in us.
As Steve Tilley wrote in the Toronto Sun some years ago:
Sometimes these thinking machines are villains, and sometimes they’re comic relief. But sometimes they’re there to hold up mirrors to our own humanity. And sometimes they even make us cry.
That was back in 2015. As we reach the end of 2022, I was curious to see how, if at all, the landscape of movies featuring intelligent machines that will make you cry has changed. The result was this list of the top five AI-forward movies that make me reach for the tissues.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Steve’s films appear here as well. But there are also a couple of movies that don’t.
This is, I must confess, a somewhat personal list, and it represents just a small slice of movies featuring artificial intelligence that have the power to move us. For instance, films that didn’t make the list but were on my shortlist include Wall-E, Big Hero 6, Finch, Chappie, Archive, Ron’s Gone Wrong, and even Interstellar with the AIs TARS and CASE. And even though it’s not one of my favorite movies, it’s worth a shout-out to the 1970’s movie Silent Running for it’s trio of robots Huey Dewey and Louie.
With that, here, in order of increasing teariness, are my personal top five movies about AI that make me cry, and will probably do the same for you.
5. Robot and Frank
Robot and Frank is, admittedly, on the lighter side of bringing a tear to the eye. But this 2012 movie definitely pulls on the heart strings as the relationship between a former jewel thief with dementia and his carer robot evolves. A gentle and poignant movie to kick the list off with.
4. The Iron Giant
Director Brad Bird’s 1999 animated movie The Iron Giant is based on the 1968 Ted Hughes children’s novel The Iron Man, and it is full of heart-warning moments. Situated in the U.S. at the height of the Cold War, it’s a touching story of a young boy who befriends a mysterious robot while trying to protect it from an over-zealous military bent on its destruction. Despite being a children’s film, there are mature themes around compassion, empathy, fear, and closed mindedness, that resonate as much today as when the movie was released over 20 years ago.
3. Bicentennial Man
The 1999 film Bicentennial Man, based on an Isaac Asimov novelette, did not go down well with critics. I must confess though that, for all its flaws (and there are more than a few), I have a soft spot for it. The film tells the story of a home-help humanoid robot (played by Robin Williams) that has a unique sense of self-awareness and empathy for others, and it follows their journey from mechanical slave to full personhood. Despite feeling somewhat old fashioned and culturally monotonic (and even a little tone deaf) at times, it’s a movie that explores themes ranging from slavery, prejudice and freedom, to love, immortality, and what it means to be human. And it definitely has its teary moments!
2. After Yang
Released in 2021, After Yang is a moving and surprising retrospective on the life of an android that is designed to play the role of an artificial sibling to a young adopted girl. It’s a slow and thoughtful film that nevertheless packs an emotional punch. I made the mistake of first watching this on a long flight where, to my embarrassment, I ended up in my seat with tears running down my face!
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
I must admit that Stephen Spielberg’s 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence took a while to grow on me. Like many of his films, it’s a tapestry of entangled stories that took some time for me to fully appreciate. Over the years though it’s become one of my go-to movies that centers on how a smart, empathetic robot holds a mirror up to our own humanity. The Pinocchio-like story revolves around a child-robot that is desperate to win its human mother’s love by becoming a real boy. And while he never does fully achieve his dreams, the culmination of the movie is quite heart breaking.
Updated September 2023