10 Unforgettable Voices In A.I. Movie History

By  · Published on December 13th, 2012

by David Christopher Bell

Look – computers will never have souls. It’s disappointing to admit, but we all have to face facts at some point in our lives. Maybe one day they’ll manage to act alive, but they will never feel our love. They have no feelings. They are soulless, uncaring devices that we all too often assign our own humanity to – just like cats.

But of course, in film, that would just be no fun. It’s better to have an A.I. that is dynamic and has some kind of personality, even if that personality is a lack of any kind of personality.

The key is the voice, and here are some of the most unforgettable ones…

10. Julianne Moore as ARIIA – Eagle Eye

Anyone see this film? It’s not bad in terms of an on-TV Sunday afternoon hangover film. You know the kind, like Bad Company or Enemy Of The State. Stuff where sun glare almost adds to the film.

The whole thing centers on this insane computer ball that really needs Shia LaBeouf’s face so that it can kill the president because the constitution told it to. Look, it’s not a perfect plot, but they are trying. What is perfect is Julianne Moore and her scary robot voice as she inflicts her will on these characters by blackmailing them and holding their loved ones hostage – which is impressive since the A.I. never has to leave it’s little room, which for some reason looks the set of a rap video after a flood. Why the hell anyone would suspend a super computer over water is beyond me.

9. Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime – Transformers

Peter Cullen sounds like a mustache. There’s really no other way to describe that voice – he’s what bears would sound like if they could talk. Vocal musk. And he’s been the voice of Optimus Prime from the very start.

Say what you want about Michael Bay (seriously go right ahead – he means nothing to me), the man did a good deed bringing back the original voice actor for Prime. Hell – he did a good deed bringing back Transformers. I know I’m not going to get any prizes for saying this, but those films were as good as they deserved to be. After all, we’re talking about a TV show in the 80s literally made to sell toys – why would the film be anything different? It was fine. I hope the make 30 of those things.

8. Kevin Spacey as GERTY – Moon

Spacey was long overdue to play a robot. His perpetual calmness makes him the perfect kind of creepy that really lends itself to outer space A.I. He always sounds like he’s trying to talk you down, which is also why he was perfect in The Negotiator – unlike Samuel L. Jackson. Seriously, who would hire Samuel L. Jackson as a hostage negotiator?

Anyway, Moon. Good film, good film. The beauty of GERTY was that he was clearly written in as a red herring. His smiley face expression, apparent initial resistance to Sam, and ultra soothing voice just reeked of evil robot. Then, nothing. The whole film you’re waiting for him to go bad and he just smiles and goes about his business – and that’s almost the joke of it. The twist is that there was no twist, and it was your own robot prejudice that was leading you down the wrong path.

Suddenly, it is you who is the bad robot!

I think we’ve all learned an important lesson about robot stereotypes today.

7. Phil Hendrie as I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E – Team America: World Police

This was brilliant a few levels – but the best part really had to be the voice. Apathetic and unsure, I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E was a talking shrug. The perfect scapegoat for Team America’s uninformed actions.

What baffles me is why after this film there were no other marionette puppet films done. It’s a great new genre that could have really picked up. I bet those poor puppeteers got really hopeful too. “Oh my god! Puppets are back! I don’t have to do any more shows out of my brother’s garage/where I live.”

Seriously though, it’s really no better than a cartoon, and there are tons of advantages. DP Bill Pope, who also did The Matrix and Spider-Man, noted in the DVD extras that when you can cover the scale equivalent of like a hundred feet in a quarter that, it makes for some awesome action shots. They even purposefully dumbed down the puppet work and facial animatronics for the sake of comedy – imagine how cool a puppet action movie would be using their full potential. Let’s do this!

6. David Warner as Master Control Program – TRON

You gotta respect the actors in TRON, man. Think about what they were doing! Some dude gives them a bunch of grey spandex and bike helmets and tells them “Trust me! Just act like you’re a computer program and this thing will totally be a hit!” And they just went with it.

It’s the reason films like Zardoz exists – because everything looks ridiculous on paper, so all you can do is just film it and see what happens. Seriously – Star Wars has a giant hairy man in it. You think anyone first read that script and thought it would be a hit? This is why TRON must have been such a leap of faith.

So yeah. David Warner. I didn’t even realize it was him because of that weird robot filter they put his voice through, but I guess this guy doesn’t just play the bad guy boss Dillinger but also the bad guy MCP. It makes sense in retrospect. Anyone running a company with an elevator button labeled “laser bay” is going to be maniacal and self-centered enough to use their own voice for their evil A.I. assistant. In another world he’d be a Bond villain.

Read on!

5. Paul Bettany as Jarvis – Iron Man

Who in their right mind would want a sarcastic master computer? What if he wanted to look at porn, can you imagine the shit he’d get? Yes – that’s the first place my mind went with it, but seriously – that has to be a nightmare! And you couldn’t just shut him off! He’s too charismatic! That’s the other thing – I don’t want my computer to be cooler than me. The only reason it works in Iron Man is because Stark happens to be way way awesome, otherwise that thing would be talking circles around him.

Hey, fun fact: The voice of Jarvis is the albino Monk from The Da Vinci Code. How you like that slice of truth? Did you just get mind blown or what? And he did them back-to-back! One year he’s self-flagellating bare-assed and chalk white and two years later he’s helping Tony Stark kill Jeff Bridges. This is why we have the internet.

4. Ben Burtt as WALL-E

Ben Burtt is the shit. I wrote about him over at Cracked some time back, so I’ve got to know him through quite a bit of research. He isn’t just the voice of Wall-E, but of R2-D2 as well. In fact, Darth Vader’s breathing is HIM. He also came up with the lightsaber and blaster sounds. He’s also the guy who made the Wilhelm scream popular. My point is that we owe a lot to Ben Burtt.

Hey, why are we making garbage compactors cute? That seems counterintuitive. Also, it’s the future guys, couldn’t you have given the thing a CD player? Why is it even playing stuff to begin with? It’s like putting a TV on a broom.

3. Majel Barrett as Computer – Star Trek

Barrett had played multiple roles in both the various Star Trek series and movies, most notably as the ship’s computer as well as Troi’s cougar psychic mother in TNG. Also, she married Gene Roddenberry, so that probably had something to do with it. Their marriage was done in the traditional Shinto style of Japan, because Wikipedia. Anyway, she’s the one – and while as a computer she didn’t really stand out, she sure kicked the shit out of her role in TNG.

I should take a moment here to point out that the Enterprise’s computer happens to be one of the worst sci-fi computers ever. What I mean is that, aside from like, anyone being able to hack the damn thing and take over, it’s also completely blind. Whenever something goes down on the Enterprise, they always have to put together an investigation about it to find out what happened. Or if they are chasing someone they are shit out of luck the moment they get rid of their little communicator.

My point is – where the hell are the cameras? Did they use them all up installing them on the outside of the ship? Seriously – the ship can visually zoom down to any planet, but the moment they need to see inside the Enterprise it’s always, “Computer, locate Lt. Commander La Forge”, followed by a verbal description of where he is. The hell? It’s a freaking starship filled with strangers and it has worse security than a mall.

2. Anthony Daniels as C-3PO – Star Wars

Neurosis is like… the worst feature to install on a droid. Just throwing that out. I know it’s been said before but… holy hell. What does this thing do? Is it just accidentally set to ‘fumble mode’ or something? It can barely walk! Who brings something like that into life? That’s just mean. Like genetically engineering a dog to fear his own bark.

Since Burtt (R2-D2) already made the list earlier, I thought it would be nice to devote number two all to Daniels. Not only was this little golden bot his only large role, but apparently the studios also didn’t even want to put him on the front lines when it came to promotional work. According to a very old interview with Daniels, the producers felt that revealing C-3PO to be actually a man in a suit would ruin the effect of the film – because clearly the audience wouldn’t catch on to that, right? It’s just like how they didn’t want people to know that Wookies don’t exist and Chewie was really just a giant panda slathered in a mixture of brown pigment dye and Chinese growth hormones.

1. Douglas Rain as HAL – 2001: A Space Odyssey

This wasn’t really a thing that anyone didn’t expect the moment the clicked on this silly little list. HAL is the OG of A.I. voices. He’s both passive and scary, laid back but secretly murderous. Naturally, they got a Canadian for the role.

Interestingly enough, Rain wasn’t the first choice. Actor Martin Balsam, who you’d probably know best as the detective in Psycho, had already recorded the role of HAL but was then replaced. Kubrick thought that he sounded “too colloquially American” and opted to go with a more “bland mid-Atlantic accent”. That must have made ol’ Doug feel great about it.

Anyway, HAL rocks. If you need any more proof, here’s a SCTV sketch featuring Douglas Rain reprising HAL across from Rick Moranis as Merv Griffin and John Candy as Orson Welles. You’re welcome.

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