This article is part of Humanity and the Machine, our exploration of the cinematic interactions between humans and self-aware machines.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (if you haven’t seen it yet, see it, because it’s pretty terrific) is the latest in a long line of films featuring artificial intelligence where that artificial intelligence is really good at what it does. HAL 9000. Skynet. The Maschinenmensch (aka the robot lady from Metropolis). WALL-E. Dinobots.
Always perfect, glitch-free miracles of computer programming. That’s the norm. Whatever a cinematic A.I’s station might be – good or evil, enslaving humanity or just compacting trash into those little cubes – it does so with perfect precision. Even when an A.I. goes haywire and starts brutally dispatching its human companions one by one, it’s still super competent in the brutal dispatchment department.
So for a change of pace from Ex Machina and all those other incredible, complex works of A.I., here are six pieces of movie A.I. that just downright sucked.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — Golden Ticket-Finding Machine
You know, this particular A.I. might actually be kinda competent. It won’t tell anyone where to find the last three Golden Tickets, because for some reason it was programmed with a strong respect for sweepstakes rules and also biting sarcasm (we know from Interstellar that future generations would learn to set computer sarcasm on an adjustable scale).
However, the machine does seem to know where the Golden Tickets really are. “I won’t tell” makes it pretty clear that the A.I. figured out the precise coordinates and then withheld them out of spite. Cold, mechanical spite.
This might have something to do with the revolutionary “Computonian Law of Probability,” which, sadly, is not real computer science (upon Googling it, I found only a handful of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory quote pages and a meme about Kim Jong-un). Also, our befuddled 1970s-era computer scientist is just punching the same three keys over and over again, which might be a clue he’s not quite the tech wiz he appears to be.
Iron Man 1–3 — Dum-E
Poor Dum-E. He’s Tony Stark’s first-ever robot creation (at least, the first we ever see), a robotic arm that clearly displays intelligent thought (see the above clip as proof a robot arm can cower in shame). The Iron Man movies don’t spend enough time on Dum-E to give definitive proof of his robot incompetence, but it’s pretty easy to figure out from how often Stark rags on him.
You’d think saving Tony Stark’s life in the first Iron Man (Dum-E, helpfully grabbing a new arc reactor when Stark was too weak to reach) would soften the hero’s resolve towards his bumbling robot helper. Not even a little. Stark would later sentence Dum-E to wear a dunce cap for some unknown blunder – not just in Iron Man 3, but for public humiliation in official promotional materials (hit the pause button five seconds in).
When last we saw Dum-E, Tony Stark was heaving his lifeless body from the remains of Stark Mansion. But don’t cry for Dum-E just yet. Not when there’s still insane but almost probable fan theories on his resurrection into the MCU.
Total Recall — Johnny Cab
An automatic, driverless taxicab would give public transportation a massive boost and likely revolutionize the way we travel. Total Recall’s (the 1990 classic, obviously) future has just such a taxicab, and yet its future is not revolutionized (at least not in a positive, free-public-transportation-for-all kind of way). Which is proof that Johnny Cab is just no good.
Some of Johnny Cab’s blunders I can sympathize with. Not knowing a precise route to “Drive! DRIVE!,” “Anywhere, just go, GO!” and “Shit. SHIT!” is almost understandable (although a taxi-driving robot not knowing the word “shit” is a little dubious). Less so when Douglas Quaid asks where he is, and Johnny Cab can only respond “you’re in a Johnny Cab!”
Quaid continues to press the subject – maybe for a state, city, street name – but Johnny Cab gives nothing but non-answers, eventually rolling his eyes and giving Quaid a condescending tut-tut. Thanks, pal. Also, Johnny Cab urges Quaid to buckle his seat belt, even though I’m pretty sure there are no seat belts in that vehicle.
Then, there’s Johnny Cab’s biggest glitch. Call Johnny a dickhead, and he’ll glow hellfire red and try to run you down in a kamikaze rage. Again, this is a taxi-driving robot (who’s been programmed with the ability to eye-roll, no less). Based on what I’ve seen in sitcoms, annual Johnny Cab murder-suicides must number in the thousands.
Sleeper — Ginsberg and Cohen: Computerized Fittings
Now in all fairness, these two robot tailors were probably programmed this way – to ignore their customers, bicker incessantly about velvet and deliver one of the worst-fitting suits ever seen on film (that last one’s obviously on purpose, because how else would they throw in an extra charge for taking it in?). But that shouldn’t excuse how awful they are at their jobs (however, not awful in the slightest: Woody Allen’s quietly hysterical delivery on “this is terrible”).
The sign outside Ginsberg and Cohen’s door says they’ve been running “since 2073.” Sleeper takes place in 2173. The only possible explanation for their century in business: Ginsberg and Cohen is the only robot tailor game in town.
Star Wars — Battle Droids
Watching any one of the Star Wars prequels is proof enough that the Battle Droids were a fighting force of chirping, break-apart cannon fodder. But why go by gut instinct alone when the Star Wars universe (via actual movies or EU over-analysis) gives us real, concrete facts on just how ineffective they really are?
Battle Droids are:
- Prone to malfunction and hardware error.
- Weak enough to be torn apart in combat by an average human.
- All linked to a single control ship hivemind, so all it takes is one crafty fighter pilot (a la Anakin in The Phantom Menace) to render the entire army dead on its feet.
- “Useless things, a greater danger to us than the Jedi,” according to General Grievous, a guy whose job involved leading a Battle Droid army.
Whenever the Battle Droids are brought up, it seems like someone always throws in an oh, but they were just meant to swarm their opponents and win on sheer numbers. Which is true, technically. But I have a hard time taking any military strategy seriously when that strategy is heartily endorsed by Zapp Brannigan.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians — Torg
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of the rare films where you can read the title and instantly know that this movie is beyond abysmal and you have to watch it right now. Along with Martians (duh), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians also features a robot named Torg, who in the style of most 1960s movie robots was just a guy wearing a cardboard box with a trashcan on his head.
Torg is not an impressive piece of A.I. – not by a long shot – but a true explanation may be lost on those not versed in Martian computer engineering. Sent on a mission of Santa-extermination by his Martian overlords, Torg blunders into a North Pole workshop, bear hugs an elf (a devastating blow), but stops what he’s doing as soon as Santa starts talking. “Well! Where did you come from?” Santa chuckles. “You’re the biggest toy I’ve ever seen! Eh heh heh… ehhh… hehhhh (Santa’s laughter is labored and uncomfortable). And very well made, too!” Meanwhile, Torg remains frozen.
Watching from the window, the two Martians explain just why Torg has ceased his mission of death. When Santa called him a toy, he became one. Forever. Because that’s how Martian A.I. (or perhaps Santa’s otherworldy powers of persuasion) works. When last we see Torg, he’s still standing in Santa’s workshop, motionless. Which is where he remains, to this very day…
Related Topics: Iron Man