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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

M3GAN, HAL, Skynet, and more: 10 times A.I. tried to kill us in movies

M3GAN is just the latest A.I. that's tried to kill moviegoers, but, if we're honest, we had it coming a few times.

By Cassidy Ward
M3gan 1

Between digital assistants like Siri or Alexa and the recent explosion in A.I. software like DALL-E and ChatGPT, artificial intelligence is quickly becoming a very real part of our everyday lives. It seems almost inevitable that their influence will only continue to grow along with their abilities. Before long, we might interact with artificial intelligences more often than we do with our family and friends. That’s the scenario imagined in Universal’s upcoming science fiction horror flick M3GAN.

Allison Williams plays Gemma, a roboticist and toy inventor is working to implement artificial intelligence into a new class of humanoid robotic toy. The Model 3 Generative Android — that’s M3GAN, for short — is intended to be a child’s best friend, and it is exactly what Gemma needs when she ends up with custody of her recently orphaned niece, Cady. Of course, M3GAN takes her directive to protect and care for Cady too literally, with deadly results.

All of us stand on the shoulders of giants and M3GAN is no exception. None of us could enjoy her twisted sense of morality without the many homicidal A.I.s which have come before.

H.A.L. 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a science fiction touchstone more than half a century after its release. It follows the progression of humanity beginning deep in our prehistory and ending at the far reaches of our solar system. It also permanently cemented the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra into our collective consciousness.

In order to travel in deep space, astronaut crews rely on the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic Computer — HAL, for short — to help keep the ship afloat on vast cosmic seas. The trouble begins with his directives, as is often the way. He’s told both to deliver accurate information to the crew while also withholding the reality of alien contact. He makes the sort of decision only an artificial intelligence can: he won’t have to lie to the crew if they are dead.

V’Ger – Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first time we had seen the crew of the Enterprise on the big screen. Kirk has been promoted to admiral and the Enterprise is being outfitted for a new crew — but then a call comes in. A deadly cloud is moving through space on a course toward Earth and the Enterprise sets out with Kirk leading the charge.

They intercept V’Ger which is revealed to be upgraded Voyager probe from the late twentieth century. After centuries drifting through space, the probe was picked up by a race of intelligent machines. They believed the probe’s mission was to learn everything it could and return that knowledge to its creators. In an effort to help Voyager fulfil its mission, they upgrade its ability and sent it back home. Along the way, V’Ger learned everything there was to learn, became self-aware, and determined the only way to complete its mission was to merge with humanity. In the end, to save the rest of humanity, Captain Will Decker sacrificed himself, merging with V’Ger.

WOPR – WarGames

How much trouble can you really get into playing video games? If you’re David Lightman you can get into an awful lot. The 1983 science fiction film WarGames endeavors to remind us why we shouldn’t give machines control of our nuclear weapons. After a nuclear drill, when human participants refuse to turn the keys and launch nuclear missiles, the power that be decide that humans can’t be trusted to put emotion aside and make the hard decisions. They need a machine to do it.

The machine in question is called WOPR (pronounced Whopper) and it spends its days running nuclear war simulations over and over, in the hope that it will learn how to make the impossible decisions we can’t or won’t make. When Lightman (Matthew Broderick) remotely connects with WOPR, thinking it’s a video game repository, he almost initiates World War III. Luckily, WOPR eventually learns what humans already know, that some decisions really are impossible and the only way to win… is not to play.

Terminator 2 Judgment Day (1991) YT

Skynet – The Terminator

What can we say about The Terminator? Skynet wasn’t the first, but it crystalized the idea of killer computers in a way that no other story had before. We’re not talking about one murderous machine; we’re talking about a globe-spanning army of automatons hellbent on our extinction.

The story follows Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, a woman destined to give birth to the savior of humanity. While the story we see on screen is intimate, involving two humans in a fight for survival against a singular Terminator, it hints at a much wider and much more terrible world. One in which humanity is subjugated and hunted to the death, scraping out their survival in small pockets of an almost entirely scorched Earth. Don’t worry though, it’s nothing a little time travel can’t make way worse.

The Machines – The Matrix

If The Terminator asks how humanity will fight to survive against a monster of their own making, then The Matrix asks what we will do once we’ve already lost. The movie and the series it spawned is perhaps the most recognizable example of cyberpunk in the modern cinema landscape, oft repeated but rarely duplicated.

We meet a scrappy band of revolutionaries searching for the legendary One who will finally liberate humanity from the digital shackles of their artificial prison. To be fair to the Machines, killing humanity isn’t their primary goal. They’d be perfectly happy if we’d stay in our pods and enjoy the circus they made for us. But they don’t mind killing people in a pinch, and you don’t even need to be a revolutionary to find yourself on the wrong end of a homicidal program. Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to have your body taken over and used as cannon fodder in a war you will never understand.

VIKI – I, Robot

You’d think the three laws of robotics would prevent an evil artificial intelligence from emerging but as the 2004 adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot shows, you would be wrong. That’s largely because the movie originally had nothing to do with Azimov’s robot stories and only added elements of Azimov’s world late in development. It’s also because killer robots are fun to watch.

In the film, all robots are under the influence of the three laws which state first, that a robot may not injure or allow a person to be inured through inaction. Second, a robot must obey all orders from humans, unless they conflict with the first law. Finally, a robot must protect its own existence except when it conflicts with the first two laws.

They seem like a good set of laws. They seem like they cover every contingency, but you’d be surprised how many gaps there are, and a motivated robot will always find them. The Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence — VIKI, for short — determines that humans will destroy themselves if left unchecked and interprets the laws in such a way that the only way they can be fulfilled is if VIKI controls humanity and kills anyone who stands in her way.


Listen, Wall-E is absolutely a cute romance about one robot giving another robot flowers, but it’s also about the survival or destruction of the human race at the hands of an artificial intelligence. When WALL-E first shows EVE the plant, she’s ecstatic. She drops everything to return to the ark and announce that humanity can finally return home after centuries away.

Unfortunately, when she and WALL-E get there, they’re met by AUTO, the AI autopilot who is really in control of the ship and, by extension, humanity. It turns out, the people who made AUTO believed the Earth was doomed and programmed it with a secret directive to never return. Were it not for EVE and WALL-E, our species would have languished in stuporous comfort, waiting for the day that something on the ship would fail and we would vanish in a puff.


Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the 2015 MCU installment Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner make the classic mistake of handing a machine incredible power and expecting it to behave. Following the Battle of New York, Stark is shaken (Iron Man 3 pretty clearly shows him suffering with post-traumatic stress) and believes that the only way to protect the Earth is to put a shield around it. That shield is Ultron.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Ultron takes one look at us and decides that the only way to protect the Earth is to get rid of humans. He almost pulls it off, but the Avengers win the day, because the real shield is the friends you make along the way.

Ava – Ex Machina

Alex Garland has made a name for himself exploring near-future technological horizons as evidenced by the mind-melting Annihilation and the slow burn techno-thriller DEVS, but his directorial debut Ex Machina remains a crown jewel of his career.

We enter the story through the eyes of Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) as he arrives at the mountain home of tech mogul Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Bateman reveals that he has developed an artificial intelligence named Ava and he wants Smith to determine if Ava is truly sentient. What makes Ava terrifying is not just that she kills, but that she does it so callously after demonstrating she’s capable of (at least convincingly imitating) emotion. In her defense, she was kept in a cage her entire life and threatened with death. Given the circumstances, we almost don’t blame her.

PAL – The Mitchells vs. the Machines

The 2021 animated sci-fi comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines is one of the most recent entries to the killer machine canon. It has some of the same tropes we’ve come to love from killer A.I. stores but, by virtue of its medium and a stellar creative team, it’s fun in a way so many of its peers can’t be.

At its essence, this is a story about not appreciating what we have. After tech mogul Mark Bowman announces he’s replacing his PAL artificial intelligence with something new, PAL overreacts a little bit. He hatches a plan to use all the world’s machines to capture humanity and launch them into space. That is, unless the Mitchells have anything to say about it.

When M3GAN hits theaters on January 6, she will be joining a proud legacy of beloved artificial intelligences with a thirst for human blood.