The robot from Lost In Space is just the latest in a long line of menacing cinema AIs, but these are the best ones so far

The use of artificial intelligence in Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar has given us many memorable characters, who have been influential over the years


                            The robot from Lost In Space is just the latest in a long line of menacing cinema AIs, but these are the best ones so far

Last month marked 50 years of Stanley Kubrick’s '2001: A Space Odyssey,' a movie that gave us one of the most unforgettable Artificial Intelligence characters in space sci-fi dramas.

About nine years after Kubrick's masterpiece, George Lucas changed the space film industry forever with Star Wars. Another breakthrough came with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. 

The use of AI characters in all these movies gave new perspectives to these spaceship dramas. These super smart creatures are not only involved in the complex job of piloting the spaceships but involve themselves in the human and emotional aspects of such journeys across the void and vastness of space.

Hal controls the major aspects of the ship. (Youtube/ Warner Brother Pictures)
Hal controls the major aspects of the ship. (Youtube/ Warner Brother Pictures)

Good space movies involve complex emotional and scientific conundrums, and these robotic characters play a very important role in driving the narrative forward. These characters not only influence the plot of the film but have an abiding influence on the audience too.

HAL 9000 aka Hal was the first of such complex and powerful intelligent characters, then followed the droids of Star Wars and the favorite TARS along with CASE that were an integral part of Interstellar.

R2D2, C-3PO and BB-8 at the Oscars. (Youtube/Oscars)
R2D2, C-3PO and BB-8 at the Oscars. (Youtube/Oscars)

The use of Artificial Intelligence has been prominent in all the space sci-fi movies, from the diabolic HAL 9000 from 'Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey' to the reliable TARS from Nolan’s 'Interstellar.'

The portrayal of these characters have made a significant impact on the storyline and enhanced the intelligence of these masterpieces.

Space movies involve journeys, spaceships, use of science beyond our intelligence and complex enigmas that humans fail to perceive hence the use of androids, humanoids and complex computer programs that actually connect with people.

Sometimes these AI characters get more human than astronauts: during the classic scene of disconnecting HAL from the ship controls, HAL keeps repeating “I feel it”-- this is a legacy of humans creating machines with feelings.

These intelligent machines vary on a personality and they all are just voices or sounds, they do not have a physical structure which gives them a shape or form.

Hal is a just a voice and R2-D2 from Star Wars is just a bunch of beeps. But these human-computers manage to be loved and respected, and in the case of Hal feared too.

The space films, however, involve fewer characters and most of the circumstances suggest that these AI characters are incredibly attached to the protagonists. TARS to Coop, R2D2 to Luke and Hal to Bowman.

There is a need for much comprehensive analysis on these characters. Most of the stage is covered by Mark Hamill and we fail to look at R2-D2 who practically marks the birth of Luke Skywalker. TARS computes the 5th dimension quantum data for Cooper to relay across the dimension, these characters are deeply involved in the plot of these films which do not get credits.

Use of AI as a deeper character with dilemmas and feelings is something significant that adds much to the story being told. Here we analyse the most intriguing AI characters of the movie space world.

HAL 9000 or Hal 2001: A Space Odyssey

Hal is one of the greatest AI antagonist that the silver screen has seen; Hal is brilliant, sensitive and evil at one point. Hal is Kubrick’s master character who changed the idea of Intelligence and emotions forever. 2001 released in 1968 and marked 50 years of its magnificence last month.

Hal was a fresh and unique perspective of AI for the world, and with numerous robot uprising coming out since then, Hal is the prototype of AI most likely to take over humans one day.

The loyalty and sincerity of these AI characters go beyond the human capacity. Hal is more human than astronauts Bowman and Poole. Humans can lie and deceive while Hal cannot -- although we perceive him as a cheat throughout, it is finally revealed that Hal kept the purpose of the Discovery 1 alive.

He is scared and suspicious, he is not perfect; he makes mistakes. HAL in the course of the film, makes a major error, spies on his crew, kills three of the crew member and attempts to kill Bowman too. All this behavior comes from a strong programmed consciousness and feelings.

The "eye" of the Hal. (Youtube/ Warner Brother Pictures)
The "eye" of the Hal. (Youtube/ Warner Brother Pictures)

Hal cannot lie like humans do. He cannot fake his emotions and feelings; this in 1968 was the ultimate imagination of Artificial Intelligence and its capacity. HAL 9000 is anxious, scared and defensive. All these characters come from intrinsic nature of humans; Hal also is a product of the evolution like we humans are.

Millions of years ago when apes were protective of themselves, they did not let other animals into their territory, they protected their places and food and basically life itself.

And all these attributes of the human-ape is programmed unconsciously into Hal. And a sense of duty and fidelity in these supercomputers comes from us, humans! The film is about going beyond the comprehensible fears of humans to perceive and discover something that is beyond our understanding.

When Bowman travels through the Star gateway he sees and feels things which cannot be understood. That is the philosophy of the film, and Hal is one being who kept this curiosity alive.

R2D2 and C-3PO: Star Wars

About 9 years after 2001, George Lucas made Star Wars, the biggest franchise of the cinematic universe. It marked a new era of space adventures in cinema, Star Wars was visually engaging with Light Sabers, Star Destroyers, Death Stars and Fgihterplanes shooting laser bullets and some of the most loved characters in cinema. It is safe to believe that without R2D2 and C-3PO it would be impossible for Star Wars to survive. They deserve credit for the bravest (not C-3PO) persona which changed the situation of Resistance. R2 carries a special message from Leia to Obi-Wan which later reaches to Luke SKywalker and that is how the New Hope for the Resistance began.

Although here R2 is just acting as flash drive, the droids R2D2 and C3PO turn out to be the bravest of the others and preserve the Resistance. They also contribute to the majority of the tasks, R2D2 is incredibly intelligent and brave, although it doesn't really count as a humanoid, the vision of Lucas goes far beyond the year 1977. R2D2 cannot speak to humans and the interpretation of its expression is done by its twin C3PO who can apparently speak all the languages in the galaxy.

But this barrier doesn't stop R2 from making major decisions, during the opening of the movie R2D2 against the will of C3PO retrieves data from Leia and exits from a ship under attack.

C3PO and R2D2 in Rogue One. (Youtube/Star Wars)
C3PO and R2D2 in Rogue One. (Youtube/Star Wars)

R2 is brave, smart and fast, it is helpful and serves the full purpose of being a droid.

C3PO is unlikable, pedantic and cowardly. It is a humanoid and the only human aspect it has is being annoying. C3PO is a translator for R2 and the one-sided conversations between the two form some of the most brilliant writing in cinema, and somehow it leads to R2 becoming a sweetheart without having actual communicating dialogues.

This, however, marked a new standard of using AI in movies; however, these droids which support the good guys do not have a deeper philosophical purpose are nevertheless indispensable

There are multiple theories on how in fact R2D2 is the narrator of the story. For reference of nerds, Episode 1: R2 fixes the shield generator on Queen Padme's ship. Without that act, there is no Luke or Leia. R2 also turned off young Anakin's autopilot which in turned facilitated the destruction of the Separatist droid command ship.

Episode 3: R2 saves Anakin by destroying buzz droids that would have undoubtedly ripped the ship apart. Episode 4: R2-D2 carries the Death Star plans for the rebels and gets the "Help me Obi-Wan" message to Luke. R2 also saves Luke, Han, Leia and Chewy from being crushed in an imperial trash compactor.

TARS and CASE in Interstellar

TARS is ultimately the real hero of Nolan's Interstellar. Interstellar derives a lot of its characteristics of robots from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the monolithic structures).

These monolithic structures are challenged using TARS and CASE on a mechanical aspect. TARS is by far the most likeable robot of cinema; it has certain attributes which could be controlled by other humans in a form of calibration. These elements make TARS the most useful and a darling of a Robot. Robots are basically to help humanity move forward and TARS does that without errors. TARS runs the ship, prevents Mann from destroying humanity and helps convert the quantum data from the black hole to Murph. In short, TARS is the real hero.

Tars and Cooper share a special bond of friendship. (Warner Bros UK)
Tars and Cooper share a special bond of friendship. (Warner Bros UK)

TARS is initially tough and investigative when Coop breaks in into NASA and then he is more obedient. He has variable settings across Honesty, Humor and Discretion and these qualities make him more adaptable to the person using it.

TARS is also funny and diplomatic, “Complete Honesty is not a diplomatic solution when it comes to dealing with emotional beings."

He speaks in a human voice and has all the attributes of a human; he is suspicious of Mann on his frozen planet when it comes to examining the robot KIP.

All these qualities make him productive and charming. He is incredibly funny; “Plenty of human slaves for my Robot colony,” he says at one point.

Robots have been amazingly close to humans in the cinema and this is a great a hope against all the paranoia about robots. CASE is his twin who is a lot less talkative and “TARS speaks for both of us;” CASE is obedient and responsive to Cooper. The mechanical structure of these robots is impressive in their own style.

Tars is sensitive to suspicion more than humans. (Warner Bros UK)
Tars is sensitive to suspicion more than humans. (Warner Bros UK)

The clever use of Artificial Intelligence for the general audiences is remarkable in these characters and the movies in general.

As common audience whose interest varies across other subjects these applications of science help in understanding the concept on a broader level.

These films go beyond the entertainment paradigm and connect to us on a deeper emotional and philosophical level.