"I'm Afraid I Can't Do That": 17 Dangerous Cinematic Computers
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1. Master Control Program, Tron (1982)
From 2001: A Space Odyssey to your parents' attempts to check their e-mail, there's been an ongoing war between humans and computers that have gotten too big for their binary britches. Save for maybe Windows '95, no computer-based foe has ever been as diabolical as Master Control Program, the code-munching behemoth in Disney's Tron. MCP loves to toss out to-the-decimal probabilities ("There's a 68.71 percent chance you're right") and calculations, mainly to boast about how much smarter he is than the losers who programmed him. (That's 2,415 times smarter, to be exact.) His plan for world domination involves sapping the collective power of other programs, then discarding them in gladiator-like game zones. Why? Because he can "run things 900 to 1,200 times better than any human." That level of efficiency sounds pretty evil.
2. Colossus, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Film in the 1970s had an oddly awestruck notion of the power that computers might hold over our daily lives, with much hand-wringing and nightmares over the potential loss of our free will to cold, unfeeling machines. That played into the era's Cold War fears as well, of course, since computer control was increasingly part of the strategy of both superpowers' nuclear arsenals. Human error might send a nuke to kill millions by accident or insane design, but could computers really be trusted not to make their own mistakes? The 1970 thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project imagines the horrifying consequences of abrogating human responsibility over our own fate, as the all-too-foolproof computer system Colossus develops its own sinister agenda almost immediately after the U.S. missile system is placed in its control. Developing an alliance with the Soviets' computer, Colossus decides that humans cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs, and takes over the world by threatening nuclear annihilation if its demands aren't met. Though the movie is frustratingly slow, like a Twilight Zone episode padded to 90 minutes, Colossus' malevolent pronouncements are truly chilling, proclaiming its new world order in a way worthy of a Bond villain: "I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content, or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live. Disobey and die."
3. Edgar from Electric Dreams (1984)
As the classic Twilight Zone episode "From Agnes With Love" demonstrates, nothing is worse than a love triangle involving a machine. In this typically technophobic '80s comedy, young architect Lenny von Dohlen finds that out the hard way. After he accidentally pours champagne on his home computer "Edgar" (which naturally causes it to become sentient), it becomes his competition for the affections of his cellist neighbor, Virginia Madsen. Unfortunately for von Dohlen, Edgar (voiced by Bud Cort) is also one of those super-intelligent movie PCs that can not only recognize and respond to human speech, control household appliances like the blender, and trigger his home-security system, it can also compose music beautiful enough to bring Madsen to tears. Fortunately for von Dohlen, Edgar can also understand the powers of the human heart, and at the movie's end, it nobly sacrifices itself (by somehow sending a large electric current through its modem, around the world and back) to let von Dohlen and Madeline be together. Which just goes to show that inside of every evil machine lurks the misunderstood soul of a romantic.
4. ROK from Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
In this underrated, Zucker-less follow-up to the landmark spoof, troubled pilot Robert Hays and his now off-again love Julie Hagerty—somehow promoted from stewardess to "computer officer"—are reunited aboard the Mayflower One, a lunar shuttle on its maiden voyage. In addition to dealing with Sonny Bono as a crazed suicide bomber, the mission hits a deadly snag when the ship's computer, ROK (an explicit parody of 2001's HAL 9000), short-circuits and develops a mind of its own, putting the ship on a direct course with the sun. Hagerty first discovers the problem by way of an overheat in the ship's core, which ROK denies, saying, "All systems compute as positive." Hagerty: "Not from where I'm sitting, they don't." ROK, lacking HAL's measured tact: "Cut the 'not from where I'm sitting' shit. It must be a human error." As Hagerty brings the computer "foul-up" to the attention of clueless captain Peter Graves, he responds the only way he knows how: "I see. Maybe you'd better run it through the computer."
5. Arcade from Arcade (1993)
The video box for this little-seen vehicle for early-'90s "it" girl Megan Ward boasts about its many scenes of "virtual reality action," but even the small cadre of stoners impressed by Mind's Eye videos were unlikely to be awed by the laughably clunky CGI realities created for this B-movie horror. More than a decade before the similarly themed Stay Alive (and only a year before Brainscan), Arcade concerns a group of teenagers—including Seth Green and My So-Called Life's A.J. Langer—led by the troubled Ward, battling the eponymous central villain of a video game that imprisons its players' souls. It's ultimately revealed that Arcade's designers somehow combined the game program with the brain cells of a little boy whose mother had beaten him to death. (This apparently was done to "make it more realistic.") Ward is able to defeat the game and release her friends by freeing the little boy, giving him some of the maternal love he so craves, and dealing with the loss of her own mother in the process. But forget the creepy, malevolent computer/child: The real nightmare-haunter here is the awkward sight of A Christmas Story's Peter Billingsley, all grown up and vainly trying to shake his child-star days by playing a know-it-all gamer.
6. HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Though HAL 9000 interfaces with a crew of astronauts through a set of smoldering lens-eyes, it's a master of lulling its human co-workers into a false sense of security. HAL is tediously methodical, like Stanley Kubrick himself, but considerably easier to get along with, even when it's trying to kill people. Calmly eliminating its ship's crew by turning off life-support systems or luring them into open space, HAL never raises or speeds his voice—lines like "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that" produce a sedative chill that later inspired Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the also-charming Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs.
7. Proteus IV from Demon Seed (1977)
Computers in movies have lied, killed, and even calculated genocide—but it took 1977's Demon Seed to conceive of one committing rape. Like Rosemary's Baby with a hard drive subbing for Satan, Demon Seed casts Julie Christie as the wife of a smug egghead who invents a sentient supercomputer named Proteus IV. Within hours of its activation, Proteus decides to improve on the human race by forcibly impregnating Christie with some sort of digitized spermatozoa. In spite of goofy lines like "This earthquake retrieval program is very far out!" and "At the risk of being simplistic, what you're looking at is a quasi-neural matrix of synthetic RNA molecules," Demon Seed remains truly horrifying 30 years on—even though Proteus' cyber-child looks like Devo's Booji Boy crossed with Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man.
8. Bomb from Dark Star (1974)
Before Dan O'Bannon went on to grander things (like working on Star Wars' special effects and penning the story for Alien), he co-wrote and starred in the 1974 sci-fi farce Dark Star. The directorial debut of fellow USC student John Carpenter, Dark Star stands as the greatest space-stoner epic ever—even if the ending is bit of bummer, man. After lots of sloth-paced, proto-slacker ennui among the stars, O'Bannon's Sergeant Pinback—a janitor thrust into the thankless job of demolishing planets—tries and fails to talk a computerized bomb out of destroying the ship. The bomb's epistemological ruminations on "false data" are straight out of a particularly lame section of Philosophy 101, but they supply a neat, reverential twist on the "Does not compute!" theme so loved by Isaac Asimov and Lost In Space.
9. Icarus II from Sunshine (2007)
The latest in a long line of shipboard computers descended from 2001's HAL, the sweet-voiced Icarus II of Danny Boyle's Sunshine isn't malevolent like its ancestor—but that doesn't make it any less dangerous. Magnifying the human error of a dysfunctional crew on a last-ditch mission to save Earth, Icarus is like a maddening desktop times a million: It doesn't volunteer crucial information unless specifically asked for it, and its failsafe operations just make each meltdown worse. As the spacecraft nears the dying sun to revive it with a massive bomb, it's revealed (spoiler!) that a survivor of the lost Icarus I—Captain Pinbacker, surely a nod to Dark Star's Sergeant Pinback—went nuts and destroyed his own ship's computer in an act of self-sabotage. Really, though, can you blame him?
10. Unnamed computer from Weird Science (1985)
"We're in trouble, Gary. This is highly illegal." So says Ilan Mitchell-Smith to Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science. Legality, though, is the least of their worries: Through some ham-fisted hacking and VDU voodoo, the horny dweebs feed data into a computer to craft a Bride Of Frankenstein-like girlfriend in the form of Kelly LeBrock. But after a little hormone-soaked, coming-of-age misogyny, things go to hell—the computer conjures a ticking nuclear missile that rises from the basement and through the roof of Mitchell-Smith's fancy suburban house. We'll let the phallic-symbol analysis pass.
11. Delos Control from WestWorld (1973)
Long before writer Michael Crichton had a mega-hit with Jurassic Park, he explored another story of systems breaking down and an amusement park turning against its creators with deadly force. Most people who've seen WestWorld probably remember Yul Brynner as a nigh-unstoppable killer robot chasing Richard Benjamin all over creation, but arguably, the real culprit is the central computer system controlling WestWorld and its sister theme parks, MedievalWorld and RomanWorld. When android snakes and android knights start attacking park guests nearly simultaneously, and the sex-bots start getting offended about the schlubs hitting on them, it's pretty clear that the central system—a big, clunky '70s idea of an ultra-modern computer network—is at fault. Maybe all those randomly blinking lights were overheating.
12. Mother from Alien (1979)
Unlike most of the computers in this list, the control computer on the refinery tug-ship Nostromo in Alien isn't sentient, evil, or even meaningfully malevolent. It—or maybe "she," given the female voice and the fact that the ship's crew all call her "Mother"—is just following the orders of the faceless Company, which is perfectly fine with everyone on board the Nostromo getting munched by aliens, as long as the ship makes it home with a sample xenomorph intact for research purposes. To that end, Mother calmly wakes Sigourney Weaver and company from hypersleep, sends them off in pursuit of a "distress call" that's actually a "stay away!" warning, and in the process, opens them up to messy alien death. Part of what makes dangerous computers in cinema so disquieting is the dispassion with which they carry out their evil acts. Mother is particularly creepy in her utter unchanging calm throughout the film, as she delivers her lies, then the fatal truth behind those lies, and finally, the news that the Nostromo is about to blow up, just because Weaver put it into self-destruct mode.
13. V.I.K.I. (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) from I, Robot (2004)
The evil perpetrated by V.I.K.I.—a supercomputer who sics a robot army on Will Smith, along with the other less-deserving members of humanity in I, Robot—stems not from a glitch or desire for self-preservation, but from the reasoning that destroying our irrevocably fucked-up species is in humankind's best interest. It's a wayward interpretation of the First Law Of Robotics, laid out by Isaac Asimov in the short stories upon which the film is loosely based: "A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Sure, V.I.K.I.'s "undeniable" logic raises shadowy questions about free will and totalitarianism, but really it just gives Smith an excuse to engage in his usual badassery, snarling "You have so got to die" as he, um, injects the computer with a virus.
14. Jeff Fahey from The Lawnmower Man (1992)
In 1992, the world stood on the precipice of a technological revolution catalyzed by er, virtual reality. (Talk about missing the mark on the eve of the Internet.) In The Lawnmower Man, Pierce Brosnan plays a scientist who sees VR as a powerful educational tool. He tests his theories on sweet, mentally disabled landscaper Jeff Fahey using rapid-fire immersion (similar to Neo's training in The Matrix), with dramatic results. But as Fahey grows smarter, he also becomes sinister: He hatches a plot to transform into electricity and upload himself into the world's computer networks. How he does this is confusing at best, but it leads to a dramatic cyber-showdown with a virtual Brosnan—and a lot of striking-yet-nonsensical animation. Cyber-Fahey wins, though, and announces his rebirth by making all the world's phones ring at once.
15. V'ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
An unmanned deep-space probe from the 20th century gets reprogrammed by meddling aliens and starts gobbling up assorted fragments of the Star Trek continuity. The only thing that can stop it is love. V'ger, the menacing "energy cloud" that gets Kirk, Spock, and McCoy off their lazy duffs and into those drapey, polo-collared '70s Starfleet uniforms, turns out to be an evolved version of the computer inside a Voyager spacecraft. After it accepts the reality of irrational stuff like emotions and God and whatnot, it merges with Stephen Collins in a blast of mystical, rainbow-colored bullshit.
16. The Matrix from The Matrix (1999)
It's hard to think of anything a computer could be or do that would be more dangerous than trapping humanity in an entire artificial reality. In a trenchant cautionary tale from 1999, future Second Life and World Of Warcraft devotees are warned to avoid plugging their limbic systems directly into their Alienware desktops while enjoying a warm, milky bath. (Some fingertip pruning may result.) The Matrix is treacherous, but like most movie computers, it's only evil because of the way it's used by its creator, The Architect. By the time Keanu comes along to smash the system from within, there's a war on between malicious fascist programs and rebel freedom-loving programs. Why do so many CGI-heavy movies hate on computers?
17. Eddie from Stealth (2005)
"Eddie," the next-gen A.I.-controlled fighter jet in the amusingly terrible Stealth, seems like the perfect flying machine: It can strike enemy targets with breathtaking speed and precision, perform aerial maneuvers that would make humans hurl, and download kick-ass Incubus songs off the Internet. But "Eddie" has been rushed through development, and it turns out that there are many things that he can't do, like follow orders from his superiors, pay attention to his wingmates, and avoid wiping out vast swaths of humanity with his nuclear payload. There's a chilling message here about how computers can be programmed with anything but a heart, but there's also Jessica Biel in a bikini. Which makes the stronger impression?