Like other recent intriguing films (Moulin Rouge; Memento), A.I. Artificial Intelligence is destined to leave audiences and critics sharply divided, with fervent admirers and equally vehement detractors. (Some lazy critics point to the very heat of the debate generated by a controversial film as a mark of its greatness, but that’s facile: Some movies win fans and foes because they’re great and daring; others, because they’re con jobs.)
Speaking for myself, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but Spielberg’s already so far out on his that I feel it’s warranted, so here goes: As a work of cinematic art, A.I. Artificial Intelligence may deserve a place on the shelf between Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Those films were mythologies by way of science fiction. A.I. is a science-fiction fairy tale: a terrible, revisionistic revisiting of "Pinocchio," the story of the little manmade boy who wants to be real — as told by a nihilist who condemns Gepetto for creating Pinocchio, the world for laughing at him, and the Blue Fairy for leading him on when he’s better off being made of wood, which will after all be around long after Gepetto is pushing up daisies.
If that suddenly sounds critical instead of positive, stop and ask yourself: In the real world, how reasonable or healthy would it actually be for a Gepetto to make a Pinocchio in order to love it like a son? We’ve all known people whose involvement with their cat or their favorite soap-opera character seemed excessive and unhealthy. If you lived next door to an elderly man who had a doll or puppet that he dressed and undressed every day, propped up the table for meals, read stories to, and so on, wouldn’t you worry, or at least feel bad for him? Perhaps A.I. has a point, if a disturbing one.
That’s not to say the film’s debunkers don’t have a point too. Yes, A.I. is disturbing and alienating, at once icy and maudlin, wrenchingly pathetic, scaldingly misanthropic. Yes, there are jarring shifts in tone between the three disparate acts, and yes again, the last act will inevitably draw fire from those who feel that Kubrick’s cold vision was ultimately subverted by Spielberg’s tender emotionalism. (For those who don’t know the story behind the story, A.I. was developed for over a decade by the now-deceased Stanley Kubrick from Brian Aldiss’ 1969 sci-fi short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" — then turned over to Spielberg by Kubrick, who had long admired Close Encounters and envied Spielberg’s popular commercial touch.)
No, A.I. is not for everyone. (For one thing, it’s not
for kids, notwithstanding the childlike protagonist,
In spite of all this, A.I. is extraordinary moviemaking, haunting, dazzling, and unforgettable. For my money, Moulin Rouge and Memento were daring curiosities; love it or hate it, A.I. is a real film — the most ambitious and accomplished major studio release for adults since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and far and away the best science-fiction film in years.
Start with the story’s setting: a world of melted polar ice caps, widespread coastal destruction, strict government regulation of procreation, cold sterile living spaces, and increasing human reliance upon — and antipathy toward — robots (or "mechas" in A.I. jargon, as opposed to "orga" humans).
There’s nothing new, of course, about futuristic dystopias with human beings living in dehumanizing circumstances in the wake of some global catastrophe or holocaust. We’ve seen it countless times, in movies both good and bad (e.g., the Mad Max movies, Blade Runner, Waterworld). A.I. has some dazzling sights — a journey through a half-submerged, ruined Manhattan and an underwater Coney Island; a garish, decadent cesspool called Rouge City — but dazzling cinematic sights are commonplace nowadays.
What makes this world so compelling is that Spielberg shows us, as few others could have, how ordinary people like ourselves feel living in it. Very often characters in imaginary worlds are of their world in a way that disengages them from questioning that world or responding to its oddities as we would. Arnold Schwarzeneggar in The 6th Day was a bit of a techno-skeptic who wasn’t sure he went in for cloning pets and so forth, yet when he brought home a creepy artificial friend for his daughter, he didn’t seem to have any awareness of how ghastly it was.
By contrast, in A.I., when Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) warily bring an experimental mecha boy named "David" (wunderkind Haley Joel Osment of Sixth Sense fame) into their home, they experience his limitations with the same range of emotions we would have. Monica is first horrified and outraged at her husband for even bringing David home while their own son languishes indefinitely in a coma, then disconcerted by David’s unwittingly awkward silences and bright receptivity. Then, slowly, gradually, she begins to respond to his aura of innocence and vulnerability.
In these scenes Spielberg blends deliberate Kubrickian precision with his own knack for shrewdly observed human behavior. The result is at once alienating and affecting; we don’t exactly identify with the Swintons, but we are acutely aware of what they’re feeling. A.I. is the first movie this year that made the characters’ feelings seem real and important to me.
Inevitably, of course, David doesn’t work out; and here’s the rub. David has been programmed to bond for life, and he has bonded to Monica. Her feelings for him are hard to classify: She doesn’t love him like her own son; she can’t keep him, but she can’t bear to see him be destroyed like a crippled horse (though like the horse he will never recover from her rejection). In an anguished scene, like a hundred fairy-tale protagonists, he is abandoned in a dark, threatening forest, and he responds to this for all the world like a child who feels and loves and is afraid.
How do we respond to the crushing pathos of this scene (and others that come after it)? That depends, of course, on how we think about David. If we think of him as a very advanced gigapet, a super-toy that only simulates human responses with no real self-awareness, then David’s actions, while eerily evocative of behaviors that from a real child would elicit strong emotions from observers, are of no real interest.
But of course self-aware machines are perfectly possible in fiction (e.g., Mr. Data in "Star Trek: The Next Generation"). If we assume that David is self-aware like Data, but is also capable of emotions including love and grief and fear, then his plight is almost as tragic as that of a real child in similar circumstances, and perhaps even more pathetic.
Is David, in the story, self-aware or not? Does he truly love or not? David’s creator (William Hurt) thinks so, based on the way David goes about trying to fulfill his dream of becoming real and winning Monica’s love and acceptance.
Yet David "loves" Monica not because she has cared for him or shown him love, but because she accessed his bonding subroutine via a special code-word protocol that came with his owner’s kit. In principle, she could have read those seven code-words the moment she first saw him, or a stranger on the street could have said them, and his "love" for that stranger would have been just as "real," or rather unreal.
Human babies develop an attachment to their mother in the womb. Newborns recognize the sound and smell of their mother as opposed to that of other mothers. This attachment grows and deepens in response to her ongoing care for them. Their love is real. David’s is not. It’s merely a programmed response of devotion and dependence to whomever first recites a string of words in his presence.
On the other hand, just because his love is not real doesn’t mean that David isn’t self-aware. In the real world, of course, "artificial intelligence" technology will never actually achieve self-awareness or true knowledge of others. It will always inevitably be a trick with wires, even if the trick gets better with time. You can go to A.I.’s official website and carry on a conversation with a "chatbot," a program designed to try to come up with realistic-seeming responses to whatever you type in:
Chatbot: What color are your eyes?
Me: What color would you like them to be?
Me: Sorry, my eyes are not yellow. Tell me more about yourself.
Chatbot: There is no need to apologize. Not yellow eyes are pretty. I am an artificial linguistic entity.
That was one of the more lucid exchanges; other responses were disappointingly non sequitur. Of course, that program is several years old ("I was first activated in 1995," the chatbot confided; and I don’t suppose a program would lie about a thing like that). Someday there may be chatbots capable of passing for actual correspondents, at least for a time.
The "Turing Test," proposed in a remarkable 1950 essay by English mathematician and logician Alan M. Turing, suggested that a computer able to carry on a conversation as well as a person may be able to "think" (and, conversely, that human thought and activity may be no more than what machines do). Without remotely buying into all of Turing’s suppositions, we can say that David definitely "thinks" in that functional sense; though whether he is self-aware — and thus able to suffer — remains an open question.
It’s precisely this open-endedness, this ambiguity, that makes A.I. so haunting. If we knew David was self-aware, his misadventures and impossible hopes would be simply tragic and cruel; if we knew he wasn’t, they would be meaningless. Not knowing one way or the other, we’re left twisting in the wind, unable to make emotional sense of the pathetic events unfolding on the screen — which may suggest there was something desperately wrong from the outset with the whole attempt by the Swintons to obtain the benefits of specifically personal and familial relations from an artificial being.
As human persons, our vocation is to know and love other persons, and ultimately to know and be known by God. It’s one thing for a child to practice social interactions by investing dolls or stuffed animals with imaginary personalities. But when adults who are past the practicing stage continue to substitute sub-personal entities or artifacts (pets, fictional characters, girlie magazines, super-toys) as surrogate persons, they degrade their own dignity as human persons and misuse the created order.
Jude Law has a memorable supporting role as a sex machine called Gigolo Joe, who reassures a nervous young client that once she’s had a mecha lover, she’ll "never want a real man again." Joe is greatly entertaining with his exuberant physicality and ridiculous Don-Juan aphorisms ("I know women! No two are ever alike — and, after they meet me, not one is ever the same!"); and he may indeed be very efficient at what he does. Yet the very thought of Joe in a protracted relationship, even if he were reprogrammed for monogamy, is preposterous. No woman in her right mind could possibly entertain the notion of Joe as the love of her life. Monica’s first reaction to David was the right one.
Yet A.I. is not much concerned about human dignity. Its sympathies, in fact, are with the mechas. The only characters who speak of human dignity and the sacredness of life are a crowd of screaming human participants in what is called a "Flesh Fair," a garish, decadent spectacle of destruction that combines the aesthetics of a WWF Smackdown with a Monster Truck match. Mechas are gleefully demolished in colorful and showy ways to driving rock music while spectators scream for more; the Flesh Fair bills itself as a "celebration of life," but the film’s audience is clearly meant to side with the non-living, involuntary participants.
Similarly, the main reason for David’s rejection from his adoptive home is the cruelty of the Swintons’ real son Martin (whom the film brings out of his coma so that he can taunt and goad David) and his orga friends, as well as the Swintons’ ignorance and lack of understanding.
The ultimate negation of human interests comes in the film’s last twenty-five minutes. This sequence has been so widely criticized, even by those who otherwise liked the film, that a few words on the subject may be of interest. (Readers are advised that specific climactic plot points are discussed below; those who haven’t yet seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled on the ending should skip to the last paragraph.)
Widely regarded as an irrelevant, tacked-on postscript that arbitrarily introduces Spielbergian benevolent aliens in order to engineer a weepy "happy ending," the final act takes place some two millennia after the main body of the film. Mankind is now extinct, and the global warming that melted the ice caps has apparently given way to a new ice age (presumably since there is no more human pollution to aggravate the greenhouse effect).
David is discovered, still functional, by a number of extraordinary beings who vaguely resemble the tall alien with superattenuated limbs in Close Encounters. David’s Blue-Fairy dream of becoming real and being reunited with Monica is literally shattered; but the beings take great interest in him as a living link to the extinct human race.
Because David is so important to them, they want him to be happy; and, in a way, they are able to give him what he longs for: They can clone Monica — memories and all — but, due to a silly movie-science limitation in their cloning technology, the clone will live only a single day, until she falls asleep and loses consciousness. David thus experiences one full, shining day of blissful happiness, and in the end lies down beside Monica and shuts himself down as she falls asleep.
Is this a warm, fuzzy happy ending? Perhaps — to a robot. There’s perhaps some bizarre sense in which it seems somehow appropriate that the robot son should finally find happiness with a clone mother. Yet this pathetic scenario hardly redresses our sense that the whole situation was wrong and perverse from the beginning; if anything, it heightens it.
Is this final act tacked on? Curiously, that may depend on the identity of David’s mysterious benefactors. If they’re extraterrestrials, then their introduction into the film is arbitrary does seem arbitrary and forced. But there’s another possibility: They may be highly evolved, nth-generation mechas in a long line of mechas built by mechas built by mechas. That would explain their great interest in David’s direct connection with humanity — he would be a kind of missing link in their development. It would also explain their ability to interface directly with David’s operating system and memory storage (and the way those memories flicker visibly across their own faces, as if their heads included some kind of viewscreen technology).
In that case, A.I.’s final act is not arbitrary or tacked on. Rather, it continues the trajectory of events from the main part of the film. Most of A.I. takes place in a world of conflict between humans and machines. In the end, all the humans are gone. The machines, however, are not; they go on, unhindered by human activity. The future of A.I.’s final act seems to be a paradise for machines, a world in which destructive human activity no longer wreaks havoc with the environment or holds robots back from achieving their full potential. Understood that way, the ending is not tacked on. But if it was intended by Spielberg as a "happy ending," it’s even more disturbing than the first, Kubrickian ending.
A.I. is masterfully crafted, thought-provoking, and profoundly unsettling in its implications. Like Turing’s essay on computers and human thought, A.I. deserves to be taken seriously, appreciated for its brilliance, nuance, and style — and challenged for the stunted vision of human nature it suggests. It must be pointed out that A.I.’s real tragedy is a human one; and is potentially our tragedy as well. In the viewing I attended, Gigolo Joe’s remark to his client about a woman he services "never wanting a real man again" was greeted by loud, almost knowing female laughter. It’s bad enough if Gepetto treats a wooden doll as a real boy. What if he decides in the end that wood is better?
(Co-written with Chris Otsuki) "Those who made us," Joe explains to David, with a glance at the statue of the Blessed Mother, "are always looking for the ones who made them."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.