2015 has, so far, been a year of A.I. robots in movies. The beginning of the year gave us Chappie, then there was Age of Ultron and Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina, and now (whether we want it or not) we’ve got Terminator: Genisys. Artificial intelligence, it would seem, is on the minds and in the imaginations of filmmakers and audiences.
So, I can’t think of a better time to revisit Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. HBO’s airing it and offering it on their streaming services for the next two months; you can also rent it for a paltry sum from Amazon, Google, or iTunes.
And you should. Because this movie is a masterpiece, perhaps the definitive filmic statement on the subject of artificial intelligence.
Few people saw it that way at the time, though. At the time of its release in 2001, critics largely judged A.I. Artificial Intelligence to be an interesting misfire. Looking back, it’s hard not to speculate that this was due to the film’s perplexing provenance as the co-creation of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Kubrick had died in 1999, and his last project—a story about a boy robot based on a Brian Aldiss short story—ended up in Spielberg’s hands. Conventional wisdom about the two directors holds them to be polar opposites, with completely incompatible artistic visions: Kubrick’s films are distant, intellectually stimulating but emotionally chilly, while Spielberg’s films are so dripping with emotion that they sometimes verge on cheap sentiment. In A.I., the critical consensus went, the two directors’ styles had fused in the worst possible way: what Spielberg had given us was a Kubrick film with a saccharine ending that belonged in a different picture.
But Jonathan Rosenbaum, an early defender of the film, disagreed. Decrying the “media typecasting of both directors,” he claimed the movie to be a masterpiece that defamiliarized both Spielberg and Kubrick, made them strange, and revealed just how little we all knew about either of them. About the film itself, he had this to say: “[I]t’s a living, and therefore evolving, work of art. A.I., which often resembles two slightly distorting mirrors facing each other, is likely to unsettle and confound us for some time to come—and that’s entirely to its credit.”
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a flawed movie—there can be no question of that. But it’s flawed in an interesting way. If we’re puzzled by it, still, that’s because the film isn’t done with us.
Among the things Rosenbaum reveals in his review is that Spielberg’s stewardship of the project was hardly a convenience borne of misfortune. A.I. didn’t simply fall to Spielberg because Kubrick died. Kubrick had had Spielberg in mind for the film for quite some time. One reason for that, says Rosenbaum, is that the story centered around the character of a child robot, and Kubrick knew of Spielberg’s skill and speed in directing child actors. On that score, Kubrick was absolutely right in choosing Spielberg for the picture—under his capable direction, star Haley Joel Osment gives a performance that must stand as one of the greatest child performances in film of all time.
Another reason Kubrick wanted Spielberg and not himself on the movie, says Rosenbaum, was that Kubrick knew Spielberg could handle sentimental material better than he could. This is interesting for at least a couple of reasons: firstly, that Kubrick, held to be a director of cold and emotionally distant films, knew that sentiment had a place in this story; secondly and perhaps more crucially, that Spielberg’s oft-derided sentimentality, his ability to wrest an emotional response from audiences at the expense of the intellectual, turns out to be so crucial to the meaning of this film. In other words, how we feel about A.I. Artificial Intelligence turns out to be central to what we think about the movie.
Some plot summary is necessary here. A.I. takes place in an unspecified future where environmental catastrophe has led to strict government regulation of the Earth’s human population, and in which “mechas”—the film’s word for robots, in contrast to flesh-and-blood human “orgas”—have grown in prominence to fulfill human needs: to serve them, and even, we find, to love them. A scientist named Professor Hobby (William Hurt) proposes making robots with the ability to love their human masters, artificial children for all the couples denied the ability to have their own kids. The ability to love, Hobby theorizes, will be the key to making mechas that are truly human, robots who can dream.
But Hobby’s plan raises a question for one of his colleagues: “If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that mecha in return? It’s a moral question, isn’t it?” This turns out to be the central question of the movie—in the story itself, and also in the way we approach the film as viewers. Is David, Hobby’s prototype of a robot who can dream, a counscious being toward whom the humans who created and care for him bear some moral responsibility? Well, that depends. The Turing Test hinges not on what is, but on what seems to be—and the human characters in the movie understand their moral and ethical obligations in direct proportion to their ability to imagine David as human. At the same time, our response to the film as viewers hinges upon Spielberg’s employment of sentiment, his ability to make us feel with and for a being who is not human.
This turned out to be another problem in the early reception of the film: some audiences, it seems, simply weren’t ready to imagine an artificial intelligence as capable of sentience, consciousness, or emotion. Roger Ebert, in a review that was as close to a pan while still awarding the picture three stars, was resolute in his denial of David’s humanity: “From a coldly logical point of view, should we think of David, the cute young hero of A.I., as more than a very advanced gigapet? Do our human feelings for him make him human?” Ebert later changed his mind and promoted the film to his “Great Movies” series, while remaining resolute in his view that David “does not love and does not feel love; he simply reflects his coding. All of the love contained in the film is possessed by humans.” (This leads to a truly bizarre interpretation of the ending that I won’t get into here.)
I love Ebert and it’s perhaps unseemly to argue with the dead, who can’t argue back—but he got A.I. completely wrong. In fact the truth is exactly the opposite of what he argues: Spielberg’s great innovation in the film is to portray all the human characters as awful unsympathetic monsters, even as he wrests us into an emotional identification with David that becomes almost stifling. Most films about AI observe artificial intelligence from the outside and observe it from the human perspective; Spielberg’s approach is to take the opposite perspective. In A.I., only the robots seem human.
This is true early on, when David goes to live in the home of a human couple whose son is in a coma from which he may never wake. The early scenes of David interacting with his human “mother,” Monica, are eerie and uncanny. There’s one scene in particular in which David laughs at the dinner table at Monica and Henry, and they laugh back. David’s laugh is mechanical and inhuman, but so is the laughter of Monica and Henry. Orgas can be just as unreal and mechanical, sometimes, as mechas. Later, Monica decides to “imprint” herself in David’s mind, to set herself up as the one person in the world he’s capable of loving. As she recites her name in the imprinting process, something strange comes over David’s face, and he calls Monica “Mommy” for the first time. This may be the moment when David learns to love Monica—but it’s also the moment when David is imprinted on our minds, when we the audience begin to see him as more than an uncanny human-like machine, a human worthy of our sympathy and deserving of ethical treatment.
This process of deeper and deeper identification with David even as we’re alienated from the film’s human characters continues throughout the movie: when Monica’s son Martin emerges from his coma and is revealed to be a complete turd, when Martin’s friends experiment with stabbing David to see if he has pain receptors, when Monica leaves David in the woods to fend for himself, and especially when David happens upon a “flesh fair” in which humans enact their rage against mechas in public executions reminiscent of Romans feeding Christians to lions or a medieval rabble cheering the public torture of a heretic. At the flesh-fair, one mecha that is far less human-seeming than David nonetheless asks a fellow machine to turn off his own pain receptors; though the humans in the crowd and perhaps in the film’s audience see the mechas as nothing more than things, they can feel pain and prefer not to, if possible. This seems like evidence of at least a low-level sentience, the ability to feel, to enjoy certain feelings and fear others. David, meanwhile, is saved at the last moment by an unexpected surge of sentiment from the crowd: their emotional identification with a human boy, even one who may only be replicating humanity, cannot allow them to see David killed.
Watching these scenes, I’m reminded of Spielberg’s other great statement on oppression, xenophobia, and group violence. Schindler’s List is one of the great movies, yet I’m tempted to say that A.I. constitutes a more perceptive and complete statement on the nature of evil. In Spielberg’s universe, evil is a failure of the imagination, and only those qualities that Spielberg worships in humanity—sentiment, emotion, connection, the capacity to dream—can overcome evil. “What moral responsibility does humanity bear toward mecha?” the film asks, and the film answers, echoing Yeats, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
Ultimately, David’s aim is to become a real boy. Only in becoming real, he thinks, will he get his mother, Monica, to love him again. Fixated on the story of Pinocchio, he seeks the Blue Fairy, who he thinks will grant his wish just as she granted Pinocchio’s.
It’s among the great ironies of A.I. that humanity is the thing most coveted by David, even as the film goes to great lengths to portray humans as thoroughly awful. This may be part of what Rosenbaum means when he claims that the film “defamiliarizes” both Spielberg and Kubrick. The glorification, even worship, of what makes humanity unique is central to Spielberg’s oeuvre, especially his early work; at the same time, Kubrick’s chilly, seemingly emotionless remove from his human subjects actually embodied an emotionally fraught ambiguity about the value of humans and human society. The coexistence of both perspectives in the same film is almost too much to navigate, and succeeds in destabilizing our view of both directors: perhaps Kubrick’s distance contains more emotion than we give him credit for, and maybe Spielberg’s cuddly sentimentality has always been a little more fucked-up just under the surface than we’ve ever realized.
The film’s ambivalence about the nature and value of humanity is its most radical feature—more than any other movie on the topic, A.I. fully commits to the mecha point-of-view, to portraying a world where a post-human future may not be such a bad thing. Late in the film, Gigolo Joe, David’s sexbot sidekick, explains humanity thus: “Only orga believe what cannot be seen or measured. It is that oddness that separates our species.” Later, when David’s search for the Blue Fairy brings him to Dr. Hobby, his maker, the scientist says: “The Blue Fairy is part of the great human flaw: to wish for things that don’t exist. Or to the greatest single human gift—the ability to chase down our dreams.”
This is about as close as Spielberg gets to nihilism. The nature of humanity is to believe in things that don’t exist. The “greatest single human gift” stuff softens the blow in the next breath—but does it logically follow, then, that human dreams don’t exist, either? If so, then David has become human by believing in a Blue Fairy that can make him into a real boy: by believing in an impossible dream, his impossible dream has come true.
It’s a dubious victory at best. For completing his quest, David is rewarded with two millenia in a glacier, pleading with the Blue Fairy to make him a real boy; then, when he’s discovered by advanced future mechas, with a single day of creepily Oedipal bliss with a clone of his mom before she dies.
This is the film’s most sentimental scene, but as Rosenbaum points out, “the minute you start thinking about it, it’s at least as grim as any other future in Kubrick’s work.” My interpretation of the scene is that David did indeed become a real boy in that he now embodies what the film holds to be humanity’s greatest flaw: believing in something that doesn’t exist. The Monica clone isn’t real. David’s idyll is a fiction that has been created for him by the mechas. But he doesn’t care. Like Monica, who needed a robot to replace her human son, or Dr. Hobby, who created David to replicate his own dead son, David has created an external falsehood for his own lack, a vessel to contain the tragic and unfulfilled yearnings programmed into his own brain.
What to say, finally, about a film as strange and bleak as A.I.? I said at the beginning that I believe the movie to be the great filmic statement on artificial intelligence, and I still believe that to be true, even if I don’t fully know what I understand that statement to be. Perhaps it is enough to say that artificial intelligence will pose moral and ethical quandaries that humans are not now and may never be equipped to answer; that humans are neither as unique nor as permanent as we’d like to think we are; that this fact is sad. And that, to quote the Yeats poem that haunts the film, the world’s more full of weeping than any of us can understand.