IN DEFENSE OF A.I.

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(The screenshots are from http://www.blu-ray.com)

I haven’t had more heated arguments with fellow film lovers about any other movie more than I did about A.I. As a more than avid admirer of Spielberg and Kubrick’s superb science-fiction fairy-tale since it’s release in 2001, I occasionally find myself having to explain why I thought it to be a misunderstood masterpiece that will be more and more appreciated in time, the way Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey did.

The film’s dissenters’ arguments vary from how it has wildly shifting tones or how Kubrick’s misanthropy and Spielberg’s humanism doesn’t mix. Mostly, they focus on the Spielbergian “tacked-on” happy ending that supposedly ruined the earlier dark tone of the film, regardless of the fact that the ending was conceptualized in its entirety by Kubrick and was not a Spielberg invention at all. A lot of them don’t understand what “aliens” are doing in a film about robots and fail to recognize that the ending is not really happy at all. Usually, after some explanation, I am able to pull some of the haters closer to my side as they understand the subtleties of the finale.

Some of my predictions about A.I. are already coming true. After the film got a lukewarm reception from most critics upon it’s release ten years ago, many critics and web-sites picked it to be one of the best films of the 2000s. Some critics posted retractions of their first reviews and declared that they are convinced of its greatness after re-visiting it. A.O. Scott of New York Times declared it to be the 2nd best film of the 2000s and said that it was “Spielberg’s most misunderstood masterpiece”.

So, after watching A.I. again on a glorious Blu-Ray transfer, it occurred to me to post my complete defense of it. At the very least, the next time I have a fist fight with a fellow movie geek about it, which is bound to happen from time to time, I can simply refer them to this post as opposed to going over my points all over again like a mecha parakeet.

First, a short history on A.I: The film was conceived by Kubrick decades before it’s release after he read science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (You can read it at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.01/ffsupertoys_pr.html). Inspired by the very short story, Kubrick and Ian Watson, another established science-fiction writer, fleshed out a story for a feature.

The adventures of a robot boy that’s programmed to love his parents, who goes on a journey to become a real boy so his mother can love him a-la a science-fiction version of Pinocchio intrigued Kubrick, but he knew that the special effects at the time would not be able to convincingly portray the kind of future technology he wanted to depict in the story (He originally wanted David the boy robot to be performed by an actual robot).

After seeing the dinosaur effects on Jurassic Park, Kubrick was convinced that computer technology had indeed came a long way and considered depicting David as a fully CG character. During this time, Kubrick heavily involved Spielberg on the creative process and gradually came to the decision that Spielberg should direct the film, since the story is closer to his humanist sensibilities.

After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg decided to finally go ahead with A.I., turning decades of story development into a screenplay and made it into a film that sticks as close to possible to Kubrick’s conceptual design and his vision. A.I. was released in 2001, the actual year when another Kubrick masterpiece takes place.

As it is with many of Kubrick’s films, A.I. consists of several distinct sections that might even work by themselves as short films, like the separation of the boot camp and Vietnam sequences in Full Metal Jacket, or the dawn of man, mission to moon and the Jupiter mission in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Below are my breakdowns of the film’s sections:

Doctor Hobby’s Proposition:

A.I. begins with roaring waves of water as the narrator, voiced by Ben Kingsley sets up the future world of the story. After climate change drowned a large chunk of Earth’s cities underwater and people in poorer countries starved to death, the lucky few were allowed to continue living in prosperity as long as pregnancies were sanctioned by the government in order to keep human population to a minimum. That’s why robots who can fulfill many human needs and require the least amount of resources became very popular.

In a meeting room in Cybertronics, one of the many manufacturers of mechas (The film’s code word for robots), Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) proposes to his team that they build a robot child that can “love” in the true sense of the word. Mechas know about the concept of love (Dr. Hobby presents that fact as he asks a female mecha what love is and gets a monosyllabic reading of the Webster definition of love) but they cannot feel it like humans do. At this moment an employee asks “Isn’t the real question here not whether or not we can build a mecha that can love, but can we get the parent to love it back?”

Immediately we are introduced to the main moral conflict of the story. If people are able to build a simulacrum that is, in all intents and purposes, a complete replica of a human being, what responsibilities would we have towards that creation that is still essentially a machine? Even if we love it dearly and care for it as a member of the family, there will certainly be a time when we will be reminded that we are dealing with an electronic device with whom we don’t share an instinctual connection or have any sense of responsibility towards beyond that which we have for a toaster.

David and Monica:

These questions are put to the test when Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards), a couple whose son is in cryogenic sleep due to an illness, are sent the first prototype of the robot boy as a test. The first time David (Haley Joel Osment) appears on-screen, he is completely out of focus, almost looking like one of the aliens from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg and Osment immediately establish the alien qualities of the mecha, from the extremely precise way it moves to the fact that it never sleeps, or even blinks. The robot has all of the supposed qualities of a human boy, but there’s definitely something missing.

At this point the Uncanny Valley effect comes fully into focus. A common hypothesis in the field of robotics, it basically states that when robots or human replicas look and act almost exactly the same as a person, human beings are put off by the creation because it is very close to being human, without being human.

Monica’s first reaction to David is a perfect example of Uncanny Valley. She immediately hates David and is repulsed by the fact that he has a real boy’s face and body.

The way Spielberg handles David’s first days with Monica is a perfect blend of playfulness and disorientation. John Williams’ score also supports this. There are some comical moments that play on David’s inability to grasp social human mores, such as the scene where he walks in on Monica while she’s in the bathroom, followed by scenes that show David in an inhuman manner, like the scene where he uses himself as a phone speaker.

The dinner scene where David laughs at a piece of food stuck on Monica’s mouth is especially unsettling. His sudden laugh is supposed to be a moment of innocent childish fun, but Osment plays it perfectly off-kilter. It’s what’s supposed to be a child’s laugh but not a real one.

However, this is one of the moments Monica picks to decide on imprinting David, probably because as artificial as a child’s laughter is, it is still better than it’s absence. Imprinting is the process when a parent recites predetermined random words in order to trigger the “love” mechanism on a child mecha. Once the words are said, the child becomes attached to the parent, and cannot be reprogrammed. If the parents don’t want the child after that point, they would need to have it destroyed.

The sudden change in David’s expression after Monica recites the words depicts very clearly that the “love” that is created in David’s mind is merely a download of programming. There is no magic, or divine intervention involved. Critics of the film who accuse Spielberg of excess sentimentality should pay attention to this moment.

Even though David’s love towards Monica is artificial, it does not necessarily make it unreal. If we consider the fact that a lot of the emotions we feel stems from our own DNA programming, does the fact that the same exact programming comes from a mechanical source rather than organic really make much of a difference?

After David is imprinted, he immediately asks his mother if she will die. She says she will live another 50 years. This brings up another dilemma. It is obvious that David, if taken care of properly, is able to survive much longer than Monica (As we see in the final act). Therefore, he will eventually have to witness the death of his mother, the only thing in the world he loves. If this is a creature with emotions as real as any other human being, is it responsible to expose him to such pain and anguish?

In order to appease David, Monica gives him their son’s old supertoy Teddy, a sort of mecha Teddy bear with a raspy, semi-broken voice. Teddy is the Jiminy Cricket in this version of Pinocchio. He follows David on his adventures and helps him any way he can. He is supposed to be a toy who outlived its purpose yet is still alive. Since he’s been around longer than a lot of other mecha, he has an air of wisdom about him. He is an ingenious invention of Kubrick and Spielberg.

When Monica and Henry’s son Martin returns home after a miraculous recovery, he predictably treats David not as a new member of the family but as a replacement for Teddy, a supertoy. As boys tend to do with new toys, he sets out to destroy David as soon as possible.

To insult David, Martin asks Monica to read them Pinocchio. This is where David gets the idea that propels the rest of the story: If he can find the blue fairy and become a real boy, then Monica will love him as much as she loves Martin.

During Martin’s birthday party, the kids decide to play rough with the new supertoy. Scared, David grabs Martin and plunges into the water to protect himself, almost drowning Martin in the process. This is the moment when David is relegated back to being just another household item. This fact is shown in a haunting shot that depicts David by himself at the bottom of the pool.

There is only one choice for the family at this point: Bring David back to the factory to be destroyed. However, Monica doesn’t have the heart for it and in one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the film, deserts David in the middle of the woods. A fade-out signifies the end of this section. We will never see Monica again, at least not in the way we expect.

The Flesh Fair:

This is where we depart from the clean and clinical family world and plunge into chaos and oppression. This sort of sudden tonal shift is very common in Kubrick’s films, and Spielberg successfully adapts it.

When we fade back in to start the next section, we meet Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a lover mecha about to have sex with a new customer. This character may seem too naive at times but considering he is programmed to perform only one thing, it makes perfect sense that when David mentions the blue fairy, he thinks of her as just another woman to satisfy.

Through a set of unfortunate circumstances, Gigolo Joe is captured alongside David and sent to the Flesh Fair, a gladiatorial show where stray mechas are destroyed on-stage for the anti-mecha crowd’s amusement. The anti-mecha faction and the flesh fair are obvious symbolism for the holocaust or any other kind of ethnic cleansing. As an old mecha explains, “They destroy us in order to maintain numerical superiority”.

Considering the ending of A.I. where humans are long gone and super-mechas rule the world, the anti-mecha people in the flesh fair turn into a cowardly bunch who use their fear of annihilation to aimlessly destroy those who they know will survive them long after they are gone.

The flesh fair has a completely different visual style and tone than the first half of the film. It is dark, loud and uncompromising. Reminding himself of his devotion to Kubrick’s vision, Spielberg doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality of these scenes.

Rouge City:

After David is mistaken for a real boy and released from the flesh fair, Gigolo Joe recommends they go ask Dr. Know in Rouge City, a red light district’s futuristic wet dream of a red light district.

It’s interesting to note that even though the Dr. Know sequence smells of Spielberg, with it’s colorful CGI effects and playful tone, it was actually conceived fully by Kubrick, who went as far as recording Robin Williams’ dialogue for the scene.

Before they get to Dr. Know, there is an interesting short scene that doesn’t effect the plot in any way but gives some clues about the human-mecha dynamics. Cruising around Rouge City, David stops in front of a church and Gigolo Joe explains the odd building as the place where “The ones who made us look for the ones who made them.” This analogy also explains the motivation behind the super-mechas of the future who are trying to understand their god, the humans, by way of unearthing as much information about them as they possibly can.

Getting a clue from Dr. Know that the blue fairy might be found at the end of the world (Man-hattan), David steals a police copter and takes Gigolo Joe with him.

Man-hattan:

The images of New York submerged in water are beautiful and haunting at the same time. With the Man-hattan sequences, Spielberg creates some of the most memorable post-apocalyptic imagery in science-fiction history.

What David finds at the heart Man-hattan, in Dr. Hobby’s office, is not a solution but a nightmare. After being programmed to believe that he is unique and special, he comes upon a model just like him and destroys it. This scene shows the dark side of David and pays off an earlier worry by Henry: “If he can love, then it’s reasonable to assume that he can hate”. With David’s intense love for his mother comes the inherent instinct to protect that love. Although the love itself is positive, it has negative effects. David becomes possessive of Monica, to the extent of destroying (or murdering) another mecha like him.

It gets worse. Dr. Hobby finds David and assures him that he is indeed special because he was able to use his free will to track the blue fairy. After he leaves, David finally comes to the realization that no matter how special he may be, he is still nothing but a machine, a product to appease humankind, during a chilling sequence where he gazes on other Davids on the assembly line with their expressionless, doll-like faces and lifeless bodies. He is not special.

Losing all hope, David decides to use his free will one last time and plunges into the ocean, only to be rescued by Gigolo Joe. Before Gigolo Joe is caught by the police, he says a curious thing: “I am. I was.” A simple existential statement that packs quite a punch when uttered by a creation that is not seen as a real living being by his creators. It also solidifies the reason why mechas continue to exist after the humans are gone.

About what happens after this point is when the arguments between movie geeks start heating up. After David submerges into the water with the copter and finds a statue of the Blue Fairy, he becomes trapped under a ferris wheel. Looking into the inanimate statue’s eyes, he pleads over and over again for it to turn him into a real boy.

Many of the film’s detractors state that A.I. would have been much, much better if Spielberg “had the balls” to end his film on this dark and hopeless point and didn’t pussy out by serving us with a disgustingly Spielbergian sentimentalist happy ending. We’ll get to whether or not the current “happy ending” is what we think it is but about the possibility of ending the story at this point I want to ask: What kinds of a conclusion would that be?

You have to remember that A.I. is meant to be as much of a fairy tale as it is hard science-fiction. It might be dark, hopeless and brooding at times but it does follow a fairy tale structure (Also, many original fairy tales are just as dark, if not darker) simply because we see the story from the point-of-view of a being who was programmed to replicate the intellect of a child, therefore to naively believe that fairy tales are real.

No, this story, unlike many other hard science-fiction stories requires a fairy tale conclusion and cannot end with an abrupt finale such as this. But do we indeed get a typical fairy tale ending? The genius in the way Kubrick and Spielberg devise the final 20 minutes of the film is that they offer the audience what looks and feels like a happy fairy tale ending while pulling the rug from under them and creating something that is far more complicated and intricate.

The Super-mechas:

During David’s plea underwater, we simply dissolve into 2000 years in the future. In a single glorious shot, Spielberg shows us a world populated by thin, metallic super-mecha that look like the aliens from Close Encounters. Curiously, they resemble the way David looked out of focus when we first see him. The super-mechas’ slightly alien look might be why most of the film’s detractors think they are aliens from another planet.

If you watch the last 20 minutes believing these creatures are aliens and not what they are supposed to be, highly evolved mechas who got rid of anything that doesn’t serve their efficiency and therefore have a monolithic, featureless look, any context and existential parallels these sequences try to build goes right out of the window. Of course if this is the case, it makes perfect sense for the audience to feel confused and disappointed by the ending.

But the clues are all there. The most obvious one lies within a monologue Gigolo Joe delivers to David about why the humans hate mechas: “They made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us.”

On a side note, the design of the super-mechas’ flying transportation device is one of the cleverest science-fiction designs I’ve ever seen. Made up of simple black blocks, it dissolves back into its basic parts when the super-mechas reach their destination.

After the super-mechas rescue David from the ice, we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of 2001: A Space Odyssey territory. The scene even begins with a brightly-lit extreme close-up of David’s eyes, referencing a famous recurring shot of an eye during the finale of 2001.

Just like the way astronaut Dave Bowman was inserted into a human house by the unseen aliens to make him feel comfortable, David also finds himself in a simulation of his home, created by the super-mechas for the same purpose. Unlike the aliens in 2001, we get to see the super-mechas, yet we don’t know much about them beyond how they look and how they communicate with each other.

We assume that they are sort of paleontologists, researching their version of prehistoric life, namely when humans ruled the world, just like the way we research the dinosaurs now. Although there is an added element since the super-mechas are also looking for more information about the beings who created them.

When David finds himself in a replica of his home, he is greeted by none other than a simulation of the blue fairy, who tells him that she can’t turn him into real boy, or bring back Monica, who’s been dead for 2000 years, without a sample of her DNA. That’s when Teddy remembers that he held onto some of Monica’s hair. Therefore, the blue fairy, i.e. the super-mechas that are secretly observing David, have to comply in order to keep their precious subject happy.

They can bring Monica back, but only for one day, since cloned human beings die after they go to sleep at the end of the day for an unknown reason. Why is this? The head super-mecha explains that once a space-time continuum for a person is used, it cannot be used again. If that is the case, they shouldn’t be able to bring that person back for even one day. Also, since we assume they have the resources, why can’t they just re-clone Monica every day?

Alas, David agrees to let the super-mechas bring back Monica for one day. So the film ends with the cheesy, Spielbergian happy ending everyone complains about, with David finally getting back with his mommy and having her finally tell him that she loves him before she dies again.

But is it really that simple? There are a couple of red flags that suggest the super-mechas are not exactly being honest with David.

I believe they don’t want to bring back Monica in any way because they don’t want David to be distracted from all of the research and tests they are going to administer him. In order to appease him they present him with a computer simulation of the blue fairy to once and for all tell him that not only can he not become a real boy, but Monica’s been dead for 2000 years. Thinking there is no way David can have any piece of Monica’s DNA, they also throw in the cloning angle.

When David shockingly comes up with Monica’s hair, they scramble and come up with the single day space-time continuum story, so he can spend a single day with Monica and then become available for them for the rest of his life.

Also, I don’t think the “resurrected” Monica is a real clone, or even a real human being at all. If you look at the way David’s home operates, you can quickly come to the conclusion that the house exists in some form of a virtual simulation. The biggest clue is when time changes immediately from day to night, with the sun and the moon switching places within a second. Also, we never get a sense of the physical location for where the house is. We see the super-mechas watching David through a round monitor but that’s about it.

If we have reason to believe David’s home is a simulation and he only inhabits it in his mind, than it’s reasonable to assume that Monica is a simulation as well, just like the blue fairy from earlier. Another detail that supports this theory is the fact that Monica wakes up with selective memory. She remembers David, but doesn’t know much else. She doesn’t ask for Henry, her husband, or Martin, her own son. She has a great time with David and tells him that she loves him without any reservations, when we know she had enough of them in real life to almost have David destroyed. There’s something a little too convenient and artificial about the resurrected Monica.

So in the end, an artificial being who is programmed to love a human finally has that love reciprocated by another artificial simulation that’s programmed to love him back. I’m sure the irony was not lost on Kubrick who, among many cries to the contrary, was the one who created and conceptualized this entire “Spielbergian” finale from beginning to end.

Kubrick fans who hated A.I. refuse to believe that the ending was Kubrick’s idea. I remember listening to a popular film podcast where one of the hosts refused to believe this fact even when shown Kubrick-supervised concept drawings of the ending.

Upon blindly accepting the ending as corny and Spielbergian, we fail to realize that it is far more complex than what’s shown on the surface. In this way, it is still a perfect Kubrick ending.

Even ten years after the film’s release, A.I. still has it’s haters and detractors, but I believe they will diminish in numbers when the film attains more and more relevance as artificial intelligence itself become more complex.

Right now, we have Siri, which works as a personal assistant for the iPhone. What if in the near future, we can upload distinct personality traits to Siri and live with that personality for years? How would we feel if our iPhone broke one day and she, our version of Siri, with it’s own distinct and unique personality, is gone? Would we be sad as if we lost a friend? Imagine this same situation with an artificial being that is human in every way except for the manner in which it was created. Would it be so easy to dismiss it as just another household item?

The tagline for A.I. reads “His love is real. But he is not.” Keeping that tagline in mind is a great place to begin appreciating Kubrick and Spielberg’s misunderstood masterpiece.

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One response »

  1. Great! I agree your analysis in every aspect. I think the only mistake Spielberg made in this masterpiece was not to avoid the possible confusion between aliens and supermechas. I think also some people believed that “Spielberg + a child as main character = family oriented movie”, and of course A.I. it’s not. Thanks for your great post and… “We are not alone”!

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