Film

A.I.: Kuberg or Spielbrick? (Sci-fi or fairy tale?)

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Posted by Seb Tallents (12th Oct 2001, 12:03)

Originally published in Wyrmtongue October 2001.

Warning: This article contains explanations of large sections of the A.I. Plot, including the ending, so if you have not seen the movie you might want to pass over this article.

A boy, a robot boy, created so complex and intelligent it can love, but can we create a human that can love a robot?

Sounds like the core idea of a "What if...?" science fiction yarn of the likes of classic Asimov where the story follows out a set of assumptions and extrapolations, something thought provoking and with a little more depth than alien blood and laser guns. Perhaps if Kubric had been around to produce it might have been, but he wasn't and it's not.

A.I., to put it simply, is a fairy tale in a futuristic setting, and a pointless waste of a serious sci-fi film. The original agreement for this film was that Kubric was to produce (and therefore have final veto) and Spielberg to direct. To my mind that collaboration would have been perfect, Kubric able to shape the direction and overall tone of the story while Spielberg could persuade us to love the child. Under Spielberg's domination the original question is ruthlessly shunted to one side so that Spielberg can do what he does best. This is a fairy tale retelling of Pinocchio (complete with narrator and spell: "Cirrus Socrates Particle Decibel Hurricane Dolphin Tulip Monica"), a 'wooden' boy named David programmed to love his mother, but rejected and setting out to become human in order to win back his "mothers" love. Much in the style of Disney but with one crucial and deep flaw: the ending.

I dislike overly happy endings in films; to me it seems implausible that upheaval results in either the righting of all wrongs or everything reverting to normal. In any case all stories must ultimately end in death, so happy endings are inevitably arbitrary points leaving me wanting to know what happens next. The exception is fairy tales. They begin "once upon a time", the end (in the late 20th century at least) with "and they lived happily ever after" (The Bothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson of course ended with everybody dead, being tales of caution rather than comfort). This film invokes the sci-fi equivalent of magic (suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from...) in the form of advanced robots. But having invoked this and a suitably bumfluf science explanation to resurrect David's "mother" involving cloning and souls stored in the fabric of space-time, it arbitrarily decrees that the mother can live only for one day. So we are treated to a soft focus recounting of that last happy day after which she "goes to sleep", and David goes to sleep to (even though we have been told at the beginning that he can not sleep). It's testament to the fuzziness and distance the film puts between the viewer, pessimistic and cynical as he might be in this case, that my sympathies lay not with David and his "mother" but instead with the toy teddy alone on the bed for eternity. Frankly Teddy was the best character in the film, far superior and interesting than Gigolo Joe, David and his "mother", and rather than my thoughts lingering on David I often found myself wondering where the Teddy was in a particular scene, what he was thinking and feeling and watching him when he was on screen.

Let us return to the subject in hand: the ending. The end is a Frankenstein's monster, and the Frankenstein in this case is fear of critics. Partly fairy tale in that is "ever after", part realist in that it is not happy but bittersweet. I feel the reason it is so is because had it been an entirely happy ending Spielberg would have been lynched by Kubric loving critics for bastardising 'Kubrics' film, but Spielberg already did that when he turned it from a potentially thought provoking film into a lightweight fairy tale. The result is a jarring breach of narrative rules that is totally unjustified and leaves you going away slightly unfulfilled and discomforted for no adequate reason. I prefer to be discomforted by films, when a preconception has been shattered rather than because of the craving for further critical acclaim of the director. The shockwaves of this change in style reverberate through the whole film, sending mixed messages with an inconsistent tone. To give an example, the sudden switches from real time account to narrated story leaves the ultimate question of who was doing the narration and buffers the viewer from treating the film as a real event (even if you are good at suspending your disbelief) because it's as though someone is telling you a fiction from within the film. This pales into insignificance though, because the underlying message of the first part of the story that culminates in what I feel is the true ending seems to be a damning indictment of what the film eventually turns out to be.

I'm certain this was not supposed to be a fairy tale, but a debunking of fairy tale, artificiality and what a child is represented to be in a the mainstream fiction and fairy tale. There is the central question of artificiality. The robot is an artificial child, Gigolo Joe is an artificial lover, Dr Know is an artificial oracle, but these are all materially fake. In the Flesh Fair scene, humans torture robots not because they are artificial materially (one of the organisers wishes to keep him because he is so clearly an outstanding piece of machinery) but because they are artificial characters and encroach on the importance of the human soul. However in David the crowd recognises (consciously or not), materially speaking or not, a real boy through his attempts to survive. The quest to become a materially real boy is revealed to be no more than a cruel "test" of David's ability to embody the fake (and hence marketable) image of a child, a loveably naïve dreamer and adventurer. Indeed, it is made clear David is his makers attempt to build a replacement son as viewed through rose tinted glasses to say the least. Unfortunately for his maker, David is too real a human being with the more abstract aspirations of uniqueness over adventuring. Upon discovering his whole adventure was one big set up and he is not one of a kind but the first of a kind (credit where due, the disturbing scene of tens of identical robots in various stages of completeness culminating in David staring out of the eyes of a mask a face identical to his own is superbly unsettling) he commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea. There is where the film should have ended, David abandoning his love for his mother through hatred of what he is causing him to end his life, running parallel with his falling into the swimming pool as a result of other children rejecting his artificiality. That would have been interesting not as a hypothetical discussion of the ultimate reality of a robot entity, which has been done to death, nor a simple Pinocchio tale. Instead it would have been a criticism of humans creation of artificial perception: fairy tales are fake, people do not love unconditionally and there is more to parent-child/child-parent love than that. David is real enough a person (bar the eventually conquered but artificially imposed unconditional love), but the image of what a child should be is artificial. The answer to the initial question therefore is "We can make a "real" entity in the form of a robot, and we can love a machine, but what we want is not a real boy but a Disneyfied image of one." The ultimate obstacle proves to be not that David isn't loved by his "mother" but that he isn't intended to be loved as a true child with an independent existence extending after the parents death, as a sort of doll for what he can do: love unconditionally. Similarly "Gigolo Joe" is loved for what he does rather than for what he is or as we would love a real human partner. Just as Joe is a physical prostitute, David is in essence an emotional one. The message there is not the cliché that humans simply can't love robots, nor that we can because intelligence is intelligence and organic bodies are equally machines, it is rather that the entities that find their cause of being, their reason for existence, ultimately artificial can not love themselves and will not be satisfied to be dolls. That would have been a much better film.


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read biography for - Sulkyblue

 Sulkyblue ( 20th May 2004, 11:32, Rank: Nazgul )  reply

My short review: I enjoyed most of this film, but thought the ending really did spoil it, cut off the last 10 mins or so and it would be vastly improved. The world was beautifully created and the acting was mostly superb, overly sentimental at times but some good sci-fi as well. Teddy was the best of course ;0) -


read biography for - John Kirk

 John Kirk ( 21st May 2004, 12:41, Rank: Patrician )  reply

There's a short story by Harlan Ellison called "Jefty is always five". It's about a young boy (Jefty) who is normal up until the age of five, then doesn't get any older. Everyone else continues to age, so his friends become adults and go off to form families of their own. More specifically, his parents reach old age, but still have to find the energy to take care of an energetic 5 year old, which becomes increasingly difficult for them.

So, watching this film, my immediate thought was that having a robot child who will not age seems like a remarkably stupid idea. I'm still not sure whether the film-makers were aware of this, and were deliberately portraying the company that made the robots as idiots (dooming themselves to failure), or whether they hadn't thought through the long-term consequences either.


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