Saturday, April 9, 2011

Steven Spielberg--A. I.: Artificial Intelligence, a film

Warning: I will discuss significant parts of the story and the ending.
Steven Spielberg's A. I. : Artificial Intelligence.

This is a film I hadn't heard of until it was mentioned in connection with a short story I had read for a discussion group. The story is Brian Aldiss' "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long." I posted a commentary on the short story on March 25, 2011.

The film, according to an interview with Spielberg, is actually a project of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had been inspired by Aldiss' story and had worked on a film idea for a number of years, frequently consulting with Spielberg. Kubrick, according to Spielberg, had approached him with an offer. Kubrick would produce the film if Spielberg would direct it. Spielberg replied that he would produce it, but Kubrick would have to direct it himself. Kubrick died some time afterwards, and his widow came to Spielberg and offered him the project, saying that if Spielberg didn't do it, it wasn't going to get done at all. Spielberg then accepted the project--a homage to Kubrick.

I found it a fascinating film, but I wasn't quite sure what to make of it at first. It took awhile before I was able to see something of what Spielberg was doing, and, of course, I could also be hallucinating all of this. I see the film as being three separate parts, but so seamlessly created that it was some time before I came up with this view of it.

The first part is inspired by Aldiss' short story and also the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Issac. For a fuller discussion of this, see my comments about Aldiss' short story posted on March 25. Spielberg makes the connection to the Biblical story even stronger than Aldiss does in his story. In the film, David (interesting Biblical name) is a real threat to Martin, the real son, whereas David in the story probably will be returned to the factory at around the time the child is born. Secondly, Monica in the film takes David out into the wilderness and leaves him there, telling him to find his people (the synthetic people) and stay with them, which more closely parallels the Biblical story in which Hagar and Ishmael are driven out into the wasteland by Sarah, who fears for Isaac's future if Ishmael remains with them.

The second part begins at this point. David, who has heard the story of Pinocchio, decides that he is just like Pinocchio, and he goes off to search for the Blue Fairy. In Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy is one who has the power to turn a wooden puppet like Pinocchio into a real human child. If the Blue Fairy could do this for Pinocchio, then she should be able to do the same for David.

The second part of the film then depicts David's search for the Blue Fairy. The story which had been a relatively ordinary domestic drama suddenly turns into a bizarre odyssey as David searches for the Blue Fairy and eventually his humanity. One of the most intriguing experiences David has is at the "Flesh Fair." Stray and abandoned synthetic people and robots are rounded up and then destroyed for the entertainment of real humans. The MC? works up the crowd by warning them that these are soulless machines who will eventually replace real humans if given the opportunity. David is about to be destroyed when he is saved by a little girl, just as Pinocchio is rescued by a little girl when he is about to be destroyed. This incident reminded me of the stories of the early Christians who were taken to the Coliseum in Rome to be killed for they were also seen to be a threat to society.

Spielberg incorporates many SF ideas into the second part, David's quest for humanity. Perhaps there's a touch of Oz here. Is David's quest for humanity any different than the Tin Woodman's search for a heart or the Cowardly Lion's for courage? At one point David is found by the people who created him and is taken to their lab. The lab is in Manhattan but it's a flooded Manhattan, no doubt caused by the melting ice caps at the poles. Later, the ocean freezes over, a new ice age, another common topic in SF catastrophe novels.

The third part begins when David, who has been trapped for thousands of years at the bottom of the ocean, is rescued by what I thought at first were aliens. They were extremely thin figures, almost stick figures, but with a metallic sheen to them. I was later told that Spielberg in an interview said that they were evolved robots, "descendants," in a sense, of the robots from the first part of the film. Humanity has died out by this time, but the robots had survived and flourished.

The robots had developed techniques of cloning humans, if they could get the DNA from a fragment of the body. But, the resurrected humans would live for only one day and then die that night while they slept. Monica, David's mother, is resurrected and the two of them have one day of perfect happiness together. It's a sort of reverse Sleeping Beauty tale, for David and Monica have their perfect day and then she goes to sleep, forever this time. David also falls asleep, to dream forever about their one perfect day together.

There are several ways of looking at the end of the film--that robots have now inherited the earth. Just as the Christianity later supplanted the polytheistic religion of Rome, so the robots supplanted the humans. Another intriguing idea goes back to the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac. In the Bible, Abraham takes Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed, but the Lord stops Abraham. Isaac's children then multiply to become the Hebrews, God's Chosen people. Moslems, on the other hand, insist that it wasn't Isaac, but Ishmael who was taken up to be sacrificed and then saved. As he is Abraham's oldest son and heir, it is Ishmael's descendants, the Moslems, who really are God's Chosen People.

What makes this film work? It is David, the main character, played by Haley Joel Osment. Somehow, Osment never let me forget that he wasn't a human boy but a machine that looked like a boy and acted like a boy. However, there was a constant intensity in his behavior that only a machine could exhibit. This intensity never wavered, never increased nor decreased as it would have in a flesh-and-blood human. From a distance, I could mistake David for a human child, but in the closeups, his mech nature came through, and, for some inexplicable reason, I found it disturbing.

Overall Reaction: a gentle film, certainly an antidote to many SF films in which warfare is the main ingredient. In this respect, I guess it could be put in the same category as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T.

Recommended for those looking for something a bit different in an SF film, or for something a bit different in a film.


  1. Fred,

    This film is one of my all-time favorites. Another way I personally see the story, is as a comment on children who are emotionally or physically abandoned by their parents. These parents have a child for the wrong reason (i.e. for attention, to avoid divorce or keep a man, family pressure to procreate, etc.) When the "thrill is gone" and something else catches the parent's attention, that child is abandoned for the new thing. However, the child's love for that parent is still strong, and they'd do anything to get that parent's attention back. They even try to become what they think will attract the parent back to them (i.e. "a real boy").

    It's probably just my own interpretation, but that's what I was thinking of as I watched the film. I do agree that your interpretation is valid, too, and makes me see the film in a different light. Maybe that's what a good film can do - be different things to different people?

  2. Cheryl,

    As you point out, good films can have various interpretations or different ways of looking at them.

    You looked at the overall plot, which is clearly that of an abandoned child, David, who works very hard to regain acceptance by his parents.

    I looked at some of the source material which I believe Kubrick/Spielberg used in constructing this tale of an abandoned child, which could be either a physical (as it is in this film) or a psychological abandonment.