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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (2001). Warner Brothers/Dreamworks/Amblin Entertainment. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Steven Spielberg, based on a screen story by Ian Watson itself based on the story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (December 1969 Harper's Bazaar) by Brian W Aldiss, with uncredited contributions from Stanley Kubrick. Cast includes Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Haley Joel Osment, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas and Robin Williams (voice). 146 minutes. Colour.

In the moderately distant Near Future, global warming (see Climate Change) has melted the polar icecaps, flooding coastal regions; even though reduced by these Disasters, humans still strain the resources of the planet, causing the enactment of strict birth controls. Partly because Robots are not as damaging to the environment, Cybertronics, a firm owned by over-enthusiastic Professor Allen Hobby (Hurt), moves aggressively into the creation and marketing of Mechas (they are not Mecha as the term is used in this encyclopedia but Android-like robots); his pride and joy is an experimental "child" with full AI capacity named David (Osment), who is almost convincingly human in appearance, and who has been designed to be imprinted, at the right time, with an irrevocable craving for love. Henry Swinton (Robards), a Cybertronics employee, and his wife Monica Swinton (O'Connor) win the chance to bring David into their family as a replacement for their own son Martin (Adams), who is in Cryonic suspension due to a rare disease. After David has ingratiated himself, Monica keys the imprint command, and he/it begins to love her and to ask for love in return. She gives him her biological son's robot toy, a teddy bear named Teddy.

At this point, Martin is cured through advances in medical Technology and returns to his parents' home, where he treats David estrangingly as a "supertoy", without deliberate unkindness, though he does persuade David to cut off a lock of Monica's hair, angering her. At one point he persuades Monica to read Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (1883) to them, causing David to fixate (a term which may describe how it/he mentates) upon the meaning of the tale, in which a "Blue Fairy" turns the puppet Pinocchio into a Real Boy [for Pinocchio, Puppets and Real Boy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; even after disaster strikes, David is convinced that, if he can become a Real Boy, he can regain Monica's love, perhaps in preference to her son. But en passant a violent incident in the family swimming pool, in which he almost kills Martin, persuades the Swintons that the experiment has failed: that this can be read as a realistic response hints that Spielberg's Pinocchio knowingly resembles Collodi's disruptive original than it does Disney's naughty boy. Unwilling to send him back to Cybertronics, where he would be dismantled, Monica allows David to escape with Teddy into heavy woodland, where he is soon captured, along with a grotesque carnival of defunctive Mechas, by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Gleeson), who instals them in a Flesh Fair where humans can destroy them for fun (see Games and Sports). Here David teams up with the male-prostitute Mecha Gigolo Joe (Law), and both escape death/destruction.

It might be argued, with some justice, that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence fatally loses coherence at this point, almost certainly due to the extraordinary complexities involved in its making; and that the picaresque fireworks of the next several episodes do less to present a dysfunctional world than to honour various factions' investment in the product. After virtuoso splashes of plot-and-shot, David encounters a Computer program called "Dr Know" (voiced by Williams) who tells them how to reach partially submerged Manhattan (see New York), where the robot boy meets Hobby, whose garrulous enthusiasm (as this is an American film) marks him as a father gone wrong, in this case revealing him to be a Mad Scientist who has constructed David in order to replace his own dead son, and who frivolously shows David all of the duplicate Davids that he is planning to market: thus ensuring his awareness that he is both a copy and a duplicate. David's response to this assault upon his uniqueness is, once again, extremely violent; and after committing considerable havoc, he attempts to commit Suicide by plunging into the waters that have invested Manhattan. But Gigolo Joe rescues him before his own recapture, and David flees underwater with Teddy in an amphibicopter south-eastwards past the drowned Statue of Liberty toward Coney Island (one of several amusement parks in this drifting world), where he encounters a statue of the Blue Fairy, part of an ancient Pinocchio theme ride. The interplays between the story of Pinocchio and the story of David reach here an ironic parting of the ways: for if Pinocchio's sojourn in the belly of the whale signals a traditional moment of rebirth from the waters of the deep, David's entrapment in the waters covering Coney Island is exactly the reverse of liberation. Gazing at the Blue Fairy, he has come fixedly to rest in the damaged amphibicopter, praying with programmed incessancy to the blank-faced Icon that she make him into a Real Boy. He continues to pray for two thousand years.

After this epoch has passed, during which period his/its glitch-like fixation chills slowly as his batteries run down, David is discovered beneath the now-frozen sea and revived by the advanced, elongated robots who have evolved from the primitive Mecha and are now masters of Earth, having replaced the extinct human race. Fascinated by David's stored memories of Homo sapiens, they give him a wish, reconstructing for him the Swinton's house, into which they insert a Blue Fairy who promises to give him back Monica. But there is a catch, she tells him. Robot technology only allows David a single day of joy before his inevitable dissolution. He accepts. Reconstructed from DNA taken from the lock of hair David has retained, Monica now appears, in all respects seemingly identical to the original human, the only female character of any importance in the film, where she is understood primarily as wife and mother, a role modelling which persists into the epilogue, as her robot makers do not ask the "reborn" mother if she genuinely wishes to spend her twenty-four hours of rebirth maternally immersed in David's all-defining, invariant, implacable love (see Feminism; Horror in SF; Women in SF). Chillingly, the film ends with Teddy love-gazing, with what must be described in this context as David-like invariancy, upon the fake Real Boy and the doomed Clone as their day ends, and they die locked into their mutual bondage.

Some enormously talented people were involved in the effort to make Aldiss's story work on the big screen, including Aldiss himself, sf writers Bob Shaw and Watson, and directors Kubrick and Spielberg; yet the released film, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not entirely cohere, though it is unquestionably both fascinating and emotionally moving. To explain its failure to give David's "personality" a fuller sf context, one might flippantly say that its creators should have also purchased the rights to Clifford D Simak's story "All the Traps of Earth" (March 1960 F&SF) for some commonsensical guidance on how to tell a satisfying story about a robot who escapes from human dominance to achieve a happy life. More probingly, the film might be regarded as a rebuttal to the argument famously advanced by Isaac Asimov that we should construct robots who are designed solely to fulfil human needs. However, David's story appears to demonstrate that such robots would be forever stunted in their development and ultimately tragic; rather, the film suggests, humans should grant robots the freedom to evolve in their own fashion in response to their own needs, like the robots who uncover the comatose David. Such a counterargument, though, would have had more power if the film had presented, to contrast with David's plight, some of these fulfilled, contented robots as fully developed characters; instead, all the film offers are the vacuous, sketchily rendered saviours of the final scenes.

However, over and above these absences, one can appreciate A.I.: Artificial Intelligence for various vividly realized vignettes and set-pieces that mark high points in David's inalterable quest. Embedded within a fully functional narrative, such scenes might have made A.I.: Artificial Intelligence a much more conspicuously successful sf film, an achievement it visibly aspired to but arguably fell short of gaining, though Spielberg's own final-say contribution may be more substantial and significant than generally assumed. It seems very likely that he gamed with viewers' expectations that David would reward their initial sympathy with his plight, that he would consistently resemble the beguiling child protagonists of previous films; and that his robotic, programmed, violent incessancy would come as an aesthetic and thematic shock (the first unexpurgated translation of the original 1883 tale did not appear until 2008). Such a reading of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, with pathos trumped by premonitions of a universal darkness, fruitfully complexifies its arguments about the nature of love, human and inhuman. [JC/GW]


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