A.I. Artificial Intelligence ★★★★½

In order to begin writing about Spielberg’s A.I., I’m going to make the claim that it's approach is similar to that of a piece of abstract art. Not in the sense that it’s storytelling, characterizations, the themes therein, nor the specific cinematic techniques that Spielberg uses are abstract, in fact they are often quite the opposite—grounded in sociological, theological, emotional ideas. It is rather the construction of these elements which generates abstract ideas about, simply, human corporeality and consciousness, and the conflict between them which creates experience. Spielberg’s picture structures itself around such fundamental ideas by opposing them directly in the content: Haley Joel Osment’s David arrives as the artificial substitute for Henry and Monica’s cryo-comatose son, an extreme response to their grief over the uncertainty of their child’s fate, yet presented as nothing too out of the ordinary in this film’s world. This couple occupies some of the increasingly spare and crowded land on Earth, and these conditions are established in voice-over narration accompanying the first shot of a raging ocean at early evening. Waves roar as the narrator expounds the effects of melting ice caps, coupling the present fact of the planet’s destruction with an image associated with the origins of human life. Then the picture dissolves to an image of the Cybertronics’ slender, humanoid mascot figure behind a foggy glass pane dripping with water. Spielberg extends an abstract metaphor in only the first few moments: the natural image of water which hints to origins, and the narrated information and the humanoid figure onscreen which hint to the conscious manipulation of physical elements which is at the center of the natural/artificial distinction. In this second shot however, the weight given to each of these two elements is heavily decentered. Here the presence of water is as an embellishment to the artificial figure, the manipulation of the natural element actually strengthening the sense of a sterile, unnatural environment. It expresses the diminishment of natural elements as a result of their manipulation, yet the force of the first image of the ocean means that when we see water after the dissolve it is in light of the oceanic significance it just carried. It not only reinforces man’s detriment to the Earth, it also retains the very possibility of conscious manipulation as something innate to nature.

Pull out from the Cybertronics figure to a demonstration of a new model of artificially intelligent, human-like robot. William Hurt (Dr. Hobby) begins his demonstration by stabbing the robot in the hand with a needle to demonstrate it’s realistic reaction to a pain stimulus, yet the immediate, jarring gesture in an official setting immediately alerts us most prominently to the artificiality of the robot, its inability to truly sense, which colors every one of its actions and utterances throughout the scene. When it describes the feeling of love as a list of concrete sensations, the effect is at once uncanny and tragic. It’s a machine intelligence with the ability to learn and respond—Hurt also demonstrates its “pain memory response system.” It is capable of the knowledge of sensation without the experience—it’s intellect without corporeality, like the water without nature that begins the scene. The sense of physicality to its wiring has to be simulated—and thus it’s an aesthetic shock when the robot’s face is opened up in its center and its “brain” taken out. Intelligence and corporeality have to be applied from the outside with this creation, they are not immanent. There are the deliberate parallels to the fairytale Pinocchio in this film; this scene is reminiscent of Shaw’s Pygmalion. Though we don’t see any of the robot’s actual instruction, there is a sense of the robot deferring to its designer, and submitting to the test of its abilities for an audience. An adult-appearing body in a child-like position of learning and being observed, on the one hand, and on the other, an implicit challenge to the motivations behind this sort of condescending instruction, like in Shaw’s play in which the mentee is also not a child, but a grown woman of the lower class. In Shaw this is a cultural question, in Spielberg it’s an ambivalent interest in the strain between corporeality and consciousness, with the result being these uncanny, often childlike creations which mimic human consciousness yet understand something more fundamental to it through the very act of learning it as opposed to becoming it. Spielberg ultimately provides a maximal parallel, blending yet another literary reference, to Eliza’s repudiation of her instructor in Pygmalion in the film’s close which finds later generations of robots long outlasting humans. Spielberg preserves even in this ending the robot’s aspiration to achieve humanity, yet it is constantly challenged narratively and aesthetically ultimately generating much more profound statements.

When we get to this morally challenging ending in which Spielberg invites his audience to truly consider what traces of humanity will remain after hundreds of generations, rather than simply submitting to nihilism, the picture also brings to mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The robots in A.I. overtake their human predecessors, yet the glimmer of humanity is retained—the future robots rejoice the discovery of David who “knew living people,” and David remains steadfast in his pursuit of the closure to his initial programming—his “mother” (female owner)’s love. The ending brings back the questions from the very opening of humans’ failure to maintain their own circumstances (the robots celebrate more information about humans because we ostensibly failed to properly preserve the most important parts of our history), and transposes them to an entirely different emotional register—Spielberg exponentiates the pathos and existential terror for a truly profound and brilliant finish. Shelley’s Gothic literary masterpiece made terror of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake by evoking its diminishment of Earthly pursuits with the frightening yet sympathetic symbol of the dead body reanimated by science. Spielberg’s breathtaking sci-fi picture makes an emotional appeal through David, who develops a consciousness out of static parts. Programmed to love his mother, David implicitly reveals—with heartbreaking economy—what makes gesture and utterance authentic. Presenting us with an undeniable inauthenticity, circuitry given a human-like form, this negation is precisely what describes how authenticity is generated in unspecific, abstract terms. Unspecific because what is authentic in one context can be totally phony in another. Why does the prick of the robot’s hand by Dr. Hobby’s needle, and her later recitations of physical descriptions associated with love, immediately ring as inauthentic? The answer simply is context. Given the setting and the Pygmalion reference we know at once that the stakes have to do with nothing other than what it is beyond mere action, even thought that makes us more than just a series of movements, a string of sounds, words, or thoughts. The consideration is prior to consciousness, it has to do with the robot’s ability to express feeling. To be alive, then, is to have something to express, and the robot’s expressions are so similar to our own yet clearly expressing something alien which produces the uncanny and, in David’s case, also an empathetic effect. The slippage between those two is what allows Spielberg to situate the pre-expressive as fundamental to the subject of the entire film. In Shelley the monster yearns for human connection but his gruesome appearance and inarticulate manner isolate him. This is expressed as an evolution of Frankenstein’s impractical pursuit of knowledge as well as an evocation of the reality of material consequences to ideas and urges as they are applied to the real world. David in A.I. similarly longs for fulfillment via exterior means, yet his appearance is that of a child so the discomfort of those who interact with him is based doubly in his lack of true human corporeality and aspiration for true experience.

When David first arrives in Monica and Henry’s household he beholds his reflection in the framed family photos around the house (all of which include, of course, their human son), it is his self-recognition immediately suppressed by the image of the human child, whose absence from the house David is made to instantly recognize himself as a response to. Monica’s initial reaction to seeing David—who is introduced to the audience in an extremely out-of-focus shot on a white background, causing him to resemble the Cybertronics mascot figure and perplexingly introducing ideas of purity and transcendence with the optics of the washed out background (Spielberg will challenge their simplicity)—is something like disbelief and horror, because he “looks so real.” What’s implied by her initial aversion and her subsequent acceptance, which peeks through in just the next scene, is that David shouldn’t look so real, that there’s something unsavory or immoral about his creation. In the scene following David’s introduction Henry tries to still Monica’s flummoxed reaction by assuring her that he can simply return David to Cybertronics, reinforcing his ultimate disposability as a man-made creation. Henry’s appeal has the effect of engaging Monica’s sympathies, she feels the responsibility to protect him from destruction.

The description of these love-able child robots, given just twenty months after Hobby’s demo in the first scene in which the scientist brings up the idea as a possibility, gives the condition that once a robot has been programmed to love its owner, it must be returned to Cybertronics for destruction should the owner decide they no longer want it. When Hobby brings up the idea of a loving machine intelligence in the first scene’s demonstration, a skeptic counters that this is a dubious enterprise, questioning the human ability to return a robot’s love. Hobby responds: “Didn’t God create Adam to love Him?” So much more than just a reinforcement of a theological interpretation, these remarks add the dimension of the universal urge for creation as it passes through relations between beings, generating a co-dependently creative process, onto the 21st century Pygmalion display that precedes them, ultimately drawing these philosophical-theological-moral ideas beyond their immanent presence in the opening two shots. This opening scene, which is in my opinion one of the most powerful filmic evocations of modern creation—its motivations and effects, naturally leads into the moral dilemma with Monica over disposability and attachment. Spielberg preserves the integrity of these fundamental concerns by never directly naming them in his content, rather dramatizing them with philosophical, literary, theological, moral references. David’s quest for love presents the yearning for essence of a thing to which function and disposition is applied from the outset. His methods, however, are alien to us because they represent an entirely different approach to the world even though they were programmed in the human image. The picture’s end sees David finally loosed from human control, allowing the fundamental questions of his programmed consciousness to be resolved, which in turn allows David to discover the essence of his true way of being.

After David has been accepted (albeit slightly reluctantly) as a part of Monica and Henry’s family, they all sit at the dinner table and David imitates the family’s motions with their knives and forks. David laughs harshly and oddly intensely when Monica has a piece of spaghetti hanging out of her mouth. Initially an uncomfortable intrusion, his laugh ultimately catches on with Henry and Monica. Despite evidence of his inhuman construction, the couple still becomes attached because of its ultimately relatable presentation, pointing to both the vast efforts to understand corporeal function and consciousness and, with David’s uncanniness, what is fundamentally altered (on both sides) when observed knowledge is reconstructed with lifeless parts. There’s yet another way in which A.I. recalls Frankenstein: Spielberg’s piercing and evocative consideration of life and its essence through the assembly of dramatized and heavily signified images. Thus the explicit references to Pinocchio—as well as other fantasy tales: a late moment in the film in which David discovers a room full of identical copies of himself is an almost absurd Lacanian, yet touching and thought-provoking in its modern circumstances, translation of the climatic moment in Bluebeard—which express a child-like faith in magical fulfillment through David’s modern ontology in which reason is primary, rather than experience. The narrative, essentially the foundation of human consciousness told backward and expanded to a modern epic, is David’s longing for true experience, making the ultimate focus of the picture the corporeality of humans (initially suggested by the representation of natural elements) as the origins of consciousness which paradoxically surpasses the natural, in part because the film includes representations of our understanding of the natural world in content. Beyond just the recreation of human appearance and disposition with robots, there are also scenes like the one where David intrudes upon Monica on the toilet, reading a book called “Freud and Women.” It’s necessary for Spielberg to forcefully present such elements in order to continually build the picture’s aesthetics and keep the viewer interpreting the dynamics on screen in relation to one another, not attaching to one set of moral ideals. In Henry and Monica’s home, there are the clear expressions of David’s machinic-human construction—his laugh at the dinner table, a later dinner scene where the couple’s son (now conscious and convalescing at home) goads David into shoveling mouthfuls of spinach—giving David a short circuit which causes the right side of his face to droop in a way that resembles a stroke victim. In addition to this there’s also the introduction of David’s tendency to grab someone familiar and repeat, “Keep me safe.” when he perceives danger—and when this characteristic gets introduced it causes David to nearly drown the human son in the couple’s swimming pool. The most important parts of this first act are generated in the contrast between the human and robot children, because for the most part the conflict between the two is a translation of sibling jealousy over parental favor into the human’s mocking of the robot for not being “real.” Thus David’s fairytale desire to become a real boy is secondary to his desire to be loved by Monica, spurred on by his relationship to the human child which is the movie’s transformation of youthful socialization. This conflict, plus Monica’s hesitant acceptance of David before she programs him, as well as the general surprised reaction to David as if he is one of a kind, which extends throughout the whole movie even after we realize he is the first of a series, lends the movie its themes of evolution as it is represented by human consciousness and creation. That makes the Spielberg effect on this movie all the more important: when Monica “releases” the horrified David in the woods to “save” him from being destroyed by Cybertronics, she declares that he should stick around other robots: “only Mecha are safe!” This, a final suggestion of care strained by fundamental conflicts, is surely Spielberg’s touch; Kubrick most likely would have kept the scene, which does show Monica’s capricious attachment generating a far more profound devastation in its childish object, brutal and cold.

Immediately following David’s abandonment Spielberg introduces Gigolo Joe, with no suggestion of how he is to tie into David’s story until later. The movie will ultimately use this character to present the automated preoccupations and personality bound by setting (he is framed for a murder and flees Rouge City, his home turf, only to eagerly return to aid David on his mission) leading into an alliance between the artificially intelligent beings. When Joe explains to David, “you were made specific like the rest of us… and now you’re all alone because they don’t want you anymore,” it’s more than an expression of the robots suffocating under human oppression, it’s the first glint of a consciousness starting to realize the realities of its being. Joe’s introduction here grafts the notion of these robots as representative of types which speak to the compartmentalization of human desires. Introducing this character who at this point is in a completely separate storyline to the one we’ve been following serves to broaden the movie’s description of what these creations can reveal through their intended function. Gigolo Joe, a love robot in Rouge City, promises to provide an unparalleled sexual experience for his clients, effectively spoiling them with his mechanical lovemaking. His client in his first scene is frightened of having sex with a robot, a fear generated by his inhuman status making the prospect seem bestial. But when Gigolo Joe assures her it will result in transcendent pleasure, this softens her. Like when David calls Monica “mommy” after she programs him to love her, the promise of an undying, unchallengeable source of affection sponges away fears about a human union with an object. Gigolo Joe’s scene takes these ideas out of the context of domesticity and the nuclear family and situates them as foundational to the societies we witness on screen.

At the flesh fair, where spectators cheer for the destruction of all kinds of robots—which is allowed by their distinctly non-human appearance and disposition, the crowd rejects destruction of David because he expresses terror and pleads for his life. This moment solidifies and condenses the idea that the robots represent something new, separate from human concerns, yet still evolving from nature. In this moment the crowd at the flesh fair is no longer able to maintain their view of robots as unnatural or unholy, they are forced to concede a point of view to David: he expresses something and thus transcends being a mere recreation of human life. We, the audience, know that David is not human, but this fact remains unconfirmed for the flesh fair audience, and they still pelt Brendan Gleeson’s evangelist rather than do harm to David. So it’s not that David is so apparently human that he convinces the audience, but his expression of awareness which makes the act of destroying him no longer morally possible. Of course Spielberg’s picture has been challenging this perspective before this, revealing its social, ethic, theological roots rather than merely reinforcing its morals: the image of the French nanny bot’s smiling face as she’s melted with acid is one of the most affecting and effective images I’ve seen in the 21st century American cinema and maybe the 21st century cinema period.

In Rouge City the completely pervasive and excessive advertisements are in a sense familiar but their expression is accelerated to the point of unfamiliarity. It shows an appeal to human senses extended to such a degree that any human appeal is lost, suggesting again the fundamental contractions immanent to human nature. We are watching an expression of the future in which these contradictions are finally being teased out once and for all. There are these moments of excess which show us sort of a logical progression of our effect upon ourselves and the world, but without feeling final in part because of the robot who is incomplete without corporeality, experience, the chance to be loved, essentially searching for a subconscious for the whole of the picture. David’s ontology, however, prevents this, and his alliance with Gigolo Joe, as well as his appeals to other characters in the movie, dramatizes his inevitable departure from strictly human ideas. The ragtag group of Joe, David, and Teddy represent different stages of a mechanic consciousness coming into being—first serving children, then adults, then ultimately made to understand itself after being traumatically separated from its corporeal attachments. David’s achievement of “subconscious” involves the revelation that he shares identical physical material with others, waiting at the bottom of a drowned Brooklyn for millennia, and ultimately greeting the further generations of robots, who are still working out fundamental universal questions. This vision situates the response to the mysteries of time and space as deeply connected with human psychology but also its evolution. Presenting the new brain wiring (literally) which proceeds directly from the old and evolves and surpasses it through David (and though I haven’t mentioned it once in this review, Osment’s performance can’t be given enough credit), Spielberg presents human life as significant not because of its psychological separation from the processes of history and evolution but in beautiful, sometimes melancholy, harmony with it. (Psychological separation is Kubrick—after writing 2001 with Arthur C. Clarke, that author would go on to write three more follow-up books in which humanity must cheat these metaphysical forces to orchestrate its own continued existence, which is a logical extension of that movie’s narrative philosophy). Nominally a Kubrick tribute (but anyone with eyes and ears can see this is a Spielberg picture through and through), it also has potential as a corrective to the cynical, morally and philosophically unchallenging brand of American cinema Kubrick popularized in the second half of the 20th century. Spielberg’s ending is so powerful because it shows the limitations of humanity, but takes care not to elide its beauty—the two dialectically complement each other, generating A.I.’s rich philosophical challenge.