A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)


*EDIT: Since writing this post I have thought more about the movie and come to realize that I think I like it, dammit.  It’s not the easiest viewing experience, in fact there are a lot of things I really didn’t like, but the uneven pieces added to something whole.  Spielberg and Kubrick have said what they wanted to say, telling a story about a boy looking for a life in a society on the verge of death.  That said, everything I wrote was still me working through what I liked/hated about the film, so I’m going to leave it as is.  It’s a fairly simple story, but a complicated viewing experience.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence hasn’t aged well.  I’m going to have a hard time analyzing this film without acknowledging the many films (MoonEx Machina) about forms of artificial intelligence that have come out since.  The one I think of most isn’t actually a movie but a tv show.  It’s Westworld which recently completed its first season.  The show, like this movie, is about what makes us human.  On the surface it’s a powerful question, but it’s also been covered so many times so as to feel relatively pointless by now.  This film also borrows from the morality question of Jurassic Park: Just because you can do something, does it mean you should?

So A.I. is a film full of ambitions, both technical and narrative, but it’s clumsy, hurried and feels like it’s directed by two different people.  That’s because, in a sense, it was.  Stanley Kubrick had worked extensively on the preproduction of this film before his death in 1999 at which point Spielberg took the reigns.

The film at times is harsh, bleak and representative of a definitive point of view on the way humans act as a collective being.  It’s saying something about our culture, our world and our ambitions.  I don’t know all that much about Kubrick other than the handful of films I have seen, but I do know that he often paints a picture of humans as cruel and occasionally unpredictable beings.  He sees people from above, observing with objectivity.  Spielberg, on the other hand, loves his characters, particularly children.  He’s very caring of their representations onscreen more often than not.  Whereas Kubrick wants to observe with a white lab coat, Spielberg wants to be right there alongside the characters, making sure they feel comfortable.  In many ways Kubrick’s attitudes are represented by the way the humans treat David (Haley Joel Osment), the kid robot, and Spielberg’s attitudes are represented by the aliens in Act 3 who tell David that they want nothing but good things for him.  David is the humans’ creation, and he outlives them all, but whereas they treated him ruthlessly, the aliens cater to his every need until he is ultimately able to die in peace (I’m still not sure how he died, but I’ll get to that later).

Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that there were some interesting moments and troubling but gripping visions of the future in this film, but there were also cliched, run of the mill movie scenes that weighed the whole film down and often took me out of the viewing experience.

So the beginning of the film is one of those hurried moments.  We are introduced to Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) as he discusses the advancements in artificial intelligence and, more specifically, “mechas,” human-looking robots.  He explains this to a room of scientists, but of course he is really talking to the audience, catching us up on everything we need to know.  The way this scene plays out, you are meant to feel like just another person in the room, looking at the situation practically, not feeling for the robots but understanding clearly who and what they are.

This makes David foreign to us.  He is given to one of Dr. Lobby’s low-level employees, Henry along with his wife Monica.  Henry and Monica have a child who is cryogenically frozen and appears likely to never awaken.  Henry decides to surprise Monica with David as a replacement son.  She is, predictably, appalled by David, and David really is genuinely creepy.  He’s a cheerful little guy, but everything about him is artificial.  Maybe it’s because we know how he was made and why.  We’re told that he’s made to love, and an important question is brought up early on: Will he be loved?

It fascinates me that we’re introduced to David from an outsider’s perspective, but the rest of the film will have us follow David and be forced to identify with them.  In order for the film to work, we will have to be convinced by him in much the same way Monica will need to be convinced.  But I wasn’t.

David’s always creepy, at least when he’s happy.  He’s made to be constantly satisfied yet also curious.  He never causes trouble (yet), and he’s just so easy going.  It’s clear something’s missing, however.  Monica becomes convinced before I was, so suddenly she’s undergoing the “imprinting process” which will make David see her as his mother and forever tie him to her.  It’s a bit of a tragic sequence, knowing what we know about his journey.  She imprints him, and suddenly he’s calling her “mommy,” even though he seems to be a little old for that word.

The process really makes him feel younger than he is, and throughout this part of the film I had trouble with the story because the process by which David is made doesn’t feel very thought through.  David doesn’t age, he is just the same age.  Did they ever think about what would happen to him or what it would be like for the parents to not see this surrogate son grow?  Granted, these questions are part of the theme of the film, as we’re supposed to see Dr. Hobby as a bit of a flawed character, much like Dr. Hammond in Jurassic Park.  Yet the lack of answers or at least consideration for these questions doesn’t add up when you see how advanced David is.  In reality I would imagine these questions to be considered way before the technological advancements are possible to make a human-looking robot.  I would expect there to be heavy debate about the ethics of making artifical intelligence with the capacity to feel even when that A.I. is just a talking box.

So Henry and Monica’s son Martin wakes up, and he’s brought home.  He’s a douchey little kid who toys with David like he’s, well, a toy.  It’s, I suppose, symbolic of the way humans have treated robots, without considerations for them as being human, but it’s annoying to watch because there’s just something so grating about smug children.

David’s annoying to watch too when he’s happy, but when Martin comes back he becomes a much more complex character.  He’s still figuring out the world, and he becomes much more routinely sad.  Osment has a great sad face:

This is when the film becomes much more engaging, but it’s still full of problems.

Martin sees how far he can push David, and three instances lead to Monica’s abandonment of David in the forrest.  First, Martin taunts David into eating spinach, and this melts half his face as David cannot eat.  Second, Martin tells David that if he can cut off a lock of her hair and give it to him, then she’ll love him forever.  When David tries this, Monica wakes up with David’s pair of scissors only millimeters away from her eye.  It appears that he was trying to harm her.  Finally, at Martin’s birthday party, the other kids begin to bully David.  Of course no one sees this, and no one tries to stop it.  When one kid presses a knife into David’s arm, he whimpers and hides behind Martin, begging him to keep him safe.  David accidentally falls into the pool, dragging Martin with him.  Martin nearly drowns, and Henry forces Monica to get rid of David, considering him to be dangerous.

Monica is torn up about this, and when she tells David that she’s leaving him (and his awesome talking teddy bear, Teddy) in the forrest, he cries and begs for her to take him home.

David comes across a bunch of other robots who are nowhere near as advanced as he is.  First of all, they’re clearly robots, and many of them are maimed so that they hardly exist, one strong breeze away from collapsing into thousands of pieces.  Second of all, they’re all programmed for specific tasks, like David, but David’s ability to feel love is what separates him from these A.I.’s.

David and a bunch of other robots are rounded up in the forrest and brought to a location to be killed in front of a cheering crowd.  In containment he meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex robot.  Joe is pretty advanced too, but he’s much more clearly artificial with his slicked hair and shiny skin.  Joe, like the other robots, is programmed to do one thing, except he’s pretty clearly able to feel desire and some sort of anguish.  The film insists that David is one of a kind, but in the film’s need to make Joe a multi-dimensional character with whom David can develop a friendship, he clearly demonstrates human qualities.  Still, the movie seems to ignore this and insist that he’s just another robot made for simple tasks.  I will say that this may be intended in order to show the flaw in Dr. Hobby’s plan, making it apparent that the robots are capable of more than planned.  In many other robot films and shows, however, the robots are shown to be able to develop a conscience.  In this case, it appears that Joe just always had one.  He simultaneously goes about his day, doing his sexual tasks while also expressing fear, relief and affection for David.

Anyways, there’s a scene in which a girl finds David in the robot prison and tells her father (who helps program the whole show) that a real boy is caught in the robot jail.  The father investigates, and when he confirms that David is a robot, he is absolutely stunned.  But other people saw David in there and treated him as a robot.  The fact that David is a robot shouldn’t be stunning.  If it really is that hard to believe, then it shows how negligent they are because a little boy was allowed to get caught in the robot jail with no report of the mistake.

Again, this could probably be explained by saying that these moments all add up to show how shitty humans are and can be, but it bothered me because it felt like the script just breezed over a few sections.  For example, David is brought up to be killed, but the audience riots when they see him begging for his life because they have never see a Mecha beg for its life before.  When the riot breaks out, David, Teddy and Gigolo Joe are able to just escape freely.

They hitch a ride with Entourage’s Vinny Chase and his horny friends to a Gomorrah type of town, full of bright lights, promises of lovemaking and all around over-stimulation.  They get there extremely easily and quickly.

David searches for a blue fairy that he says if his first memory.  The fairy turns up in the Pinocchio fairytale, and David learns more about this from a talking cartoon alongside Joe. It’s scenes like this, the journey to this city and the talking cartoon that feel rushed through.  It also creates a very artificial feeling to the whole story, but, again, maybe that was the intent.

So then we see the police arrive to take away Joe, but they leave a helicopter unattended, and David gets in and causes havoc, leading to Joe’s escape.  Suddenly we find the two robots and the teddy bear flying on their way to Manhattan.  This scene is, again, breezed through and provides for way too easy of an escape.

When it comes to characters finding a way out of a tough situation, they usually have to call upon things previously established in the story.  These things can be established through character moments or simple world building, but there’s not much world building in the first act of this film since we only follow David, and he’s almost entirely stuck at home.  Therefore when the characters find themselves in a corner, the thing that saves them isn’t previously established, and it feels cheap.

So they’re in Manhattan which is now basically a lot city, almost entirely submerged in the ocean except for a few skyscrapers.  One of these is the building in which David was made. He meets Dr. Hobby who explains his existence, and then David sees other versions of himself.  It’s a creepy sequence, but knowing what I know about robot movies made since 2001, it’s not an unexpected scene.  Of course David would find the other Davids like the Sam Rockwell film Moon.  If there’s a story with multiple copies of the same person, whether robot or clone, it’s inevitable that they’ll meet, i.e. Chekhov’s gun.

This moment devastates David because he realizes that he’s not unique despite his insistence all along that he was one of a kind.  All David wants is to become a real boy, just like Pinocchio, and he somehow finds himself in the submerged areas of New York City, stumbling across a Pinocchio section of a theme park.  He finds the blue fairy and looks into her eyes, hoping to become a real boy.

The voiceover tells us that he waits there for 2,000 years while everything freezes over.  Then the aliens who now occupy the earth (or are maybe just visiting) unfreeze him.  They reach into his mind and pull out all of his memories.  Since David is the last remaining connection to humanity, they care for him, hoping to learn more about what humans were like.  Except, maybe they learned all they needed to learn when they quickly looked inside his mind at everything he remembers.

They then decide to try and make his dream come true, of seeing his mother again.  Teddy gives David the hair he cut from his mother as physical evidence of her existence which the aliens need to make her come back to life.  Before he sees his mother again, an alien tells David that aliens admire humans for their efforts to find meaning in life through art and the desire to create in general.  David is the last remaining symbol of everything humanity accomplished.  I don’t imagine aliens would admire us for any specific reason, but I guess they do.

So they grant David’s wish, but when they bring Monica back, she will only survive for one day.  David has the best day of his life with her, and then he is finally able to sleep, for the first time in his long, long life.  The film ends with them together, dying together in a very sad ending.  Now, it’s not sad for David, his death is peaceful and it’s final.  Early in the film he expressed fear about outliving his mother (and humanity in general), and immortality is pretty horrifying.  It’s good that he dies, but the ending is really sad for Teddy, that awesome teddy bear who is the best friend a guy could have.  Damn, Teddy was the best, but he doesn’t get to die.  When Monica 2.0 and David lie down on the bed, Teddy crawls up next to them and just sits there while the light goes out.  Poor Teddy, Jesus Christ, I know he probably can’t feel anything, but he already had to wait next to David in front of that blue ferry statue for 2,000 years.  A bear can only bare so much.

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Okay, so the more I think about this movie, the more moved I am.  It is a pretty haunting story, and I think it accomplishes much of what it wants to accomplish.  Anything about immortality in film (whether it’s this or Black Mirror) is troubling and makes me think.  I could picture this story as a much better short story (and it is based on a short story).  Certain images are striking, such as David and Teddy walking through the forrest, David and Teddy trapped underwater under the fallen ferris wheel for 2,000 years, the World Trade Center emerging from the ocean water, etc.

In the moment a lot of scenes are frustrating, and a lot of the acting isn’t that great, but the film as a whole looks much better from afar.  Henry Thomas got the role of Elliot in E.T. because of his impressive crying ability in his audition.  Maybe there was more to it than that, but the story required him to cry at the end of the film, and I think Haley Joel Osment was cast in this movie because of his crying ability too.  He quietly cries multiple times throughout this film (I think…) but he really lets the tears fly at the end.  The story is ultimately just about him proving to the audience that he’s human, and his crying makes this clear.

This post is already way too long, but I’ve got one last thing to add about the world depicted in this film.  Like a lot of futuristic films, it’s very foreign to us, and that makes it a little eerie.  The technology is foreign but also the things people take in as entertainment.  The robot-murder scenes are brutal more because of the cheering crowd than the way the robots are killed.  The over-stimulation of the sex city they visit makes me feel uneasy, and even Monica and Henry’s home is creepy in how neat it is.  Nothing about this world feels lived in, rather it just feels artificial.  Dammit, every time I find something flawed in this movie, I realize it’s probably meant to be that way.  Really, this whole film was kind of hard to watch and for a variety of reasons.  It’s definitely a movie world I don’t want to spend any more time in, but blah blah blah that’s the point.

Like how every war movie is an anti-war movie, every sci fi movie is commenting more on the world as it is today than the world in the future.  It’s like an intervention, telling modern day culture “this is the road you’re headed down unless you pick yourself up and get your shit together.”


***Okay, so a few hours have passed, and I’m still thinking about this movie.  It’s emotional and very similar to Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun which is about a kid, a human.  There are similarities between this and E.T. with the goal to try and make you empathize with a non-human protagonist, but the similarities with EOTS make me think that Spielberg, at a certain point in the story, started working with the assumption that you already think David is human or at least human enough.  I definitely thought of him as just another character in any one of a bunch of movies I’ve seen.  I wasn’t questioning his humanity, I was just going along to see if he achieved his goal.  The voiceover that tells us he waited by the ferry statue for 2,000 years is shocking, partially because it reminds us that he is indeed a robot and can sit there for that long.  It’s both humanizing in his incredible desire but also dehumanizing because only a computer could rest there for so long.  So at the end, originally I thought he was more human, but he’s also just a code performing what he’s meant to do.  Is he really feeling?  I still don’t know, but the one thing I do know is that Dr. Hobby’s achievement is amazing.  The fact that David is still there thousands of years later, after all humans have seemingly died off, is a testament to what people can achieve, even if there are morality questions at stake.  So whereas Jurassic Park demonized the people who act without thinking, this film leaves it up to you to decide what’s right or wrong.

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