Artists weave together fairy tales for many reasons, including the need to embellish an obscure moment of the past. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence makes the unique choice to employ the mythical qualities of such tales to shed light on humanity’s future. Some critics deride this film as a failed experiment for combining two seemingly incompatible genres: childhood fantasy and mature science fiction. However, perhaps Spielberg and fellow filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (who produced the film and decades before made a classic that shares its name with A.I.’s year of release) found inspiration in the words of acclaimed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
David, our engineered protagonist who comes equipped with all of a child’s physical attributes, pushes the boundary between sincere and synthetic in ever more disconcerting directions because of another built-in feature: his ability to love. He wants nothing more, and nothing less, than to direct this hardwired affection toward another (specifically, his human foster mother, Monica). But love, as all people — and eventually David — come to learn, hits a ceiling when its recipient won’t reciprocate. Monica resists emotional investment in a machine (“100 miles of fiber,” sums up her husband Henry’s no-strings-attached dismissal of David), just as this ‘Mecha’ boy has no choice but to forever follow the commands flowing through his circuitry. Thus, imprisonment for David shows itself in visual terms at various points in A.I. Early on, we see him bound in shackles at an anti-robot rally called Flesh Fair, then later pinned under a Ferris wheel (another object built for man’s amusement that gets abandoned and forgotten).
Fairy tales, which usually end on a joyful note for their hero, briefly make possible what we limited beings resign to the countless impossibilities of existence. Human and even non-human characters in A.I. feel the gravitational pull towards the unreal, its seductiveness. David holds fast to Pinocchio’s storybook transformation as the change he will — he must — undergo to win the love of Monica. She, meanwhile, at times almost passes for an ethereal princess, particularly when scampering through her home in a white gown and squealing, Cinderella-style, “My shoe!”
Could this unabashed sentiment really have been derived in part from the film’s producer Stanley Kubrick, generally regarded as an artist who regarded (judged) us as flawed, weak creatures from a distanced lens? One could never expect a similarly harsh stance from A.I.’s other powerhouse creator, director Steven Spielberg. Nonetheless, that doesn’t deter the latter from imprinting Kubrick (who passed away two years before the film’s release) onto the project through various nods to the late man’s work. Take, for example, David’s dinner scene with Monica and Henry as viewed through a halo-shaped ceiling lamp. Kubrick pulled off a similarly unique composition in his 1964 feature Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a title that suggests our troublesome relationships with machines.
In A.I., robots clamor for a voice, for legitimacy in a future occupied by consumers conditioned to toss them out when an updated version comes along. They struggle to maintain relevance against a prevailing cultural obsession with now-ness. They may operate for generations, but lack the critical function to produce generations. Artificial beings, then, possess neither control over the past, the swiftly-changing present, nor the future. For this reason, humans in A.I. see no need to grant their creations a rightful history of their own. But even as David’s other trekker, Gigolo Joe, falls into his pursuers’ magnetic clutches once and for all, he boldly repeats the second half of Descartes’s famous dictum (“I am”), then adds a startling coda to cement his legacy: “I was.”
When words alone fail to bring about change, the dispossessed sometimes resort to action. This plays out in a disturbing exchange late in the film between David and his doppelgänger, sensed right away as a threat to Monica’s love. “You can’t have her,” David growls, a warning that goes unheard by the smiling facsimile. Feeling his individuality drowning inside this mirrored reality, David grabs a lamp and, in a flash, slices off his enemy’s face. A.I. concludes this violence with another source of illumination, in a shot which by now in the film we know well: our protagonist framed by a circular light mounted to the ceiling. Only now, the imposing circle from the dinner scene has warped into a discontinuous oval — the docility of a preprogrammed servant shaken by resistance.
This angst of artificiality the film captures artfully. Through A.I.’s immense beauty (ironically, a good portion created by computers), we manage to still feel for inanimate objects wrestling between their owners’ wishes and their own. The ‘Lover Mecha’ Joe appears content on the surface with his efficiency in providing his ample roster of clients physical gratification, but begins to sense closeness “of a qualitatively different order” (specifically, friendship) when joining David’s quest. He cannot project what stirs him inwardly, however, and so cinema must step in to do what it has always done: express the inexpressible. Thus, we have in one moment Joe’s face framed in extreme closeup — that flimsy facade hiding little else but softly whirring motors and humming wires — superimposed with a tiny version of David, tumbling down Joe’s cheek like a tear his builders denied him the power to shed.
A.I. suggests that for humans and machines alike, spiritual desolation comes not simply through difficulty in expressing emotion, or existing without emotion altogether. Instead, the ultimate tragedy of characters like David and his kind rests on not having a maternal presence. The closest thing to unconditional acceptance that our young hero experiences comes in the form of a disabled nanny bot who somewhat resembles the more ‘complete’ human woman he seeks. Her kindness, however, runs on batteries. On his centuries-long journey, David confuses a balloon for the moon and stories as “flat facts,” but nothing radiates a clearer truth to children than a mother’s love.
In November, famed director Steven Spielberg will release The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical account of his journey into film exploring his love of machines and myth with A.I.