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Sunday 1 July 2001

Me, Robot: A Review of A.I.
by Gary Westfahl

(Exclusive to Locus Online. Warning: review contains spoilers.)

As everyone knows, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was based on a story by Brian W. Aldiss, developed for the screen by Ian Watson under the supervision of Stanley Kubrick, and written and directed by Steven Spielberg. One might expect that the combination of such disparate talents would result in a sometimes brilliant but incohesive film, sequentially pulled in different directions by its different creators, and that is more or less what has occurred. In particular, the film suffers because of Spielberg's sincere determination to honor the intentions of his predecessors while also expressing his own vision, and his ultimate inability to achieve both goals.

First, one must give Spielberg some credit. He undertook this project as if believing that it involved following certain rules, and he followed them. This was not a story that was allowed to have a happy ending; Spielberg felt that he could not take this boy robot longing to become real and employ some superscientific deux ex machina to transfer his personality into organic flesh to be happily reconciled with his family and human society. Yet this is also precisely the sort of ending that Spielberg manifestly wished to provide. The film's last scenes thus evolve into a slow, cyclical dance in which Spielberg keeps moving close to the line between realism and sentimentality and then retreating, trying to get as close to sentimentality as he possibly can without breaking the rules and actually crossing the line.

Overall, A.I. is a film divided into three parts: first, a slow-moving but reasonably involving domestic drama; second, a colorful and exciting adventure movie; and third, a excruciatingly leaden and miscalculated cosmic vision.

An opening voiceover explains that in the future, global warming caused the Earth's polar ice to melt, flooding coastal regions and killing hundreds of millions of people, so that there emerged a need for lifelike robots to perform various services. We meet Allen Hobby (William Hurt), head of Cybertronics, who lectures colleagues about his plans to build a robot that is capable of feeling love. Twenty months later, the child robot David (Haley Joel Osment) is constructed and dispatched to live in the home of a Cybertronics employee and his wife, whose own child had been placed in cryonic suspension following a tragic illness. As Monica (Frances O'Connor) grows attached to the new presence in her home, she elects to pronounce the seven code words — "Cirrus Socrates particle decibel hurricane dolphin tulip" — that make David fall permanently in love with her as his true "mommy."

Throughout the film, we constantly see David in reflections and through glass: his face is reflected in framed family pictures and split by the multiple panels of a glass door; his eyes are reflected on their dining room table and in the cap of a coffee jar; he is viewed through the overhead light and through an empty glass that he pretends to drink; he appears in a rear view mirror and through the glass windows of vehicles. All of this reminds us that David is not real, that he is an image of a human being, not a human being. This theme may be related to another recurring pattern of imagery, water, since a watery surface was after all the first place that human beings saw their own images. The opening scene of the film is an expanse of ocean waves, one regularly sees rain and puddles on the streets, the robot Gigolo Joe's spontaneous dance steps recall Gene Kelly's in Singin' in the Rain, and two of the film's most poignant moments come when David is glimpsed at the bottom of a swimming pool and deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean. A final recurring motif is the Moon, decorating David's bed and serving as the ominous symbol of the humans who chase robots, perhaps suggesting that robots are pale, lifeless counterparts of humans just as the Moon is a pale, lifeless counterpart of the Sun — which rarely if ever appears in the film. (Water imagery and the Moon also figure heavily in W. B. Yeats's poem "The Stolen Child," conspicuously quoted in the film.)

When the couple's son is miraculously revived and returns home, there is inevitably jealousy and competitiveness, leading to contrived sequences that suddenly make the friendly and compliant David seem like a potential menace. Since returning him to Cybertronics will lead to mandatory destruction, Monica instead takes him and a robot teddy bear, Teddy, to a forest, instructing him to run away and avoid all humans, adding that "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the world." And that means, the audience hopes, that the film will finally tell us something about David's future world.

Because, up to this point, the film has teetered on the edge of tedium by showing us only a cloistered, even old-fashioned, sort of future. Hobby speaks to his colleagues in what looks like a dark, cluttered library, not the sort of brightly-lit, spacious conference room one might expect in a futuristic robotics company. David's family follows the model of suburban life in the 1950s, where the husband goes to work every day while the wife makes the beds, does the laundry, and prepares a nice formal dinner; in a society several decades in the future, then, daily life for women only means a return to the drudgery of the past. Spielberg seems unaware that in these scenes he both fails to provide an appropriately imaginative portrayal of daily life in a technologically advanced future and probably offends contemporary women unhappy to observe a future world that forces women back into subservience. (One also remembers that the professionals listening to Hobby's speech are overwhelmingly male, though a few lines are given to one African-American women, and that the demonstration robot that Hobby orders about and uses as a prop is a female.)

Things become considerably more interesting when David goes out on his own to encounter others of his kind, including the engaging Gigolo Joe who becomes his companion and a number of cleverly rendered models who are attracted to a dumping ground to find replacement parts for their deteriorating bodies. David has now embarked upon a quest: having heard the story of Pinocchio, David believes that if he finds the Blue Fairy he can become "a real boy" and thus recapture his mother's love. (The film's ongoing references to Pinocchio, however, become more suffocating than enriching.) With a reason to travel, David gets to experience a horrifying "Flesh Fair" — where old or unlicensed robots are demolished for the amusement of robot-hating humans — and the brightly debauched Rouge City. This part of the film has a lively pace, with striking and spectacular visual effects, suggesting that robots may face many problems in their society, but at least they know how to have a good time.

At this stage, A.I. is shifting into what should be, for science fiction readers, familiar territory. Robots represent the new African-Americans, an analogy Spielberg is aware of and plays with: a captured robot at the Flesh Fair explains that "history repeats itself," relating their plight to past efforts to suppress minorities; the first robot destroyed resembles Stepin Fetchit; and Rouge City seems a futuristic version of Harlem night life in the 1940s. A story like this might go in certain directions: David encounters an organized robot underground, perhaps divided into factions devoted to making peace with, annihilating, or living apart from humans. He abandons his self-abnegating desire to become human, embraces his robotic identity, and finds a satisfying new home among other robots. He may retain some affection for the humans who created him, but if he encounters them again, he insists upon being treated as an equal, not a second-class citizen. I am thinking of Clifford D. Simak's "All the Traps of Earth," but there are many other stories about robots who, like other oppressed minorities, struggle for acceptance and the full rights of citizenship in their society. (Even Isaac Asimov, who initially seemed determined to lock his robots into submissive roles, eventually allowed his robots to become the equals, even the masters, of human beings.)

A.I. is unwilling, or unable, to move in these directions. One could say that the film is bound by the inflexible logic of its own premise: David has been programmed — even "hardwired" — to be a loving and devoted little boy, and he therefore lacks the power to mature and change his attitudes. But that premise was a choice, not a necessity, and it is a choice with grievous consequences. First, because David cannot grow beyond his childish desires to become a human and find his mommy, cannot develop more mature aspirations or expectations about his proper place in society, the film is not obliged to have David, like other science fiction robots, explore different subcultures of his world and ponder his various options. Surprisingly, although A.I. posits a future where humans and robots uneasily interact in daily society, it fails to show us what that society looks like and how it functions; instead, we obtain only an extended look at one isolated family and some frenetic crowd scenes of nighttime leisure activities. The main sequence of the film is structured around extended visits to three amusement parks: the Flesh Fair, the "red zone" of Rouge City, and a submerged Coney Island. Spielberg thus shows a future society at play but ignores what a science fiction writer might find more intriguing, how a society that both requires robot laborers and harbors strong anti-robot sentiments might work. Perhaps the amusement park-theme reflects Spielberg's own awareness that his film is more an entertainment about robots than a serious analysis of the possible impacts of robots on human civilization.

More damagingly, since David cannot mature beyond his simple-minded goals, he becomes, despite Osment's efforts, a rather unsympathetic character. When characters improve themselves, learn from their mistakes, resolve to do the right thing, they earn an audience's sympathy; David merely keeps looking at the camera with big teary eyes and whimpering, trying to trigger our instinctive sympathetic reactions to small children in pain. But these tricks don't work indefinitely, because a person who keeps saying the same things ("I want to be a real boy," "I want to find the Blue Fairy") and keeps doing the same things (staring intently at other people, clinging to them) again and again inexorably becomes annoying, not affecting. So it isn't surprising that, while the film's other characters make statements about how unbelievably lovable David is, their actions consistently convey a desire to get away from the brat, as people keep telling him to leave or let go, as they abandon him to lie at the bottom of a pool or sit in an office. And, as the film enters its final hour, audiences too may find themselves hoping that the film will quickly end, so that they can get away from David's repetitive whining. (If there emerges a truly sympathetic hero in this film, it is the ambulatory "supertoy," Teddy, who despite his purportedly limited abilities and intelligence seems much wiser and more altruistic than David.)

Yet Spielberg, at least, has grown fond of his little tyke, which makes it painful to contemplate the unhappy ending that he feels constrained to provide. As one possible ameliorative gesture, Spielberg arranges a meeting between David and Hobby, the scientist who created him and thus qualifies as his true parent. The character of Hobby represents another quandary that the film ignores. On the one hand, there are consistent efforts to portray him as an idealist, endeavoring to build more advanced robots to improve the world and utterly dedicated to David's welfare. On the other hand, we discover that Hobby plans to mass-produce and market hundreds of Davids, indicating that all he really wants to do is make some money (and to make money by selling replicants of his own deceased son, for heaven's sake). Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, exploring the complex motives of men who seek to play God has been rewarding and fascinating, but Spielberg, it seems, doesn't care to probe into Hobby's mind.

A depressed David then jumps into the Atlantic Ocean and finds a submerged statue of the Blue Fairy which he can contemplate hopefully. During this pause in the narrative, wise filmgoers are advised to get up and walk out of the theatre, to be left with favorable memories of a flawed but often rewarding two-hour film. Those who sit through the turgid and interminable final half-hour may walk away with less favorable memories.

What this review has so far revealed about A.I. is largely information that might be gleaned from other reviews or readily predicted, but its concluding sequence is so bizarre that anyone who hasn't seen the film and wishes to be "surprised" — "appalled" might be the better term — should read no further. Yet any serious evaluation of the film must include some discussion of its final missteps.

With David doggedly staring at the Blue Fairy, the film jumps two thousand years into the future, when the world has entered another ice age and humans have become extinct. David is unearthed by alien archaeologists with the standard sorts of elongated, stylized bodies, or perhaps they are superadvanced robots; they are so vacuous and unpersuasive that it really makes no difference how they are characterized. It is as Spielberg has called upon the aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. to come and rescue this film, to provide David with the cheery, heartwarming conclusion observed in those previous Spielberg efforts. But Spielberg also knows the rules, and despite their incalculable powers, these visitors cannot make David a real boy, cannot bring back his mother for more than a day. All they can provide, in their languid fashion, is some temporary happiness which, as a conclusion, is not that much better than leaving David in underwater stasis, so that one wonders why Spielberg bothered to lurch his film off its tracks to achieve it.

I was reminded of Mission to Mars, another decent film that became risible when a cartoon alien appeared on the scene. One can argue that both films are doing exactly what Kubrick did at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, enhancing a prosaic adventure by providing a awesome cosmic context. Yet Kubrick and co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke artfully prepared filmgoers for the necessity of such a conclusion, with the recurring motif of the monolith, whereas Brian de Palma and Spielberg simply tacked on this sort of conclusion to an unrelated story that would work just as well without it.

So, if Spielberg had rethought or removed this conclusion, would A.I. have been an unqualified success? Not entirely. Like other Spielberg films, the story proceeds by the logic of what Spielberg wants to happen next, not by its own internal logic. It doesn't make sense that a trusted employee of a company that manufactures robots would become irrationally resentful and fearful of David; but Spielberg needs a villain to drive David away from Monica, and her husband is the only available candidate. It doesn't make sense that a crowd of robot-hating fanatics, being whipped into a frenzy by a beloved charismatic leader, would abruptly turn on him simply because he proposes to destroy a robot that pleads for its own life; but Spielberg needs to get David out of that deathtrap, and given the advanced technology around to detect and restrain robots, a sudden riot seems the only way to do it. David's descent into the Atlantic is awkward and time-consuming. First, he falls into the Atlantic and could have descended down to Coney Island all by himself, which is undoubtedly what occurred in the original draft. Then, a revision of the film's final sequence suddenly demanded that the future David come up with a strand of Monica's hair, and the only place he might find it would be in the possession of the absent Teddy. So, Spielberg must rework the scene so that David falls into the water, is pulled out of the water by Gigolo Joe piloting a submersible vessel, watches as Gigolo Joe is immediately and conveniently captured by the police to get him out of the picture, and is sent by Gigolo Joe back down into the water a second time, this time with the needed Teddy by his side in the submersible. Since Spielberg has escaped censure for such lapses and contrivances before, I suppose it's not surprising that he doesn't worry about them; still, if Spielberg wishes to produce deeper and more thoughtful science fiction films (as A.I. suggests), greater attentiveness to the internal logic and cohesiveness of the narratives will be required.

The best sorts of science fiction raise difficult questions about science and humanity's future and attempt to wrestle with those questions as best they can. Steven Spielberg's previous science fiction films, I have argued elsewhere, vigorously avoid difficult questions in an effort to please the crowd and make people feel good about themselves. A.I. may qualify as Spielberg's best science fiction film simply because it does raise difficult questions about intelligent robots and their projected relationship to human society, questions that demand thoughtful consideration at a time when such robots may be closer to reality than most people imagine. Perhaps the presence of these questions can be attributed solely to the other creative forces behind this film, and perhaps Spielberg found himself woefully unprepared to answer the questions he inherited. But if Spielberg is genuinely interested in exploring some of the questions posed by A.I., Harlan Ellison's screenplay of Asimov's I, Robot remains available for production, and there are many science fiction stories about robots other than "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" that might serve as excellent vehicles for provocative speculation.

Gary Westfahl is the author of The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction and other books, is working on a Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film, and is a columnist for Interzone.

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