AI david and monica

His Love Is Real. But He Is Not.

A.I. is Spielberg’s darkest film. Even Schindler’s List, with its unflinching, horrific imagery of the Holocaust, and it’s soul-crushing coda of Schindler weeping as he admits, “I could’ve saved more people…”, eventually ends on a hopeful note.

But there’s very little hope in A.I. You could perhaps argue that this is the Kubrick influence shining through, but Spielberg could have changed that if he really wanted to. Instead, he adheres to it – embraces it, even.

In fact, in interviews following the film’s release, Spielberg would angrily insist the darkest elements of the film were his ideas, not Kubrick’s. “All the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine,” he said, “And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening are softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s.”

A.I. is so particularly dark because it is, at its heart, a story of the end of humanity. Spielberg, one of our great humanist filmmakers, doesn’t traffic in this subject matter often. Even his future War of the Worlds film finds a way to pull us back from the brink of extinction. But in A.I., the clock has run out before the movie even fades in.

“Those were the years after the ice caps had melted,” a narrator (Ben Kingsley) tells us, as waves crash before our eyes. “Climates became chaotic. Hundreds of millions of people starved in poorer countries. Elsewhere a high degree of prosperity survived…when most governments in the developed world…introduced legal sanctions to strictly license pregnancies, which was why robots, who were never hungry and did not consume resources beyond those of their first manufacture, were so essential an economic link…in the chain mail of society.”

Professor Hobby (William Hurt) is the leading expert on creating these robots. And at A.I.’s start, he’s just come up with an unprecedented, near-existential idea: he wants to create a robot that can love. A robot child that will imprint on its human owners, and love them like a real child. It’s a perilous concept, and it should come as no surprise when we later learn it’s a concept born out of grief – Hobby mourns his dead son, and creates the robot child in the deceased boy’s image. With his robot boy, Hobby is recreating his son to be immortal. “A perfect child caught in a freeze-frame,” is how he describes it. “Always loving, never ill, never changing.”

This child caught in a freeze-frame is David (Haley Joel Osment). David ends up adopted by the Swintons – Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards). The Swintons’ real son, Martin, is in a coma, with very little chance of recovery. Still, Monica is hesitant – in fact, downright horrified – when Henry brings David home. And who can blame her? David looks human, but he behaves in an eerie, unearthly way. It cannot be understated how engrossing Osment’s performance is – the young actor manages to always make his character seem synthetic, even when David is often the most humane character in a scene. With eyes that never blink and a smile that never quite seems natural, David gives the viewer shudders upon his introduction. Spielberg plays up the alien-like nature of the character, having him first appear distorted behind some textured glass. He’s like a shadowy creature emerging from another dimension.

The best way to make David seem more human is for Monica to imprint upon the robot boy by uttering a string of random words. This action comes with a grave warning: once imprinted, David cannot be simply returned to the factory if Monica decides she doesn’t want him anymore. He would have to be destroyed.

Undeterred by this, Monica imprints on David, and he does indeed begin to behave more naturally – although never quite naturally enough. Mother and robot-son begin to bond, but the bonding is short lived. When Monica’s real son Martin wakes up, David becomes obsolete – like an old iPhone that just doesn’t seem so cool anymore. In Monica, Spielberg has created something rare for his filmography: a neglectful mother. Absentee fathers are a running theme in Spielberg land – Roy Neary abandoning his family to go cruising around the galaxy with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Elliot’s often-mentioned, never-seen father living a whole new life somewhere else in E.T.; the workaholic adult Peter Pan in Hook.

This is a theme plucked from Spielberg’s own life. His father Arnold was often engrossed in his work, and when Spielberg’s parents split, he laid the blame of the divorce on his father. Later, he’d learn that the divorce was the result of an affair his mother, Lee, had had with a family friend. Still, for years, Spielberg would resent his father while putting his mother on a pedestal. This father-resentment peppered most of his films, but with A.I.’s Monica, he turns the tables.

Once Martin is home, Monica drives David out into the woods and abandons him. The argument could be made that technically, Monica isn’t being a bad mother, because David isn’t really her son. He’s an object – something created in a factory. Yet before Martin’s return home, Monica was happy to love and adore David as her own. Or at least pretend.

To David, however, that love was real. Or was it? He’ll spend the rest of the movie desperately trying to get back to Monica, believing that when he does, she’ll embrace him. But that’s what he’s programmed to think. The imprint has turned him into a helpless, hapless object entirely devoted to Monica. “His love is real, but he is not,” claimed the A.I. tagline – but is his love real? The more you peel away the layers, the more complicated it becomes. “Love will be the key,” Professor Hobby says at the start of the film, “by which they acquire a kind of subconscious never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, intuition, a self-motivated reasoning, of dreams.”

AI Moon

To the Flesh Fair, and Beyond

After being abandoned by Monica, David ends up at the Flesh Fair – a nightmarish gathering that looks like a Trump rally on acid. Here, obsolete, older robots are torn limb from limb, set ablaze, and utterly destroyed to the cheers of a giddy human crowd. The humans at the Flesh Fair resent robots; resent what they represent. And yet in most ways, these robots are reflections of the humans – machines engineered to handle menial tasks, like waste collection. Humanity made these creatures to do the dirty work, and now humanity hates what it’s created.

There’s an abject cruelty in this sequence that rivals the harrowing scenes of Schindler’s List. Spielberg rarely goes cruel with his films, and when you watch the many tortures and destructions on display in the Flesh Fair sequence, you get the sense that the filmmaker is disgusted with what he’s filming. Most frames of a Spielberg film are brimming with joy, but the Flesh Fair is soul-crushing. If it had lasted any longer, A.I. might have actually suffered.

David escapes the Flesh Fair intact, and teams-up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure-bot who is on the run after being framed for murder. The early 2000s saw Law overexposed in an abundance of roles, but few filmmakers knew how to use his charms. Spielberg, however, draws a limber, seductive, fantastic performance from the actor. Law soft-shoes his way through the film like a synthetic Gene Kelly.

Thanks to the story of Pinocchio, David has it in his head that if he can find the fabled Blue Fairy, and be turned into a real boy, Monica will love him. Joe’s advice: head to Rouge City, a neon-lit pleasure-town. A futuristic Atlantic City, where huge neon lights advertise sins of the flesh, and more. If the Flesh Fair sequence is Spielberg disgusted with what he has to create, the Rouge City scenes are the opposite – wild and hectic, with nearly every inch of the frame occupied by some sort of technological wizardry.

The Blue Fairy is not to be found in Rouge City, and David and Joe’s travels land them in water-logged Manhattan. Here, the tops of skyscrapers jut out from high seas – a fading, sinking reminder of more of humanity’s failure. We built these tall, imposing structures to awe, and yet we’re helpless to save them from being swallowed-up by the tides.

David finds the offices of Professor Hobby, and is treated to a lightning-strike of existential dread when he finds yet another David in the building. The other robot boy is cheerful and polite, but our David is overcome with terror and rage. He smashes the other David to pieces – a scene that’s jaw-dropping in its savagery. Up until this point in the film, David is a passive creature. Whenever danger rears its head, he’s prone to hide behind the nearest adult while whimpering, “Keep me safe, keep me safe,” over and over. Here, presented with the realization that he’s no longer unique, no longer special, he snaps. He wants to be the special boy that Monica will love, but how can he when there’s an identical version of him in the world?

“I thought I was one of a kind,” he moans to Professor Hobby.

“My son was one of a kind,” Hobby replies. “You’re the first of a kind.”

This isn’t enough for David. Weary and full of self-doubt, he’s ready to give up. He’s realized he’s just another mass-produced product – a product Monica will never truly love. His reaction is to fling himself into the seas that have swallowed up Manhattan. There, at the bottom of the sea, he finally finds the “Blue Fairy”: a submerged statue nestled in a sunken amusement park. There he waits, for centuries upon centuries, begging this inanimate object to make him a real boy.

It’s 2000 years later when David is rescued – pulled from the frozen landscape that was once New York. Human beings are completely gone, and all that remains are highly-advanced robots that resemble aliens from outer space rather than man-made machines. They resurrect David, curious to learn about times long-gone. And they offer David a kindness: they can resurrect Monica for one brief day, if that’s what David really wants.

It’s this sequence that drew the most criticism for Spielberg. Many argued the film should’ve ended with David trapped beneath the sea, making a wish that never came true. The film’s real conclusion, some said, was too schmaltzy; too kind. Yet it’s not kind at all. And it’s something Kubrick thought up himself, long before Spielberg came aboard.

Sara Maitland, whom Kubrick worked with on a story treatment, said Kubrick saw the ending as temporary: “David’s dream of her is in the way the memory is like a dream. He’s given back his memory, not his mother.” Yes, Monica is resurrected, and yes, she spends one “perfect” day with David. But she has no idea where she is – she has no idea what century the two are even inhabiting, or that she’s been dead for thousands of years. And she certainly seems to have no recollection of Martin, her real son.

Instead, she play-acts through a fun yet artificial day with David. Here, in this fleeting moment, David finds the love he’s longed for. But it’s not real. And it’ll be gone soon – once Monica falls asleep, the restrictionist robots tell David, she’ll die again. And as for David, there’s no telling what his future will be. He falls asleep besides Monica, and perhaps this is the end of David’s life as well. His real wish – to be a human boy – is never granted.

Continue Reading 21st Century Spielberg: A.I. and Minority Report >>

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