AI at 20: Spielberg’s Misunderstood Epic Remains His Darkest Film to Date | AI

“I thought it would be hard for you to understand. You were created to be so young.

This heartbreaking line comes towards the end of AI: artificial intelligence, centuries after David, an unusually sophisticated mechanical child (or “Mecha”), embarked on a quest to become “a real boy,” as Pinocchio, and reunite with the human mother he was programmed to love. The years haven’t aged him, of course. He is eternally young, unable to acquire the wisdom and perspective that come with age. He cannot understand the passage of time, much less the absurd and chimerical nature of his mission. He just wants his mom.

The purity of that feeling is something Steven Spielberg has pursued for much of his career, how a child’s innocence is expressed through wonder on one side and intense vulnerability on the other. The magic of ET the alien from Spielberg is that it extracts tears from both ends of the spectrum, whether young Eliot takes off on a bike or hooks up with his alien friend as he falls under the cold gaze of adults. AI is more about vulnerability than wonder, and this is possibly Spielberg’s darkest film, darker than Schindler’s List, which seeks redemption from a historical horror. overwhelming. There’s a redemption arc in AI too, but it’s as man-made (and real) as the android at the center of it.

Although it’s been 20 years since AI polarized audiences, the film’s genesis stretches another 30 years before that, when Stanley Kubrick secured the rights to Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long and brought started the slow development process which did not always make for a real movie. (See also: Napoleon, Aryan Papers, and dozens of other unrealized projects.) When the title “An Amblin / Stanley Kubrick production” appears onscreen, you can anticipate the cognitive dissonance between the two filmmakers: Kubrick the Clinician cold, taking inventories of man’s hypocrisies and his destructive nature; Spielberg the astute artist, a brand name in Hollywood storytelling. How could these sensitivities be reconciled?

It’s a rhetorical question for those who see AI as a failure, but for others who admire it, like me, the tension between Kubrick and Spielberg translates into a unique experience, a dark film about human nature in disguise. into a sentimental sci-fi fairy tale. Through Spielberg’s lens, David becomes a real boy as Monica (Frances O’Connor) completes the formal “imprint” process that ends when the android calls him his mother. Kubrick never would have believed that a child actor could play the part of David convincingly, but the way Haley Joel Osment, as David, softens her expression after that last commission ends that concern. It’s a robot that’s been programmed to love its parent, and Spielberg and Osment make it impossible to view David’s love as inauthentic, even though we know it’s just a piece of next-gen technology, the first in a series of super toys ready to ship.

The Gepetto in this Pinocchio story is Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), who designs David to meet the needs of a collapsing society. In the 22nd century, climate change resulted in sea level rise that wiped out coastal towns, drastically reduced the world’s population, and led to legal penalties on pregnancies, as human children would strain limited resources. of the world. Monica and her husband, Henry, are chosen as the “perfect” family for David, as their son Martin has contracted a rare disease and is kept in “suspended animation” with little hope of a cure. The idea of ​​replacing Martin with a robot son of the same age initially repels Monica, but she warms up to this strange being over time and switches to impregnation.

The ethical question that a colleague asks Professor Hobby when discussing his new creation hangs over the entire film: “If a robot could truly love a person, what responsibility does that person have towards that Mecha in return?” Mankind is used to the answer being “none,” as we will learn later when obsolete robots are rounded up at Flesh Fairs, which are like monster truck rallies where people applaud the destruction of technology that clearly made their lives worse. But the moment between when Monica makes the impression and when she leaves David in the woods in tears is the biggest and most powerful stretch in the movie. Monica plays make-believe with David, comforting herself in maternal rituals that Martin’s absence has denied her. But pretend long enough and you may not want to pretend anymore.

Steven Spielberg on the set.
Steven Spielberg on the set. Photography: AP

That’s how movies work too, right? This is how we suffer for David when Monica and Henry’s real son returns and a hoped-for sibling relationship turns sour, culminating at a birthday party when David nearly drowned Martin in a swimming accident. Spielberg doesn’t even have to hide David’s synthetic qualities – the meals he pretends to eat, his weird laughs, his blank expression doesn’t calculate every time he’s confused – because we accept the premise. that he loves his mother. As consumers of fiction, we emotionally invest ourselves in unreal characters all the time, and they don’t have to be human beings when they’re creatures as sincere and pitiful as David.

The AI ​​middle section follows David (and his adorable Teddy Ruxpin-like toy mate) on his quest to find “Blue Fairy” who will turn him into a real boy, which leads him to cross paths with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a Mecha prostitute on the run after a murder. If this is a Pinocchio story, then the entire second act has the nightmarish quality of Pleasure Island, that lawless place in the 1940 Disney movie where boys smoke cigars, indulge in various vices and end up turning into bawling donkeys. We realize that Monica and Henry are among the privileged few and that society in general has become an island of cheap pleasures intended to heal deep wounds and resentments. This is no place for a boy like David. It is not a place for anyone. And that may be what the future holds.

The AI ​​ending is the most misunderstood part of the movie, perhaps because it looks like Spielberg is crafting a happy ending when she really is a lot more bitter than bittersweet. The last third is a mirror reflection of the first third, a daily ritual of a mother-son relationship, but this time the mother is the more synthetic being of the two. None of them has a future, together or separately. Both were doomed to obsolescence long ago, along with the entire human race and the planet as a whole.

But they can pretend so real. And, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, one of the great cinephiles, we can pretend with them.

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