Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 1

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? David is a little-boy robot who has been programmed to love a woman he believes to be his mother. When she rejects him he vows to do whatever it takes to gain her love. This, to his little-boy-robot mind, involves tracking down "the Blue Fairy," a character from Pinocchio, so that he, like Pinocchio, can become a "real boy." The result is Spielberg’s strangest curveball, a movie that combines the solid, earned, heartfelt sentiment of Spielberg with the cold, wicked, despairing cynicism of Kubrick (who developed the movie for years before turning it over to Spielberg). Parts of it are almost unbearably sad, other parts are almost as unbearably creepy. Like many "important" Spielberg movies, it has five acts.free stats

ACT I (0:00 – 30:00) begins with a seven-minute introduction, a long scene where we see Dr. Allen Hobby, who runs a robot-design company, addressing his workers about the problem of creating a robot who can love. The entire argument of the movie is laid out here, point for point. Hobby is like a cross between Gepetto, Frankenstein and Astroboy‘s Dr. Tenma — he wants to create a human life by artificial means, and he’s not sure about the moral consequences of that act. A.I. raises all kinds of questions about human behavior, and whether "acting human" is the same thing as being human, and all of those questions are referred to in this scene. Is life nothing more than a list of memories and experiences? Is love anything more than a complex biological program? Why do we feel the need to have children? What responsibilities do we have for the lives we create? What, in the end, defines life? And so forth.

Having asked these questions, the movie then dramatically shifts its point-of-view to Monica, a woman whose beloved son, Martin, is in a coma. Monica becomes the movie’s protagonist for the next twenty-three minutes. We meet her as she is at the hospital where Martin is stored in his freeze chamber. She plays the score from Sleeping Beauty (get it?) while she reads Robin Hood to her comatose son.

Monica, like David later, obviously believes that one organizes one’s life according to a narrative. Her son Martin won’t be a sleeping beauty for much longer it turns out, and when he wakes up he will not make much of a point of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but that doesn’t stop Monica from trying to find a narrative that will help her make sense of the agony that life has dealt her. Parenthood, for Monica, is obviously all about self-actualization. If Martin (and later, David) has wants or desires, they are secondary to Monica’s feelings about motherhood. Monica defines herself as a mother, and Martin’s illness has frozen her in her development as much as it has frozen Martin in his.

(Monica’s habit of reading to the frozen Martin may be a therapy suggested by the hospital, which has decorated its spacious frozen-child wing with murals depicting many fairy tales, including "Cinderella" and "The Emperor’s New Clothes." The notion of organizing one’s life around a chosen narrative is obviously quite important to Spielberg — he casts a dead ringer for himself in the role of Martin’s doctor.)

Next thing we know, Monica’s husband Henry walks in the door of their house with one of the best "Honey, I’m Home" lines ever: "I love you. Don’t kill me." He’s brought home a new toy, or perhaps a new pet: it’s David, the end result of Dr. Hobby’s challenge from the beginning of the movie, a little-boy robot programmed to unconditionally love a parental figure. Again, the question of Monica’s narcissism comes up: if you replace your comatose son with a robot programmed to love you, why did you have a child to begin with? A.I. suggests, over and over, that parenthood (and the creation of intelligent machines) is a monstrous, even cruel act of narcissism — parents bring a new life into the world to "complete" some part of their identity, to see themselves reflected back at them, not for any reason pertaining to the well-being of the new life. Monica wants to see her love reflected back at herself — Martin has little importance to her at all. Why not replace him with a mommy-loving robot? He behaves exactly the same, and what is life but patterned behavior?

For a few scenes, A.I. is a funny, satirical look at parenthood. When one becomes a parent, one’s identity changes. As much as Monica wants to be a mother, she is constantly challenged by this new "life" in her house, this little-boy robot who annoys her, gets in her way and asks inappropriate questions. Well, I can tell you from experience, that’s the life of a new parent. It doesn’t matter how sincerely you want a child, there is a moment a few weeks into that child’s life where you suddenly realize that this new life isn’t something you play with for a while and then put away — it’s constant, it’s relentlessly demanding, it will not be denied, and you can’t take it back to the store. Young parents always think that they will be more or less the same people after having kids, but the sheer weight of the 24-hour responsibility warps the very fabric of one’s personality. You wanted a plaything and you’ve received and intruder — you’ve been taken hostage, your life is no longer your own. Monica, we see, for all her desire to be a mother, isn’t quite ready for the needs of a little boy, even if the little boy is a robot. (The best joke from this sequence involves David walking in on Monica while she’s on the toilet — reading a book titled Freud’s Women.)

In spite of being understandably creeped-out by David, Monica eventually "turns him on," that is, she activates his "love" program. David calls her "mommy" and hugs her, and Monica finds that her life is now complete — she has that thing that compelled her to have a child in the first place, the thing that fate cruelly took from her.

Shortly, David asks Monica if she will die one day. Monica, feeling a twinge of responsibilty for the love she has awoken, a love that will, theoretically anyway, never die, gives David a walking, talking teddy bear, a cheaper version of David himself. In the way that David is meant to be a mirror and repository of Monica’s parental feelings, the bear is meant to be a mirror and repositoryof a child’s feelings. Monica, essentially, gives David his own child to care for. What she does not know is that the bear will become not David’s child but his parent, his Jiminy Cricket. We are reminded that everything we do in life, the whole love/marriage/parenting thing, is all related to our knowledge that one day we will die. David, having no understanding of death, will, presumably love Monica literally forever.


15 Responses to “Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 1”
  1. travisezell says:

    I have to admit, I’ve been looking forward to this analysis. Very few Spielberg movies (very few movies at all) incite such strong ambivalence the way this one does for me.

  2. quitwriting says:

    I look forward to more. A.I. was one of the most heart-wrenching movies I’ve ever seen.

  3. stardust9121 says:

    Oh, I’ve been so looking forward to this one.

  4. stormwyvern says:

    I’m going to once again attempt to comment on a movie I haven’t actually seen. I know it’s not the preferred way of going about it, but I just find your comments on the films so enjoyable and it’s been so long since I’ve been able to read a new one in this case. And I tend to allow myself a bit of leeway if the movie in question has been out for several years and I’ve had ample opportunity to see it. (I did sjip your thoughts on “Burn After Reading” as that’s a current film which I would like to see.)

    I’m glad you brought up “Astro Boy,” as my impression is that this film has at least as much to do with Tezuka’s vision of a little robot boy as it does with “Pinnochio.” It’s not just the swapping of the marionette brought to life by magic for a more modernized robot child; it’s the whole idea of the parent figure’s attitude towards the artificial child. In “Pinnochio,” (I’m going with the Disney version here, since I think it had a lot more influence on the public perception of the story than the original book) Gepetto is just a lonely old man longing for a child to brighten his life. Once his wish is (partially) granted and his child substitute puppet is given life, he’s unconditionally overjoyed. He loves his new son, even when it’s bedtime and the kid just won’t stop asking questions and go to sleep. He’s absolutely devastated when Pinocchio goes missing and is so determined to find his lost son that he somehow end up out at sea and gets swallowed by a whale. When he is reuinted with Pinnochio and find that his boy’s bad behavior has earned him donkey ears and a tail, he almost immediately puts aside his questions and assures Pinnochio that all that matters is that they’re together again. Yes, the promise of Pinnochio becoming a real boy someday if he’s brave, truthful, and unselfish is always there, but Gepetto never seems too concerned about that, at least, not to the point where he ever holds it against Pinocchio that he’s only a living puppet or even scolds him for anything he’s done that might set him back in his quest to become a real human child.

    Then there’s “Astro Boy.” Dr. Tenma, heartbroken when his young son Tobio is killed in a car accident, builds a robot child in his image. The substitute child brings him joy for a while. But he ends up rejecting his creation when he realizes that Astro can’t grow and will never be anything but a boy robot. To me, Monica’s behavior towards David seems to have more in common with Tenma’s fickle affections than Gepetto’s unconditional love for his puppet son, at least from what you’ve described.

    To be fair to Monica, her actions thus far don’t sound all that unrealistic. As you point out, real parents tend to find out pretty quickly that parenting isn’t the constant sunshine and rainbows they may have imagined it to be and her being creeped out by David – a child substitute that she was given as a gift rather than one she sought out for herself – is also understandable. She’s also going through possibly the most horrible thing a parent can experience. I don’t know if the film ever defines at what age Martin fell ill or how long it’s been since he was put in cold storage, but even in a short time, I could easily see Monica glossing over any flaws her son may have had and remembering Martin as the perfect child. After all, if parents didn’t largely forget the downsides of virtually every stage of child development in favor of the perks, there would be a lot more only children in the world. So Monica has this false memory of her flawless son and David, who is not Martin, not Monica’s actual son, and not even human, can’t possibly compete.

    • Todd says:

      As it happens, I was working on an Astroboy movie while Spielberg was going into production with A.I., so the Hobby/Tenma parallels are especially sharp for me. I remember finding a synopsis of A.I. online somewhere and bringing it in to the Astroboy people so that they would be aware of things to avoid, and they brushed it aside — they were more concerned about Astroboy being too much like Bicentennial Man.

      Your other observations are accurate — Monica does think of Martin as a perfect child, and we will soon find out that he is anything but. Geppetto’s unconditional love for Pinocchio stands in stark relief to Monica’s and Tenma’s, although we will find that the Hobby/Tenma parallel is even greater than first hinted at.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Very interesting. As you may have guessed, I like “Astro Boy” very much and I think it’s rather a shame that the idea of a feature film based on the concept seems almost cursed for the number of times it’s gone in and out of development.

        I seem to recall that more than a few people felt that “A.I.” borrowed rather heavily from the “Astro Boy” stories, particularly “Robot Carnival,” though I’m guessing that part is coming up next in the analysis.

      • dougo says:

        Speaking of Bicentennial Man, I saw it for the first time recently and liked it more than I was expecting (I had heard it got dreadful reviews). On the other hand, I was pretty disappointed by AI, even with somewhat lowered expectations (I love Kubrick, but am ambivalent about Spielberg). What did you think of Bicentennial Man, and do you think the similarities with AI are only superficial?

        • Todd says:

          I thought Bicentennial Man was an unmitigated disaster, a love story between a robot and generation after generation of women. Creepy beyond belief and mawkish on top of that.

  5. etkeeling says:

    I love AI and am really frustrated by AI at the same time. I look forward to reading your thoughts on it

  6. mitejen says:

    I actually got angry at this movie in the theater. . .because it did elicit strong emotions in me, but I felt cheap the whole time.

    My favorite unintentional motherhood analogy has always been the impregnation and death cycle from the Alien movies. To me it makes the most sense, because essentially your life is over once the thing emerges.

  7. swan_tower says:

    I can’t wait for your post on the ending. I have some pretty strong thoughts on it myself, backed by an anecdote from when I saw this film in the theatre.

  8. robjmiller says:

    Hey Jude

    I haven’t seen this movie in a while, but from what I remember Jude Law completely ruined it for me. He always seems so disingenuous in his roles that I’d have thought he’d be a great robot, but he came off like an actor pretending to be robotic in a Tinman sort of way. It’s kind of like how he ruined eXistenZ. When even the ‘bergs can’t make you look good, something is wrong.

  9. nearside says:

    Yes, this is fascinating, and is going to get even better. I am waiting with interest to see where you go.

  10. ndgmtlcd says:

    Dr Allen Hobby seems to me more like a cross between Dr. Eldon Tyrell from Blade Runner (1982) and C. A. Rotwang from Metropolis (1927).