Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 2

Act I of A.I. ends with the news of Monica’s son Martin awakening from his sleep.  Act II (30:00 – 52:00) then deals with the consequences of that development.  It also represents a first for a Spielberg movie — the narrative switches protagonists at the act break.  Up to this point, it’s looked like Monica is the protagonist of A.I., but in the fade that occurs at 30:00 the point of view shifts decidedly to David, and will remain there for the rest of the movie (although it could be argued that it shifts again at the beginning of Act V).free stats

(Before I go on, let me go back and address one of the questions brought up in the seven-minute prologue: Prof Hobby proposes to his staff that they create a robot that can love, and one of his staff asks what responsibility would a creator have toward a machine that loves.  "It’s a moral question," she says, and Prof Hobby answers "Yes, but didn’t God create Adam to love him?"  David will choose Pinocchio as the narrative to shape his life, but Prof Hobby chooses Genesis.  This, of course, is not merely hubris, it is delusion — "God," the god of Genesis, is as fictional a character as Geppetto, created by humans to explain their own fears and desires — why would Hobby be so fatuous as to use God’s narcissistic creation of Adam as an excuse to create David?)

So, Martin wakes up and comes home, and we immediately see a character dynamic put into play: Martin may be the "real" son, but David is the "ideal" son.  Martin is, bluntly put, a spoiled brat.  He never talks about how he loves Monica — he’s glad to put her health in danger if it means scoring points off David.  David, naive and pure, is easily manipulated by Martin into embarrassing situations.  And so Spielberg begins to raise, in small terms, the notion of "what is good for the child?"  David is a robot, but that doesn’t make his love any less real or less deeply felt — if anything, the opposite.  But children grow up — they desperately want to grow up — and will eventually go out to meet the big, bad world.  But David will always be a little boy, innocent and loving, his mind always full of wonder.  To put it another way, Martin is a "real" child — that is, a human being, driven by fear and desire, narcissism and avarice, just like anybody, but David is only sweet, kind and loving.  It’s as though Spielberg is undergoing an act of self-criticism: he’s taking the wide-eyed, wondrous, nine-year-old boy sensibility that informed the enchantment of E.T. and examining it from the cold light of adulthood.  That, I think, is one of the reasons A.I. feels so strange for Spielberg — just as Monica and Henry acquire David in order to examine their own selves, Spielberg made A.I. in order to examine his own boyhood ideas through the lens of an adult.  Because just as Monica loves David in an act of narcissism, David’s need of Monica’s love is, also, an act of narcissism — he needs her love in order to feel complete, and he will do anything to get it.  Monica as a person means nothing to David, he cares nothing about her hopes and fears, only where he stands in relation to her.  This is a child’s view of the parent, as selfish and manipulative as Martin’s cruel pranks against David, and we will see, eventually, that Martin’s need to feel Monica’s love will reach the stage of the pathological.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Martin, to be cruel, asks Monica to read Pinocchio to him and David, and we see that David has become Cinderella — no longer sleeping in the "good bed," he’s been exiled to a cot as Martin gets to cuddle in Mommy’s arms.

One of the motifs of the first two acts of A.I. is that David often confuses behavior and motivation — that is, cause and effect.  He knows that happy people laugh, and so he attempts to induce happiness in his family by laughing inappropriately at the dinner table.  As a robot would, he doesn’t understand where laughter comes from or what it means, only that it is a response to stimulus and, in turn, creates an effect.  In his case, the "laughter at the table" episode works — it is a crucial ice-breaker in getting Monica and Henry to accept him.  Now in Act II, David falls for Martin’s ruse about Monica’s hair.  Martin reminds David of a movie they’ve seen — again, organizing one’s life according to a narrative — where a woman loves a man and so cuts off a piece of her hair for him to have as a token.  Martin convinces David to, again, confuse cause and effect, telling him that the woman loved the man in the story because he has a lock of her hair.  David, having no real insights into the human condition, gamely goes along with Martin’s prank and almost puts out one of Monica’s eyes.

Before I forget, it’s worth pointing out that even though A.I. asks "big questions" about society and posits a futuristic society complete with millions of robots and flooded cities, its settings for its first hour are ridiculously domestic — a lecture hall, and a house.  This is not Blade Runner, it’s not even Minority Report — as in E.T., Spielberg keeps the narrative at the protagonist’s level — what does David see, how does David view the world?  The world, to David, to any child, is his house, and the only people who matter are his mother and father.  When A.I. does open out, we will never see any broad overview of the society, we will only see the things that directly effect David.

Martin has a birthday party, and Monica makes sure to make it a big splash.  This seems to be an intentional slap in the face for David, who, of course, literally has no birthday.  Martin, like all humans, can grow older — David cannot.  Of course, Martin’s birthday almost becomes his death day when David, making his own big splash, accidentally almost causes Martin to drown in the swimming pool.  Martin is hauled to safety, but David is left, like Ben Braddock, at the bottom of the pool, no longer the "ideal son" but a stranger, even a danger, cut off from the family unit.

(Family, the one thing Spielberg holds most sacred, is held up to the cruellest of lights in A.I., revealed to be a snake-pit of jealousy of self-regard.  That David will eventually "have his way" with Monica represents Spielberg’s most brutal act of self-examination.)

Now that David has almost killed Martin, Monica has no choice — she must take him back to the store and have him destroyed.  She betrays him in the cruellest, most perverse way imaginable, by telling him that he’s going to go "on a date" with her.  I have no idea what David thinks is going to happen on this "date," but since he eventually winds up in bed with her it seems pretty clear that he’s hoping for some kind of special intimacy.  All of which makes David’s psychology more complex and Monica’s betrayal more astonishing.

Monica finds in the end, that she cannot have David destroyed — he has reflected her love so perfectly, to kill him would be like killing a part of herself.  And so she does the cowardly thing — she takes David out into the woods and abandons him, in a scene of devastating betrayal.  The wounded, confused "No…No…" from David are like a knife into the viewer’s heart.  Monica would have done better to put him out of his misery, as George does with Lenny, than to take a naive, trusting robot out to the woods and abandon him with no indication as to how he is to survive.  It is only as she’s betraying him, when his mind is in the middle of its peak of confusion and agony, that she thinks to mention that the world is an unkind, indeed inhuman place — that’s the price for keeping a child a child, and that’s why the question of "what is good for the child" is so important in the scheme of A.I.: David is thrust out, thrown out, into the harsh world with absolutely nothing to protect himself.  The "ideal child" is ideal only in the womb of the house, the world is no place for him.

The fact that David is thrust out into a woods exactly like the one where Elliott finds E.T. further indicates the contrast of the two movies, as will the emphasis of the big full moon in later scenes.  Spielberg knows quite well that he’s messing with some of his own iconic images — he made the moon image from E.T. the logo of his production company, he can hardly have forgotten it.

David implores Monica to reconsider, saying that he’ll become real like Pinocchio and then she’ll love him.  Monica angrily shouts that Pinocchio is just a story, which, in the narrative scheme of A.I., is like a slap in the face to David — stories, as he puts it, are where it "tells what happens."

At 52:00 we leave David in his moment of terror and then, amazingly, shift point of view again, but we’ll get to that next time.



19 Responses to “Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 2”
  1. quitwriting says:

    Good stuff, sir. Good stuff. I honestly never even paid attention to the Pinocchio narrative. It’s obvious, now, that it was central to the entire movie. I simply get too caught up in the story of most movies to see the philosophical themes of them. I wonder if that makes me a bad viewer or an ideal viewer.

  2. foryourfyi says:

    Great writing, Todd. I skipped A.I. after seeing Minority Report, wanting nothing to do with what I thought would be another Spielberg money-grab. Looks like that was a mistake. Thanks.

  3. I think I liked this movie more than I realized I did.

    One of the reasons being the character that I expect you’re going to focus on in the next part.

  4. curt_holman says:

    “its settings for its first hour are ridiculously domestic — a lecture hall, and a house.”

    I like the first hour of A.I. so much more than the rest of it, I wish the whole film would take place in domestic locations.

    “She takes David out into the woods and abandons him, in a scene of devastating betrayal.”

    It’s particularly devastating when you realize that she has to know that the woods are potentially crawling with people who will capture robots and torture them in public spectacles.

  5. stormwyvern says:

    “Martin, to be cruel, asks Monica to read Pinocchio to him and David…”

    Again, I would assume she ends up reading them something short and closer to the Disney version, as the original is a hefty tome of misadventures and cliffhangers which may not be as effective in driving the point home before both kids lose interest.

    Though the “Pinnochio” storyline still seems dominant and the one that Spielberg makes explicit most often, there’s no shortage of other fairy tale motifs being tossed around. You’ve touched on most of them: Martin as Sleeping Beauty or any other princess who wakes from a death-like slumber. “Cinderella” is possibly the most well known tale of the loved child/ren and the rejected child where neither child really deserves the status they are given, but it’s certainly not the only one. And Monica’s abandonment of David seems to take a page from “Hansel and Gretel” and any number of other stories from myth and folklore where an adult cannot bring him- or herself to kill an unwanted child directly but nonetheless abandons the inconvenient offspring to die of exposure or some more horrible fate. And of course, the mother (or stepmother, more often) who outright hates her child is a figure in countless stories.

    And yet, Monica;s action – though horrible – still don’t sound completely beyond belief (except maybe promising David a “date” and following through on that promise to some degree). Yes she almost certainly could have done better, but she’s had so many major emotional
    events thrown at her in rapid succession that you can see why her judgment may not be great at this point. (And again, she didn’t ever ask for a robot child.) Much like her actions in act one, it feels at least based in reality. There are people who favor one child over another and people who get “test-run” kid substitutes such as a cat or dog which is then dumped in the shelter when the real baby arrives and caring for both is too much trouble. It’s possible that part of Monica’s problem in accepting David after Martin wakes up is that she now knows that just as David could never live up to her idealized memories of Martin, Martin the “real” child can never live up to the total, unconditional, and everlasting love that David has for her. On top of this, David is still technically a machine; at least, that’s what Monica likely tells herself to make her decision seem OK. Still, I imagine it’s pretty hard to see her as a remotely sympathetic character when she can abandon David and ignore his pleas for her not to do so.

    Do you think the film’s darkness and apparently dim view of the human motivation to parent come more from Spielberg adopting a more mature and darker world view or from Spielberg inheriting a film that was originally developed by Kubrick?

    Do you think the darkness

    • Todd says:

      I am figuratively smacking my forehead about the obvious “Hansel and Gretel” reference.

      I cannot tell how much of the narrative comes from Kubrick and how much comes from Spielberg. I doubt Spielberg would feel the need to shoot something he did not believe in, and it is his name and his name alone on the screenplay credit, so I’m going to say that Spielberg shot exactly what he wanted to.

      • mimitabu says:

        when i saw AI, i came away from it feeling like there was a real tonal clash, and that this clash was “kubrick’s heady work” butting up against “spielberg’s lighter work.” your analysis (and its context in all your other spielberg analyses, which got me to look at his work in a very different way) makes me think that this impression was woefully naive and inaccurate.

      • mimitabu says:

        haha, mild “translation” of my last comment into relevance as a reply to the above: looking at AI now, i think it’s glaringly clear that what we’re seeing is all spielberg (sure, with homages to kubrick, but what spielberg movies don’t have homages to someone?), and that “the ‘darker’ AI that we would have got from kubrick” is a fantasy movie that was never made, not some lingering force in the actual AI.

        (“all spielberg” not to imply some giant commitment to auteur theory or whatever–obviously kubrick, among many others, had input and impact on this movie–but rather meaning just that “i’m sure he didn’t film anything he didn’t believe in for this,” like you said. less b/c of anything i know about the man personally or even from his taking full screenwriting credit, but because it’s clear now that the film is so thematically consistent with spielberg’s concerns in other movies. and not b/c it happens to be about “family”, but the motivations and impacts that get examined over the course of the film.)

        also, apropos of almost nothing, rin taro’s metropolis is a pretty good anime, but it would have been a great anime had tezuka himself directed it, rather than a stylish hack like rin taro.

      • stormwyvern says:

        It doesn’t sound like Spielberg is quite as blunt about this particular folk tale nod as he is about the others. David isn’t tossing stones or breadcrumbs or microchips behind him so that he can find his way back home, presumably. I think that quite a few people (though not necessarily you) tend to focus on the breadcrumbs and the gingerbread house when thinking about “Hansel and Gretel” and forget that the children are not merely lost in the woods, but were abandoned there at the insistence of their stepmother, either because there isn’t enough food to feed them all or simply because she doesn’t feel like having kids anymore.

        I had kind of wondered if some of the issues I had heard people had with “A.I.” were the result of “Hey, you got Spielberg in my Kubrick,” “You got Kubrick in my Spielberg.” But I think you’re right that the resulting movie is generally Spielberg’s. Still, it’s kind of odd to think of Spielberg putting forth such a bleak view of parenting. Not so much because of his previous work (“E.T.” certainly doesn’t glamorize suburban family life), but because he himself has several children and surely must believe that there’s something more to being a parent than the narcissistic desire to have this individual to love you and to shape according to your own beliefs.

        • Anonymous says:


          “E.T.” certainly doesn’t glamorize suburban family life

          Not glamorous, true, but even Spielberg’s “warts and all” portrayals of middle class family life tend to be fairly sentimental.

    • laminator_x says:

      RE Hansek & Gretel

      Funny, my immediate thought was Snow White.

  6. ndgmtlcd says:

    — why would Hobby be so fatuous as to use God’s narcissistic creation of Adam as an excuse to create David?

    Because he’s evil, not fatuous. He’s a truly amoral monster. He’s the dark side of all those wacky but basically good “mad scientists”, the ones we love, like Doc Brown in Back to the Future (1985).

    When it comes to evil, Prof Hobby is a real pro, compared to silly amateurs like Amon Göth.

  7. black13 says:

    I haven’t seen AI — the reviews kept me away. Reading your analysis about all the stuff in AI that is so untypical of Spielberg — that seems as if a lot of Kubrick’s hand was left in, more than it seemed.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I had this question back in the first act, but it’s just as relevant to ask here: Why does Monica imprint David privately (secretly, really)? It’s not just that she’s selfish, but also that Henry has essentially ceded David to her (he’s absent as a father even though he’s still in the house, bringing home David to be her child, not theirs).

    The consequences become really obvious here — Henry and David have not bonded at all, a big problem for David, since Henry sees him as a threat. (Monica doesn’t believe he’s a threat, of course, until Martin is endangered.)

    The question arose for me again later in the movie when it becomes clear that Prof. Hobby created David to replace his own son. It seems like a strange design flaw, given his own obsession as a loving father. Sure, there’s a line about the mecha child loving his “parent or parents,” but the actual imprinting method looks like a solo act. I guess both the parents could intone the code words, but only one hand goes on the back of the neck.

    Also, David’s trusting nature comes not just from his being a robot. After all, Teddy is a more primitive robot and he’s much more canny about danger — he knows when he’s being manipulated and makes good choices in response. I think Prof. Hobby has designed David this way because his grief over losing his own David has blinded him to the messier realities of childhood. He recreates the perfect little angel he remembers and not a “real” boy.