Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 3

At the beginning of Act III, A.I. appears to change protagonists for a third, or even fourth, time (if you count the prologue). Since this kind of structural gambit is unprecedented in Spielberg, it’s tempting to assume that it began with Kubrick, who performs a similar serial-protagonist stunt with 2001 and has multiple protagonists in Dr. Strangelove. But the serial protagonists in 2001 are four individuals all reacting to the same stimulus (namely, the monolith), whereas the protagonists of A.I. are all looking at a question ("what does it mean to be human?") from a different point of view. In the end, of course, they’re all fakeouts: David is the protagonist of A.I., and when we see parts of the narrative from other points of view, it’s only to give us some contrast or perspective to David’s struggle to become "real."free stats

Up until the beginning of Act III, A.I. could be seen as Spielberg Classic, a science-fiction tale told from a child’s point-of-view. It could even be seen as a Family Movie, from the director of Raiders and E.T. and the producer of a dozen others ranging from *batteries not included to The Flintstones. Then, out of nowhere, as though the first two acts of the movie hadn’t even happened, along comes Gigolo Joe, a grown-up sex-bot, who tools along through neon-lit sweaty streets, keeps appointments he’s made with unhappy housewives, spouts corny lounge-lizard pick-up lines and cheezy retro romance music, and generally is under the impression that he’s quite the character. Woe betide the parent who brought their child to see A.I. thinking it was something like Astroboy, Spielberg here seeks to demolish his reputation as a Family Movie-maker and A.I. takes a sharp left turn into the decidedly Adult — and it’s not even half-over. It will get much more disturbing as its narrative unfolds.

As Joe is not a protagonist, the question arises: what is he? The answer is, of course, that he is a contrast to David. Both Joe and David have been programmed "to love," but each has a very different idea about what that means. David has been programmed to perform the behavior of a child’s love, but Joe’s duties are adult — a lover’s love. Not a husband’s love, mind you, Joe’s love is programmed to be physical, shallow and disposable — he is a walking one-night stand, programmed to divine and then satisfy a woman’s needs in the most guilt-free way possible. So if Joe is another version of David, the women Joe services are versions of Monica, and while Joe may be shallow, what are the women who would hire him? And, for that matter, which is the more disturbing concept, which idea more morally bankrupt, the idea that women would hire a robot to "love them" for a night, or the idea that a woman would buy a robot to "love them" for the rest of their lives?

In any case, Joe, although he poses as the street-wise guy who knows all the angles, is quickly revealed to be just as naive and easily manipulated as David, and before long he finds himself framed for murder and on the run from the law.

Joe, on the run, almost immediately runs smack into David, who’s wandering around the woods with Teddy. David’s introduction to the world of robots arrives in the form of a big Garbage Truck of Death. Broken robots cascade out the back of this truck, which apparently regularly dumps its haul in the middle of the woods. This confrontation is akin to an eight-year-old Polish boy skipping along through a field and stumbling across Auschwitz. The next thing he knows, broken, disposed-of robots from a hundred different walks of life emerge from the woods to pick through the garbage. Like David, they are all doing their best to "become real" — the surgeon robot tries to fix his arm, the chef robot tries to find a new eye. Presumably, these robots are all trying to "fix" themselves, so that they can go back to their places among the living, like David, to "prove their worth." They don’t form any kind of robot society, they don’t conspire against the humans who threw them away. Presumably they wouldn’t even attach a moral significance to being thrown away. While many do seem to have had their feelings hurt at being abandoned or out-moded, others seem to have a so-it-goes sadness about them — I’m useless now, but at least I’m still alive.

(Let’s think for a moment about this Garbage Truck of Death, from a purely practical point of view — is this spot in the woods an official garbage dump, or is the truck-driver breaking the law? The broken robots who emerge from the woods to pick through the junk, do they know that the truck regularly dumps its load there, or are they all coincidentally in the woods at that moment? And, is the truck-driver a robot who intentionally dumps its load of broken robots at this spot in the woods so that broken robots can root through its junk? That is, which came first, the truck or the robots? Is this spot in the woods a spot where broken robots naturally congregate, and thus the truck-driver delivers the day’s load of broken robots intentionally, or has the truck been dumping junk here on a regular basis and so broken robots congregate here?)

The Auschwitz metaphor becomes more pronounced as the Flesh Fair shows up (heralded by that big round E.T. moon, here turned malevolent). The Flesh Fair rounds up broken robots (with motorcycles customized to look like dogs — humans, it seems, cannot stop themselves from characterizing their machines) and then tortures them for the entertainment value –and does so as a kind of moral crusade. This section of the narrative seems the most "Kubrickian" to me, an out-and-out satire of inhumanity in the middle of a movie about what it means to be human. The Flesh Fair is the first glimpse of "society" we get in A.I., and society appears to be quite degraded indeed, a redneck-Nazi death-cult hoedown that gathers to cheer the torture and destruction of their "children." Because, as Prof Hobby suggests at the beginning of the movie, all robots are, in one way or another, humanity’s children. We create robots, and children, to flatter ourselves and to give ourselves god-like powers. This would make Lord Johnson-Johnson, the M.C. and commander of the Flesh Fair, part Nazi, part Strange Woman In The Woods and part Satan. The Flesh Fair is where "bad robots" go when they die, their only sin that they are no longer useful to their society — and so they are demonized by a society that finds them "oppressive" — the victim as oppressor, now where have we seen that before?

(The robot-as-Jew metaphor is raised and dealt with relatively lightly, and yet I note that our protagonist’s name is David, who, figuratlvely speaking, succeeds in bearding the lion in its den. [as noted below, I have confused Daniel and David.  David was, of course, king, and later portrayed by in a movie by Richard Gere.]  Or perhaps the metaphor is more robot-as-slave: it can’t be a coincidence that the "black comedian robot" is voiced by no less than Chris Rock, our nation’s smartest, most incisive commentator on race relations.)

To further underscore the robot-as-lover theme, Spielberg gives David a Nanny-bot, a robot programmed to act like a mother — that is, the robot-version of Monica. Theoretically, the David-Nanny couple could be happy forever, stuck in an eternal feedback-loop of mommy-love and baby-love. Whic may be why Spielberg, in an act of unprecedented cruelty, snatches this second mother from David and then publicly tortures and destroys her, not turning away for a moment but letting his camera practically revel in the details of her disintegration.

David, out of options, literally clings onto Gigolo Joe. Joe, like many men (and Spielberg protagonists), is a shallow man thrust into the role of Father against his will. Teddy is really more of David’s father, and indeed, spends this whole sequence dutifully searching for David. David’s appearance, that is, the fact that he looks and behaves as a child, is what saves him (and Joe) from the Flesh Fair — it seems the crowd, when confronted with a literal child instead of a figurative one, finds it cannot bring itself to destroy him.

(Alternately, I think the audience at the Flesh Fair wants to be entertained, and when Lord Johnson-Johnson gets up to pontificate they are objecting as much to his lecture as to the torture of David.)

(The only other thing I want to say about the Flesh Fair is that the band providing the music felt dated the day the movie was released, and quite a bit more so now. But then, the more I think about it, a rap-metal band in the distant future would probably be old-timey comfort music to the yahoos and rednecks who come to the Flesh Fair.)

We then briefly shift focus back to Prof Hobby, who is conferring with his Supernerds (that’s their character designation in the credits) about David’s disappearance. So now we know that Hobby is looking for his special creation (the father is looking for his child), and we also learn that David is, in fact, like Astroboy, modelled after Prof Hobby’s own dead child.

Back in the woods, Joe, unable to act as father, becomes instead a kind of big brother to David, promising to guide him through the world of adult entertainment. David announces his goal, which will drive the remainder of the movie — to find the Blue Fairy and ask to be made real, so that Monica will love him. We will find David’s single-mindedness in his pursuit of this goal quite impressive, monomaniacal in fact, somewhere between pure and psychotic.


12 Responses to “Spielberg: Artificial Intelligence: A.I. part 3”
  1. nearside says:

    Is this Act, then, more Kubrick than Spielberg, or is it Spielberg playing at being Kubrick? It’s certainly disturbing, and the movie changes incredibly here.

    Enjoying this breakdown, can’t wait to see what you make of the ending. And then the other ending.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The name David was in the original short story. Which is great. I’m glad I read it before the movie come out, cause just knowing a little about the movie spoils the story.

  3. serizawa3000 says:

    The Mecha-Nanny really stuck with me, despite her brief screen time. The warmth and sweetness in her smile even as her face melted off.

    It seems to me that the supporting roles in Spielberg films are sometimes just as interesting as the main characters (witness the spangly-outfitted “Teen Cutie” at the Flesh Fair who later appears as Mrs. Anderton in Minority Report).

    I was amused that Teddy was voiced by Jack Angel, since he’s done much voice work for animation, including the old Transformers cartoon.

    The Flesh Fair band, underneath the masks and costumes, are Ministry, who’ve been around for some time and are no strangers to controversy. Except for some odd reason Alain Jourgensen sounded like Kid Rock…

  4. quitwriting says:

    Great stuff. This a four or five parter?

  5. Anonymous says:

    This act is a freakout in so many ways.

    The first time I saw the movie, I had rented a DVD. At the very moment in Act II in which Monica drives off, abandoning David, one of my friends shows up at my house and I stop the disk. My friend sees the DVD box and says, “AI! I love that movie!” Then he does this weird shrugging tic, sings a little of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and says, “I love that gigolo sex robot. You know, that handsome actor, what’s his name?”

    And, of course, I say, “What are you talking about? That’s gotta be some other movie.”

    Imagine my surprise when I finally got to turn the DVD player back on!


  6. notthebuddha says:

    (The robot-as-Jew metaphor is raised and dealt with relatively lightly, and yet I note that our protagonist’s name is David, who, figuratlvely speaking, succeeds in bearding the lion in its den. Or perhaps the metaphor is more robot-as-slave: it can’t be a coincidence that the “black comedian robot” is voiced by no less than Chris Rock, our nation’s smartest, most incisive commentator on race relations.

    It was Daniel in the lion’s den, but David is also Moses-like, a second son who comes in a box over the water to the mother’s delight, but is discarded when the first born rises to prominence.He wanders in adversity among his original “people”, but unlike Moses, his creator can’t lift him up to deliver his fellows. (That’s _I, ROBOT_)

  7. mimitabu says:

    i wonder how far one could push the robots-as-children metaphor into a (robots-as-children)-as movies metaphor. spielberg<->parent, movies<->robots/children? surely most of the movie is about literal parenthood (i can’t figure the real son/fake song dichotomy into any kind of “this is about artists and their relationship to art” framework)… but it could be interesting to ride the old “hey, someone made some art. maybe it’s about making art!” idea.

  8. leborcham says:

    I would have watched a whole movie about David, Joe and Teddy wandering around having adventures.

    Really enjoying this — A.I. is one of my favorite Spielberg movies, but one of his most complex and troubling.