@smarsupial you had mentioned wanting to hear my thoughts on A.I. so here they are!
If forced to narrow it down to two, I’d say my favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Given their friendship, and the themes Spielberg’s been exploring his entire career, he was the perfect choice to pick up where Kubrick left off on his sci-fi riff on Pinocchio.
The resulting movie was widely panned upon release, but has been reconsidered since, as its devoted fans have spread the gospel (Reverse Shot wouldn’t exist, according to its founders, without the galvanizing organizing principle of defending A.I.) and Spielberg himself followed up the film with a run of moody, philosophically complex works that gave A.I. some context. Which is, of course, the exact same trajectory that Kubrick’s later films followed, and like Eyes Wide Shut, A.I. is now widely (and IMO rightly) considered one of the best movies of the last twenty years.
One of the principal complaints leveled at the movie was that the seams were too visible–the Kubrickian and Spielbergian aspects didn’t fit together. But I think the film sets out to reflect that duality in its story and themes, in a manner that cuts to the heart of why it’s so damn devastating. Two moments in particular stand out to me in this regard. One is the recitation of a passage from Yeats’ “The Stolen Child.”
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
The other is this line from one of the super-advanced robots to our protagonist child-bot David, near the story’s end:
“I thought this would be hard for you to understand. You were created to be so young.”
David is programmed to love and be loved. It’s the only way he can make sense of the world, the only narrative he understands. Early on, he sees himself in Pinocchio when his adoptive mother reads the story to him and his human brother, and after his mother abandons him in the woods, he sets out to find the Blue Fairy and become a real boy so his mom will love him again.
That’s the story happening inside David’s head: a classic Spielberg fable. The story happening around him, however, is a pitiless Kubrick dystopia. Climate change has rendered most of the Earth uninhabitable (with a drowned New York ranking among the many stunning tableaux in the film). The rich have walled themselves away and steadily replace their loved ones with machines, who are treated with a casual ruthlessness that never fails to shake me. No one pretends the robots will save humanity from the consequences of our behavior. The bots are there to distract us from those consequences, to delight and service us (whether sexually or emotionally) while we wait for the apocalypse that arrives in the final act.
But David doesn’t really notice any of this, and to the extent that he does, it never interferes with his prime directive: make Mommy love me again. He doesn’t develop as a character, because he can’t. They built him a naive child, and he will stay that way forever. He’s so lost in the beautiful lie in his head that he can’t perceive that the world around him isn’t designed to reward his quest. “The world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” When he finally reaches the ruins of New York, where he thinks the Blue Fairy is waiting for him, he learns that his entire journey was set up by his makers, a test to see if his programmed love was really that durable. There is no Blue Fairy to make him into a real boy, and despite telling himself otherwise throughout, David is not special: he was designed in the image of his creator’s dead son, and he has now been mass-produced.
Devastated, David attempts suicide, only to discover a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island beneath the waves. He prays to it for two thousand years as the world ends around him, only to be discovered by the aforementioned super-robots, who consider his memories to be a historical payload regarding humanity. But again, David doesn’t care about the movie’s increasingly 2001-esque big picture, because even after learning that Story is a lie, even after millennia of unanswered prayers, his faith is unshaken. He just wants the Blue Fairy to be real, and for his mother to be alive. So the other robots appear to him in the guise of the Blue Fairy and use DNA ex machina to recreate his mother for a single day. This annoyed a lot of people who found it overly convenient and sentimental, but IMO they missed Spielberg’s Kubrick-influenced critique of his own genre. David’s perfect day is explicitly fake. That’s not his mother, she’s a simulacrum–and so the movie comes full circle, as the robot designed to replace a lost family member is given a replacement for his lost family member. His real mother didn’t actually love him like that. This is all in his head. We are invested in David emotionally because of how devoted he is to his quest, while also recognizing the degree to which his entire being is manufactured to fit a specific need. “His love is real. But he is not.”
The film is the best of both worlds, its sweeping sentiment achieving catharsis without sacrificing Kubrick’s philosophical agenda. David’s buddy Gigolo Joe often acts as a mouthpiece in that regard, whether casting David as a religious martyr lost in a nihilistic age…
“The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them. They go in, fold their hands, sing songs…and when they come out it’s usually me they find. I’ve picked up a lot of business on this spot.”
…or articulating why humanity resents and preys on artificial intelligence even while relying on it…
“They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.”
…or reaching for Descartes with his final words:
“I am. I was.”
But of course, David never gets it, because he was created to believe in stories. So at every turn, the film acts as a deconstructed fairy tale, in a manner that reminds me more than a little of Quentyn’s quest in ASOIAF. The difference being, of course, that Quent realized at some level that his “adventure stank,” whereas what’s so heartbreaking about A.I. is that David never, ever will. He will always clap in the hopes that Tinkerbell will come back to life, his hopeful expression so eternal and unchallenged by reality that it’s as scary as it is sad, as Kubrick as it is Spielberg.
“REPORTS OF MALFUNCTIONING ADVERT DISPLAYS ALL OVER JAPAN HAVE BEEN
WIDESPREAD AS MORE AND MORE INFRASTRUCTURE SYSTEMS SEEM TO LOOSE AUTOMATION REQUIRING HUMAN INTERVENTION TO KEEP UP AND RUNNING. NO WORD ABOUT THESE INCIDENTS HAS BEEN SAID FROM SAITO SCIENTIFIC OR THE OFFICIALS IN CHARGE OF THE A.I CONSTRUCT DESIGNED TO MANAGE THESE SYSTEMS. –”