I used to idolize Steven Spielberg, feeling that he could do no cinematic wrong. Though I remain a devoted fan, I’ve become more realistic about his work. Spielberg is definitely not perfect. However, whether working at his peak (E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List) or below it (Always, Hook), Spielberg consistently remains the cinematic master at pulling people’s emotional strings (well, Frank Capra might also deserve that title, but perhaps nobody else).
It was for this reason that Stanley Kubrick involved Spielberg in A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. The old and young masters have much in common in their work, both repeatedly dealing with two of our greatest problems, themselves related — our struggles with technology, and our obsession with violence, war and hate. In execution, though, they are flip sides of a coin, Spielberg being the dreamer, Kubrick the bringer of nightmares. Kubrick knew that A.I., dealing so integrally with the pursuit of love and the relationship between child and mother, was something he could not succeed at on his own. Enter Spielberg, legendary for his work with child actors, child-mother relationships and rites of passage from child to adult (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Poltergeist, Empire of the Sun, Hook).
As critics have amply pointed out, A.I. is a genuine amalgamation of the two’s sensibilities. Nowhere is the connection — and tension — more apparent than in the film’s climax. The artificial boy David’s quest, symbol of all quests but especially those for fulfillment and belonging, ends with the deepest of satisfactions after centuries of heartache. It seems to be pure Spielberg, with its benevolent creatures and fulfilling mother and child reunion, a happy Spielbergian dream just as David’s own first dream is sure to be when he goes to sleep for the first time after that special day.
But is this really what’s going on? I don’t think so. Not in the slightest. Uncovering the meaning behind this strange ending brings the entire film into focus.
A key rule in statistics is to never generalize from anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless: everyone I know who has seen A.I. has reacted in intellectual astonishment but with little emotion. This includes myself, the eternal sucker for a Spielberg heartstring-tugger (and often a sucker for lesser gushy works from lesser filmmakers). Sure, there were moments of genuine emotion — David’s spinach-induced face dribble, the supertoy Teddy’s deadpan “I’m going to break” before he falls from the Flesh Fair balloon — but I’m going out on a limb to suggest that an emotional response is not primarily what this movie hopes to get from its viewers. I’m not (necessarily) suggesting that this is because Spielberg can’t possibly fail in an attempt to tug at heartstrings, and so therefore he simply must have had something else in mind. It has everything to do with the film’s happy ending, which I think is not so happy after all.
The movie begins by posing the twin questions: can a robot be built to love, and can a person genuinely love it in return? Of course, at least in the fictional world of the movie, we can make a robot love. It’s a logical development for the movie’s technocratic world that plunges poor countries into chaos, submerges our great coastal cities through global-warming-induced glacial melting, revels in strict population control and builds robots that are genuinely intelligent: sufficient technology can do just about anything, good or bad. The key question for the film is really the second one. The answer to the first must be yes and the answer to the second must be unknown for David to have his quest, for us to have a movie worth watching.
And, indeed, we spend the entire film watching people fail to love David. His human mother Monica seems to love him back at first, but the rest of her family is suspicious of him — or downright abusive. Eventually, even Monica abandons him, knowing full well that David, imprinted as he was, must remain forever devoted to her. It’s all downhill from there. David latches onto Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy and the idea of becoming real, just as so many of us latch onto one thing or other that we think will make us happy, make life worth living, make us feel truly alive (feeling “truly alive” sounds suspiciously like becoming the “real person” that David wants to be). Even Professor Hobby, who created David out a desire to make up for the loss of his own son, does not love David as anything more than an incredibly successful science experiment. (Is his name a coincidence, suggesting that building things is simply a pastime in which people should find mild enjoyment, or that genuine fulfillment can at best be a hobby rather than integral in one’s life?) The Blue Fairy is not the treasure it appears to be to David, hidden as it was at the bottom of the ocean. Instead, it is illusory, crumbling when finally approached. It is the carrot on the stick that is never attained, the symbol of falseness and futility in David’s symbolic — and pointless — everyquest.
The film then propels forward thousands of years into its final segment, and along come some mysterious creatures. No, they are not aliens — they are, as the filmmakers’ plans make clear, advanced robots. They are descendants of David — or, rather, they are the only remaining “descendants” of their creators, people who have long since eradicated themselves from the planet. It seems an odd path for the film to take, yet it makes perfect sense. Things — whether buildings, vehicles or David and his more advanced counterparts — are all that is left to represent humanity on the planet. And yet, though they may have survived where humans did not, the robots are made in the image of human creators — so even the advanced robots can never have been freed from David’s frustrations, because no robots could ever be freed from the frustrations of their creators. They cannot help but long for something they cannot find.
Like us, the advanced robots are entranced with history, hoping to learn something from the past since they cannot figure out their own present. They are entranced with their creators, entities relegated to the distant past just as so many people relegate our own creation to long ago but nevertheless find themselves dwelling on their creator in the present. They are thus fascinated by David, who is not only their “ancestor” — their “Adam,” a direct link to their creators — but someone that they themselves can play God with, creating a fake Monica for him just as some people created mechas for themselves. The fake Monica is an offering to that which they worship, intended to bring about good feelings for themselves.
In the end, David gets his happy ending. Underneath the surface, though, we see how pathetic a happy ending it is. The advanced robots have as their fondest hope the uncovering of the meaning of life, something they have failed to do themselves — something they hoped that humans might have shown them, despite they themselves having been programmed to be the ultimate manipulators of nature and technology (and, of course, despite their human creators not having that knowledge themselves). Unlike their creators, though, they at least know that technology cannot bring fulfillment. With their creators having obliterated themselves, they are disappointed in their quest and revel in the discovery of David, the unwanted artificial boy who is now their creators’ “living” legacy. (Strange, though, that the advanced robots are so thrilled to have actual memories of actual people when so many of those memories are so depressing.) They know that David can’t actually provide an ending for their quest, but they somehow hope that making David happy will put a dent in their own emptiness. And so, just as Hobby created a fake boy for wanting parents, the advanced robots create a fake Monica for the empty David. It is a Monica guaranteed to love him exclusively and unconditionally and only for a day — a Monica thoroughly unlike the real one. But David’s joy is palpable. Even if this Monica may disappear the next morning due to the vagaries of cloning technology, the satisfaction of the one happy day may last David for the rest of his long life.
But his happiness, the only genuine happiness portrayed in the movie, is based on a lie. A robot that can love ends up being no more of a solution to the emptiness felt by so many people — much less robots — than the conveniences of microwaves and air conditioning (and gigolo robots). It is just another step on the treadmill, another invention destined to fail us. All the cautionary Spielbergian and Kubrickian tales of technology gone awry come flooding at us in the most deeply ironic way at the end of A.I. Take the story at face value, and the suggestion is simply that it is possible to find love and be happy. Does it seem possible that this naive and simple thought could be the moral of the tale we’ve just been told? Hardly, given the complexity of the film — and the falsity of David’s happiness.
That the advanced robots closely resemble our current standard vision of the space alien is important here — it is not simply a misstep that the filmmakers’ failed to realize would cause confusion. Movie aliens are always humans in thematic disguise. Typically they are either everything we want to be (like those in Spielberg’s own Close Encounters or, especially, those in E.T.., the empathic botanists, brilliant scientists who somehow know how to live happily with “nature”) or everything we do not want to be (as in Independence Day or The Blob, in which, whatever the level of technology, the aliens can do nothing but destroy all in their path including, in the end, themselves). The robots are metaphoric aliens, and their utter lack of fulfillment, their failure to achieve of sense of belonging, is what makes them so — they are truly alienated. The same holds true for David — all too clear throughout the film. But, since all the robots fit the image of their human creators and thus share their creators’ own dissatisfactions, it is the people who created the aliens that are, in the end, revealed to be the aliens. Of course, this doesn’t suggest that the human species is alien to the planet Earth. But it does suggest that the particular kind of people who create a particularly unfulfilling life for themselves are something other than what they want to be, and that the particular kind of people who live in a way that is incompatible with the rest of the biosphere will be ousted from that very biosphere. Thus, we find the rarest of all movie aliens — the one that uncovers the entire meaning of the movie alien metaphor. We find ourselves. Whether as humans or our robotic creations, we see creatures that have pursued more and more mastery of nature and technology but remain as empty as always in their search for those things they think are most important, because they have no idea how to master themselves, how to make themselves be what they want themselves to be.
Whether David, Monica and her maladjusted family, the stagers of the anti-robot Flesh Fairs, Professor Hobby or the advanced robots, it seems that all the “people” (i.e., sentient and feeling beings) in A.I., regardless of the conflicts or differences they may have with each other, are all hopelessly longing. Only the other robots seem to have any real sense of satisfaction in what they are, and that’s because they all know for sure what they exist for. They are tools created by humanity to carry out specific functions, and they are content to fulfill their roles, just as a wrench or coffee maker might be if it were conscious. Their only moments of dissatisfaction seem to be when their very existence is threatened by the Flesh Fairs, and even then they seem okay with what they are. They do not wish in vain that they were a less controversial technology. Instead, they justify their existence by claiming themselves to be still useful, still fully capable of fulfilling the function for which they were built. Even those that are outmoded are proud of their utility, not hung up on progress or ambition like their makers are.
In the end, we are left with a condemnation of our very culture, a culture which is brilliant at making things but knows very little about what is good for people, a culture which continually strives for technological advances but never really finds satisfaction in those advances — and, indeed, has forgotten what generated that striving in the first place. The world of A.I. presents what may very well be a future for us, a future in which post-apocalypse means something much more ordinary than we normally think, a future in which things aren’t so different — and certainly no better — than they are now. We can create Dr. Know, the virtual library that can answer any question, but he can’t tell us what we really want to know, because we have to know it ourselves before we can program it into Dr. Know. We can create David and Darlene robots that know how to love so well that they are, in effect, real people, but in doing so we simply create more people who will be disappointed with their lives, more people who have to find their only happiness in falsities, in artifice, in things that are manufactured. The very existence of David is inextricable from the social and ecological devastation reaped by our culture — in reality and in the film. They are of a piece. Put real emotions in a robot, and it becomes impossible for that robot to be any better adjusted than any normal person — and thus impossible for that robot to ever provide any person with what its creator intended for it to provide. Only a creator who already knew how to provide that for a person could teach a robot how to do the same. Only a creator who already knew how to find it for him- or herself could teach a robot how to do the same.
In the end — literally, the ending of the movie — this is the sad meaning of A.I. Is artificial evil? Is technology evil? No. But they sure won’t solve our problems, and they make even create worse problems. The people at the Flesh Fairs know this, but they know no better than anyone else what it is that people actually need. Surely it’s not the Flesh Fairs themselves, filled — like so many other hate movements — with so much violence, rage and prejudice that hardly any room could possibly be left for happiness and fulfillment. Surely Professor Hobby knows no better, either. He can build the most incredible thing ever built, but, knowing better than anyone its artificiality, he would probably be even less capable than Monica of loving it back. Creating David ends up being no more of a miracle than having a baby, and both “mecha” David and “orga” babies are destined to remain in the dark along with everyone else in their sad culture, their only possible happy endings being deflections of reality like the ones so many of us go through everyday.
A.I. is an extremely brave film, ironically as subversive of our culture as other dystopian classics such as Brave New World and 1984, class critiques like the work of Karl Marx and even the film Titanic, anti-intellectual homilies like Forrest Gump and Being There. It is, perhaps, one of Spielberg’s best. Through the perspective presented here, it is revealed to be more typically Kubrickian than Spielbergian, indicating a great stretch for Spielberg as a filmmaker — indeed, a reinvention, if only for this one film. If the happy ending, though, is intended to be genuinely happy and stereotypically Spielbergian (something which I don’t think can possibly make any sense), it’s tough to say for sure just what kind of achievement the film is for Spielberg.
Since A.I., like these other tales, is a product of the very culture it critiques, perhaps we cannot fault it for failing to provide us with an alternative to our eternally dissatisfied and unsatisfying culture. For now, we may have to be content with films that merely hold up a mirror rather than pointing us in a new direction — and better that than to not even uncover our problems. Can we ever expect anyone to show us what goes on through the looking glass, in a world that knows how to accomplish what’s best for people while letting the rest fall where it may? Can we expect such a thing from a film? Since people are, indeed, going through that very cultural looking glass right now while remaining grounded in all other respects, I think the answer is yes. Whether or not they will make films, the ways of life they pursue are inventions that would put David to shame.