Following in the footsteps of Pixar’s previous full-length computer-generated successes, Monsters, Inc. provides eye-popping imagery, laugh-out-loud humor and three-dimensional characters — and I’m not just talking about the animation.
Most significantly, though, like its predecessors, the film creates a complete world around things we think little about because we feel we have good reason to discount them — alternately, they are not living (toys), not significant (bugs) or not real (monsters). Indeed, toys and monsters are things that only children are supposed to be taken with. But the folks at Pixar have a unique track record, repeatedly using precisely these kinds of situations to bring out a crucial theme, that of cooperation triumphing over power struggle. On one hand, the suggestion is that this notion is a diamond in the rough, something not seen by many. On the other hand, the lesson is found in such varied settings that it seems impossible that we should continue to fail to see it in general. The opposing hands come together to complete the picture — wisdom is all around us, especially in the places we think are unimportant, and all it takes to gain wisdom is a willingness to look unprejudicially for it.
Audiences continue to agree in droves that they want to look at Pixar’s films. And with “reality” found in these fantastical places which secretly exist parallel to our own supposedly real world, the implication, beyond lessons, is that these toys, bugs and monsters are us, a reflection of what we are and what we can be. The lessons of a story do not have to remain only within the story.
These notions — that the Pixar characters reflect ourselves and can demonstrate the viability of cooperation — are perhaps most successfully and profoundly expressed in this latest production.
In Monsters, Inc., Monstropolis exists in a parallel dimension to our own, connected only via the bedroom closets of children. The residents of this alternate realm are what we would consider to be monsters, and their only activity in our world — scaring kids at night — merely supports this notion. What we don’t realize is that the monsters all go about what we would otherwise consider to be very normal lives. They live in apartments, go out to eat in restaurants, drive automobiles and punch in and out of their jobs.
The most important thing we don’t realize, though, is that Monstropolis’ energy needs are met by the screams of human children — and this is the only reason why companies like Monsters, Inc. send employees through closet doors to scare anybody. They are simply consuming energy resources to run their society — no malice is intended, obvious from the corporate slogan, “We Scare Because We Care.” The more effectively they scare, the more energy they obtain.
But the children of our world are gradually getting less and less scared by the monsters at night, and Monstropolis finds itself in the midst of an energy crisis. Michael “Mike” Wazowski, so proud of his car, is saddened when his buddy James P. “Sulley” Sullivan makes him walk to work to conserve resources. The push is on to be scarier and scarier.
While Sulley, supported by Mike, remains the top performer at Monsters, Inc., he has some real competition in Randall Boggs, a slithery chameleon of a monster. But behind the scenes, Randall is in cahoots with Henry J. Waternoose, the owner of Monsters, Inc., as they develop a scream extractor which would go beyond scaring children to torture them into maximum scream generation.
The entire situation is turned upside down when a child, nicknamed Boo by Sulley, finds her way into Monstropolis through her closet door. She wants nothing more than to play with Sulley and Mike, but they fear her, as they do all children, who are understood by all monsters to be toxic if touched. While awaiting the opportunity to return her to her bedroom, though, Sulley and Mike discover that Boo is not toxic at all. She is more than harmless — she is downright fun and lovable.
When Waternoose finds out that Sulley and Mike have discovered the plot to develop the scream extractor — and have discovered the harmlessness of children — he banishes them so that he can pursue his plans. How else will monsters bring themselves to scare children if they think the children are harmless and even friendly, and how else will they generate enough power for their society without the scream extractor?
In the end, though, all works out, of course, but mostly as a result of one crucial discovery. Whenever Sulley and Mike make Boo laugh, any electric equipment nearby jolts with life. The laughs of children are ten times as powerful as their screams, and humor isn’t subject to the same diminishing returns as scares are in obtaining resources. The monsters find that they can get out from under their energy crisis not by continuing to submit their subjects to ever-increasing horror but by actually having a good time with them, providing stand-up comedy instead of fear. And they themselves can pursue this new tactic without experiencing their own fear because they now know that children are non-toxic.
Of course, the film has its dramatic ups and down, its hilarious jokes, its exhilarating action sequences, and all work brilliantly to make a great piece of entertainment. That would be enough to call Monsters, Inc. a successful endeavor. But beyond all this lie some pretty profound notions about people, nature and ecology.
So often, we extract resources in ways and at rates that harm ecosystems, but we do so not out of malice toward those ecosystems or any of their inhabitants. We do it because we have appetities that we simply seek to fulfill, and these are the ways we know to fulfill them. Just as the monsters press for more screams, we, for example, drill for more oil, knowing that it is a non-renewable resource, knowing that new stocks will only last for so long. But our dependence on oil is so strong that we do not devote the time and effort to more lasting energy solutions. In so doing, each next oil deposit becomes harder to reach, and harder to find in the first place. Precisely the same systemic mechanism is in place with the monsters, for whom children are becoming more and more immune to scaring.
Our notion of nature as “red in tooth and claw” and therefore harmful and threatening to us comes not simply from the fact that there are hazards in the world (which, of course, there are) but from our need to justify the conquering of all that is not human. We convince ourselves that our consumption of nature is reasonable — that not only is it all there to be used, so we might as well use it, but that our own security will suffer if we do not do as much as possible to subdue nature before us. It’s us or them. Similarly, the monsters convince themselves that they scare because they care. They do something they certainly understand would be undesirable if done to them, but it’s only because they are looking out for themselves and their needs. What else can they do? People and monsters alike are merely earning their living, doing their jobs, providing what they feel they must provide.
But the problem in both cases lies in the very dichotomization of “us and them.” We think of nature as “other” so that we can justify doing certain things to it for our own benefit. But we fail to understand that certain kinds and levels of activity destroy the very ecosystems on which we depend, and thus our own excessive activity, in the end, comes back to haunt us, making us suffer countless losses. It is then clear that there is no other at all — that people and the rest of nature (as opposed to simply “nature,” since there is no nature separate from people) are all part of the same system, intimately bound together and interdependent. What is bad for one part is bad for the rest.
When the monsters learn that they can gain so much more by making children laugh than they can by frightening them, they learn a key lesson about systems — that the system works best for each part when it also works best for the rest. They realize that certain kinds of activity simply don’t pay off in the obvious way they “ought” to — and that certain ways of conceiving of the subjects of their activity are precisely what keep them from seeing better options. They learn that more effective activities and ideas have nothing at all to do with altruism toward an oppressed other. Monstropolis didn’t need a sweeping “human rights” movement to convince monsters to stop exploiting those poor human children. It simply needed a fuller understanding of the reality of the system.
And just as the children are not harmful to monsters, the rest of nature is not harmful to people. Indeed, people can’t live without it. Animal rights movements and pleas for conservation of resources and endangered species are all useful as far as they go, shedding some much-needed light on the importance of keeping ecosystems working lest we fail once they do. But fundamental change can’t come from such movements. It will come, instead, from people who see themselves for what they really are — integral parts of a larger system whose other parts benefit us, and whose other parts can benefit from us. Animal rights and convservation efforts continue to play into the very us-and-them dichotomy that has gotten us in trouble in the first place. Real progress will only come from the transcendence of that false dichotomy, the realization that the other is not really “other” and therefore can’t be our enemy at all.
Synergy is the increase in vibrancy yielded by parts working together as a whole compared to what they’d achieve on their own. It is something that happens automatically in dynamic systems — the parts may work together in service of the whole, yet what goes around comes around, and the parts gain benefits that would have been impossible outside the system. This is one of the most profound lessons we can learn — and it is learned by the monsters in Monsters, Inc. The green-eyed monster of envy, wrapped up as it is with the enmity inherent in any us-or-them dichotomy, gives way to the “green,” ecologically minded monsters of Monstropolis who lead better lives once they learn to cooperate with the energy sources on which they depend instead of simply exploiting them in the way handed down to them.
The more general lesson noted earlier is also an ecological one, and it is truly present here as it was in A Bug’s Life and the Toy Story movies. The lesson is this: that life, significance and wisdom can be found in the least likely places — including formulaic Hollywood animated films.
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.
This paper was written for “Environmental Sociology,” a Sociology course given by Dr. Sharon Zukin that was part of Mark’s customized curriculum in the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. It explores the various meanings of the film Titanic from an ecological perspective.
Dr. Zukin called it “totally original.”
This original screenplay has a serial killer giving clues to a novice newspaper reporter, and includes narrative and thematic twists. It convinced an agent at Susan Smith & Associates in Beverly Hills, CA, to take the authors on as full clients instead of just representing them for their screenplay Citizen Arcane, a.k.a. The Lion’s Share. The authors are no longer represented by Susan Smith & Associates, and the screenplay remains unproduced.
This screenplay, originally titled The Lion’s Share, was first written in 1995, then revised in 1996 and again in 2002, when its title changed. It is based on the true story of Sam Byck, who committed suicide during a botched 1974 attempt at assassinating President Richard M. Nixon by crashing an airplane into the White House. It was selected for American Zoetrope staff review after its submission to Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay discovery Web site screenplay.lather.com, and it gained the authors representation with Susan Smith & Associates in Beverly Hills, CA. Sam Byck’s story is now the subject of the film “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” starring Sean Penn. The authors are no longer represented by Susan Smith & Associates, and the screenplay remains unproduced.
© 2002, 1995 Mark S. Meritt and Richard Hack