A.I. or Artificial Intelligence, based on the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction short story, “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” is an attempt to create a cybernetic fairy tale with a space age android Pinocchio in a world as real as human strivings and as remote as myth.
Originally developed by visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and filmed by Steven Spielberg after his death, A.I. takes place in a world where the ice caps have melted, much of the world is underwater and the first world nations have dramatically reduced their populations creating a United States whose great cities are no more, whose families are small and childless and whose people look desperately for hollow amusements as the extinction of humanity approaches.
The essential questions A.I. asks are less about technology and more about emotion. What are real love and hope. Do they define humanity or are they fundamentally irrational? Is a machine that strives to love hopelessly and hope for love, merely following a pre-programmed course or showing genuine signs of a soul? And if it is a pre-programmed course, does that truly make the machine any different than its human creators?
Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are both renowned directors who have produced movies that nearly everyone is familiar with. Their movies however are divided by fundamentally different perspectives. Spielberg is familiar to everyone for realizing movies driven by a child’s eye view of the world. Able to capture the magic of the child’s perspective, Spielberg dives us into a world where magic is real, filled with children’s jokes and a child’s dreamscape. Stanley Kubrick by contrast is the eternal adult, whose vision rigidly operates in a precisely linear and painfully serious world where the chaotic malaise of human emotions often gives way to random brutality and senseless acts of destruction. Where humanity’s vision vastly outstrips its grasp and though those dreams are beautiful, they are generally out of our reach.
These two perspectives create a fundamental mismatch that has a serious affect on A.I. A.I. was one of Spielberg’s transition films, with which he was attempting to make the move to a serious filmmaker. Unfortunately having sold his birthright, Spielberg has never been quite able to embrace the adult vision. A.I. is a movie that takes place in a child’s world by adult rules. David (Haley Joel Osment), the mecha, the artificial boy, sees the world as a child. But it is an adult world, a mortal world slipping into the abyss of dissolution. A world sinking underwater, doomed to be covered with ice and its human residents replaced by their own creations.
A.I. gives us the journey of a child who believes in magic and love. Does he believe it merely because he is programmed to? His creator suggests otherwise claiming that this achievement makes David unique in penetrating to the realm of dreams which adjoins the human potential. But after this reunion, he immediately sets to creating other models of David himself. Can an industrial process create the soul? In his desire to be a human boy, to be loved, David refuses the technological course and pursues a the story of Pinocchio, seeking out the blue fairy.
Originally created as a substitute child for parents whose own boy was in a coma, David lacks the complete range of human instincts to fit in and interact properly with his parents. When their own child returns, he helps create situations that insure they will reject and expel David. David wanders through the world on his quest, falls in among other outcast illegal Mecha and is captured and sent to a Flesh Fair. The Flesh Fair specializes in the destruction of Mechas for public entertainment, but the crowd draws the line at the destruction of David who refuses to admit he is a machine and insists instead that he is a little boy. The crowd’s uprising feels less Kubrick and more classic Spielberg with its optimistic naive faith in humanity and their willingness to do the right thing on cinematic cue.
In the process David meets a cybernetic gigolo, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) who like David was created to fill the emotional and physical needs of humans. The difference between him and David is that he knows this fact too well to allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable or confuse himself with humanity, as David does. Nevertheless Gigolo Joe helps David on his quest which finally takes them to the sunken city of Manhattan at the End of the World.
But David’s meeting with his creator fails to fulfill his desire. Instead David hurls himself into the ocean and finding a statue resembling the Blue Fairy, he waits there for two thousand years while the oceans freeze and humanity becomes extinct, still wishing to be a real boy.
He wakes into a frozen world where the descendants of the mechas rule and humanity is gone. To the new masters of earth, David is a valuable link to humanity, but what David wants most is to be loved by the mother who rejected him because of his artificiality. Though with Teddy’s help, David finds a lock of his mother’s hair, his hosts tell him that she can exist for only one day. Still firmed by a belief in magical thinking, David insists that she will be different.
In what may have been a vision or reality, David spends a wonderful loving day with his mother. When the day ends, they both die, going to the place beyond dreams. In the real world David’s wish to be a real boy could never be fulfilled. Whether even his wish to be with his mother again was ever fulfilled is itself debatable. But David’s persistence in magical thinking allowed him to experience the transcendence of human love and to supersede even dreams.
While A.I.’s movie poster insisted that David’s role was real, that can only remain a matter of debate. In a technological world doomed by its own folly, David insisted on magical thinking. Whether that magical thinking was the same kind of thinking that doomed humanity as well as himself is a matter of debate. In the struggle between beauty and truth, A.I. gives us a world governed by truth still seeking beauty. The machine is the truth, the linear practical nuts and bolts of programming, structure and physics. Beauty is the attempt to transcend truth with magic, with art, with faith. David, a machine, seeks the beauty of humanity and love, and the hopeless irrationality of his quest, is what makes it one of transcended.
In true fairy tales, beauty and art can transcend the limits of reality. In a cybernetic fairy tale, they must still be governed by what can be. Fairy tales that are delineated by reality are tragedies and A.I. wavers between the tragedy and triumph of David’s quest which fails in reality, but succeeds in the spirit.