Monday, August 1, 2011

Toy story

I was looking over my 2001 list, and I realized that I hadn’t seen Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence in ages. I decided to give it another watch to see if it’d rise from the 10 spot on my list. Having watched it again, it most certainly does rise, but I won’t know where to put it until I post my list. I thought about just waiting until I post the list to talk about the film, but it’s fresh in my mind now. If I wait, I’ll end up writing vague thoughts like I usually do for my lists. And that ain’t good. So, here's some rambling thoughts instead. There are spoilers so beware.

Isn’t it a really great coincidence that A.I. came out in 2001 of all years? The similarities between it and Kubrick’s ’68 masterpiece are numerous. But where 2001 is concerned with the evolution of man, A.I. is concerned with the evolution of man’s creations. As a vision conceived by Kubrick, A.I. is a challenging and profound companion piece to 2001 in this regard. As a film carried out by Spielberg, it is an, at times, narratively flawed yet very terrific fairytale/sci-fi nightmare.

A.I. opens with a shot of gray undulating waves. We are told that the polar ice caps have melted, submerging coastal areas around the world into an aqua oblivion. We then jump to the birth of David, the first robot ever built with the capability to love humans. David is a giant step on a long path in the evolution of artificial intelligence capabilities (and in this case artificial emotion).

We follow David’s journey through various layers of Mecha/Orga society until the end of the film when David, like New York and other coastal areas before him, is buried beneath the ocean. We then jump to his revival 2,000 years later at the hand of some mysterious yet highly advanced mecha/alien hybrids. Interestingly, water–the building block of life–has become a visual metaphor for the advancement of artificially created life, just like the 2001 monolith for the evolution of humanity. David, like HAL before him, is the evolution of robots into more humanistic creatures. The mecha/alien hybrids, like the Star-Child before them, are these humanistic creatures even going beyond their human creators towards something else entirely.
A.I. is about the evolution of robots and all the moral and philosophical questions that come with such advancements. It’s like an incredibly disturbing version of Toy Story.

Toy Story is a great franchise, but it never seems to ask what responsibility humans have for the toys they create or own (it's a kids franchise after all so I wouldn't expect it to). The humans are unaware of their toys’ life-like capabilities so they are never burdened with the realization that the toys they abandon are doomed to a life of eternal loneliness and purposelessness. A.I. is like a Toy Story where the humans know their toys come to life. Just like we would wonder in this scenario what kind of responsibility Hasbro has for Buzz Lightyears everywhere or what kind of responsibility Andy has to his toys, A.I. wonders what responsibility humans have for the creatures they make. It’s a theme that goes back to Prometheus and Frankenstein, and one that is prevalent today with the idea cloning and the possibility for advanced artificial intelligence in the future. What makes our potentially human-like creations human or non-human? And do we have a responsibility to treat them as humans if they have become so adept at emulating humanity that it’s difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake?

Ebert seems to think there is no responsibility. He criticized the film for asking us to feel emotion for a creature that is programmed to feel and think certain things but not actually feel or think them. I understand this criticism ,but I think where Ebert is wrong is that David is programmed to feel and think on his own. He is able to simulate pain and emotion like love, fear, and loneliness, but does the fact that it is a simulation make it less real than say a human feeling pain through his or her nerves? Or a Human feeling emotion? If there is nothing to distinguish a feeling or an emotion in terms of the experience itself, then what is real in this scenario? I think the film tries to make this ambiguity explicit. David is a question mark testing our conceptions of what it means to be human. He is purposefully supposed to challenge us emotionally as well as conceptually. Writing him off as simply a robot would be a mistake. I know that oftentimes we will anthropomorphize things by giving them more human qualities than they have (like kids do with teddy bears and such), but David is purposefully supposed to challenge the line between toy and human, between childlike empathy and enormous moral responsibility. Come on Roger, isn’t that a majority of the film?

I think the film asking you to feel for David is also a comment on film itself. When we watch a film, we are usually asked to feel emotion for characters who we know aren’t real, who are basically programmed to say and do certain things, and who blur the line between simulated and actual emotion. Is it such a stretch for the film to ask us to feel for David if we are asked to feel emotion for the human actors in the film already? I don’t know, just a thought.

Let me just say this, A.I. is bleak, absolutely chilling stuff. Many have criticized the ending for its sentimentality claiming it is Spielberg ruining a perfectly bleak Kubrickian ending. Spielberg claims the ending was Kubrick’s creation, and he was simply remaining true to his vision. I do know that Kubrick’s original story had David being revived by the Mecha/aliens but that’s all I know about the ending as envisioned by Kubrick. I will say that anyone who finds it overly sentimental or hopeful is merely reacting to it as an emotional culmination and dismissing the ideas behind it. Jonathan Rosenbaum has a great reading of the ending when he writes:

“It sounds like typical Spielberg goo — for better and for worse — and when you’re watching the film it feels that way. But the minute you start thinking about it, it’s at least as grim as any other future in Kubrick’s work. Humankind’s final gasp belongs to a fucked-up boy robot with an Oedipus complex who’s in bed with his adopted mother and who finally becomes a real boy at the very moment that he seemingly autodestructs — assuming he vanishes along with her, though if he survives her, it could only be to look back in perpetual longing at their one day together. Real boy or dead robot? Whatever he is, his apotheosis with mommy seems to exhaust his reason for existing.”

I agree. David gets his wish, but his wish is just an extension of the horrible existence he has been doomed to live, and an extension of the irresponsible humans who have created him.
David is the last remnant of the “genius” human race the mecca/alien hybrids speak of. A humanoid toy built to service human needs at an incredible cost. He’s a shrine to human selfishness, vanity, and the insatiable need for love and validation. As one of the last remaining artifacts of humanity, he doesn’t paint a pretty picture beyond the technical acumen.

And it’s not just the ending that is bleak. The whole thing is too. It’s a damning look at humanity, and a tragic story from the first second to the last. We know David is doomed from the beginning. The opening scenes are cold and eerie. David is uncanny and a bit frightening to his family. Monica’s initial resistance to him linked with her irreversible imprinting on him foreshadows her abandonment of him. David is a toy doomed to love one person forever with a guarantee of unfulfillment because that person will someday die while he can go on living, seemingly forever. He’s Woody with ANDY printed not just on his foot but in his very makeup. He can't move on without being destroyed.

I think that A.I. is a horrifying vision of the future. But that’s what some of the best speculative sci-fi films do. They Illuminate problems and fears we have now and simply expand them into full-on nightmares.

On a lighter note, I watched WALL-E again the other night. What an incredible masterpiece it is. There's another film that asks us to feel emotion for a robot, and boy does it succeed instantly. WALL-E may be one of the most touching films I've ever seen, as well as an incredible sci-fi adventure. It's a miracle film. I had it at number 5 on my 2008 list. I just bumped it up to 3 behind The Dark Knight and Synecdoche, New York. I'm tempted to put it at number 2, but I seriously love Batman to death, so it's a tough call. I would say that if I went strictly with my heart, I would place WALL-E at number one, but I'm a heartless bastard. I should do a real post on WALL-E someday soon.


  1. Great post. AI is one of my favorite movies. It came out when I was going into 12th grade and I think that I saw it at least 3 times in the theater that summer. I'll try to write about it soon - and maybe even re-watch it.

    Speaking of AI, have you taken any classes with Eric Dietrich? He was one of my favorite professors while I was at BU. A few years ago he wrote an article in Philosophy Now called After the Humans Are Gone that argued that we need to "develop intelligent machines and then usher in our own extinction." It was the source of serious debate among me and some friends for a few months. Unfortunately, my friend deleted his blog where we were discussing it.

  2. Here is the link

    If you google it, you can read the article. Directly linking seems to bring up a paywall.

  3. I haven't taken a class with Dietrich, but I just read his article. Totally intriguing stuff. I wish I could have participated in that debate. I don't know where I'd come down (depends on the day), but you could make quite intelligent arguments for either position.

    Have you read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake? It deals with a proposition quite similar to the one Dietrich proposes. It's pretty interesting.

  4. Atwood is one of my favorite writers. Love O&C. I've got The Year of the Flood if you haven't read it and want to borrow it.