AI: Artificial Intelligence

Don’t let that sledgehammer hit you over the head!
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2001
Director: 
Steven Spielberg
Starring: 
Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, William Hurt
The Setup: 
Robot boy has Pinocchio complex.
Discussion: 

I haven’t seen this since it was initially released, when I was really put off by a last-minute time jump [but generally liked it], and since then I’ve wanted to see it again. So, as part of my new push to rent movies I actually want to see, instead of just relying on what’s on Netflix, I watched it. And I really wanted to like it… but I really didn’t. Nearly everything about it rang false, and its messages are obvious, so obvious, throughout, and it was just a colossal dud. Which is not even to mention the magical fish.

Okay, so you know that this is the project that Stanley Kubrick was working on for some time, but never got off the ground, and suggested that Spielberg direct it and he produce? And after Kubrick died, Spielberg took it up. We open with a voice-over telling us that because of global warming, the coastal cities are underwater, and robots have become popular, because they don’t consume resources [except power?]. We join William Hurt as a robotics doctor who proposes making a robot child who can genuinely love. A woman asks what responsibility humans would have to love the child back, and oh my, WHAT a pertinent question! It’s because of details like this that I say this movie is “soooooo obvious.”

20 months later, we meet Francis O’Connor as Monica, a mother whose son, Martin, is in a coma. Her husband works at Hurt’s company, and they are selected to try out the new program; the next time we see Monica, her husband has brought home David, Haley Joel Osment. He’s in skin-smoothing makeup, and he never blinks. Monica is creeped out by him at first, but relents and undergoes the process that will imprint him onto her: he will love her, and if she ever wants to get rid of him, she must return him to be destroyed. He immediately starts calling her “mommy” instead of Monica, and hugs her. It’s all well and good for a short time, and she gives him a talking teddy bear, Teddy, that belonged to Martin. David asks if she’ll die one day, and worries that he’ll be all alone. Then, 30 minutes in: Martin’s all better!

Trouble begins immediately. Martin constantly goads and belittles David. He goads him into cutting a lock of Monica’s hair, which results in her waking with him standing beside her bed holding scissors, and scaring her. But don’t forget about the lock of hair he clipped! She reads both kids Pinocchio, which apparently touches David very deeply, to say the least. Then there’s a whole accident in which David almost drowns Martin, and the next day mom says they’re going to have a special day together. Unable to take him back to the company and bear that he will be destroyed, she does the worse thing and just leaves him and Teddy by the roadside. David soon concludes that if he were to become a real boy like Pinocchio, Monica would love him, so he sets out to find the Blue Fairy [BF], the magical figure from Pinocchio who made him into a boy in the story.

The whole rest of the movie is David’s quest to find the BF, and… I’m sorry, I just didn’t buy into it. He seems willfully naive, and I know it’s a very delicate balance to try to float this kind of pathetic delusion… let’s just say it didn’t work for me. I also didn’t like David, or have any connection to him, a consequence of his being so inhuman for so long at the beginning, not at all charming, and quite robotic. So now we need to go through the rest of this movie, based on the delusion of this main character that just isn’t that likable and should maybe just wise the fuck up. So let’s continue!

SPOILERS > > >
We meet Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, male pleasure model, who is immediately framed for murder, and on the run. Back with David, there is a garbage dump, and abandoned robots come and scavenge new parts for themselves. Then this huge moon rises over the horizon, and it’s Brendan Gleeson as a band of people who round up and capture robots. This sequence is supposed to be terrifying, but I had failed to have any sympathy for the robots thus far. They are then taken to the Flesh Fair, a sort of monster truck rally devoted to killing robots, sold as a way to protect and celebrate human superiority. We see several instances of robots being ripped apart or doused by acid for entertainment, and are supposed to be horrified. Blah, blah, the crowd doesn’t want to see a child robot ripped apart, so they let him and Joe go. Joe knows that there’s women in Rouge City, and he wants to take David to get answers from Dr. Know, so they head there.

The city is supposed to be a big Vegas-like pleasure den with lots of places devoted to sex, and Dr. Know turns out to be an animated talking Google that answers questions. Eventually, he tells them to go to the city in the water, or something, so they go to the remains of Manhattan, where the tops of skyscrapers are sticking out of the surface of the ocean. They land in the headquarters of the robot company—still operating, somehow—where David meets an identical David! They chat for a while, then our David picks up a lamp and bashes the little fucker! Until his head pops off! All the while bellowing “I’m special! I’m unique! I’m David!” Then William Hurt as Dr. Hobby comes in, says he’s been looking for David, planted the suggestion with Dr. Know and let him come to them as a test of his ability, and this David came through and is completely special and unique because of his ability “to chase dreams and to believe and wish for the imaginary.” Then Hobby wants to get the rest of the team to meet this AI miracle, so he LEAVES DAVID ALONE. The unique miracle of science he was just so excited to see again—yeah, leaves him alone. Apparently they don’t have intercoms or interoffice phones or cell phones or anything of that type in the future.

So David goes into the next room, where there is a showroom with a number of Davids in boxes, ready for shipment, as well as a female version. There are also numerous iterations of David hanging on hooks. It’s quite a shock and insult to his ego, as you can imagine… and you can also see how this whole situation is contrived in the most obvious and unlikely way to propel the story, without much thought to whether it makes all that much sense. So… first Hobby leaves David alone, unlikely, and in proximity to all these other Davids—after David just freaked out and decapitated one—and this is all happening in this…. office operating in the midst of a flooded city [where does the staff go for lunch?], and Hobby, the director of this company, also has the distribution warehouse and robot showroom directly adjacent his office? It’s all SO painfully contrived, and we haven’t even gotten to the magical fish.

David steps outside—Gosh, Hobby has been gone from his precious, one-of-a-kind creation for a while now—and decides to end it all. He jumps in the water, and here come the magical fish, which school under him to direct his lifeless body this way and that, until Joe picks him up with their jet-helicopter. Now, WHAT THE FUCK with these fish? WHAT THE FUCK with that? Are they supposed to be robots as well? Have we entered the realm of fantasy? Or what? I’m sorry dude, there is NO WAY I can take your movie seriously now. I thought this was supposed to be a serious film? But you can’t just throw a school of friendly magical fish who suddenly concern themselves with David’s struggle—whom they have never met, by the way—and leave it with no explanation, just like that. So, sorry! There’s no way we can take your film seriously now. Sorry!

I wrote all that months ago, unable to continue writing through the fifteen endings, but finish I must, because if I don’t get something new up on this site you’ll all abandon me. Anyway, the magical fish that make absolutely no sense in any context take David and somehow get him from lower Manhattan to Coney Island because we MUST put him in front of the Blue Fairy [statue] which he believes is real and the pathosometer blows its top off as poor, stupid David prays to the statue for thousands of years to make him a real boy, but I cannot engage in your pathos, Mr. Spielberg, because 1) the whole thing is so fucking contrived, and 2) the sheer number of story elements that had to be warped and bent in order to ram in the ever-so-poignant allegorical elements, up to and including magical fish, and finally 3) the inclusion of magical fish, which unfortunately precludes me from taking anything else in your film seriously. Also, if David is so fucking smart and advanced, he can’t ever figure out that he’s wrong? Over two thousand years>

Because yes, then 2,000 years pass. This was a shock to me the first time I saw it, and is so jarring I actually think it’s almost impossible to recover from, although it’s also so audacious it’s the primary reason I wanted to see it again [aside from all the future world-building, which really wasn’t all that great]. Anyway, everyone on Earth is dead, the whole thing is under several layers of ice [presented in a nice archaeological excavation of NYC] and these aliens have taken David, because he now constitutes “the enduring memory of the human race.” Well, the blue fairy thing at Coney Island made it until just a few days ago, frankly I find it hard to believe there’s nothing else out there, but I guess they’ve only just started excavating.

Anyway, the aliens can create a recreation of his mom [with that 2,000 year-old lock of hair, still floating around], but because of movie contrivance X and pathos generator formula B-54D8, he can only have one emotion-packed day with her. He has the “happiest day of his life,” and has a birthday party for her, she says she loves him [and now he’s CURED!] then goes asleep in her arms, when he “went to the place where dreams are born." The next morning he wakes and uses his super-intelligence to lay waste to the aliens and claim to the Earth, which he peoples with an anatomically-enhanced race of sexbots who never stop, no… nevvvveeerrrrrrrrr.

SPOILERS END > > >

Well, perhaps you have surmised that I was not impressed. It’s just all so phony and contrived. It all depends on that one child’s misunderstanding, and as presented, I just didn’t buy it. I also didn’t LIKE David, a crucial distancer. As for the fantastical elements, such as the human junkyard and the big city, eh, who cares. The fascinating future was a lot more compelling and full of interesting elements in Minority Report, which Spielberg released right at the same time. I had really gone in hoping to like it, and in fact like it a lot better than the first time [when I generally liked it], but… I really kind of thought it was crap. I know, carefully made, well-considered… but still.

Spielberg appears in the special features to tell us repeatedly, and somewhat defensively, that he did NOT in fact tack on the schmaltzy ending, and it was Kubrick’s idea from the start. I believe him, but there’s also a huge difference in tone between Kubrick and Spielberg, and I suspect that would have made all the difference. I have never minded what some people refer to as Kubrick’s chilliness—I see it as just him being merciless to his characters, letting them exist on their own without getting all involved with them—and one hopes that he could have pulled it off, even the central misunderstanding that the entire movie revolves around. I don’t at all assume he would have, although it’s pleasant to think about. Maybe that chilliness would have worked against the thematic schmaltz, instead of umpteen gauzy shots of David looking all emotionally distraught with a layer of tears in his eyes.

I think, instead, Kubrick intelligently realized it wasn’t for him. Which is what Spielberg says in the features: that Kubrick willed it to him because “it’s more your sensibility than mine.” Maybe Spielberg should have realized it’s not really for him either.

Should you watch it: 

You can if you want, many people like it.

Comments

I also saw it in a theater and didn't think to much of it when it was done. But then the whole movie re-emerged somehow in the last year and I came to see it in a different light. A. The magical fish are just a variation of the whale that saves Pinocchio in the original story. Stupid yes but but not totally unwarranted. B. I think if you consider the creatures at the end not to be aliens but super advanced robots it's way more interesting. Because then it's a reversal of the original story. The human mother just used him for emotional needs and discarded him at some point just as you would do with a thing you don't need any longer. At the end the robots recreate her as a tool to give him some closure even though she just lasts one day. So this ending is actually more of a horror story for me as is not about humanity at all. It's closer to sky net. This way the movie is quite subversive. I don't think Spielberg sees it that way though...

I find your view of the aliens as robots an interesting one, and I think we might be supposed to understand something similar to that... as for the fish being like the whale, I would say yes, but the original story was awash in magic, and this presents itself as a realistic story.

But after all this, even if you DON'T like it, I can still understand the story staying with you... it's a good one with lots of emotional resonance. It stayed with Kubrick and Spielberg for years, obviously, and they're not stupid people!

I think I'm not quite clear on your feelings re: magic fish. Maybe you could elaborate a little?