Sunday, May 13, 2012

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

This review was first published online in 2005. On

Spielberg's  (A.I.Artificial Intelligence (2001)  is one of the most interesting movies to have been made in recent memory. Based on a short story Super Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss the story is a futuristic fairy tale about a mechanical boy, made to satisfy the need of childless couples, and his quest for his humanity.

A collaboration between the late Stanley Kubrick and Spielberg, the film starts off as a family drama about the Swinton's and the bonding that takes place between David (Haley Joel Osment), the child robot, and the Monica Swinton. It ends with a dream-like Spielbergian epilogue that satisfies our curiosity for David's ultimate fate. Sandwiched in-between is an adventure story.

Unfortunately, the film didn't quite gel with the public and critics. The highbrow viewers expecting Kubrick’s cold clinical style complained that Spielberg ruined the film with his populist sentimentality. Spielberg's core audience most likely left the theatre perplexed with a depressing tale and an ending that was neither happy nor satisfying, especially when compared to Spielberg's hallmark kid flick, E.T. .

Its achievement should not be diminished by the lukewarm reviews and box-office take. There is dramatic depth in Spielberg’s direction and from Haley Joel Osment's performance that is missing in his other films. Where Elliot in E.T. and Jamie in Empire of the Sun both expressed their hopes and dreams in a superficial manner, the single-minded driving motivation behind Osment's David and indeed the film's narrative is David's one hope of being truly loved for what he is, a real boy. Many viewers have taken the dialogue literally and interpreted the motivations of the film an allegory to Pinocchio where an object, in this case a robot, wishes to become a real boy. What is missed is that becoming real is merely a means to an end, and ultimately what David wanted and craved was to be loved like a human mother would love her child. Whether he had a computer chip or an organic brain inside his skull is irrelevant.

The question posed by the movie is quite clear. What obligations do we have to a computer program that can think, feel, and love? Kubrick's vision of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is not mutually exclusive to the mechas in A.I., in fact, HAL fits into the dichotomy Kubric and Spielberg explored in A.I. and we can still ask the same question. It is not the impressive robots and synthetic flesh in the film which creates the moral dilemma, but rather the programs inside these machines. David could be a program contained in a computer just like HAL, and the questions would not change. That is not to say the mechas serve no purpose. Interacting with a robot child that has all the mannerisms of a real boy drives the point home in a way a program cannot, even if its capacity to feel, think, dream and love far exceeds that of David's programming.

The question and issues in A.I. are relevant in contemporary life. We already have millions of programs running around inside our computers, in networks such as the Internet doing the work for us. Everything from search 'spider' bots that fetch websites for search engines to creatures and Sims in 'life simulators' game that attempt to create what game programmers term artificial life. If, in the very near future there is a game, or a program residing inside the hard-drives of our PCs that can think for itself, that craves attention, that begs for its life when it is about to be deleted, would we still treat them as mere programs? Should we be allowed to? Can we destroy these creations, these lines of code, at will? What if these programs turn the tables and harm their masters?

The ending deserves some mention. Universally criticized for being too Spielbergian in its sentimentality, it was again grossly misread. The fact that David can only have his mother back for one day only makes it even sadder and more bittersweet. There is closure for David, but the ending isn’t a happy one. It might infact be more cruel by letting David live his dream for a day rather than spend an eternity beneath the sea, where at least, he still has an eternal companion, hope.

The Long View:  In the seven years since I wrote this review, the view of the film has marked a dramatic shift from initial disappointment in the immediate aftermath of its release to one of appreciation and respect.   A.I. along with Minority Report (2002) are now widely considered as two hallmark films, a dual view of the future, by Spielberg at the turn of the 21st century. 
As computers continue to evolve and the power of desktops are shrunk down into mobile devices that I couldn’t even fathom just seven years ago, the questions posed to us by Spielberg and Kubrick in A.I. is more relevant today than ever.  Can we truly love aritificial intelligence?  Can you love a Sim?

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