The Human Kind
Jeff Reichert on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

This article is cross-posted in both Reverse Shot's 2012 Steven Spielberg symposium and its 2010 Best Films of the Decade issue. A.I. came in at #6. (The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.)

The first decade of the 21st century, even with all the technological changes that have greatly expanded knowledge of our origins and pointed toward our potential futures, holds no monopoly on the great unending debate of what the word “human” means. But this troubled decade may well have produced one of the purest artistic examinations to date of what makes us us. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence only seemed truly landmark to a few hardy souls back in the naive summer of 2001 (as an aside, if it weren’t for A.I., a true cinematic rallying point for myself, my co-editor, and several other Reverse Shot writers, our publication might not exist). Today it seems downright prophetic, but not for the obvious reasons. The film’s speculative trappings—the rapid onset of global warming that drowns coastal regions, the walling off of industrialized nations into fortress-islands against human migration, advances in robotic technology approaching what some label “the singularity” (that moment when robots outpace human intelligence)—speak to a holistic prescience that films like The Day After Tomorrow, Terminator Salvation, and An Inconvenient Truth can only bite off in pieces. A.I. skips over the sum total of these films in a few minutes of prologue narration. No, the worth of Spielberg’s greatest achievement to date lies not in its frightening accuracy, but in how it uses its future setting to divert our attention back to those most basic and eternal of existential questions in a manner as emotionally devastating as it is intellectually searching.

A.I. has an equal share of passionate defenders and detractors, and it feels an unlikely candidate for wholesale reconsideration and wider appreciation years down the road, so intensely have the debates about its worth already played out. Instead, it’s more likely that its partisans will become further entrenched, each side will court initiates, and the film will be continually debated, admired, and loathed by turns. (Luckily, this is what great art is for.) From the position of a staunch defender, those who view the film with disfavor do so because they view inflexibly. Spielberg shifted gears somewhat in the nineties, offering a trio of serious and deadly earnest historical dramas (Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan), consciously and conspicuously planting a stake in the realm of what is generally considered grownup filmmaking. At the same time he tossed off two incursions to Jurassic Park, generated several mints’ worth of revenues, and practically invented CG. By 2001, Spielberg owned Hollywood on all fronts—king of the popcorn movie and lauded (if unsuccessful to these eyes) chronicler of collective histories. For most observers, his narrative was clear: like Griffith, perhaps his closest in kin, Spielberg would make some for him and some for the studios. Who would have expected that his next move would be to fuse these two tendencies in a dour work of science fiction (a genre with the most obvious connection to philosophy that’s often denigrated as frivolous—we’re more comforted by where we’ve been than where we may be headed) with the mother of all twist endings? Oh, people knew a film was coming, and that Stanley Kubrick initiated the project and handed it off to Spielberg before he died, but I doubt anyone truly anticipated this film.

It must have been off-putting, to say the least, for the expectant to find that A.I., after its brief stage-setting prologue, opens with a lecture. William Hurt’s Professor Hobby, head of “mecha” manufacturer Cybertronics, exhorts his designers to best their own work and create a robot child who can love. It’s a long, oddly jocular scene; members of his team call out during his speech and crack jokes, some seem to only be paying attention on the margins. The atmosphere seems light, but take note: Hurt may deliver his challenge with a genial smile, but this is the first time the film introduces a definition of what it means to be human, and in a casual phrase, “this child will be caught in a freeze frame,” Hobby also sets up the entire premise of the film. It’s not uncommon for Spielberg to stop a movie cold to deliver explanations—see also John Quincy Adams in Amistad, John Hammond in Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones—but there’s something different here; even as he’s setting the scene, inviting us into A.I., the filmmaker unsettles. In the wake of the cataclysmic information shared by the prologue, the warmly lit, book-lined room conjures a sense of calm and safety. But we know that the world these designers inhabit has irrevocably changed, and continues to crumble. Their well-meaning project is, at best, a stopgap to prevent further collapse, a mass-produced balm—isn’t there a more appropriate way for them to spend their time? Or is this actually the best course in the face of certain defeat? Spielberg’s science fiction begins just where it should, in the realm of philosophy.

The result of their work is David (Haley Joel Osment, in his best role), first viewed as a smear of shadow bathed in light through a lens whose focus is dialed extremely soft, as if emerging from some afterlife his robotic soullessness would prohibit him from ever reaching. He’s come to the home of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor), a couple whose child is being kept cryogenically frozen to prevent his death of infection; he’s alive, yet not. Monica initially rejects the “boy,” she’s amazed at his verisimilitude, but can’t help being a little unnerved by him—he moves oddly, acts strangely, laughs a little too loud, doesn’t eat or blink. Even so, Monica, lonely, desperate to be a mother again, binds herself to the boy using the factory-provided instructions. Immediately after the process, David begins calling her mommy, exhibiting his programmed affections, and the transformation in Monica is immediate and miraculous. O’Connor’s part in establishing the conflicted aching soul of A.I. often goes unremarked upon, but her transition from upset to discomfort to maternal warmth is a marvel. (The changes all happen in her eyes, notably the areas in which David’s expressions are least human.) The designers at Cybertronics might have been right: all you need (to be human) is love. Monica’s found a new son, but should we be happy that technology’s opened up the possibility for motherly affection to be displaced onto a non-living being? Or should we be frightened at how quickly David exposes the desperation underlying much of human love?

Spielberg would go on in Minority Report to completely dismantle the nuclear family so familiar and so threatened in many of his films (though most often returned to stability in his conclusions) and replace it with a digital, endlessly reproducible one. Identity, existence, origins, and knowledge have been at the heart of Spielberg’s aughts—we see these questions playing out in various ways across Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and all of them are seeded in A.I. His first film of the new century marks a turning point, in which Spielberg, quite conscious of his unique role in American popular cinema, began going back over his body of work, reinventing it in a more cynical vein. So then, Munich turns the besieged Jews of Schindler’s List into morally suspect avenging angels to show how violence continually begets violence; War of the Worlds dismantles the good war righteousness of Saving Private Ryan by waging total war on American soil; The Terminal updates the foreigner trapped in American bureaucracy narrative of Amistad for the era of displaced globalization; Catch Me If You Can fully realizes the quandaries of identity effacement only hinted at in Hook; Kingdom of the Crystal Skull corrects and complicates the B-movie naiveté around origin narratives of the early installments from the winking perspective of age. If the guiding mythology of A.I. is Pinocchio (Monica reads it to David before bedtime), the guiding mythology of Spielberg’s last decade of filmmaking is Peter Pan.

I remember someone telling me of A.I. that they “loved the Kubrick parts of it, hated the Spielberg parts,” as if a collaborative effort like a film could be reduced to bits and pieces. There’s an irreducible complexity to a work of art, and many of A.I.’s reviewers wasted precious space trying to pry open the film and figure out who was responsible for what—given that Kubrick worked on the scenario before passing the torch to Spielberg, there was a tantalizing sense that one might be able to dissect the film in this fashion. This excavation project came with no small amount of snobbery. Given the reverence surrounding Kubrick, it wasn’t uncommon to find A.I.’s less-liked parts chalked up to Spielberg’s alleged sentimentalizing, while Kubrick’s harrowing vision was praised. Spielberg, for his part, admonished writers for mostly getting the who-did-whats of it wrong. But even he missed the point: A.I. can’t be broken down this way because the resulting work is so fully his from the very opening sequences. The hollow, airless silence at the core of the Swinton home is reminiscent of the similarly vacuum-sealed apartments of Eyes Wide Shut, yet no one but Spielberg would have bathed it all in that signature otherworldly glow. And if at times, the oddity of David’s intrusion into the home chills like The Shining, it’s only because we so desperately want the warm comforts of E.T. What follows in A.I. wasn’t Spielberg wrestling with Kubrick; it was Spielberg wrestling with himself.

Unlike E.T., who’s finally able to return home peaceably, David, too soon after his “birth,” is irrevocably ripped from his. The Swintons’ cruel son, Martin, revives unexpectedly, and after nearly being accidentally drowned by David (Osment sitting lifelessly at the bottom of the family’s pool alone, unblinking and confused, is one of the film’s most indelible images), the family decides to cast him out. The scene is wrenching: Monica leaves him in the forest and drives away tearfully. Here, the robot boy learns a new, painful lesson: to be human means to experience the pain of loss and separation. Monica’s last words to him, “I’m sorry I never told you about the world,” portend the drastic changes the film undergoes in David’s exile. A.I. leaves David alone in the woods, breaking away from his narrative to pick up the immaculately coiffed pleasure mecha Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) just as he’s framed for the murder of one of his clients. All of a sudden A.I.’s gone Blade Runner-noir, evoking science fiction cinema’s past on the way to creating its future. The cut to Joe is abrupt and clean—Spielberg is something of an unheralded master at splitting narrative threads in order to tie them together later, and he does so here in one of his darkest set pieces: when spotted by mecha hunters hiding in a decoy balloon in the shape of the moon (a deconstruction of the logo for his own Amblin Entertainment production company, taken from E.T.), Joe and David are captured and taken to the terrifying Flesh Fair, in which rabid humans cheer the public, near-medieval torture and destruction of outdated machine servants (Spielberg again predicted reality: the sequence reminds of a demolition derby crossed with a rally for Trump or Sarah Palin). But here David learns another lesson: though he’s been revealed as definitively not human by the fair’s organizers, his cries for life from the ring soften the audience, and the crowd shouts for his release. Perhaps, then, only some semblance of verisimilitude paired with a desire for continued existence is all one needs to be human (by A.I.’s midpoint it’s already offered more definitions than handfuls of films).

Their adventure continues. David, weaned on Pinocchio, demands they seek out the Blue Fairy. His quest: to become a real boy and win back his place in Monica’s heart. This bildungsroman takes the pair to the garish Rouge City, a blend of CG and sets, the seamless apotheosis of available filmmaking technologies at the turn of the 21st century. A.I., for all the forward thinking in its creation and philosophy, reveals itself here as something of an artifact. As David and Joe beat a hurried escape from Rouge City, David climbs into a helicopter and attempts to make the thing work. The contraption lifts awkwardly off the ground, begins spinning around and bobbing off its vertical axis like a top. Spielberg’s camera rotates in the opposite direction, catching David frantically banging the controls through the cockpit window. His next shot pulls back to see the craft itself in real physical space, David inside, stuntmen jumping out of its way. It’s a small moment in a film full of big statements, one that certainly wasn’t meant to open up grander meanings, but after a decade of advances in the realism of images that can be created from massed series of 1s and 0s in a machine, seeing a big, bulky prop shaking around a physical set whose very reality to us is determined by digital establishing shots feels akin to watching that train captured by the Lumière brothers roll into the station; from a small narrative beat, Spielberg provides a transformational moment in filmmaking. Eight years later, when even the most mundane of images are retouched into weightlessness, this real, constructed chopper bobbing in space feels a wondrous throwback to the kind of cinema that Spielberg practically invented.

At the end of his road, a tower in the lost, submerged city of Manhattan, David stumbles into his own worst nightmare. In Professor Hobby’s office, he meets himself, another David, a perfect doppelganger who insists on his own David-ness. The David we’ve been following has clearly learned and grown through his travels, his passion and expressiveness set him apart from the stone-faced robot he now confronts—another miraculous bit of acting created almost entirely with facial muscles. Our David asserts his own “I”-ness (is to be human to demand ultimate individuality?), destroying the copy, and smashing its face off before Hobby arrives to shift the film into its final act. David’s quest is revealed by the robot-maker to be the result of an experiment, no less grand than the one that caused his being. Once David had developed an unprogrammed desire and set out on that mission, the Cybertronics team sat back and watched, only manipulating the game slightly to get him to Manhattan. It must be stated that their arrival to the underwater city features some of Spielberg’s grandest visuals, one shot even catches a glimpse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers poking out of the water, a real-life absence the film could never have foretold.

After Hobby explains his provenance, and tries to convince the boy of how his desire and yearning made him truly “real” (yet another definition), David’s horror and despair only increase: in the Cybertronics lab he comes across more copies, boxed up and ready for shipping, and more frightening, his own spare parts waiting to be assembled. In another of the film’s most genius shots (Spielberg is too often given credit merely as a nimble storyteller without credit given to the perfection of the individual images he uses to advance his narratives), the “living” David looks through a lifeless copy of his own face just waiting to be animated. Of course by now we already know from glimpsed photographs the true reason for the boy’s being—Hobby’s anguish over his own lost son, David, now spun by a guileless megalomania into a product for world distribution. His interest in David isn’t one of kindness but one of zealous pride in his own creation. But we also know that these new Davids will not be the David we’ve come to empathize with. Something has changed.

It’s then that David’s actions further inscribe him as human: he chooses self-abnegation. The once-robot, now almost-boy flings himself from the Cybertronics tower into the swirling waters below, his fall captured in one of Spielberg’s most graceful shots: David’s reflection in the chopper glass, overlaid on Joe’s face in extreme close-up, falling down his cheek, a tear he could never cry. At the bottom of the ocean, David finds his Blue Fairy, but is wrenched away from it, back to the surface. Joe’s “saved” him, but he can’t save himself as the police arrive and spirit him away. Spielberg ups the existential ante yet again: the pleasure mecha’s final words, “I am . . . I was,” are about as profound a statement as can be found in American screenwriting, pointing toward a continuation of none other than Descartes. Here’s another essential signpost toward humanity, another competing definition set against the many we’ve seen thus far: the ability to love, the ability to feel loss, the ability to impersonate, the ability to demand individuality, the ability to desire, the ability to choose death, now the ability to have been.

How many films are bold enough to seemingly finish their narratives only to jump two thousand years into the future? After returning to the sea floor to pray endlessly to the Blue Fairy (Spielberg’s spiritual inquest), David freezes along with the rest of the Earth. He’s dug out two millennia later by a race of sophisticated robots, curious to learn about the lost human race they have outlived. David, with all of his memories of the world that was, is their greatest find. In return for aiding them, the boy makes a single demand: bring back his mother for one day using a lock of her hair. They agree, and the day David shares with Monica is magical, but utterly sad. Some refuse to read the melancholy of this sequence, the fragility of the tone Spielberg conjures, choosing to see instead bland sentimentality, the overbearing hand of the man who’d expertly brought on the tears so often throughout his career finishing off a dark movie in grand fairy tale style. But if there’s a reason why A.I. belongs on a list of the best movies of the young twenty-first century, it’s due to this odd, disquieting epilogue, which suggests that all David needed to become truly human was to exist beyond us.

We are a race smart enough to create David, but not smart enough to outlast him. Whose intelligence is artificial, then, and whose is real? David is now human, for all intents and purposes (he even cries), but at the same time he’s also immortal, decidedly not alive in the most crucial of ways. The concluding frames of A.I., in which the creation of man lives on long beyond him, and the full scope of the film’s inquiry is laid out, always make me feel small and fragile. What we are as human is precious, but by the same token not unique, not above mimicry. Perhaps, finally, what makes being alive most special of all is our ability to fade into bittersweet end.

Go to #7.