Uncanny valley

The short story is that I’ve been doubling down on the really artsy-fartsy stuff recently, which I’ve found has eaten away a lot of the time, effort and inclination that has gone towards blogging. I hope that eventually a new blogging rhythm will emerge out of this. But in the meantime, for the sake of proving there’s still an (irregular) pulse here, I’ll continue my recent discussions and defences of pop sci-fi curios with Steven Spielberg’s frequently underrated movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

It’s well known that Spielberg was good friends with Stanley Kubrick, and that the two filmmakers had a great amount of respect and admiration for each others’ work. Which was why A.I., initially a Kubrick project (adapting a short story by Brian Aldiss), got handed over to Spielberg after a fair amount of conceptual pre-production. Kubrick’s treatment of the material was arguably his attempt at making a Spielberg-esque movie (or at least the project developed in that direction), to the point where Spielberg seemed a better match than Kubrick for the part. But when Spielberg’s version went into production after Kubrick’s death, it was very much his take on a Kubrick movie.

Thus A.I. Is a strange, protean work in which you can’t tell where the Kubrick ends and the Spielberg begins. For a lot of people this is like attempting to top your ice cream with jalapeno peppers: perhaps the two items have their own place, but should never, ever be mixed together. But for myself it really does click. Its weird power comes precisely because of its seemingly discordant mash up of aesthetic sensibilities.

Anyway, the film is set in a future where humanity is more or less contracepting itself into extinction in response to worldwide flooding. Increasingly, robots have come to fulfill the various roles once inhabited by people. Professor Hobby (William Hurt) wants to take things to the next level by developing a robot capable of love (in the hopes of making a child robot that could capture the market of families who are childless per government regulation). The end result of this is David (Hayley Joel Osment), who gets adopted by one of Hobby’s employees. It doesn’t take long before David becomes seen as a burden and potential threat, and gets abandoned – but not before he has imprinted on his “mom,” Monica (Frances O’Connor) with his irresistible love programming. Familiar with the Pinocchio story, he sets off on a quest to become a real boy so that Monica will love him again.

As a sort of apologia for creating David, Hobby makes direct reference to Genesis and God’s creation of Adam for the purpose of loving him. But the salient difference is that God created man with the capacity to freely love him in return, while David precisely lacks this freedom; he must love Monica because his programming tells him to. A.I. ultimately is an exploration of this idea as existential horror/absurdity. David can be read in two ways, depending on your philosophical inclinations: either he is a portrait of humanity and how all our apparent dreams and aspirations are ultimately the effect of deterministic processes beyond our control, or else he calls attention to the necessity of free will through its absence – even if, as we see in the film, many use that freedom to perverse ends. At times, particularly towards the end, the film almost reads like a riposte of 2001’s triumphalism; the overcoming of human nature only leads to the creation of beings that are an increasingly distant and meaningless facsimile of humanity, while technically being more powerful.

It sounds like the bleakest of Kubrick films, but Kubrick himself would likely have approached this with his characteristically detached, deadpan manner, with jabs of black humour. Or maybe he wouldn’t have, in this case. At any rate, Spielberg has no such emotional guard-rails, being one of the most heart-on-sleeve directors out there, and so the execution is emotionally exhausting in a rather unique way.

Religion is brought up in a rather ambivalent manner. There are lines of dialogue suggesting that man’s propensity towards religious belief is one of our essential features, while at the same time the brief examples of overt religiosity we see are either portrayed as ignorant or ineffectual (and if you thought modernist church architecture was bad, wait till you see how tacky churches of the future will look).

Though, come to think of it, there’s a lot of half-baked thematic material underneath the hood here, and there are weird structural problems throughout. But there’s no way a movie of this pedigree could ever come towards anything as perfect as 2001 or Schindler’s List. It all feels completely wrong, and yet also completely right. Which is kinda fitting for a movie about a robot programmed to be the perfect child.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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