Monday, August 2

AI at 20: Spielberg’s Misunderstood Epic Still His Darkest Movie Yet | AI

“I thought this would be difficult for you to understand. You were created to be so young. “

This heartbreaking line reaches towards the end of AI: artificial intelligence, many centuries after David, an extraordinarily sophisticated mechanical child (or “Mecha”), has embarked on a quest to become “a real boy”, as Pinocchio, and reunite with the human mother he has been programmed to love. The years have not aged it, of course. He is eternally young, unable to acquire the wisdom and perspective that come with age. He cannot understand the passage of time, much less the absurd and quixotic nature of his mission. He just wants his mommy.

The purity of that feeling is something Steven Spielberg has been pursuing for much of his career, how a child’s innocence is expressed through wonder on the one hand and intense vulnerability on the other. The magic of Spielberg’s ET the Extra Terrestrial is that it draws tears at both ends of the spectrum, whether young Eliot takes off on his bike or connects with his alien friend as he falls under the cold scrutiny of adults. AI has much more to do with vulnerability than wonder, and it may be Spielberg’s darkest movie, darker than Schindler’s List, seeking a dash of redemption from overwhelming historical horror. There is also a redemption arc in the AI, but it is just as synthetic (and just as real) as the android in the center.

Although it’s been 20 years since the AI ​​polarized audiences, the movie’s genesis stretches another 30 years before that, when Stanley Kubrick acquired the rights to Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long and the slow start began. development process that did not. It always makes for a real movie. (See also: Napoleon, Aryan Papers, and many other unrealized projects.) When the title “An Amblin / Stanley Kubrick Production” pops up on the screen, you can anticipate the cognitive dissonance between the two filmmakers: Kubrick, the cold clinician, taking inventories of the hypocrisies and destructive nature of man; Spielberg, the skilled artist, a brand in Hollywood storytelling. How could these sensibilities be reconciled?

That’s a rhetorical question for those who consider AI a failure, but for those who admire it, like me, the tension between Kubrick and Spielberg results in a one-of-a-kind experience, a bleak film about human nature disguised as sentimental science fiction fairy tale. Through Spielberg’s lens, David becomes a real boy the moment Monica (Frances O’Connor) finishes the formal “printing” process that ends with the android calling her his mother. Kubrick reportedly never believed that a child actor could play the role of David convincingly, but the way Haley Joel Osment, like David, softens her expression after that last command, casts that concern aside. It is a robot that has been programmed to love its parents and Spielberg and Osment make it impossible to think of David’s love as fake, although we are aware that it is just a next-generation piece of technology, the first in a line of super- toys ready to ship.

The Gepetto in this Pinocchio story is Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), who designs David to meet the needs of a collapsing society. In the 22nd century, climate change has led to a rise in sea levels that has washed away coastal cities, drastically reduced the world’s population, and prompted legal sanctions on pregnancies, as human children would tax the world’s limited resources. Monica and her husband, Henry, are chosen as the “perfect” family for David, because their son Martin has contracted a rare disease and remains in “suspended animation” without much hope of recovery. The idea of ​​replacing Martin with a robot son of the same age initially disgusts Monica, but she grows excited about this strange being over time and moves on with the impression.

The ethical question a colleague asks Professor Hobby when discussing his new creation looms over the entire film: “If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person have to that Mecha in return?” Humanity is used to the answer being “none at all”, as we learn later when outdated robots are gathered at Flesh Fairs, which are like monster truck rallies where people applaud the destruction of technologies that have clearly made their lives worse. . But the time between the moment Monica makes the impression and the moment she tearfully leaves David in the woods is the most important and powerful part of the film. Monica plays pretend with David, comforting herself with the maternal rituals that Martin’s absence has denied her. But pretend long enough and you may not feel like pretending anymore.

Steven Spielberg on set.
Steven Spielberg on set. Photograph: AP

This is how movies work too, right? This is how we grieve for David when Monica and Henry’s royal son returns and a long-awaited sibling relationship falls apart, culminating in a birthday party when David nearly drowns Martin in a swimming accident. Spielberg doesn’t even have to hide David’s synthetic qualities that much – the foods he pretends to eat, his strange outbursts of laughter, his blank expression when he’s confused – because we accept the premise that he loves his mother. As consumers of fiction, we get emotionally involved in unreal characters all the time, and they don’t have to be human when they are as sincere and pitiful creatures as David.

The AI ​​center section follows David (and his adorable toy partner Teddy Ruxpin) on his quest to find the “Blue Fairy” who will turn him into a real boy, leading him to cross paths with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). a Mecha prostitute on the run from a murder montage. If this is a Pinocchio story, then the entire second act has the nightmare quality of Pleasure Island, that lawless place in the 1940 Disney movie where kids smoke cigars, engage in various vices, and eventually turn into donkeys. braying. We realize that Monica and Henry are among the privileged few and that society in general has become an island of cheap pleasures meant to heal deep hurts and resentments. This is no place for a boy like David. It is no place for anyone. And it may be what the future holds.

The AI ​​ending is the most misunderstood part of the movie, perhaps because it seems like Spielberg is engineering a happy ending when in reality it’s much more bitter and bittersweet. The last third is a reflection of the first third, a daily ritual of a mother-child relationship, only this time the mother is the more synthetic being of the two. Neither of them has a future, together or apart. Both were relegated to obsolescence long ago, along with the entire human race and the planet in general.

But they can pretend it’s so real. And, by the hand of Steven Spielberg, one of the great fantasy of cinema, we can pretend together with them.

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