Friday, December 24, 2010

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again

Contribution to The Spielberg Blogathon. Thanks to Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly for hosting.

If you have not seen the film in question, you would be very foolish to read this.

One of the main charges that’s often labeled at Steven Spielberg is that he’s never content to leave well-enough alone and must always end his films on a sentimental (if not clearly positive) note. This viewpoint isn’t entirely unfair. It’s a trait that, for better or worse, Spielberg has demonstrated at various points throughout his career. The guy likes things to end on the classic Hollywood lump-in-the-throat. However, putting whether this is good or bad aside, there’s one place that the sentimentality charge simply doesn’t fit, and, oddly enough, it’s one of the most often used examples of Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
is often criticized/decried/lamented for being the film that Stanley Kubrick might have directed. The story’s simple enough. In a distant future, humans use robots called "mechas" to do all of the jobs that they don't want to do. A technician creates a child mecha that, once activated and specifically imprinted to a human being, has the ability to love that person. David, the child mecha, spends his entire life looking for ways to earn the love of the human being he considers to be his mother. Kubrick started conceptualizing the project in the 1970’s. Along the way, he showed Steven Spielberg what he was working on, spoke with him at length about the project, and attached him as a producer. For various reasons, he didn’t actually make the film, and tried to give the project to Steven, who didn’t want to take over the film. However, after Kubrick’s death, his family approached him with the project again, and Steven set out to complete Kubrick's vision.

Visually, the film’s spectacular, and I’d argue that the script (written by Spielberg himself) has nary a wrong step. Despite this, the fact remains that there’s a large contingent who believes that the film goes on about 20 minutes too long. Their preferred ending would come with David sitting in the sunken underwater remains of Coney Island, staring at the statue of the Blue Fairy, waiting for her to turn him into a real boy.

Then, the film departs into a distant future. A group of advanced mechas/robots exploring a frozen Manhattan find David and re-activate him, downloading his memories. What’s quickly apparent is that humanity has become extinct and these beings have never met their creators. David is the first link they’ve found to the heritage they cannot understand. After telling him the fate of humankind and of his “mother,” they tell him that they have found a way to recreate individual humans from a single strand of DNA present in something like a lock of hair. However, these people only live for one day, and, upon falling asleep, die for the last time. Unsurprisingly, David asks for his mother to be revived. They spend a wonderful day together, the kind of day that David had always wanted to spend with her. Finally, she falls asleep, as does David, and the film ends.

Detractors find this ending a cop-out, claiming that this is Spielberg’s attempt to soften a narrative that’s too harsh to fit within his usual aesthetic. Initially, I understood this point of view, even if I felt that the ending served the film successfully. What’s ironic about this is that the film ends exactly the way that Kubrick intended.

So, what does this mean?

The first time I watched the film, I took the ending at face value. It meant what it said it did, and wasn’t anything more than that. Then, I thought about it, thought about it some more, and came to a different understanding.
See, the ending is anything but a happy one. It is impossible to recreate all that an individual human being is from a single strand of DNA, even in the fantastical world of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even if it were possible to recreate a person’s body (which is not entirely inconceivable), DNA isn’t truly what makes a person a unique individual. Memories created by a singular life experience are the things that define who someone is. If it were possible to reconstruct someone’s body, there would be no way to restore that person’s soul. The lights would be on, but the same person wouldn’t be home.

It’s ironic that the most caring creatures in the film are these advanced mechas. Even as person after person has used (and abused) David, what remains after humanity is dead has surpassed its creators in kindness and basic “human” decency. After David’s memories have been downloaded, the advanced mechas have learned all that they’re going to about humanity from him, and they’ve decided to give him the only thing that he’s ever really wanted: the love of his mother. It would be simple for them to deactivate David or to modify him to become a member of their community, but instead they choose to GIVE. They know exactly what it will take to make him happy, and they provide that for him. The Monica that we knew in the first part of the film wouldn’t treat David with as much love as her recreation does. No, she’d want to know where her husband and son were, what was going on, and why David, who she’d abandoned, was there in the first place. Through their processing of his memories, the advanced mechas knew exactly what David has always wanted from her, that he had a lock of her hair, and construct an elaborate fiction that will allow them to provide it for him. Finally, remember that David does not sleep, so his curling up next to Monica to go to the “place where dreams are born” is an impossibility. Essentially, they’re allowing him the chance to end his life after experiencing ultimate happiness.

While it’s a tragedy that A.I. Artificial Intelligence hasn’t taken its place in the cinematic canon, I think it’s because the film is smarter than a lot of its audience. In this version of the Pinocchio story, the dream of becoming “real” doesn’t come true so much as the protagonist, and, by extension, the audience, believes that it has come true. It’s no small thanks to this ruse that A.I. Artificial Intelligence gains so much resonance.

What resonates more? A lump-in-the-throat happy ending or an ending built on the deception that someone’s gotten everything that he wants when he hasn’t gotten a thing? You already know what I think.


Adam Zanzie said...

If I had a dime for how many times I've had to lobby for the ending of A.I., I tell ya...

"The CGI Blue Fairy!" "120 minutes of Kubrick, 20 minutes of Spielberg!" "ALIENS!" The weak arguments from detractors are still going strong these days, unfortunately.

There's really only one strong argument the A.I. detractors have going for them: is the Ben Kingsley narration at the end entirely necessary? I think the ending of the film is still a sad one, but some critics continue to argue that Kubrick would never have included the Kingsley narration or the tragic Williams music at the end.

Okay, I'm gonna play Devil's Advocate here now, Adam: what if Spielberg himself truly believes that David does go to the place "where dreams come true"? David may not be human, but he does have the ability to love: doesn't this guarantee him a place in the kingdom of Heaven? If so, does that significantly lessen the tragedy of the ending?

Adam said...

I'm inclined to think that anytime a film opens with voiceover narration, the "bookend" rule takes effect, allowing for the film to close with voiceover narration. Certainly, there might be exceptions, but I generally feel that that approach works. I think the closing narration in A.I. is beautifully written, and helps beautifully to tie off the Pinocchio/storybook aspects of the narrative.

Devil's Advocate: I don't know if Spielberg meant the ending to be taken literally or if he meant it as the hat-trick I think it is. Certainly, if he felt that it was a "happy" one, that would put a damper on my theory. I think that a writer's own ideas of what he/she is trying to say is much more important than the endless analyses that spring forth from fans and critics. While there can be times when one ends up saying something that was originally unintended, the creator of a narrative has the clearest vision of what his/her story is trying to accomplish. As such, if it became clear that Monica is actually supposed to have been literally recreated, then I do think that the film's ending becomes much less tragic. It's still tragic in the strict sense, but the intelligence of a kind of "high" tragedy would be lost.

"Kingdom of heaven"??? What?

Adam Zanzie said...

lol. I assume that Heaven is what Kingsley is talking about regarding the place where dreams come true...

Adam said...

Now that you say that, it makes sense. When I first read that bit, it seemed like it was entirely out of left field. "Kingdom of Heaven??? Adam, we hadn't brought religion into the discussion . . . at least, I thought we hadn't." Honestly, I'd never thought of David's end (be it through euthanasia or actual sleep through the power of love) in any kind of spiritual context.

Tony Sharp said...

I could never understand why so many people thought AI should have ended with David praying to blue fairy under water.

The last act, seeing the world covered in ice, completely blew my mind. And it was especially incredible to experience that scene in a theater. I still remember 1 woman gasping, and the total silence that fell as John Williams' haunting score played.

I think the ending is anything but happy. Hell, it depresses me just thinking about it. Humanity is extinct, David shuts himself down because he doesn't have anything else to live for, and Teddy is left alone. Bloody hell...

Anyway. I think AI is one of the best sci-fi films ever made. In time, I think it'll earn the appreciation it deserves.

Adam said...

I really hope you're right about the film taking its rightful place, Tony.

As for the ending, I've heard a similar theory about Minority Report. It's certainly an interesting idea to think that someone like Spielberg, who's known for sentimentality and doesn't really need to prove anything to anyone anymore, would be pushing himself out of his comfort zone to that extent. I'd also argue that that push is still ongoing.

Bryan said...

My sentiments exactly! I was about 13 or 14 when I went to the movies to see this. Now 24 and the movie still brakes my Damn Im like, why didn't they put teddy to sleep too? ...smh

Heil Mary said...

I watched this for the first time yesterday and hated the desolate ending! I don't believe David died, he merely experienced his first sleeping dream (according to the narrator), but with no people to interact with, what a lonely existence! A writer on another website blasted what also bothered me: why didn't his creator, Dr. Hobby, look for and rescue him from the water? Or, since mechas (and probably Teddy) are waterproof, why didn't David and Teddy swim out of the copter back to Hobby? It should have occurred to him or Teddy that Hobby was his true Blue Fairy who could upgrade his programming, improve his humanness, and negotiate visits with the Swintons. If David rejoined Hobby, his life with humans would have improved. Perhaps maturity would have made a friend out of Martin. Hobby could have given David an adult transformation and mentored him in partnering with humans in solving earth's climate problems that eventually wiped out humans. I also could see Hobby and the Swintons living centuries through cloning and transferring their memories. This would have given David long companionship. It would have been more fitting if David as the adult problem-solver helped rescue humanity and fostered human-robot partnerships. Perhaps after the narrator commented on David's dream, the narrator should have received an interstellar message from a delighted adult David on an earth colony planet. The just rescued sleeping David would turn out to be one of the many duplicates that enraged adult David when he was a child. This missing duplicate had damaged programming that made him seek out the Blue Fairy after the original David gave up on the plastic statue and returned to Dr. Hobby.

sammi said...

I agreed with Heil Mary, that ending would have been much better. A.I is the saddest film I've ever watched and think it will haunt me for life. what a powerful film!

alan inglis said...

There's one simple fact that everyone here is ignoring! You can have an amazing story, with layers of meaningful subtext BUT there's no denying that the last half hour is, quite frankly, boring! The story becomes tired and the narration cliche. You must keep the audience interested. Cinematography is first rate though.

Denise said...

Wow Heil! That is an amazing ending! I visualized it as I read it, and really resonated with the visuals haha, you're a good write! And I think this would have been a magnificent alternate ending! I think they ought to do a short film based on your idea :D

Empathy said...

I don't agree with alan inglis that the last 30mins is boring, this is what added almost unbearable intensity for me
The most emotionally intense film I feel I have seen.
I agree with sammi

"think it will haunt me for life. what a powerful film!"