Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Uncanny Valley

Film: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I remember when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released. What I remember most about it is that there was some controversy over it. Some people loved it and others hated it. Having seen the film now, I understand both sides of that equation. There’s a lot to love here, but there are parts of this movie that are a lot like the end of Old Yeller. You might well know it’s coming, but that doesn’t really make it any easier.

A.I. (and I’m going to shorten the name to that for now) started out as a Kubrick project, but the story goes that he didn’t want to film it until the lead role could be played by an actual android. The technology still isn’t there unless you count CG. Regardless, at some point he passed the story over to Steven Spielberg, suggesting that it was more in his wheelhouse.

It is. This story has Spielberg written all over it. Many of Spielberg’s favorite themes are here, and many of his favorite tropes come into play throughout. But, as often happens, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The story takes place in the future, in a world where the polar ice caps have melted, destroying a number of major cities. The human population has dwindled as well. Similarly, technology has made incredible strides, particularly in the realm of robotics. Robots, called “mecha” are now prevalent, and many of them appear to duplicate humanity almost perfectly, except for an inability to truly express or feel emotions. That, naturally, is the gap that many, particularly by Professor Hobby (William Hurt) wish to close.

This desire results in the creation of David (Haley Joel Osment), a completely sentient robot made in the image of a young boy. He is a pleasant, if deep-into-the-uncanny-valley child and is given to Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards). Their son Martin (Jake Thomas) is suffering from an incurable illness and is in stasis until a cure can be discovered. David is the replacement, although Monica is at first horribly disturbed and then skeptical. However, after a little time, she imprints herself on him, meaning that he will love her completely and selflessly to the point that if she ever gives him up, he will have to be destroyed.

And of course, there are immediate complications. A cure is discovered for Martin and he comes home. Through a series of misunderstandings and malicious acts from Martin, David is seen to be dangerous. But rather than have him destroyed, Monica looses him in a forest, warns him of what he may find in the world, and leaves. David now has to fend for himself, although he is greatly assisted by a sex robot named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

David’s one overriding wish throughout the film is the old Pinocchio story—he wants to be a real boy. And so he quests after the Blue Fairy from the Pinocchio tale to give him that wish, since he was created young enough to believe that such fairy tales might truly be real.

Spielberg has never been able to do much without aiming directly at every heartstring his audience has, and A.I. is no different in this respect. This poor little robot kid goes through absolute hell in this movie because he loves unconditionally and feels that he is not loved in return. While an android, he is for all intents and purposes a young child who wants only the love of his mother, and is rather unfairly and unceremoniously separated from her. And so our hearts bleed for the kid from start to finish.

The best science fiction, or at least the most cerebral science fiction, explores that idea of what truly makes us human. Often, this is done by presenting us with things that are not human that behave in human ways—things that express a basic humanity without human appearance or being internally human. Science fiction is one of the only ways to approach this question believably, allowing us to question what we hold dear by shining a different light through the lens. It is nearly impossible to suggest that David is not human in the most important ways in this film, despite constant proof that he is, in fact, not human in a very real sense. And so another important question asked here is what our responsibility is to those things that we create. If the genie is let out of the bottle, what is our responsibility to the genie?

It’s hard to call this Spielberg’s darkest film when he also made films like Schindler’s List, Munich, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, but there’s a real darkness here, in no small part because what is happening is happening to a child, at least of sorts.

It’s worth noting that Haley Joel Osment is simultaneously endearing and disturbing in this film. He spends a great deal of his time in that uncanny valley where he looks human enough to be human, but with touches of strangeness that make him somewhat repellent. This film came at a time in his career when he was still the child actor flavor of the month—roles subsequently filled in some order by Dakota Fanning, Abigail Breslin, and Freddie Highmore. Osment’s career has leaned more and more toward voiceovers lately, and that might not be a bad choice for a kid who was so completely overexposed for a few years.

Why to watch A.I. Artificial Intelligence: Spielberg’s best tropes taking a dark turn.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty bleak if you spend any time thinking about it.


  1. Further trivia: this movie is based on a Brian Aldiss story that's only a few pages long. The punchline of that story is that the kid is a robot. For the movie, it's less punchline than premise.

    What did you think of the coda with Ben Kingsley's voiceover?

  2. I thought the coda was Spielberg punching me in the gut for 20 minutes. There's never been an emotional string that Spielberg didn't think he could pluck.

  3. Not one of Speilberg's best, though A.I. was SO much better on the big screen for me than on dvd, spectacular special effects

    I think it confused audiences in that it's not really a childrens fantasy film, and not really a grown-up film, sort of in-between I think.

  4. It's a very dark fantasy. You don't expect a Spielberg film in which nothing good happens to anyone.

    Then again, the whole point of the film was to get us to sympathize with David, thus defining him as "human."

  5. I recall the grumbling about Spielberg picking up where Kubrick had left off, thus creating a dissonant tone. "A.I." would have been an even darker film had that ending not been tacked on. David lies beneath the waves. THE END.

    Artistically speaking, I came to see "A.I." as Spielberg's warm-up for "Minority Report," which felt more internally coherent than "A.I." did.

  6. Y'know, I'd have accepted that ending. In a lot of ways, while depressing, it's not as gut crushing as the ending we did get.

  7. I used to love this movie, until I got fed-up with the multiple endings. Spielberg just never knew where he wanted to end it. Maybe it was his love for his friend Kubrick, that he just didn't want the film to ever end.

    The best character in the movie is the bear, while Jude Law had his best performance ever.

    Not only that, but Haley Joel Osment has been a bust huh? Once promising child actor, I think he just does VO now.

  8. I do like Teddy. I could've stood a lot more of Teddyin the film. As for Jude Law performances, I liked him quite a bit in Gattaca.

    Haley might just be self-preservation. He was so over-exposed for years, he may have just faded away to maintain his own sanity. If so, good for him.