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.

  9. I got the DVD for A.I. from the library and watched in segments over the last 24 hours.

    Sheesh! I hardly know where to begin!

    I'll start with: There are too many Spielberg films on the List.

    A world master like Yasujiro Ozu has three films on the List and for some reason almost everything with Spielberg's name on it has a good chance of being on the List. Whatever for?

    A.I. is like a lot of Spielberg's later films. A good basic premise is smothered by a lot of deeply stupid ideas.

    I know a few film buffs who really hate A.I. so I had a bit of an idea about what to expect. I was waiting for it, the first really stupid thing in the movie, how early will it appear? Will I get far enough into the movie and like it enough that I will be able to accept the stupid ideas? Or will they be too deeply stupid?

    It was the scene where the engineer husband brings David the Robot Boy home to his grieving wife WITHOUT TELLING HER ABOUT IT BEFOREHAND. He just shows up with a creepy boy robot and says "This is our new son. Just try him out overnight because I don't feel like driving him back to the factory now."

    And the deeply stupid ideas just kept coming.

    I don't see why they blamed David for almost drowning the other son. He was scared and he turned to Martin for help and he almost drowned him because he's very strong and weighs a lot and dragged him into the pool. This is a design flaw, and something that SHOULD reflect badly on the company. Really, this movie should have been about a liability lawsuit.

    I could go on and on. For example, it MADE NO SENSE that a robot boy whose face falls apart when he eats spinach can then survive underwater frozen for several thousand years.

    There's so much stuff like that.

    There were things I liked. I cried when Monica left David in the forest. Jude Law was phenomenal! It was pretty to look at and I must admit, I was never bored.

    I also liked the Flesh Fair. They reminded me of Trump supporters. The privilege entitled ruling class taking out their frustrations on a despised class, and playing the victim as well, taking no responsibility for their actions. (It's a good thing the boy robot was created to look like a little white boy or I'm sure the crowd would have been fine with dripping acid on him.)

    So I had fun with it. I didn't hate it. I amused myself by making fun of it. I wasn't bored. The mixture of good and stupid reminded me a bit of War Horse, which I saw fairly recently, but there is nothing in A.I. that's nearly as good as the good stuff in War Horse.

    1. My problem with Spielberg is that he jumps into the emotional aspects of every film he can with both feet. He loves to tweak people emotionally and can't seem to resist the effort to do so. War Horse is probably the most egregious example, but it's present in a lot of his work beyond his first couple of movies.

      A.I. does the same sort of thing. There's a lot of clear attempts to force emotional issues on audience, and these days, I just roll my eyes at it because I've seen enough Spielberg that I've come to expect it.

      It's worth noting that I hated War Horse.

  10. I just watched A.I. for the first time and found it almost laughably bad. I suspect if the names Spielberg and Kubrick were not attached to it, it would have suffered the same notoriety as, say, Heaven's Gate. From the bad robot design (not programmed to know that it should not eat? really?) to the sudden arrival of narration because the final chapter is otherwise incoherent, this is easily among Spielberg's worst efforts.

    1. I think it hasn't aged well. I also don't disagree that the Spielberg name adds a lot to its credibility that it doesn't deserve.

      But among his worst? From the guy who did the Jurassic Park sequel, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and War Horse? That might be a bridge too far.