A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001, Directed by Steven Spielberg)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is unusual in that it was originally conceived by one legendary filmmaker (Stanley Kubrick), then brought to fruition by another legendary filmmaker (Steven Spielberg), whose work isn’t particularly similar to that of the first filmmaker. The result might have been a mess, but the film actually holds together quite well—largely because it is very much a Spielberg film, with only a few Kubrickian touches around the edges (and beneath the surface). A.I. is also unusual in that it appears, at first glance, to be about one thing (the artificial intelligence of the title) but is, in the final analysis, about a somewhat different thing—the ways in which global climate change will ultimately force any number of fundamental changes in the way human beings live their lives.

It seems fairly clear that the film’s dark vision of a future dystopian world comes mostly from Kubrick, but the overall plot of A.I. is ultimately almost pure Spielberg. As the similarity in the odd title structures indicates, A.I. Artificial intelligence is a sort of companion piece to Spielberg’s earlier E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)[1]. Now, however, the title role of a lovable childlike alien is assumed by a lovable childlike artificially intelligent “robot, or “Mecha.”[2] And some of the same sentimentality that prevails in E.T. is transferred to A.I. as well, including the central, Pinocchio-inspired motif that the robot(named “David” and played by Haley Joel Osment) just wants to be a real boy—and, in particular, just wants to be loved (especially by his would-be human mother), something that we are led to understand was built in as a fundamental part of his programming[3]. In fact, most of the plot of the first half of the film simply involves David’s attempts to fit in with the human family in which he has been placed as a sort of substitute for their own child.

The opening of A.I. establishes important background that is crucial to understanding the real significance of everything that comes after it. As ocean waves are shown in the screen, a voiceover narrator, sounding very much like a storyteller and helping to establish a sort of fairytale atmosphere, explains the situation in the future world of the film (without indicating exactly when the action of the film will be taking place):

“Those were the years after the ice caps had melted because of the greenhouse gases, and the oceans had risen to drown so many cities along all the shorelines of the world. Amsterdam, Venice, New York—forever lost. Millions of people were displaced. Climate became chaotic. Hundreds of millions of people starved in poorer countries. Elsewhere, a high degree of prosperity survived when most governments in the developed world introduced legal sanctions to strictly license pregnancies, which was why robots, who were never hungry and who did not consume resources beyond those of their first manufacture, were so essential an economic link in the chain mail of society.”

Life with the Swintons

This notion of the robots as an “economic link” indicates the way in which these intelligent robots are intended primarily to perform various forms of work. However, we are then treated to a scene in which Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) lectures his students on the possibility of creating artificial humans that are capable of genuine emotion, including love, thus broadening the range of their application. Hobby’s theories will then quickly be put to the test with the creation of an experimental child robot (David) that can presumably feel love, then placing David in the home of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor), an affluent young couple, essentially as a replacement for their son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is being kept in suspended animation after contracting a deadly, seemingly incurable ailment.

At first, the distraught Monica has trouble relating to David, but the robot gradually grows on her, causing her to activate the programming that will cause him to imprint on her and to “love” her forever. Monica’s own feelings toward David, though, are left open to speculation. From this point, David seems to integrate into the family better and better (with minor misunderstandings), until Martin unexpectedly recovers and is returned to the family. Predictably, problems immediately ensue. David has been programmed to be an only child, and so he has no idea how to deal with a sibling. Meanwhile, Martin is furiously jealous of David, with whom he has no interest in sharing his place in the family. As a result, Martin sabotages David’s ability to continue to function in the family, eventually causing Henry to insist that David be returned to his manufacturer for destruction. Monica, however, cannot bear to see him destroyed and instead drops him off in the woods, where she hopes he will be able to make his way on his own, accompanied by his semi-intelligent toy Teddy the Bear (voiced by Jack Angel).

Teddy, incidentally, is a key figure throughout the film, functioning as David’s closest counterpart and providing him with companionship of a sort. Teddy is clearly also an important focus for audience sentimentality. At the same time, Teddy is clearly less sophisticated than David, so that any “feelings” he seems to show are clearly just programmed responses that are designed to look like feelings. Any sentimental sympathies audiences might feel for Teddy are undoubtedly the result of projections of the audiences own feelings rather than responses to Teddy’s feelings, because he has none. As such, Teddy’s most important role in the text might be to make audiences question their response to David as well. David has supposedly been programmed to “feel” emotions, but are feelings that result from programming really emotions in the human sense? This question is key to our reaction to the whole film, which seems designed to trigger sympathy with David as if he were, in fact, a real boy. Pondering what this means, on the other hand, raises a number of fundamental questions about the nature of artificial intelligence. David could clearly pass a Turing test, but so what?[4] Does this mean he can effectively be regarded as human?[5] But what does it even mean to be “human?” It is certainly the case that the “robots” in this film often behave in ways that seem more compassionate and humane than is the behavior of many of the biological humans. Meanwhile, what about human feelings? Can we not say that they, too, are to some extent “programmed?” Does this programming undermine their authenticity? In raising these sorts of questions, A.I. takes its place in a whole family of narratives about artificial humans—beginning, perhaps, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 and then proceeding through its various film adaptations and with any number of other important science fiction films, including 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator (1984) and its sequels, Robocop (1987), and Ex Machina (2014)[6].

The Flesh Fair and Rogue City: A Future of Moral Decay

In the Swinton household, David had been able to exist in a sheltered environment. Indeed, one of the questions that is subtly posed by the film (but not really explored) concerns the obvious inequities that allow the Swintons to live what is clearly a very comfortable and privileged life while the world of most people around them is collapsing into ruin. In the next segment of this film, we get a glimpse of this outside world as David’s expulsion from the home exposes him (and the film’s viewers) to something of what life is like in this future world outside the protected environs of the homes of the rich. What we see isn’t detailed, but it certainly isn’t pretty. David is soon captured and caged, held for participation in a “Flesh Fair,” a dark carnival in which humans (presumably working-class humans who are far less privileged than the Swintons) entertain themselves and take out their frustrations and fears on captured robots like David by watching them be destroyed in creatively graphic ways. Human beings in general do not come off well in this film, and the humans at this fair seem almost crazed in the sadistic viciousness with which they revel in the destruction of robots in this entertainment spectacle. Hatred of the Other, accompanied by “racist” violence (these are essentially high-tech robot lynchings), is alive and well in this future world. Again, fundamental questions are raised: these are, presumably, only machines that are being destroyed, after all, but they do seem to have a modicum of intelligence, even if most of them they lack David’s capacity to “feel.” Just what are the moral obligations of humans to the “intelligent” machines they have created? For that matter, what does it say about humans that they would take pleasure in the destruction even of unintelligent machines? And where would they draw the line?

This fair has a number of precedents in human cultural history, including a number of entertainment spectacles involving the destruction of machines. It is but a step from this flesh fair to the demolition derbies (often featured at county fairs as far back as the 1950s) in which vehicles are intentionally rammed into one another until all but one (the winner) are destroyed. And, of course, it is an even smaller step from the flesh fairs of A.I. to the “robot wars” of the 1993 film of that title, which inspired a British television series beginning in 1998 (and still running when this film was made), in which remote-controlled robots would battle in an attempt to destroy each other. As usual, though, A.I. has implications that go beyond machines. The flesh fairs of the film also recall numerous spectacles throughout history that have involved the destruction of animals, from bullfights to dog fights and cock fights. And, of course, humans have shown a remarkable ability to be entertained by spectacles that damage members of their own species, from Roman gladiatorial contests to modern-day boxing and even NFL football.

The flesh fair takes a turn, however, when David is brought on stage, and the violence-thirsty crowd suddenly turns its ire on the fair’s organizers, balking at the demolition of David, the first child robot they have ever seen. Apparently, the childlike qualities that illicit sympathy from viewers of the film can evoke the same sort of sympathies in this unruly crowd—though in this case it is possibly because many of them suspect that David might be human and thus not a machine at all. A riot ensues as the crowd demands David’s release, leading to his escape in the company of another robot that had been captured for the fair, in the form of one Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), essentially a male sexbot that had been designed for the sexual pleasure of female clients. Joe is more worldly and experienced than David, though he is clearly a less advanced model (less human in both behavior and appearance), and the dynamic between the two requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, as do many things about this film.

After escaping from the fair, Gigolo Joe and David make their way to the nearby Rouge City, a resort environment that again casts future humans in a rather unflattering light. Rouge City is depicted essentially as a den of iniquity, somewhat along the lines of a futuristic version of the sleazy Pottersville of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), itself an image of where capitalism naturally goes if left unchecked. This vision of Rouge City further suggests that the humans of this future world have learned very little from the hardships that climate change has thrust upon the human race. Instead, they seem to be whiling away their time on the pursuit of superficial pleasure, while the natural environment dies around them. Amid the casinos and brothels of this city there is at least one church-like facility, perhaps reminiscent of the chapels that dot the landscape of our own Las Vegas. The film, however, implies that this church is probably just another escapist money-making scheme and certainly does little to lead those who visit it into more righteous lives. Indeed, as Joe and David stand outside the church, Joe notes that his sexual services have frequently been employed by women who had just been to similar facilities.

Underwater Manhattan

In one of the least believable motifs in A.I.,while in Rouge City, David and Joe consult a display called “Dr. Know” (voiced by Robin Williams) in an attempt to gain information about the possible location of the “Blue Fairy” from the Pinocchio fairytale, who David, designed to be childlike, naively believes might be able to turn him into a real boy so that Monica can love him. Dr. Know, despite apparently taking his name from a play on the title of an old James Bond film, is highly reminiscent of the fake head that stands in for the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. He seems to have been added to the film purely for entertainment value, because his appearance in the film really makes no sense: the existence of this display indicates how valuable information is in this future world, but the film does not explain why no one in this high-tech future world seems to have heard of Google or the Internet, which sophisticated artificially intelligent robots should surely be able to tap into at will and which should surely be able to provide better information than the amusingly silly Dr. Know. In any case, acting on a questionable clue (apparently planted by Hobby and his associates) that the fairy might be in Manhattan, David decides to head for New York. The more cynical Joe goes along (and luckily knows how to pilot an amphibious flying craft they have commandeered to get them there), so they reach Manhattan (from New Jersey) quite easily. With virtually no commentary within the film, the Manhattan they reach is largely submerged, and one could argue that the extended view of a Manhattan that is largely underwater is the film’s most effective commentary on the impact of climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps[7].

Among the visuals in this sequence is a shot of the robots’ craft flying past what is left of the Statue of Liberty, with only its famous torch still above the water[8]. Given the context, it is almost impossible not to relate this Statue-of-Liberty shot to the iconic shot at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968), when Charlton Heston’s Taylor discovers that the ape-ruled “alien” planet on which he has landed, is, in fact, a future earth that has long since been decimated by nuclear war. He reaches this realization as he rides on horseback along a beach and suddenly comes upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now largely submerged beneath the sands. It’s a shocking visual moment given the symbolic resonance of the statue, at least for American audiences, and its essential replication in A.I. serves much the same purpose as a reminder of the potentially temporary nature of all such monuments and of all human achievements, somewhat along the lines of the warnings against excessive human pride surrounding the broken statue in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818).

Taylor’s reaction to discovering the statue is one, not just of shock, but of furious anger. Seeing the ruin, he realizes where he is. But he also realizes that the world he is in has been destroyed by human folly, by the madness and stupidity of a human race that destroyed its world rather than employing rational methods to save it. Comparing this moment to a climate crisis film such as A.I., then, has rather obvious implications concerning the seeming inability of our civilization to take sensible measures to prevent the destruction of our natural environment by climate change.

The submerged Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes and in A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Unlike Taylor in Planet of the Apes,David and Joe are not particularly shocked to see the Statue of Liberty mostly submerged, either because they were already well aware that Manhattan was mostly under water or because the statue has no particular symbolic meaning for them. They are possibly unaware, for example (especially given their apparent lack of internet connectivity), of the famous inscription that had long adorned the base of the statue, identifying America as a land of freedom where the poor and the outcast from around the world could find a welcome home. Given what we have already seen in the flesh fair, it is clear that this future America has not lived up to this promise and that the Mechas, the new generation of immigrant workers, have been made to feel even more unwelcome than had their human predecessors, despite the fact that the Mechas, like their predecessors, provide labor that is absolutely essential to the survival of the society.

A.I., in fact, makes it clear that the Mechas are probably more despised than any other marginalized group had ever been, treated with a special animosity that comes from the fact that human beings are endangered in a way they had never previously been, literally teetering on the brink of extinction. Having had more interactions with more humans than has David, Joe understands this phenomenon quite well, explaining to David that, even though “Mechas” like themselves are the products of human ingenuity, humans passionately hate them. When David responds to this information that, once he is a real boy, Monica will genuinely love him, Joe responds with an answer the full implications of which escape the naïve child robot: “She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you, David. She cannot love you.” David’s value to Monica, Joe implies, is very much of the same order as the value of his services as a sex worker to his female clients. Mechas, he goes on to explain, have been built to perform purely instrumental functions, and they can easily be replaced if they cease to perform that function satisfactorily or if a newer model comes along that can perform it better. More to the point, though, he argues that humans really hate Mechas because they sense that the Mechas can survive the ongoing climate crisis as they cannot. “They made us too smart, too quick, and too many,” he explains. “We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.”

David, throughout the film, continues to ignore such warnings, largely because he is convinced that he is a one-of-a-kind specimen and that such generalizations do not apply to him. The failure to interrogate this individualism is perhaps the film’s single biggest weakness. In fact, the film seems to endorse this individualist attitude—or at least is perfectly willing to exploit it to evoke an emotional response from viewers, most of whom have, of course, been trained all their lives to accept this very same individualist ideology and to believe (or at least want to believe) that they themselves are special, one-of-a-kind individuals like David believes himself to be.

In Manhattan, David and Joe reach the laboratory of Professor Hobby, who is still designing and producing child robots, though it is not clear whether any of them other than David have actually been put into service. He has a whole factory floor full of them, though—and they all look exactly like David. David’s reaction when he meets what seems to be another copy of himself is quite telling. “You can’t have her,” he immediately responds, clearly referring to Monica. “She’s mine. And I’m the only one!” He then picks up a lamp and smashes the other robot in the face, destroying it. “I’m David!” he cries repeatedly. “I’m special!  I’m unique!”

Professor Hobby arrives and calms David down a bit, but is unable to convince the robot that he himself is David’s Blue Fairy. He declares David to be his greatest success, the first robot to dream or to desire, except what he had been programmed to dream or desire. David’s quest for the Blue Fairy, Hobby declares, is an illustration of the most human ability of all, the ability to “chase down our dreams. And that is something no machine has ever done, until you!”

David then sees rows of robots in the process of manufacture, all identical to himself and realizes that he is just one of many identical copies of the same model of robot. His conception of himself as unique is shaken to the core, leading him to throw himself into the ocean, in what is essentially an attempted suicide[9].

By my reading, the film intends for us to see David’s reaction here as proof that he is, indeed, capable of feeling human emotions. However, the distinguished film critic Roger Ebert, in a tenth-anniversary update of his initial review of the film, sees this scene very differently, perhaps trying a bit too hard not to be taken in by the film’s attempt to make us project human feelings onto David. Noting David’s discovery of all the duplicate copies of himself, Ebert asks, “Is he devastated? Does he thrash out at them? No, he remains possessed. He is still focused on his quest for the Blue Fairy, who can make him a real little boy. But why, we may ask, does he want to be real so very much? Is it because of envy, hurt or jealousy? No, he doesn’t seem to possess such emotions–or any emotions, save those he is programmed to counterfeit. I assume he wants to be a real boy for abstract reasons of computer logic.”

I note this reading not in order to dispute Ebert’s view, even though it seems to me to go against what we actually see on the screen. After all, if David’s reaction is dispassionate, why does he destroy the first “copy” of himself he encounters? I note Ebert’s review, though, to indicate the complexity of the issues that are almost inevitably raised when we deal with questions of artificial intelligence. When, in short, does the “artificial” end and the “intelligence” begin, if anywhere? There is no doubt, in my view, that David seems to react emotionally in this scene. Personally, I believe that the film intends for us to view his emotions as genuine, but I would also admit that there is no way, on the basis of the film to judge whether these emotions are genuine or simply the result of programming. Again, though, how does he differ, in this sense, from human beings? What does it mean for emotions to be “genuine” as opposed to “programmed?” Are not we all programmed to some extent?

The Far Future

After he throws himself in the ocean, David encounters beneath the water a figure that he takes to be the Blue Fairy. He then waits with this figure as time passes and as the results of climate change lead the oceans to freeze, trapping David beneath the surface for what the film informs us to be 2,000 years, after which the film skips to its final segment. Here, Joe’s suggestion that the Mechas will survive humanity apparently turns out to be fulfilled when we learn that, by the time this 2,000 years has passed, the human race has, in fact, become extinct.No details are given, but the implications certainly seems to be that climate change is to blame, having rendered the planet uninhabitable for humans. If Planet of the Apes shows us a future world inherited by apes after humans have failed miserably in their stewardship of the planet, the final segment of A.I. provides an even stronger suggestion of the possible end of human rule on an earth that has now apparently been inherited by “Supermechas,” though they are of a slender, graceful, and otherworldly kind that is reminiscent of any number of science fictional representations of extraterrestrials, including in Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979).

The resemblance between these future Supermechas and extraterrestrials is clearly no accident. It suggests the distance between these artificial “humans” and their original models, whom they no longer seek to emulate, even as they acknowledge the long-extinct humans as their creators and regard them as almost mythical figures. Thus, when they discover David and retrieve him from the ocean, they verify his sense of uniqueness by noting that he is the only existing robot ever to have known actual humans directly. What follows then is the most enigmatic portion of the film, as these future robots use their advanced technology to resurrect Monica and give David one last day with her, a day during which she declares (perhaps inaccurately) that she had always loved him[10].

This final segment is the most sentimental in the entire film, so much so that many viewers probably don’t notice that it makes no sense whatsoever. Ebert, in the same review that I cited above, concludes that the whole encounter with Monica is probably simply an illusion that the Supermechas have implanted in David’s brain, so that they can give him a pleasant experience before they deactivate him once and for all, having learned all they possibly can from him. In this case I largely agree with Ebert, though his conclusion that they have created this illusion in order to study David’s reaction as part of their own project of learning to love—so that they could “play Mommy to their own Davids”—seems a bit of a stretch in anthropomorphizing the Supermechas. This whole final segment, of course, has the effect of making the Supermechas seem benevolent, thus averting the obvious potential interpretation that humans are extinct because the Mechas wiped them out. Still, though, these future Supermechas would have presumably moved beyond the simple imitation of humans; they are not only alien to us, but they are also vastly more intelligent than us, and it seems to me that this last segment doesn’t make much sense precisely because these Mechas are inscrutable to us, so that we can’t possibly understand what motivates them.

Meanwhile, if this last segment raises a number of important questions concerning artificial intelligence and its future, one potential interpretation (the best, I think) is that humans, if they continue on their current irresponsible course with regard to the environment, have no future, though this environmentalist reading goes unremarked in the film’s final segment. Indeed, amid the double wave of sentimentality, on the one hand, and mediations on artificial intelligence on the other, many viewers probably accept the shocking revelation of the extinction of the human race as a simple narrative device without really considering its implications, perhaps because 2,000 years in the future seems far enough away to be disconnected from us. A thoughtful analysis of those implications, though, should make the real message of this film quite clear: regardless of how advanced our electronic devices become, we are still going to need a livable environment in which to live, and the window might be closing on our opportunity to ensure that we continue to have such an environment in the relatively near future.

Works Cited

Achouche, Mehdi. “From E.T. to A.I.: The Evolution of Steven Spielberg’s Science Fiction Fairy Tales.” Steven Spielberg: Hollywood WunderKind & Humanist.” Edited by David Roche. Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2020, pp. 129–47.

Ebert, Roger. “He Just Wanted to be a Real Boy.” RogerEbert.com, 7 July 2011, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ai-artificial-intelligence-2001. Accessed 6 March 2022.

Flannery-Dailey, Frances. “Robot Heavens and Robot Dreams: Ultimate Reality in A.I. and Other Recent Films.” Journal of Religion and Film, vol.7, no. 2, 2003, pp. 1-36.

Jackson, Tony E. “Imitative Identity, Imitative Art, and AI: Artificial Intelligence.” Mosaic, Vol. 50, No. 2, June 2017, pp. 47-63.

Morrissey, Thomas. “Growing Nowhere: Pinocchio Subverted in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Extrapolation, vol. 45, no. 3,Fall 2004, pp. 249–62.

Notes

[1] On A.I. and E.T. as parallel fairytale films see Achouche.

[2] I use the terms “robot” and “Mecha” herein because those are the terms generally used in the film, with the term “Mecha” generally having derogatory connotations when employed by humans. In reality, is more common, however, to use the term “robot” to indicate electro-mechanical machines that might be humanoid in shape but are still clearly distinguishable from humans. The term “android” is more commonly used to describe a machine (possibly biological in nature, but also possibly electromechancial) that could easily be mistaken for a human being.

[3] For a more detailed exploration of the film’s engagement with the Pinocchio story, see Morrissey, who concludes that the film’s Spielbergian appeals to sentimentality ultimately undermine its effectiveness as a dark cautionary tale. Among other things, Morrissey notes that Spileberg’s film is far more sentimental than Collodi’s original tale of Pinocchio.

[4] Developed by British computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950, the Turing test is designed to determine whether a digital intelligence can mimic human responses effectively enough to fool a human into thinking it is human.

[5] This quandary is key to Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2014), which very much revolves around a Turing test, but also about higher level questions regarding the test. Garland’s film makes an excellent companion piece to A.I.

[6] For a reading of the film within the context of the long history of narratives about artificial humans, see Jackson.

[7] For a much more detailed and nuanced science fictional exploration of what life in a future semi-submerged New York might be like, see Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 (2017).

[8] The film also gives us a brief shot of the much taller World Trade Towers, which, of course, reach far higher above the waves, suggesting that even the greatest achievements of the human race have now succumbed to the impact of climate change. In a film that premiered less than two and a half months before the 9/11 bombings, this shot is a rather eerie one that inadvertently says even more about the fragility of human monuments than was originally intended.

[9] The film hints (but does make entirely clear) that David might have been patterned after Hobby’s own dead son, which has a number of implications concerning David’s belief that he is unique.

[10] Flannery-Dailey, for example, compiles a list of nine different possible interpretations of the film’s ending.