In his second review, Maccewill Yip takes on one of the most hotly debated films of the last ten years. Some think it’s a disaster, others a misunderstood masterpiece. Where does Yip stand, and has his evolving knowledge of science-fiction tropes given him a new perspective on the film?
Back when this film came out I had a love for movies, but didn’t know anything about certain directors and certain classics in film. Of course, like many kids, I’ve seen the Steven Spielberg films like E.T. and the Indiana Jones series, but I hadn’t seen any Stanley Kubrick films, let alone knew the production history of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can’t remember why I went to see it in theaters in the first place, probably a family night out. I remembered liking the first two acts, but like many others I was disappointed at the sentimental third act that seemed to have been a cop out for a happy ending. That ending has stuck with me in just how awkwardly tacked on it was and is one of the main reasons I haven’t re-watched A.I until now.
Not to say that the ending ruined everything else that was in A.I. for me. The film has somewhat influenced me in writing a short story about cloning with a harsh ending in which the rewrites came in various points in high school and college when I had to write an original story for an English class. The original premise of that particular story doesn’t hold up anymore because of advances such as stem cell research, so it took a different direction which ironically also ended in a happy note, but not as awkward as A.I. At least, I hope not.
In the period between my first viewing of A.I. and now, I’ve seen more films of Spielberg and, except for a few very early works, seen all of Kubrick’s. As time went on, I felt that I needed to revisit A.I. to view it as a whole again and to see if I could finally forgive that ending. So when “Ten Years Ago” had the film as an option to be reviewed, I thought it was finally time. Surprisingly, when I tried to rent it out at my local Silver Screen location, I found out that someone already checked it out. I ended up going to my local bookstore because I’ve found after going to many places that sell used movies that almost all of them would have a used copy of A.I., and sure enough, it was there. I’ve even decided to read the short story that started the whole thing for Kubrick, Brian Aldiss’ Super–Toys Last All Summer Long. So after all these years, was I able to accept the whole movie, or did the ending still ruin it for me? Let’s start with the first two acts before we address that ending.
Is it Better or Worse Than I Remember?
Well, after rewatching it, I am less critical of the ending, but I don’t fully accept it. However, I’m getting ahead of myself and feel I should cover the first two acts before getting into the details of the third one. There are a lot of themes in this movie, so I’ll tackle the small ones first, such as the future of sunken cities due to global warming. The opening narration mentions the effects of the climate change, not only to the physical geography but also the cultural impact from scarcity of resources that lead to population control deciding who can have children and the rise of robot production to take over heavy work. With all the robots built, there is an animosity by some of the lower classes, which we see in the second act at the Flesh Fair. This rejection of technology is also hinted at the beginning when we see Professor Hobby, played by William Hurt, giving his demonstration of the limits of robot love and feeling and announcing he wants to create a robot boy that would be able to love his parents unconditionally. A colleague starts a dialogue that pretty much encapsulates the entire film:
Female Colleague: It occurs to me with all this animus existing against Mechas today it isn’t just a question of creating a robot that can love. Isn’t the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?
Professor Hobby: Ours will be a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame. Always loving, never ill, never changing. With all the childless couples yearning in vain for a license our Mecha will not only open up a new market but fill a great human need.
Female Colleague: But you haven’t answered my question. If a robot could genuinely love a person what responsibility does that person hold toward that Mecha in return? It’s a moral question, isn’t it?
Professor Hobby: The oldest one of all. But in the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?
This brings me to the question of what is the view of religion in this future. That last line by Hobby seemed to have convinced all those at the conference to create the David prototype, but seeing how many people is at that meeting I’m surprised there was no one who was religious who is upset that Hobby is comparing them to God. Also, usually when the theme of men who pretend they are gods is used, it is an underlying one, but here it is spelled out clearly in the very beginning. Later on in the Flesh Fair, there is a part where a religious allusion is made when the ringleader tells his audience, “Those without Sim toss the first stone.” Basically, it is the feeling that the androids are an abomination and are sinful. Religion is also brought up towards the end of Act II when Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and David (Haley Joel Osment) are outside the Church in Rouge City. Here, Gigolo Joe calls God an invisible being and wonders if the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, who David is looking for to turn himself into a real boy, might be the same. It shows that in this future, religion is still around, but is not as prevalent as it once was.
Going back to the dialogue between Professor Hobby and his colleague, there is the mention of the “animus existing against Mechas.” That “animus” has been shown in sci-fi movies since the very beginning with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It is the fear that what we create can go beyond our control, which emphasizes the earlier mention of God and Adam. Also, with the creation of the robot, the sci-fi movies and books ask at what point does what we create have a conscience. It’s interesting to see that in a lot of movies where we question that conscious humanity, in not just machines or aliens in sci-fi but in other animals in other films as well, we emphasize the supposed humanness of those beings by reducing that quality in actual humans. For instance, in A.I. you see those hunting the robots look more machine than men, and the Flesh Fair shows people enjoying a spectacle of violence. Also of note is the part where Gigolo Joe, before being dragged away in Manhattan at the end of the third act, says, “I am! I was!” It sounded familiar, but I didn’t get it until I read one person’s interpretation that it is a rewording of Descartes’ famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” Finally, this is taken to the extreme in the far future, two-thousand years ahead of the film’s original setting, where humans don’t exist anymore and all that is left are robots that have become so natural they are often mistaken as aliens to many viewers, including me the first time I saw the film many years ago.
Along with what makes us human is another popular sci-fi theme, the telling apart of what’s real and what’s not. These two are very close in movies about robots, but A.I. takes it further. The greatest symbol of this I can think of is the scene where various cyborgs are scavenging through trash for parts, and we see the moon rising, but then discover it is not our lunar satellite but a balloon that’s piloted by the ones hunting rogue robots for the Flesh Fair. Another one I found funny was when Teddy, David’s hand-me-down automaton bear, insists that it is “not a toy.” Other more subtle lines between what’s real and what’s not comes from David, who supposedly finds what he thinks is the Blue Fairy, but discovers out much too late that it was only a statue. There is one instance that seems self-reflexive in which David, at the very end, is granted his chance to be with Monica again, but it is through a clone in a recreation of the Swinton home. Is it a false reality, or could it be that the experience feels so true that it becomes real? Apparently David at the end is content to believe the latter and seemingly fulfills the passage used throughout the film from W.B. Yeats “The Stolen Child,” where a child follows a fairy and leaves his own world for one that seems perfect:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
That brings us to another aspect of the film. Although this is a sci-fi film, the base of it is mainly a fairy tale, most obviously Pinocchio with a machine created that goes on an adventure to find the Blue Fairy so that he can become a real boy. In a way, this feeds into the theme in the previous paragraph between reality and the simulacrum. Besides the Pinocchio connections, there are many smaller signs and references. In the cryogenics lab, we see murals of fairy tale characters all over the walls. At one point, Monica has a Cinderella moment of almost losing a shoe before heading to a party. The point where Monica leaves David in the woods is similar to “Hansel and Gretel.” Teddy acts as his animal companion, albeit a robotic one, and the closest he gets to his Jiminy Cricket. On his journey, he finds a wise man, Dr. Know, to help him find the Blue Fairy. The W.B. Yeats poem mentioned earlier is based on an old tales of fairies taking children away to live in another world. This finally gets us to that notorious ending. The best way to accept it is to realize that this movie was told in a perspective of a fairy tale, even to the point that there is a storytelling narrator which we find out is one of the alien-like robots, and that the third act is the fulfillment of the happy ending. After rewatching this again and again for this review, I learned to accept that, although I still feel it is a little too awkward of a deus ex machina. I would probably blame that on Spielberg’s contribution.
Many critics put the responsibility of the ending to Spielberg, although he claims that it was Kubrick’s idea. As much as I respect Spielberg, I side with the critics on this one. I love Kubrick’s films, but in all the ones I’ve seen, they all have a sense of cynicism and detachment to them. Even his “happy” endings attest to this: A Clockwork Orange with its ending that feels like a parody, and 2001 with a sense of cold, next evolutionary step via the Star Child. Spielberg, though, has a more sentimental style to his films. Hell, E.T. is THE tearjerking, sentimental endings of all cinema. So as much as I like Spielberg, I’m calling him out on this one.
So yes, the ending still sticks in my craw a little, but I’ve been able to enjoy the film more fully now. It is still not a perfect movie, but I think I can easily revisit it more often than once every ten years.
- The intro narration reminds me of Waterworld.
- What’s the purpose William Hurt asking the robot to partially undress in the conference?
- Maybe it’s the old DVD in a Blu-ray player on a high-definition screen, but the faces of the androids gets grainy when CG is at work.
- Of course it’s the Japanese who manufacture the sex model.
- First full day between David and Monica seems to be filmed like that kitchen scene in Spielberg’s earlier film, Poltergeist.
- I laughed when Teddy ran to Monica when Martin tried to play the favorites game.
- You’d think they would put a recording device in David or any machine in case something goes wrong, like when David pulls Martin into the pool or when Gigolo Joe finds the dead client.
- The letters David writes in crayon to Mommy are the same as in short story the movie is based on.
- One robot milling around for spare parts looks like Lady Gaga.
- The robot hunters on motorcycle looks like they are from Tron. Hell, I think costumes with lighted lines are being overused in sci-fi films.
- I like that Spielberg did one shot to show the whole flesh fair environment.
- Did we need a Chris Rock bot and did his face need to be briefly stuck on the cage bars after being blown?
- So what’s the history with the Darlene model?
- What’s with the fishes taking David down to the underwater Coney Island?
- Eyes highlighted by light represents Blue Fairy?
- After making his wish, David is in “bedroom” playing with the same toy Martin asked him to break earlier.
- Water, water everywhere: beginning waves, under the pool, and the Manhattan scenes.
- The very end, when David goes to “Where dreams are born,” calls back what Dr. Hobby wanted to create a robot to do.