Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A.I. - The Movie

To his credit, Steven Spielberg did direct some good sci-fi films in his later career to make up for E.T.. One of those was Artificial Intelligence: AI. Consequently, I just noticed the similarity in the title choices: ET: Extra Terrestrial. Both include the acronym and full spelling of a phrase representing a scientific term. Of course, except for the heart tugging elements involving a small boy, the two films could not be more different.

There is a lot to chew on in this film. You need only listen to the opening lecture by William Hurt's character Professor Hobby to get an idea of the sophistication that went into both the screen writing and the special effects. The professor uses a female "mecha" (the term in the film for human-like robots) for demonstration purposes, opening up her face to reveal the metal endoskeleton. The seamless switch between real actress and CGI robot is quite stunning, and similar effects are seen throughout the film (although I doubt the simple mechanisms shown could control all the subtle muscle movements of the human face). But as with any good sci-fi story, what is even more interesting is the future world that is presented and the concepts that are addressed. Lets take a minute to look at both of these.

==================== Spoilers increase as you go down ================

In this future world it turns out that global warming has caused the polar ice caps to completely melt. This in turn has caused the sea levels to rise by quite a lot, submerging most major coastal cities. I did a quick fact check and found that if all the ice on Antarctica and Greenland were to melt into the sea, it would raise ocean levels by about 220 feet (or 67 meters). That could put a good chunk of New York City and the coastal rim of Los Angeles under water, but the point is that a lot of people would be displaced. This along with climate upheaval causes massive demographic changes which somehow leads to tight governmental population control where families are only allowed a certain number of children. Robots become useful as replacements for human functions without needing food, or for that matter much clothing or shelter. Ok, so maybe the back story is a bit shady but it sets us up for the main plot line, which revolves around the concept of a child replacement mecha.

The initial speech scene is remarkably well put together as it both demonstrates and explains the consequential outcomes of creating machines that look and behave just like human beings, even in their simulated emotional responses. The professor stabs the female mecha's hand with an ice pick(?) and she yelps and pulls her hand away. As she puts it back on the table, he lunges again and she pulls her hand back as a learned response - but to what? He asks her, "How did that make you feel?". She replies, "I don't understand". He tries again, "What did I do to your feelings?". She cooly replies, "You did it to my hand". As a software programmer, I know it would be easy to make the robot pretend it understands what feelings are, but the scene does a nice job of illustrating the problem. The professor goes on to propose a new type of mecha that would be able to love. The technical dialogue that is meant to lure us into believing there is actually a scientific way to do this has that perfect mix of the foreign and the familiar to convince us that it would be something smack in between simulation and real love. What it actually means is still an open question for both philosophers and scientists today. But if a child robot could form a bond with a parental couple, it would allow people to have more children of another form. Yet if that bond is programmed to be irreversibly permanent (kind of like WORM memory), does the couple have the same responsibility to it as to a real child?

The first prototype of this new mecha is a young boy. The corporation, ubiquitously named Cybertronics, chooses to assign him to a couple who's only son has been in a coma for five years with no hope of recovery. The father obtains the mecha for his wife as a way for her to displace her unending grief, and she reluctantly agrees to try it. Later, their comatose son miraculously recovers. The real son doesn't take to the intruder well and gives the mecha an inferiority complex. Somewhat predictably, he attaches to the Pinnocchio story in his desire to become a "real" boy like his playmate. In the fairy tale, this is accomplished by the "blue fairy". But the mecha's attempts to copy the son become self destructive and raises safety concerns. The father, who always considered the mecha's purpose as a comfort for mom, then pressures her to return it to Cybertronics, where she knows it must be destroyed. Its permanent bond to herself makes it "unresellable". Well, on the way there she finds she can't bring herself to do the deed, so she instead decides, whether from pity, guilt, or love we do not know, to just drop him off on the roadside and leave. Thus begins the child mecha's journey deep into this new world in search of the blue fairy, so that he can become a real boy and his parents will take him back. It would sound hokey if not for the innocent disposition of the mecha child, played very nicely by Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense. The implication is that the mecha never had time enough in this world to learn the difference between fairy tales and real life. All considered, I don't think you could ask for a better conceived plot set up than that.

One of the fun aspects of creating a new world in science fiction is exploring all the possible consequences that it might entail. We encounter pleasure mechas designed to be perfect sex partners. Inevitably, some will be abandoned to themselves and they end up in red light districts where they have taken over the prostitution business because customers prefer the robots to humans. It is also natural to expect that many people would be threatened by these robots which can so easily replace them, and so groups form which put on rodeo like shows called flesh fairs where abandoned mechas are destroyed in various ways as a hateful crowd boos and cheers. And mechas can easily be framed for crimes too.

Eventually, after several adventures and revelations, with the help of another mecha played nicely by Jude Law, the mecha boy finds what he was looking for, the Blue Fairy, a statue in front of a Pinocchio ride at a Manhattan Island amusement park submerged deep beneath the flood waters. I have to agree with the critics that the movie would have ended perfectly with the young mecha staring lovingly at the statue for eternity. But I guess that wasn't a happy enough ending for Speilberg so he added another 20 minutes to give the boy a more palatable fate. I considered it a complete waste of time since the new illusion is no more real than the first, and for a robot it would not matter.

The interaction between humans and robots has been a recurring motif in science fiction literature going all the way back to Asimov's I, Robot. This film presents a fresh and updated look at it with highly polished direction and cinematography that we've come to expect from Mr. Speilberg. It did not make my collection, but I would definitely recommend it to those who share my interest in "think" pieces.


  1. This film was so sad! Almost shed a tear but it might've just been the wrong time of the month. It definatley made you think about how far humans would go to "improve" their lives. Good review.

  2. It's dark, sad, and highly upsetting with its look of the future, but it could have been better.

  3. Scare Sarah - Couldn't agree more - does raise a few questions...

    Such a great flick though! Loved it!

  4. Actually I think the ending is quite dark. It's basically a role reversal of the first Act. The Robots have become the professors and ultimately David's fate wasn't that he was finally happy, but that in order to be happy he needed an artificial version of his mother as she needed an artificial version of her son to be happy. He hasn't finally gotten a dream come true, he has come as bad as his creators: he has become human, but not in the happy uplifting way you might see it as if you only look on the surface. Kubrick and Spielberg worked together on the film, though it was Kubrick's brain-child. None of his movies were ever what they appeared on the surface. Maybe look at the underlying subtext. This film has very few "happy" moments about it. The ending definitely isn't happy. It's probably the least palatable part of the film, from an emotional standpoint. But I really did like your over view. Just throwing this out as an alternative view of the ending. I don't think it was really a waste of time. But again, overall, really liked the review :)

    1. Thank you for that very thoughtful comment. I obviously did not know that Kubrick was involved, and your take on the ending is quite clever - gives me a reason to perhaps consider it a viable ending after all! I hope you get a change to browse the site a bit further and comment.