Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

A fairy tale search for lasting love

I am currently teaching A.I., one of my favorite films, to two high school junior English classes after their reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are looking at the similar themes and new questions that man as creator introduces.

The first image we have in this futuristic fairy tale is of powerful ocean waves while a soothing omnipotent narrator describes the time when the ice caps have melted, the major cities have been flooded, people have migrated, thousands have starved, and the remaining humans have placed limits on the number of live births, thus making the creation of Mechas which don’t eat important. [How insightful for 2001.]

Science is personified in Professor Hobby. His objective in the film is to create a perfect Mecha [future-speak for ‘robot’] which will love genuinely, unconditionally—a Mecha child that will never grow up, never get ill, never reject, never stop loving. … “A Mecha,” his creator says, “that dreams.”

“But,” responds one of the professor’s colleagues, “given the animus toward machines, can you get a human to love it back? And what sense of responsibility will that love carry?”

The professor ends his argument with, “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”

Monica and Henry’s real son Martin lies in a cryogenic cocoon, unresponsive, seemingly lost forever. Henry brings home the Mecha child David from work to try to pull her out of her depression.

“On the outside he looks so real,” Monica observes, “but I know he is not.” That assertion is something Speilberg constantly reminds us—remember these are only Mecha, but then why are you feeling so sorry for our treatment of them?

Henry cautions Monica that they must be sure they want to keep David because after a Mecha’s imprinting occurs, if they want to give him up he has to be returned to the Cybertronics lab to be destroyed.

Quickly we see David imprinting on his mother and learning what it is to be human—to prepare and eat food, to play, to laugh. At first he is too present. She suggests he sleep so she can get away for awhile. “I can never go to sleep,” he tells her, “but I can think quietly and never make a peep.”

We know that David has gone begun thinking for himself when he laughs at Monica with spaghetti hanging from her mouth—a reference to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp?

After Monica says the words to imprint David to her, we know the change because he stops referring to her as Monica and calls her “Mommy.” But as a loving Mecha, David learns fear. “Mommy, will you die?” he asks. “I’ll be alone,” he says embracing her. “How long will you live?” “For ages…for fifty years,” she answers.

Like Disney and Collodi’s Pinocchio, this artificial boy wants to be a real child, but David is created to be only an illusion of human. He is given a Disney wise-mentor Jiminy Cricket in the form of supertoy “Teddy.”

Martin, when he returns, introduces David to the idea of being “real.” “When’s your “build day?” Martin asks. David has no concept of what Martin is asking. Suddenly David is confronted by questions of a larger world: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? The answers seem to lie in Collodi’s Pinocchio which Martin has Monica read to David.

After we see the destructive power of jealousy and hate through David’s encounters with Martin, Monica takes him to Cybertronics to be destroyed, but she can’t bring herself to do it. Instead she deserts him in the woods. David pleads, “If I become a real boy can I come back home?” “It’s only a story,” Monica says and leaves him with Teddy to face a world for which he’s totally unprepared.

The rest of the film becomes David’s journey to find himself, to reach the Blue Fairy, and ultimately to become a real boy. Along the way, other Mecha help him—especially Giggolo Joe [the fox from Collodi’s story] who even takes him to a city of Lost Boys just as in Pinocchio.

David’s journey finally takes him to the offices of Cybertronics where he discovers there are hundreds of Mecha just like him—the unique boy is only the image of Professor Hobby’s dead son.

If the film were to stop here, the sadness of the journey would create only despair that we live in a world of cruel humans where magic can’t happen. But the film has one final surprise. Centuries pass and benevolent aliens come to study our culture. [Spielberg’s Close Encounters return in an advanced future.] Nothing remains of us—except for David, Teddy and a lock of his mother’s hair.

David is given the chance to have one last day with the mother he loves—and when it is over, he lies quietly beside her, dreaming and sleeping for the first time. And Spielburg tells us that of all the remaining traits of our humanity which may have meaning in our universe our ability to love unconditionally is the most redeeming. David spends an eternity loving. If only we could.

1 comment:

Bettsi McComb said...

Well...I still think it is unbearably sad. I think the mother in me always feels Monica's guilt. Is it possible to love a child "enough"?