Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Artificial Intelligence: AI

Dir. Steven Spielberg

As I understand it, based on a dizzying year spent as a Cultural Studies major (in plainspeak: an anthropological study of popular cultural/academia's rhetoric meets persistent-obnoxious hipster co-option of kitsch culture), a simulacrum is a recreation of an object that is in fact more perfect than the original. For instance, nowadays if you take an old photo of your grandparents sitting outside their farm smoking hand rolled cigarettes (the kind that didn't cause cancer), to a digital photoshop they could scan the picture and, using assumptions on coloring and texture, fill in pieces of the photo that have faded, giving you back a copy that looks almost new. Essentially for those who find history meaningful and imperfection an important means of discovery, simulacra is basically the anti-Christ. Steven Spielberg's 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: AI, in its opening monologue by Dr. Hobby, makes reference to simulacrum in mentioning how the new type of robots, or Mechas, that his robotics company is designing will be able to replicate the human emotion of love. These robots will always love, an idea that instantly terrified me. Always love? If everything in the world is understood based primarily on its opposite (what is down if not the antithesis of up?), then in making the assumption that anything can always love it must also have a subconscious and deep understanding of hate. This is essentially what the film is all about: a simulacrum's fall from grace; the self-realization of failure inherent in perfection. It is a quest that reveals some sinister beliefs of human beings, such as the the self-assured confidence that our consciousness, which we believe to possess over all other creatures, is a permanent excuse for overriding that very same compunction and committing atrocious acts of immorality against others (for those of you who are wondering if this film isn't at least in some small way about the Holocaust, the answer is “yes”; this is after all a Spielberg film). The film spins a large, tangled web of fable, mythology, and Christian doctrine and emerges, not entirely unscathed, as a modern allegory of humanity by way of robots.

What is immediately striking about AI is its vision of the future. In so many fictional, especially science-fictional, films that take place in the future the time period seems to either be presented as a cryptic and abstracted rendering of the present, so decontextualized that the viewer spends half the film trying to acclimate to their new perverse environment, or conversely a mirror image of the present, only flashier. Spielberg's screenplay, which is in and of itself a simulacrum (based on a previously written screenplay, which was based on a short story), nicely anticipates the future without the pretension or lack of inspiration of either aforementioned visions. His future is a reasonable one, where the human race has evolved slightly (technologically) but also devolved (emotionally). It is a full-bodied future. Spielberg takes into consideration not just the way things look (NYC is under water, cars are smaller, etc.) but also the way people act. The first part of the film in which David (Haley Joel Osment), the Mecha that a couple have adopted in place of their “real” son who is currently in the hospital, interacts with said couple is pretty painful. It would appear that Spielberg has assumed that without children (global warming has shortened food supplies, which lead to government regulations on child birth), adults will forget how to interact. A similar sort of assumption was made several years later in the book-to-screen adaptation of Children of Men, to a slightly more devastating end. David seeks to love, inhumanely. This means dogging after his “mother” until she accepts him. This “acceptance” is a code; an assortment of culturally loaded terms which Spielberg uses ironically as a means of adoption that is most divorced from humanity. Eventually the couple's “real son” returns home and David is abandoned. This is the film's first twist: the first ever robot made to believe it is human (when asked when David was built, he does not know how to respond) is left to fend for himself by a mother who he realizes cannot love him because he is not “real”. Thus begins an odyssey which mirrors the story of Pinnochio. A less scrupulous viewer might comment on how David's story is far more sinister, but that would be a discriminant viewpoint. David's miniscule understanding of the world does not allow him to fully comprehend what he sees at the anti-Mecha, Flesh Fair which is Spielberg's only real blatant finger wag at Nazism, during which robots are torn apart in sport as a celebration of life. Nor does it allow him to grasp how the Dr. Know, a digital guru, he seeks his answers from is a tourist scam. In fact it is not until the end of the film, when he comes to find out that he was the first in a line of Mechas, who all look like him and have his name, that he is not only not real but not unique either. The film's second twist is David's post-disillusioned attempted suicide, during which he discovers what he believes to be the Blue Fairy, which he has been searching for since being abandoned. After this the film launches into a Kubrick-esque time-odyssey complete with Spielberg's almost cliched use of aliens and a questionable ending that finds the famed director quickly tying together loose philosophical ends.

As a metaphysical sojourn and sophisticated, post-modern evaluation of human beings, Spielberg's film is mostly a triumph. However, as a piece of original art it falls on uncertain ground. A lot of people hyped AI for Stanley Kubrick's rumored post mortem involvement in the motion picture. The truth is that Kubrick in between making his two most widely recognized films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clockwork Orange, brought together a team of writers to begin working on what would become the base screenplay for Spielberg's film 30 years later. This mysterious and subtle involvement in the earliest stages of AI has been blown completely out of proportion, even by Spielberg himself who reportedly used Kubrick's secretive style of filming (I guess that just means never being seen in public/never talking about your movies) imitatively. It's one thing to find inspiration in another person's life and works, but it is entirely different to channel their creative reasoning for no other purpose then to promote a film. This news reflects poorly on Spielberg, who has always been a people's director, hitting an emotional and visual core with nearly every one of his films. Before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (speaking of the anti-Christ...) came out it was next to impossible to question Spielberg's consistency and status as perhaps the most well recognized director of the last 25 years. However, in a canon of easily digestible thrillers and ground breaking dramas, AI feels stuck somewhere between, on swampy ground unfamiliar to Spielberg. He wades through, plucking familiar items out of it, as well as foreign objects, and does what he can to connect them. The end result is a product that feels slightly hashed together, drawing perhaps on too many sources, inspirations and texts. AI is certainly not a bad film, but disappointing. It works the viewer up to expect something conclusive and unforeseen and ends up falling back lazily on pre-established notions. Ironically, if Spielberg was a younger, less prominent director he might have had a greater desire to make a film that took more risks; that was more singularly focused. Instead AI finds itself struggling internally between its idols and its insight, and failing to totally fulfill either.

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