Freaks Are Us: A.I.
Laurie Stone is an author and cultural critic. Her most recent books are Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark.
Steven Spielberg's A.I. is a messy, three-layer concoction made of startling and plodding ingredients, but its moments of originality, plumbing fears of Otherness, engage adventurous ideas seldom broached in art. Act one sets up an Oedipal fairy tale, in which David, a robot child designed with the capacity to love, beams megabytes of devotion at a fretful, weak-willed woman who, in the manner of a 1950s housewife, spends her days drinking coffee and folding sheets. The movie is set in the future, but Spielberg's take on sex roles is stuck in the past. David loves Mommy and then David loses Mommy. In the third act, David retrieves Mommy and gets to sleep with her in bed. Although Mommy's been dead for 2000 years, she is resurrected for a day by evolved robots who use the DNA in a remnant of her hair. The sequence, bathed in morgueish blue light, borders on necrophilia, but Spielberg's treacly piety drains it of even that enjoyment.
Adding to the mess, A.I. is a dystopia, projecting a future that is worse than our time now, a consequence of our failures. Due to the misuse of Earth's resources, the ice caps have melted, coastal cities have been submerged, and the population has become tightly controlled, hence the need for robot children. Implicitly, this vision levels a criticism of the present as a time of downward trend, a decline and fall, a view of history that romanticizes the past as a time that was better, simpler, and that provided people with a greater sense of wholeness (and mommies who stayed at home).
But lo and behold, with gratifying perversity, the middle section of A.I. breathes life into the film. We're introduced to Gigilo Joe, a robot, played by a radiant Jude Law, who's been designed as an ardent sex toy and is the most charged and canny being on screen. This section presents a witty analysis of the decline-and-fall perspective and a wise gloss on the scapegoating of perceived cultural polluters. In the world of A.I., robots, known as mechas, are so advanced that many are indistinguishable in appearance, intelligence, and emotional response from humans, called orgas. The ranks of mechas have swelled because they perform labor without needing food. But although created by orgas to serve them, mechas are hated, tagged with identification chips, herded into ghettos, and ritually tortured in gatherings called Flesh Fairs.
One of the shrewdest aspects of the film is that it's shot almost entirely from the perspective of mechas. David and Joe are captured and caged, and we see a Flesh Fair through their eyes. The atmosphere is part rock concert and part Nuremberg rally. The audience is a mob, whipped to a frenzy by the event promoter, who, in a sermon lofting the rhetoric of race hatred and ethnic cleansing, represents the slaughter as preservation of species purity. "This is a commitment to a truly human future," he brays, as buckets of acid eviscerate and liquefy sacrificial mechas. He swears by "the law of blood and electricity."
Gripping and sly, these scenes swipe at the religion of humanism, not to vent misanthropy and disenchanted idealism but to diagnose fears of miscegenation. The scenes illustrate that although the focus of fears of Otherness keeps shifting, the mechanics of this dread remain the same. The fear is of contamination, some sort of pollution seen to have a diluting, enervating effect on a group that considers itself whole and defined by essential, unchanging characteristics. The threat of contamination is perceived to be from outside. All campaigns of hate against perceived Others and all laws against miscegenation are based on this notion of a purity at risk of becoming degraded. In this setup, the invigorating effects of hybridization aren't valued, if they're even recognized. Rather, mixing is imagined as a decline and fall. …