Robots and Actors

By Lesser, Wendy | The American Prospect, August 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

Robots and Actors


Lesser, Wendy, The American Prospect


STEVEN SPIELBERG'S A.I. IS NEIther the worst nor the best movie he has ever made, but it is certainly the strangest. Our initial tendency is to attribute this to the involvement of Stanley Kubrick, who collaborated with Spielberg on the project for many years (though when he was given complete control after Kubrick's death, Spielberg rewrote the entire script and directed it on his own). But I think the strangeness comes from somewhere else: specifically, from deep inside Steven Spielberg. A.I. is a much more disturbing movie than anything this silly has a right to be, and I think that's because Spielberg has used it--unwittingly, I suspect--to reveal the darkest corners of his own unconscious. The unconscious is a notoriously disorganized place, and its unacknowledged influence may explain why the movie finally comes across as such a mess.

The plot, as perhaps everybody knows by now, involves a little boy who is really a robot. The Pinocchio overtones are made explicit in the movie, and implicit in them is a kind of veiled competition between the upstart Dreamworks and the aging old Disney studio (which, in case you've forgotten, made the memorable animated feature about the little wooden puppet who wanted to be a "real boy"). Other old movies are also invoked, particularly The Wizard of Oz, though this time the wizard is played by a creature called Dr. Know, who looks like a cross between Albert Einstein and Steven Spielberg. I detected allusions to earlier Spielberg movies as well--E.T., of course, but also The Color Purple, Amistad, and, most weirdly, Schindler's List. For the robots in this movie are a persecuted minority--a helpless, gentle, respectable group who are viewed as an inferior species by the humans and are publicly destroyed for the human mob's pleasure. The horrific scene in which this destruction is shown draws on exactly the same kind of brutality Spielberg lodged in the Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler.

What, exactly, are we to make of this analogy? That the Jews were, like A.I.'s robots, a subspecies created by the Germans for their own practical purposes? Or conversely, that anything that looks and acts human must be human, so we put ourselves in moral jeopardy if we fail to perceive its innate rights? But movie characters played by live actors look and act human; we may even be fooled into having real emotions about them. (A lot is made in A.I. about the capacity to feel love, and the theme is handled with all the rigor and subtlety we have come to expect from Hollywood.) Does this mean we have to believe that these blatantly fictional figures are human? Do we really rank manufactured objects alongside verifiable Homo sapiens, with the same rights and duties owed to both?

Sarcasm is the natural response to a movie like this--and yet A.I. gets to you at a level that makes sarcasm seem churlish and defensive. We long for little David (played by Haley Joel Osment with his usual otherworldly precocity) to become a real boy and to win the unambivalent devotion of his mother. But even as we capitulate to the longing, we remain fully aware of the movie's creepiness. The mother (Frances O'Connor, in a thankless role) is so strangely intense a love object in this movie that it's almost surprising that A.I. didn't receive an NC-17 rating. At the movie's conclusion, David (resuscitated by kindly visiting aliens 2,000 years after the end of humanity--and no, you don't want to hear the details) gets his wish in the form of a single day spent with his mother, during which he and he alone fulfills her every need. …

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