Love Machines: Boy Toys, Toy Boys and the Oxymorons of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

By Sobchack, Vivian | Science Fiction Film and Television, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Love Machines: Boy Toys, Toy Boys and the Oxymorons of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence


Sobchack, Vivian, Science Fiction Film and Television


In Bruno Schulz's extraordinary little book, The Street of Crocodiles (1934), the narrator's father (who believes that tailors' dummies should be treated as people) warns his children (64):

Matter never makes jokes; it is always full of the tragically serious. Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will not eat into it like fate, like destiny? Can you imagine the pain, the dull imprisoned suffering, hewn into the matter of that dummy which does not know why it must be what it is, why it must remain in that forcibly imposed form which is no more than a parody? Do you understand the power of form, of expression, of pretense, the arbitrary tyranny imposed on a helpless block, and ruling it like its own, tyrannical, despotic soul?

In what follows, I want to explore both the joke and the tragic seriousness of two culturally significant dummies, jointly tailored by two major American filmmakers in the sf film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (US 2001). The filmmakers are, of course, Stanley Kubrick, who worked on pre-production of the film for many years before his death in 1999, and Steven Spielberg, who ultimately wrote and directed the final screenplay. The dummies at issue are two male robots whose forcibly imposed form is human, and both are programmed as what I shall call here - as a joke and in tragic seriousness - 'love machines'. However, like the two filmmakers' respective cinematic oeuvres and cosmologies, these love machines could not be more contradictory in form and function. Yet, also like the filmmakers, the robots' seeming binary opposition comes into complementary conjunction and confusion in A.I. - and says something important (and sad) about the contemporary American technological (and male) imagination and its irreconcilable and irresolute visions of what, in both cases, seems an inevitably inhuman future. This is a future presently conceived as always already past and expressed in acts of mourning and nostalgia: a 'forever after' in which male bodies (and, by extension, all human beings) are figured as abandoned, hollowed out, in pieces - and then memorialised long after they have actually vanished from the face of the earth.

J. P. Telotte argues that 'the image of human artifice, figured in the great array of robots, androids, and artificial beings found throughout the history of the sf film, is the single most important one in the genre' (5). Amidst this humanoid array, he singles out the robot, in particular, as 'a trope or mechanism for revealing a human nature that has been largely drained of identity, an abandoned body' (150), a literal image of the 'anatomized, hollowed-out, modern self ... that underscores [the] degree to which we all seem to have become mechanized, programmed beings, bodies detached from spirit' (165). I would suggest, however, that the trope of the abandoned body is not necessarily synonymous with the hollowed-out or empty body - and, indeed, in their differences, may generate specific narratives of our imaginary relations with technology that are contradictory, if also complementary, in their potential convergence. Such is the case with the narratives generated by the two central robotic protagonists in A.I., a highly anticipated film that upon its release was, for most viewers, a major disappointment. A.I. was criticised not only, and at once, for being both too cold and too sentimental but also for its inability to integrate what one critic has called its 'Kubrickian irony and Spielbergian ick' (Burr 51). Furthermore, it was excoriated for being narratively irresolute and seemingly unable to end, ending as it does several times over. And yet all this is precisely what makes A.I. so interesting, for the film points to two quite opposed cultural visions of our displaced technological existence - both of which converge with ambivalent force to abandon, hollow out and mourn an always already failed and lost 'humanity' (significantly coded as male). …

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