AI: Real or Unreal?
by Don Thompson

After watching Stephen Spielberg's AI, I feel witness to the tragedy of talent compromised by the demons (be they external or internal) that chronically dampen the efforts of mainstream directors to create important work. Even while I admired the craft, the special effects, and the general bravado of the story, I am haunted by a film that seems so self-castrating and unable to make a statement without somehow retracting it or apologizing for it, as if the truth were too hard to bear.

The fable of Pinnochio is a powerful vehicle for the initial 2 hours of Spielberg's well-crafted film, but the story becomes somehow reversed and watered down by what appears to be a tacked-on ending based on the consensus of a focus group. I would think that a director with the power and success of Spielberg could counter the voices that squelch a pure ending or a powerful statement, as if to say "no…. no… that's not really what I meant." It is either that or a direct-by-committee mentality has so infused Spielberg's mind that he cannot but help himself: thus the tragedy of a brilliant artist compromised constantly by the pressures of commercialism and wide audience appeal.

Man's inhumanity to himself is articulated clearly when in the Flesh Fair the "real" people destroy the "fake" -- the robots -- even though one can empathize with the reaction to technology that is represented by the hatred of the crowd. If the current science-turned-consumerism is taken to its logical extreme, the values of machines will continue to replace common human values. Precision, performance, and utility will continue to gain such a high degree of importance that our collective credit rating will be more important that our compassion toward one another.

These very current social realities press in on AI, making it a poignant statement regarding how the arrogance of humanity could well create a hell on earth, if it hasn't already. With a global economy that leaves two-thirds of humanity below the poverty line, we may pray for Spielberg's future in AI, which may in fact be brighter once a large chunk of humanity has been killed off by climate change.

Still, these reflections are hard to hold onto once the film starts to retract and retrench into an ending -- or should I say endings -- that are common in ambitious films that get compromised by a variety of pressures. The result again can only be categorized as a tragedy that only exists off-screen. If kept onscreen, the tragedy could lead to enlightenment and catharsis, as our Greek brothers found out so many thousands of years ago. The inherent power of an artist and medium as represented by Speilberg ultimately becomes so stunted that it can only reflect what must be a chronic fear of failure coupled with an unrepentant attachment to cliché and sentimentality. And all that -- at least within the context of this project -- with what begins with a brilliance and insight rarely seen in mainstream commercial films today. For that I give Spielberg credit, but must urge him to muster courage in the future and battle whatever pressures he must -- external or internal -- to translate a purer vision of the story at hand. Without that courage, we end up with just another cheese burger.

My ending for AI would have had the young boy David (our robot Pinnochio) see the Blue Fairy at the depths of the ocean, and then close his eyes and die the death we all must die (maybe this is what ties humans and robots into one reality?) -- but to see the Blue Fairy in a final dream, and be reconciled with his mother in that dream. What is reality anyway? Perception? Objective reality? Dream reality? Further, what is a "real boy?" It seems the literalness of the tacked-on ending, 2000 years in the future with a new race arising in the midst of an "Ice Age" to save the entombed David (sorry to give away the ending), negates, nullifies and destroys the power of the initial two hours.

Being basically a softy, I had tears in my eyes for the "holographic" Blue Fairy at the end of the film, but I could have had the same tears earlier, had David seen her at the Ocean floor (the Belly of the Whale), some 30 minutes previous to the current version. The "realness" of the Boy comes at his realization that death is real: that all persons -- artificial or not -- must die. In fact, as Captain Picard said in one of the Star Trek movies, it is our mortality that defines (Star Trek has in fact dealt with themes similar to AI, but I feel more successfully). Certainly filmmakers, who use the most pure form of illusion, should be self-reflexive enough to understand that their own artifice can be an effective vehicle toward revealing all artifice, whether that be personal, scientific or religious. And once that artifice is recognized, to comprehend that what is outside artifice -- I'll call it spirit -- is certainly as real as anything else. The difference being that spirit is born of a mystery, and that mystery is something that we cannot conquer, no matter how large the budget.

I think Spielberg's AI reflects a common thread in popular American Culture: the fear of letting go. At its core, this reflects a fear of death that forces us deny simple and apparent truths, and mis-label a variety of things: sentimentality becomes love, selfishness becomes courage, literal definition becomes truth, words and media replace a direct comprehension of things in themselves. One should recognize that AI's "aliens" (the future race of beings who provide a literal veneer to the fantasy) at the end of the film are as much a fairy tale as any Blue Fairy. The statement of the "holographic" (created by the "aliens") Blue Fairy at the end of the film that David "can't be a real boy" is in fact not true: that he in fact can (and does) become a real boy through his tears. Isn't it after all love, and the suffering that results, that binds humans at all levels? And further, an unending need for hope? And doesn't hope come through a reconciliation of the real and the unreal, where dreams are reality and reality dreamlike? With this in mind, I would say that there is no philosopher or scientist who could convince me that any "fairy tale" is more "real" than the next, be that the Pinnochio, the film AI or String Theory. I accept them all as real and false simultaneously, and can even live happily with the paradox that results.

August, 2001