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Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence just gets better with age.


Warner Bros. screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

It’s been 20 years, and I’m still not sure what to make of the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence. But I keep rewatching it every year or two, and it always haunts me. I think I know why. 

Steven Spielberg’s completion of an idea first dreamed up by Stanley Kubrick arrived at the end of June 2001. It was Spielberg’s first film after 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. I watched it in a movie theater in Los Angeles, when I lived out west. I remember the film’s strangeness washing over me in the dark.

Is AI a commentary on Spielberg’s own childhood wish fulfillments? An inversion of the films I saw of his when I was a kid? A blend of his wide-eyed emotional spirit, and his cynical, dark films on war? I watch it because it reminds me, over and over, of the future of gadgets when humanity dies.

The film’s about a beta test of a robotic child called David, who is briefly adopted and cared for by an employee of the company that made him (It? What is a robot’s proper pronoun?), a surrogate child while their own son is in a medically induced coma. Their real child then recovers, and the family rejects David, no longer needing him, even finding him threatening and dangerous… and they abandon him. From there, the film becomes an odyssey in which the robotic boy learns about the cruel, changed world and tries to find his maker. It’s Pinocchio, but it’s also a story about a tech company that overreaches to achieve perfection. It’s Jurassic Park, but the dinosaurs outlive the humans and we see where they end up in another 2,000 years.

Spielberg blended with Kubrick seems a weird cocktail: I think of Kubrick as a brilliantly cold filmmaker, while Spielberg films I grew up lean to melodramatic emotional swells. But as I’ve gotten older, my favorite Spielberg is cold Spielberg (Munich, The Post, Minority Report, Bridge of Spies). The icy tone running through AI, even 20 years later, still feels futuristic. I feel like I’m peering through a door into the unknown.

Plenty of people hate Spielberg’s AI and it doesn’t rank all that high in many of his all-time lists. On some days, it’s one of my favorite science fiction films ever. But there are bumps. Some moments ring awkward and cheesy (the emotional journey of his “parents,” and many parts involving real people in the theme park-like Rouge City). The film’s emotional journey, bridging fairy tale and gritty cyberpunk, has cracks (some scenes feel like they linger too long, others jump forward too fast). The depiction of tech hasn’t always aged well (no one has phones, but also, a key plot point involves a kiosk that acts as an elaborate search engine. Why wouldn’t anyone be able to do this with a device?). An astounding percentage of the two hour-plus film seems to take place in an extended ending that moves forward with excruciating slowness. Yet I’m always riveted.

Along with Minority Report, released the following summer in 2002, this film represents Spielberg’s dark sci-fi phase. AI and Minority Report feel like bookends, companion films. AI lingers with me far more. And I haven’t even mentioned David’s robot teddy-bear companion, or Jude Law’s stunning robot Gigolo Joe, and how the three of them feel like some sort of deep-future retelling of The Wizard of Oz.

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Warner Bros./Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

It’s because it’s a story about abandoned tech. David is a gadget prototype. He finds himself wondering about his own existence, and can’t justify the answers. No one can. It’s a story that dreams of where all our supposedly fantastic tech toys go in the years, and decades, that follow. The old Anki Cozmos and Jibos, the social networks and game platforms I imagine crumbling to dust. Some will remain. Some will be Swiss-cheesed. Some will linger. Some will be reinvented, the parts tinkered with and hacked.

Movies like Wall-E have dreamed of similar ideas. As has tons of science fiction — Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang and Annalee Newitz come to mind, but there are many more.

AI’s cold-souled presence also feels like a final twist of the knife in my childhood. Those ’80s family-friendly films Spielberg crafted linger in the first half of AI. The feeling is manufactured, though. David’s placement in his family is an experiment, a forced action. It’s cruel and doesn’t consider anything other than the present moment. And then, like my favorite fiction (Neal Stephenson’s love of accelerating thousands of years in Seveneves or Anathem, or the jumps in Foundation, or Charles Stross’ Accelerando), AI jumps impossibly far along. The ending isn’t weird or infinite enough for me. But it suggests that feeling of cosmic horror for tech’s future that I’ve thought about when I look at small, strange, emerging products, new AR headsets, little watches or toy robots with firmware updates.

So much of AI still seems prescient. The flooded cities and climate-crisis-driven wreckage. The undercurrent of public distrust of tech, and a human-centric type of robot-targeted racism that feeds evangelical rallies. A Steve Jobs-like creator of new tech who plays God with calm conviction. Also, of course, the very idea of feeling emotional connection with a robot.

I don’t know if any film or TV show has ever captured artificial intelligence perfectly for me. (2001 is good, of course. Ex Machina didn’t wow me, and I don’t tend to love films about robots.) Robotics and software are tough territories. But I’m perpetually amazed by Haley Joel Osment’s performance in this movie. It annoyed me at times when I first saw it, just a few years after The Sixth Sense. Was I meant to care, or feel repelled? Now it feels like an amazing balancing act between emotional charm and alienation. Osment’s waxy face, eerie smile and continuous need to be loved are perfect. 

Because AI imagines itself as a dark fairy tale, I forgive its sometimes illogical plot turns. I burst into tears at times: when David is alone at the bottom of the ocean, praying for a miracle. His wish is granted, but just for a moment. Some scenes, like the one in which David confronts his creators, or almost kills his brother, still shock me with some of their cold vibes. It’s this dance of emotions that keeps me coming back.

Or maybe it’s because AI is, in one sense, a nightmarish future version of my New Jersey work commute to Manhattan. The film takes place in New Jersey, in some future where New York City is ruined. We watch a robot child wander from the suburbs into the heart of where New York City still half-stands.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also seen the film differently. When I was living alone in LA and wandering, uncertain of my career and life, I thought it was about the emotional lives of robots. Later, when I became a parent, I saw it as a tale about parenthood and consumerism. Would I buy a robot? What would that do to my family? Why do I buy so much tech? Now I see it as a story of how humanity can’t stop playing God. David’s return to Cybertronics, and his whole journey, feel like a manipulation. And the ending after that, where David is brought back to life, is set in a world where only “mecha” have survived. But these evolved robots do exactly what we used to do: simulate life, experiment with creation.

Is David really thinking and feeling, or is it a simulation all along? Are we part of a filmic Turing test? I turn that over in my head. And what is a gadget, or a creation, without its creator? A novella by Ted Chiang, called The Lifecycle of Software Objects, imagined intelligent creations that were eventually abandoned, obsolete, and had to be cared for as the world they were made to be compatible with kept changing. AI asks these questions: all the old robots rounded up, the models that know that sooner or later they’re going to be replaced. David, the robot boy who seems to be so special, is particularly so because he’s oblivious to this process.

AI is a flawed vision of the future, and maybe it was never destined to be perfect science fiction. The future is an unknown. Months after AI came out, I flew back to New York to be with my family after the Sept. 11 attacks. In Spielberg’s movie, the Twin Towers still exist in frozen Manhattan, 2,000 years from now. I see that artifact of another timeline now and it reminds me of how much time has passed since 2001. How much the world has changed.

In 2021, though, we’re more concerned about the climate crisis than ever. We haven’t figured out how to resolve our psychological dependencies on tech. And tech companies are trying now more than ever to mine empathy and emotional connection through products. The basic premise of AI hasn’t aged. It’s just got a little dust on its box.

(By the way, if you want to read a great book about actual artificial intelligence, start with this one by Janelle Shane.)