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Wednesday 11 July 2001

Spielbrick Does Aldiss
by Gary K. Wolfe

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

Before even setting out to see A.I., Steven Spielberg’s several-times-removed adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s 1969 story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (years of work by Kubrick and Aldiss, later additions by Ian Watson, final screenplay by Spielberg) one important aspect of the film already seemed apparent from the advance publicity: despite its title, it is not a film that is much concerned with artificial intelligence, at least not in the sense that most SF readers have come to think of that term over the last few decades. Almost none of the real philosophical conundra that have surrounded research and speculation in this field are touched upon for more than a moment (usually in speeches by William Hurt, as the kindly but slightly unhinged scientist who designs the robot boy David after his own dead son), and it seems fair to say that Spielberg (and perhaps even Kubrick before him) has confused artificial intelligence with artificial behavior. Instead, A.I. is a movie about humanoid robots of the sort that populated SF for decades, but that eventually fell out of favor as an overworked metaphor for exploitation and a form of proleptic technology that seemed to be going nowhere. The classic robot stories—del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy,” Asimov’s cycle, Simak’s City stories, Williamson’s The Humanoids, even Aldiss’s own earlier “But Who Can Replace a Man?” (which is vaguely echoed in the film’s later scenes)—dated from the 1930s to the 1950s, and even though “Supertoys” appeared in 1969, it carried with it something of the tone of an iconic SF tale recast for a general audience, in this case the readership of Harper’s Bazaar. “A.I.” is a term of comparatively recent vintage, but these humanoid robots are largely an artifact of SF’s innocent adolescence, and even before they began to recede from the mainstream of SF consciousness, it was apparent that their usefulness derived not so much from their speculative value, but from their convenience as a storytelling device: they were magnets for themes of oppression and racism, and for popular motifs drawn from folk and fairy tales.

The business of desperately wanting to be “real,” for example, which functions as a mantra to the point of irritation in A.I. and is the chief motivation of Haley Joel Osment as David, derives not from any reasonable assumptions about the nature of machine intelligence—indeed, the most significant recent treatments of this theme by Benford and others suggest that machines may have nothing but contempt for slimy, baggy organic life—but from such children’s tales as The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wizard of Oz, and, most important, Pinocchio, which is actually the main framework on which Spielberg’s tale is hung (though some SF purists may be surprised to discover that Aldiss’s original story survives almost intact as the launching point for what turns into a quest for identity, just as Clarke’s “The Sentinel” survived as the launching point for 2001). And not just Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, but Disney’s as well: early on, the talkative robotic teddy bear Teddy (also featured in Aldiss’s story) turns into an appealing amalgam of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket (whose theme song, as I recall, was also featured in the closing scene of Spielberg’s “director’s cut” of Close Encounters) and the toy robot bear from Blade Runner (a film that is alluded to again in aspects of the Jude Law character and in some of the drizzly, futuristic urban street scenes, and one which Aldiss says he watched with Kubrick during one of his several visits to the filmmaker’s home).

It’s not long before the various literary and folktale allusions begin to give way to the vocabulary Spielberg is most comfortable with, however: the vocabulary of pop film. There is, to be sure, a bit of “Cinderella” in the manner in which the Swinton’s real son, brought back from cryogenic sleep after a treatment for his disease is found, makes life miserable for the replacement robot David, and there are direct references to “Hansel and Gretel” in the scene in which David’s conflicted “mom,” unable to return him to the robot factory for destruction but concerned that he might be a danger to her family, abandons him and Teddy in the woods (though dramatically it’s never clear why this task is left to the mother rather than the cold and villainous father who engineers it). The lines of poetry that cryptically lead David forward on his quest for the Blue Fairy that he believes will make him human are from Yeats’s fairy poem “The Stolen Child” (Come away, O Human Child!/To the waters and the wild), and David even gets to do a stint as Sleeping Beauty toward the film’s conclusion. But for the most part, viewers from here on in get treated to a festival of filmic and often self-referential allusions: the “real” son’s bed, for example, is decorated with a crescent moon that looks exactly like the Dreamworks logo (minus the boy with the fishing pole), a giant glittering globe appears over a hill in a manner reminiscent of Close Encounters, and Teddy is given a beautifully composed silhouette shot in front of a full moon in the manner of E.T.

When David and Teddy are captured in the woods by promoters of a grotesque spectacle called a “Flesh Fair” (I guess we’re still in Hansel and Gretel here, with the Wicked Witch about to toss them in the oven), the event takes on something of the death-circus atmosphere of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, complete with a Dickensian master of ceremonies who presides over theatrical dismemberments of captured renegade robots. There’s even, if I’m not mistaken, a touch of Tod Browning’s Freaks in the manner in which the various damaged and disfigured robots learn to care for each other in the vicious circus atmosphere, and some of their captors wear motorcycle uniforms with neon piping that suggest the earliest of CG epics, Tron. What lends a Kubrickian edge to this portion of the film is the quirky (literally) performance of Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, a robot designed as a sexual companion for lonely women. Whereas Osment seems to have been directed to perform as a basically cute little boy with tics—pushing the performance much further might have carried unwanted overtones of autism—Law’s performance flawlessly and unnervingly straddles a line between human and inhuman, between implement and revolutionary: he is, in a way, a direct descendant of both the sexy rabble-rousing Maria of Metropolis and the tragic rebel Roy Batty in Blade Runner. And when he leads David into the neon spectacle of Rouge City, a kind of Vanity Fair for Industrial Light & Magic, their goal is to consult an Einstein-like cartoon computer oracle named Dr. Know, voiced by Robin Williams in a simultaneous parody of Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz and his own genie dervish in Aladdin.

All of which suggests either that Spielberg is sending us messages to view this not as an SF film but as a Hollywood fairy tale, or that he views SF and fairy tales as pretty much the same thing to begin with. Cataloguing the various SF-nal inconsistencies of the film is probably an Internet cottage industry by the time you read this, but it hardly seems the point: Spielberg’s curiously retro vision is consistent with his other treatments of SF themes, even though A.I. represents his first attempt at a fully imagined future world. Of course we can wonder why Frances O’Connor is schlepping around doing mid-20th century housework and laundry while the untiring robot boy stands around and watches, but she’s only the latest in a series of harried housewives and moms that includes Teri Garr in Close Encounters and Dee Wallace in E.T.; Spielberg has long had a problem envisioning women who can function outside the space of Tide commercials, and despite the elegant design and lighting that has gone into the futuristic house, it’s still pretty much a sitcom hearth.

By the same token, I’m not sure there’s much point in trying to separate the Kubrick bits from the Spielberg bits, let alone what Aldiss and Watson may have contributed (although one of the most touching scenes, in which David’s mother comes across a pile of notes he has written for her, is taken directly from the original “Supertoys” story). In broad outlines, we can probably assume that the scathing image of corrupt humans as embodied in the Flesh Fair sequence derives from Kubrick’s darker vision, and that Spielberg’s softer fairy tale fantasy does its best to supplant or subsume this vision. But there really isn’t any way out; despite the familiar touches of sentimentality, Spielberg ends up with one of the most bleak and somber films he’s made yet, with a genuinely apocalyptic ending that can’t talk its way into redemption without invoking myth. But if Kubrickians are upset that Spielberg’s fuzzy Kunstmärchen spiritualism has been allowed to overwhelm Stanley’s purer vision, it’s worth keeping in mind that Kubrick himself was out to overwhelm Aldiss’s simple story, which is some ways is more congruent with Spielberg than with Kubrick to begin with. In the end, A.I. is not quite a Kubrick film nor a Spielberg film nor an Aldiss film, but it looks great, it doesn’t shy away from enigmas, and the segment which retells Aldiss’s original story stands as one of the better adaptations of SF literature in recent years. Does anyone really expect the rest of the film, which stumped some of the best cinematic and SF minds for decades, to make that much sense?

Gary K. Wolfe is the author of The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction and other books, and has reviewed books for Locus Magazine since 1991.

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