Intimations of humanity

Tiffany Gee Lewis has a wonderful column this morning about how kids seem to grow up overnight. Kids grow up and grow away, and we deal with that with a mixture of loss and relief (I say that as the father of nine and an empty-nester).

Years ago, when Steven Spielberg filmed Stanely Kubrick’s planned film, “AI: Artificial Intelligence” (2001), it was seen largely as a science fiction movie, and received something of a lukewarm reception. My take on the film was quite different: that is was a brilliant, painful and cautionary story about parents and children. I wrote a review to that effect which is still lodged in the eternal archives of the internet.

Reading Lewis’ column brought that review to mind, so I’ve reprinted the review below. It has spoilers, though, so if you’ve never seen the film, you may want to go watch it on your own first.

AI: A Horrific Fairy Tale for Adults [SPOILERS BELOW]

I have been fascinated by some of the sharp divisions of opinion surrounding AI as reviews (official and un-) have come out in the past few weeks. Today, my wife Sandra, our 18-year-old daughter Crystal, and I all went to see the 12:00 noon showing at the Uptown here in DC (enormous screen, great theatre). I believe that Crys was entertained but not particularly moved. Sandra and I — who between us have 9 kids from our separate prior marriages — both felt as though we had had a dentist with sharp, tiny, hand-held instruments working on our hearts for 2 1/2 hours, with pauses to let us recover, only to dig in again. Why the difference? Because we’re parents and she’s not. And therein, I think, lies much of the great divide.

AI is not hard SF. It is a cautionary horror story cum fairy tale cum myth, probably one of the best examples since Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. It takes a simple premise — what if we could teach a machine to love as a child loves, to think as a child thinks, and to want to be loved as a child is loved? — and carries it through to some excruciating, non-obvious and unflinching consequences that, I suspect, resonate primarily with parents who have had children of that age. As with Frankenstein, the core of AI involved hubris, temptation, rejection, and consequences. Hubris was the unthinking arrogance of Dr. Hobby and associates in tampering with the ecology of family and love without due regard for the unintended consequences — set, ironically, against a backdrop of melted icecaps (frankly, my first clue this wasn’t hard SF) and other unintended consequences of meddling with the physical ecology at large.

Temptation was Monica, watching her flesh-and-blood son Martin in cryonics for five years, not knowing whether a cure would ever be found for him (another fairy tale/myth motif), now being confronted with a machine, called David, that looks like a little boy, that — if and when she says the magic words — will fall eternally in love with her. Monica has a void inside which remains gaping and unhealed because of Martin’s suspension between life and death, which is what makes her temptation so real. In far too many movies and novels, the key temptation is so stupid and the consequences so obvious that I lose most or all sympathy for the character (e.g., King’s Pet Sematary). What made this movie so painful for me was how realistic I felt the temptation was. If I had one child, frozen, near death, with no clear prospect of ever having him/her back and no prospect of ever having another — yes, I might be tempted, and I think my wife even more so, to have something like David to fill that void, and we would stumble into the trap without realizing what we’ve done.

Rejection comes with the realization of the artificial, unnatural aspect of the relationship. Children grow; they mature (usually); there is always a bittersweet aspect to losing the simple, passionate love of a child, especially once they become brain-dead adolescents ;-), but one wishes children to grow and go out on their own. Kubrick/Spielberg first carefully lay out the slowly-unfolding hell of having a child-like automaton with real feelings stuck at that particular emotional age, then accelerate and compound that hell by bringing back the real child, warts and all. Can one love a machine when one’s own flesh and blood is at hand? What are our loyalties, our instincts? Martin’s and David’s reactions to each other are very believable (speaking particularly as someone who has had experience merging two sets of kids together into one family), as are frankly the different reactions to the situation between and her husband Henry (with whom, remember, David has not bonded; a classic parent/step-parent divide, one with strong Oedipal/Freudian overtones). Martin is less pleasant, less pure in his love, less physically perfect, less lovable — but his is Monica and Henry’s flesh, their progeny; having nearly lost him once, can they reject him in favor of something that runs off electric current, something manufactured? What would that say about them as humans, as parents? Yet David really loves Monica, and she has to choose between him and the rest of her very-human family.

Whatever the twists and turns of the future projected, the emotional consequences for all involved, but particularly for David, are as inexorable as they are logical. For me, one of the most haunting lines of the film is when Monica abandons David in the forest (another classic fairy tale touch), shouting cautions even as she does so, then pauses and says — as her final words to him — “I’m sorry I never told you about the world.” There’s a deep, wrenching stab at any parent’s heart, capturing the twin heartbreaks of forcing a child out into the world, away from the safety comfort of a parent’s arms (with a loss of security) and into all the pain and cruelty and tragedy that the child is likely unprepared for. David then embarks on a classic, almost Campbellian fairy tale quest, complete with faithful sidekick (Teddy) and rogue knight (Joe). He’s off to see the wizard (Dr. Know), to win the Sphinx-like riddling challenge and find out what he needs to know to become a real boy so that Monica will love him. But unlike the comforting, Disneyized fairy tales we’ve come to accept, this one holds to the hard truth — there is no blue fairy, David will never become a real boy, and Monica will never love him the way he loves her, the way he so desperately wants to be loved, as someone unique and irreplaceable — and this is where it is most wrenching. David’s hopes are raised to their highest peak by the mysterious message in the Dr. Know booth and its literal unfolding as he and Joe travel to the ‘ends of the earth’ — and then they are utterly smashed as he finds what lies at the end of his quest. His homicidal (robocidal?) rage at finding another, duplicate David is chilling and utterly consistent, calling to mind Henry’s seemingly-overblown worry much earlier in the film that “If he [David] is capable of love, then he is also capable of hate.” And then all his hopes are utterly crushed as he discovers that he himself is merely a simulacrum of Hobby’s own dead son David, and that he is being mass produced for human consumption. It leads to two attempts at suicide, one out of despair, and one based on obsession with his goal leading to indifference to everything else, trapped in a dark prison of his own making.

Some have objected to the third part of the movie, yet I think it was very much keeping in spirit with the old-style fairy tales and myths. It has the irony of robot survival and human extinction (brought on, with further irony, by a profound ice age). It has the resurrection motif, with acceptance into the company of gods or near-gods, not as an equal, but as an honored icon (much as Greek gods elevating heroic mortals to Olympus or into the constellations). And, as gods, they grant not what David wants but what they can — a single day with Monica (Clarke’s third law should be enough to deal with any quibble about DNA), with no competition from Dad or Martin or from the world at all. Again the Oedipal/Freudian overtones may seem a bit blatant, but it’s still utterly true to life, for a child of that emotional age, as to what heaven would be. And David’s choice — that he would rather have that one day, with the increased sense of irrevocable loss afterwards, than not to have it at all — goes to the heart of vast numbers of myths and tales about what is so essentially human. Indeed, David for all intents and purposes now is the human race. And as the day ends and Monica passes away, David — for the first time in his 2000-year existence — sleeps and dreams.

But does he wake?

— Bruce F. Webster, 2001.

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