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Pinocchio: A Spielberg Odyssey

Fairy Tale-like ‘A.I.’ Questions Boundaries of Humanity with Robot Child

By Erik Blankinship

Staff Writer

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Ian Watson and Brian Aldiss

Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, David Swinton, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Daveigh Chase, William Hurt, and Jack Angel

Rated PG-13

An endearing movie A.I. is not. It is a movie about robots, narrated by robots. Even though the star of the movie, little robo-boy David, might look like the cute little actor Haley Joel Osment, he brings awkward to a new level. Let’s imagine what David’s programming might look like:

10 print “Mom, do you love me?”

20 get A$

30 if A$ == “n” then goto 10

40 if A$ == “y” then end

Now, if you are a robot like David, you follow these instructions pretty closely without much room for interpretation. If your mom isn’t around or threw you away, you might get stuck in this routine for, say, a few millennia.

But why wouldn’t Mom just love David back? That is the central question raised early on in A.I. Can we love our machines? Can we really love them?

Here at MIT, where we cheer for our 6.270 lego robot creations more than we do for any sporting event, it seems plausible to love our robots. If they asked to us to love them back, we might. Maybe. Might check the source code first.

STS Professor Sherry Turkle’s research shows how children’s perceptions of what is “alive” have been challenged over the last century. A hundred years ago, things that could roll were considered “alive.” More recently, responsive games like Simon were considered quasi-sentient, while Tamagotchis puzzle children of today.

Spielberg’s leap in this film is that adults will not be able to make the distinction between machine and man; that the Turing Test will not be solvable in the near future. And what will make this distinction impossible is putting A.I. into the form of children, playing upon Freudian archetypes we are unable to resist. Mothers are especially prone to this belief in Spielberg’s film.

David enters the world wary of his father (Sam Robards), addressing him only by first name. He is ever eager to love his mother, “mommy” (Frances O’Connor), to have her constant affection. He does everything he can to reach that state. Even disobeying his programming.

Helping David differentiate between right and wrong is his very own Jiminy Cricket, in the form of robo-stuffed bear Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel). Teddy is so cool in the movie, he should be up for best supporting actor in the Academy Awards this year. Or better yet, get his own Teddy movie.

Overhearing the story of Pinocchio, and noting their similar real-boy aspirations, David decides he must find the blue fairy. For if he can become a real boy, then maybe mommy would truly love him.

But hardly anybody feels love across the mechanic-organic chasm. Mommy is often haunted by her doppelganger of a child. Daddy wants to have David dismantled at the factory. David’s creator, the Geppetto-vest-wearing Professor Hobby (William Hurt), is primarily interested in marketing more Davids to families. Rogue gatherings of humans collect and mutilate robots in retaliation for their infiltration of our human lifestyles.

To save David from this technocidal fate, Spielberg once again appeals to our instinctual programming; the premise that somewhere in our super-ego is a failsafe which prohibits the destruction of children. This is where the movie stumbles. Putting ourselves into the mindset of an angry anti-techno mob, intent on the destruction of machines, why not kill them all? Who cares how they are packaged? It’s a televised robot war, a monitor drop from the Green building, a spectacle of exploding machinery.

But Spielberg implores us to reconsider the innocence and importance of a child. Similar to how Oskar Schindler is guided by the unknown red-coated little girl to become a savior of humankind, Spielberg uses a robot child to make us reconsider how we treat machinery. Even if we cannot make this leap ourselves, within Spielberg’s fable the chasm is crossed.

This loveless environment is the stage for this sci-fairy tale, where technological props stand in for the traditional folk story elements. Future pleasure palace Rogue City (a shared neon set from Moulin Rouge?) appears as A.I.’s answer to Pinocchio’s “Temptation Island.” Instead of misbehaving men turning into donkeys, the boundaries between human and artificial are further blurred; love and sexual servicing are conflated.

The consequences for our illicit, abusive relationships with our creations are hauntingly dire in A.I. Our devices are left to blankly love us in return, iterating endlessly on the meaning and process of love, while emptily trying to solve the puzzle of humanity.

At the end of the film, the role of god-like creator is taken from Geppetto, and assumed by the machines, which now create human lives to love robots. It should be an eerie, unnerving future where only echoes of humanity reverberate. But Spielberg plays down the haunting sci-fi aspects, focusing on what the machines were programmed to acquire: the love of humans. We have to remind ourselves that this is a horrifying future, one where David completes his Oedipal quest to take his father’s place in his mother’s bed. But it is told lovingly, as a fairy tale, an ever-after ending.

The tale is told from a child’s perspective, without knowledge of the bizarre humanless nature of the character’s motivations. The fears of abandonment play on emotional chords I recall as a child. The future “mechas” (as opposed to “orgas” -- living beings) appear as creatures that Spielberg’s imagination was haunted by as a child at night.

The suspension of disbelief required to accept the motivations of the fairy tale A.I. are far more than many adult film goers have been willing to make. I found myself repeatedly reminding myself of my own childhood fears and strange beliefs, and letting the film play upon these lingering frames of mind. Spielberg suggests that this is the mindset of the sentient machine, a mind we have created which cannot separate reality from fantasy. It is an interesting proposition and a cruel predicament.