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Love & Loneliness: A.I. at 20

Something I have found helpful to remember is that there are important differences between loneliness and solitude. While these two feelings can overlap in a person in a given moment, it’s generally one or the other that is primarily felt at a time. Both feelings are characterized by either being alone or standing apart from others, but an important distinction is that, while loneliness is generally undesirable and painful, solitude is typically welcome and sought after. One might choose solitude to be able to think without distraction or to be able to enjoy something like a walk or a book with complete focus, or simply, for a break from everything that comes from being around others. Solitude, in moderation, is generally healthy and needed. What distinguishes loneliness from solitude is that loneliness is not something that one generally chooses. It requires others, specifically a feeling of unwelcome separation from others, to make feelings of loneliness salient; and it often, though not always, takes love and acceptance from others for feelings of loneliness to dissipate.

I raise these larger, hopefully universal, points about the interplay of feelings of love, loneliness, and solitude as entry to challenge a particular bit of conventional wisdom about Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence - specifically that the ending of the film in some way ruins or undermines the story. When A.I. was released twenty years ago, and in the intervening years, it has been criticized for an ending that has been called too long, too saccharine or too much of a departure from the story that preceded it. In my view, it’s actually the ending, exactly as it is, that makes the film among the very best storytelling that Steven Spielberg has ever done.

A.I. is genuinely my favorite Spielberg film. It’s the film of his that I’ve seen the most and by far the one that I’ve thought the most about. I don’t have a bad word to say about his many other widely acknowledged classics, but A.I. has always felt specifically tailored for me. I remember looking forward to it coming out as this impossible-seeming quasi-collaboration between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had been developing the project for decades prior to his death. And it mattered that Spielberg had something like Kubrick’s imprimatur for continuing the project, since they had long discussed it during Kubrick’s life, and had even toyed with the idea of Spielberg directing the film while Kubrick produced. At that time, knowing what the film would require, and even now knowing how the film ultimately turned out, it makes sense that Kubrick would see it as a project well within Spielberg’s wheelhouse because of the demands of both the cutting-edge special effects the project required, as well as the very demanding performance that would need to be coaxed out of the young child actor at the center of the story. Though some were, and remain, disappointed to have not seen this project come to fruition under Kubrick’s direction, I don’t actually believe he could have delivered on it as effectively as Spielberg did.

Had Kubrick not died, he had hoped to go into production on A.I. right after completing his final film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut - itself an interesting meditation on the interplay between love and isolation in our relationships. Conveniently, Spielberg was perfectly positioned to take over the project, but the expectations for this collaboration may have grown higher than any film could actually deliver on. This, in some sense, contributed to the frequent criticism that the film’s ending received: a misperception that Spielberg tacked on a saccharine and incongruous happy ending. This criticism is demonstrably wrong on two important points. First, the beginning and end of the film are extremely faithful to what Kubrick had plotted and storyboarded; second, and much more importantly, I think anyone characterizing the ending of the film as saccharine has misunderstood the story being told.

In the opening narration and first scene of the film, we learn that, due to catastrophic climate change, necessary population limits have led to restrictions on how many children couples are allowed to have. We first meet Prof. Hobby (our analog to Gepetto in this loose adaptation of Pinnochio) - who is an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence - giving a lecture to fellow researchers at the company Cybertronics. Prof. Hobby pitches his plan for the company to create a mecha child that can be programmed to feel genuine love. As a point of contrast in this lecture, he introduces a current model of lover mecha which, though spectacularly life-like, is merely executing programs to gratify people’s physical needs. Prof. Hobby is looking to demonstrate the difference between what current technology could allow at the time - largely mechanistic programmed responses - versus what he was looking to create: genuine conscious emotions. Noted, but not belabored here, is that Prof. Hobby still sees these as analogous unidirectional services. As the lover mecha services physical needs, so the mecha child will service emotional needs. The moral problem of this project is explicitly called out in a question posed to Prof. Hobby during the presentation: “If we could create a mecha child capable of genuine love, what obligation, if any, would we have towards that child? What obligation does any parent have to their child? What is a child permitted to do when those obligations go unmet?” The whole of the film ends up being an exploration of these sorts of questions.

We are introduced to David, our protagonist, as a finished prototype of Prof. Hobby’s intended design, being given for testing to the family of one of Cybertronics’s employees. The family in question was chosen specifically because of a personal tragedy that made them especially suitable. The husband and wife, Henry and Monica, had a young child, Martin, who was being kept in some kind of suspended animation due to a medical condition that the science of the day does not yet have a way to address. The strain of the situation is clear in the couple as they are caught in limbo, indefinitely grieving for a child that is neither alive nor dead. Henry brings David home for Monica in the hopes that it will help with her grief, with the understanding that he can always bring David back to the company, up to the point that either of them initiates the programming that would activate and permanently imprint David’s love for them. From that point, once the mecha child has been imprinted, if the family changes their mind, or presumably if the imprinted members of the family die, then the mecha must be returned to Cybertronics to be destroyed.

This policy highlights the disposable manner in which these mecha are regarded. As a plot device, the story requires that imprinted mecha can’t just be deprogrammed, but it indirectly says something about how the company views the mecha; their only solution to this problem is to destroy them. On one hand, Cybertronics, and Prof. Hobby, know that for these mecha to experience genuine love, they need to have the kind of conscious mind required for something like real emotion. So much so that their policy sees it as a necessary mercy that these mecha be destroyed if the object of their imprinted love changes their mind. However, if by analogy you swapped a pet for the child mecha in this scenario, it should become obvious how monstrous this policy actually is. And how terrible it is that this is the best they can think to do.

David’s time with Henry and Monica is short-lived. Monica does warm to David as his kindness and innocence lure her out of her grief. She even decides to execute the program that leads David to imprint on her. Henry likes David just fine but is mostly just happy to see his wife happy again. For a spell, they live together in domestic bliss. Circumstances change when their son, Martin, has an unexpected recovery, gradually turning David into an outgrown accessory that no longer fits into their family. Monica, unable to bring herself to return David to the Cybertronics for destruction, instead abandons him in the woods and drives off in a truly heartbreaking scene. Monica may have taken an action that allows her to clear her conscience in the moment, believing herself to be acting out of love, but if we return to the analogy of imagining David the way we would if someone abandoned a pet in the woods rather than taking it to be destroyed, what Monica does here is quite monstrous. David’s love for his mother is hardwired and unshakeable, though, so he will never be able to see it that way. Like any other child who doesn’t get to choose their parents, David doesn’t get to choose who he imprints on, and he needs to learn to go on with his life within these fixed constraints.

It’s the imprinting that makes all the difference in how David feels being abandoned. Had he not yet been imprinted, he would feel solitary, perhaps even lonely, but it’s being denied an outlet for the love he’s been imprinted to feel that pains him being abandoned this way. In a state of solitude, he might still have had a different adventure, needing to figure out how to make his way in the world, but it’s the painfully lonely feeling of being discarded that drives him for the rest of the story. If Monica loves her real child, Martin, then for David it makes sense that if he can become a real boy like Martin, like in Pinocchio, then Monica will love him, too. David is simple and pure in this desire, but the audience is already ahead of him, knowing that this can’t possibly work out.

The story takes an important detour here to allow us to see different guises of human loneliness. We’re introduced to a lover mecha named Gigolo Joe. We first meet Joe servicing a lonely female client, seeking mecha companionship for the first time. After this tryst, we follow him to another client, whom he discovers has been murdered by her husband. They are a broken couple: a wife who sought outside companionship, and a husband who felt so betrayed that he would rather see her dead than happy. Though not as emotionally sophisticated a mecha as David, Joe has enough sense of self-preservation to recognize that he will need to go on the lam to avoid being blamed and destroyed for this murder. It’s in his attempted escape that he meets David and they stumble upon the “Flesh Fair.”

The Flesh Fair is something like a monster truck rally where people who hate robots can see them be violently destroyed. Now, as distasteful as an angry mob maybe, it’s not straightforward to see why it might be best seen through a prism of loneliness. However, Hannah Arendt (noted political theorist and philosopher) has had some interesting things to say about the things the corrosive nature of loneliness can push people to do: the idea that the need for belonging and inclusion can drive people to subsume themselves within a hateful mob because it feels better than the loneliness of not being a part of anything at all. This may be a stretch, and very possibly something not at all what Spielberg intended, but thanks to recent history, I have difficulty not seeing any angry mob through a prism of the things loneliness can motivate us to do just to belong.

Joe and David escape the Flesh Fair. For as much as the crowd hates mecha, David is too real for them, too much like a real boy for them to see him as otherwise, so the crowd turns on the event organizers, allowing David and Joe a chance to escape in the chaos. There is some irony in David being saved by a crowd that would otherwise gleefully destroy him for what he is because they actually see him as what he is trying to become.

Ultimately, Joe and David will make their way in an amphibicopter to the Manhattan offices of Cybertronics, in a skyscraper half-submerged by the risen water levels. Here they will find Prof. Hobby, and, David hopes, also The Blue Fairy he read about in Pinocchio that can turn him into a real boy. It’s here at Cybertronics where we see David’s sense of self shattered. Even before he meets Prof. Hobby, he encounters another David mecha - simpler in the ways that our David was before he had been imprinted. In this David mecha, our David sees an unexpected rival for Monica’s affection that he is in the midst of destroying in a fit of jealous fear and anger when Prof. Hobby finds him.

Despite the destruction, Prof. Hobby is thrilled by David’s appearance. Not only for having located this missing mecha, but because our David has become proof of concept for what his project was aiming at - David has grown beyond his programming to feel, and think, and dream for himself. In expressing his excitement to David, however, Prof. Hobby says the thing that pushes David to unravel. David says that he thought he was special, that he was one of a kind. Prof. Hobby replies that his son, who David is designed to resemble, was one of a kind, while David is the first of a kind. Prof. Hobby leaves David for a moment to bring the rest of his team in to meet David. While he’s by himself, David walks into the next room where he sees dozens of David mecha hanging from the wall. In a striking effect, he looks through the eyeholes of a David mecha, his own face lit blue by the glowing circuitry, and sees through the office window the statue from the Cybertronics logo that clearly was the first inspiration for what had grown into his dream of the Blue Fairy. He sees box after box of David and Darlene mecha ready for shipment, and it’s too much for him. He walks outside and sits on the ledge of the Cybertronics offices before letting himself fall off the ledge and into the ocean.

Here is as likely a spot as anywhere the common antagonistic view may have preferred the movie to end, where people may have mistakenly thought Kubrick would have ended the movie, and it’s only Spielberg’s meddling that gives us the final act that follows. I’m of a different view. When Prof. Hobby leaves David alone in the office, it’s important that this is the last real human we will encounter in the story. Gigolo Joe, back in the helicopter, sees David fall and rescues him from the water before Joe himself is apprehended. While in the water, David sees what he is sure is the place where The Blue Fairy lives, and he takes the amphibicopter there. The Blue Fairy is a statue in the Pinocchio section of a storybook park in Coney Island. David lands the copter directly in front of the statue of The Blue Fairy, but the copter becomes pinned under a collapsing Ferris wheel David had disturbed during his descent. In what could be the second possible ending to the film, we could easily leave David here, endlessly repeating a prayer to The Blue Fairy to make him a real boy, while the amphibicopter’s lights die and the ocean slowly freezes around him.

We are given a further coda to the story, though. 2000 years later, David is discovered in the ice by the far advanced mecha of the future that has long outlived and evolved beyond the humans that they were initially been built to serve. It’s these evolved mecha that revive David, allowing him to finally get out of the amphibicopter to touch The Blue Fairy, which promptly shatters to pieces in his hands. The evolved mecha are interested in David as an ancient mecha from the time when humans were still alive, but, as becomes clear, as they access his memories and are able to download and share his experiences amongst one another, they also empathize with him. This is truly the first time in the story that anyone has truly been able to empathize with David. The crowd at the Flesh Fair came close, but their outrage at how he was treated was rooted in them believing he was actually a human child. These evolved mecha share a lineage with David, and like him, can think, and feel, and dream for themselves.

It’s from empathy for him that they attempt to give David something like what has been driving him all along. They give him a living dream where for one day they are able to recreate a replica of Monica, sort of briefly pulling her through time thanks to a lock of her hair. For just one day David would get to experience his mother’s love for him. And he does. They have a perfect day together, and as she fades as the day ends, he puts her to bed, she tells him that she loves him and always has. And with that seemingly perfect moment, David goes to sleep by her side, shutting himself down for both the first and last time.

It’s this final section of the ending that many found so hard to swallow because it felt like a tacked-on happy ending, but I don’t think that really appreciates just how little David actually achieves of what he was striving for. Prof. Hobby doesn’t help him, instead of focusing on wanting to study what David’s become. The Blue Fairy doesn’t make him a real boy, that dream literally crumbles in his hands. When The Blue Fairy appears to him in his perfect daydream, she is actually voiced by one of the evolved Mecha, who explicitly tells David that she cannot make him a real boy. David doesn’t really get Monica back in any meaningful sense. He gets a simulation of her, that, no matter how literally you want to take the evolved mecha’s explanation that they’ve pulled Monica through time to live this day with him, it is still the Monica that in her own timeline will abandon David as soon as he becomes inconvenient. David does get this one perfect happy day, but when it’s over he lets himself die because this is the best he can ever hope for.

There is some happiness to this ending, but saccharine it most certainly is not. Each of the three sections of the ending serves a function. David is at his loneliest and most hopeless when he is let down by Prof. Hobby. He rallies when he sees The Blue Fairy, but he has to sit in his solitary prayer for two millennia. His prayer is finally answered, but not by The Blue Fairy, which crumbles to pieces in his hands. He gets to have his magical happy day with Monica, he gets to hear her tell him that she loves him and always has, but this is still the Monica that will go on to abandon him in her future. The most genuine love, empathy, and compassion that David is given are actually from the evolved mecha who brings Monica back for him, who we also realize are narrating David’s story. As a real parent should, it’s the evolved mecha who care for David without condition, and without asking anything from him in return. For me, the ending of A.I. Is a happy one, in that David is finally loved and accepted exactly as he is, but the ending is also complex and bittersweet in that it’s not really by Monica that he is accepted, but rather by the evolved mecha, the real Blue Fairies who finally grant his wish.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.



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