a film by Steven Spielberg

Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards and William Hurt. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg and Bonnie Curtis. Written by Steven Spielberg. Distributor:Dreamworks

The story told by Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick in AI is an old one, but it bears little resemblance to the source tale, "Super Toys Last All Summer Long," by the legendary Brian W. Aldiss. To the extent that AI focuses on anything, it's about an android named David (Haley Joel Osment) who wants to be a "real boy." He's a prototype created to replace the dying son of a young couple in a near-future world where the advent of global warming has placed severe restrictions on childrearing. David is cybernetically "imprinted" on his adoptive mother, activating the subroutines that cause him to love her-deeply, genuinely, and forever. Inevitably, the dying son makes a recovery and returns, and David is cast out. If only he could become a real human boy, he thinks, then he could return home, to his mother's love. Thus begins David's quest.

David, in other words, is Pinocchio.

That makes for an okay story and an okay movie. But let me get something out of my system right now. Artificial intelligence, when it emerges, is unlikely to be of the same "flavor" as human intelligence, at least in the beginning. Even if it were, the problems it would present would not be the ones addressed in this film. Spielberg and Kubrick have touched on two very old and closely related questions that are, in my view, beside the point. Given that we can imbue our creations with sentience and emotion, will we also be able to afford them that elusive thing called "humanity," or, even more problematically, "spirit?" And however it is that you answer that question, what is the ethically correct way to deal with those creations? Are they deserving of the same basic rights and decency we accord one another?

Those two questions are just greasy kid's stuff. The first one is so wrapped up in its own semiotic baggage as to be intractable--meaningless, even. And the answer to the second question isn't just painfully obvious. It may also be irrelevant--the basic rights and decency humans should accord other sentient beings in principle can be awfully hard to come by in practice. Just look at the way we treat other.

No, the real problem with the creation of sentient silicon is much more devastating. The emergence of an artificial intelligence that matches or surpasses the human mind in both cognitive prowess and emotional depth will confront us with the unthinkable: if machines can puzzle and question and love and hate and feel pain, then you don't need some ghostly spark to explain consciousness. All you need is a sufficiently elaborate thinking machine, whether it's made of silicon and steel or neurons and nucleotides. Descartes had it only half right, and the truth is far more awesome and sublime than spooks in the clockwork. The real mystery is that a machine can be conscious without a soul, but (trust me on this) many people won't see it that way. The emergence of an artificial sentient will be another crack in the edifice of the reactionary anthropocentricism that is hanging on for dear life with all the fundamentalist savagery it can muster. It won't be pretty.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Hollywood doesn't want to go anywhere near that line of thought.

Oh, sure, AI portrays the cruelty and injustice that humans are innately inclined to heap on anything (or anyone) they percieve as "other." Soon after he's set adrift in the world, David and his newfound friend, a synthe-gigolo on the lam (Jude Law) find themselves on the playbill for a "Flesh Fair." This is a sort of 21st century devolution to the horrors of the Coliseum, in which androids are creatively destroyed for the entertainment of humans. But the film seems oddly detached from its subject matter here, as if it were afraid to come right out and call it evil. So instead of leaving us with the flavor of Christians fed to the lions, we find this lurid spectacle only a little less repugnant than professional wrestling. And the resolution of this crisis is so contrived and unconvincing that it actually pissed me off--as if the entire audience of a WWF Smackdown spontaneously realized they were watching trash, turned their backs on the performers, joined hands and sang Koom Ba Ya.

And yet. ..Sullydog approves. It's a tough call. The film is almost as interesting for its shortcomings as for its strengths. It never allows itself to devolve into a Summer Kid's Movie, which it easily could have done (and much to its benefit at the box office, I'd wager). But it never quite grows up and takes a hard look at its subject matter, either. It asks us important questions as if they were new, but it offers no answers, easy or otherwise. Spielberg has done a marvelous job of suppressing some of his own excesses--in favor of Kubrickian excesses. We can almost convince ourselves that Stanley made this movie. The photography is luminous and soft. The pacing is stately--and often plodding. The music is exactly what Kubrick would have used. The storyline is all over the place, moving from a solid premise to a succession of increasingly bizarre fairy-tale scenarios. And the film is too long by half.

I've heard through the grapevine that Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and oracle who most recently penned The Age of Spiritual Machines (a book you should go and read immediately) rather liked this movie. That's a bit curious, because Kurzweil is a cyber-prophet given to breathtaking speculation about the "accelerating acceleration" of infotech, the emergence of artificial life and artificial intelligence, and the explosion of new flavors of synthetic consciousness and spirituality. AI isn't about any of that stuff, nor does it really address the challenges they pose for "humanity." In the final analyis, AI is just a high-tech fairy tale, as the filmakers themselves go to great pains to tell us. It's an allegory of the human search for identity and love.

That puts it in good company. Blade Runner wasn't speculation about a world with androids so much as an allegory of man trying to come to terms with his maker. As allegory, both films work, to differing degrees. Both movies are worthwhile, gorgeous and engrossing, but while Blade Runner poses deeply troubling questions of the sort that just don't play in Peoria, AI settles for platitudes, and leaves the divine spark of humanity securely on its pedestal.

I'm still waiting for the cinema to bring me an sf film in which man looks into the eyes of his creation and sees himself--a machine whose "spark" comes only from the emergent workings of its components. I suspect I'll be waiting a long time.

Pinocchio meets Bicentennial Man.

Sullydog approves.

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