Steven Spielberg's Masterpiece of Kitsch

The film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a Stanley Kubrick conception that was midwifed into existence by Steven Spielberg after the former’s passing, was met with favorable, though mixed reviews upon its release. American moviegoers, probably expecting the kinder, gentler fare more characteristic of Spielberg’s defining works, were often nonplussed by what many found to be an odd and gloomy film. A.I. has, to a large extent, been forgotten, by both fans of Spielberg and Kubrick. Generally, I can’t disagree with this popular consensus; A.I. is an odd film, indeed. It is flawed in execution and suffers from some of the worst tendencies of the schmaltzy and declining Spielberg. I will contend, nevertheless, that this cryptic work is, in its way, one of the most ambitious and disturbing efforts of two cinematic masters.

Released in 2001, A.I. was visually spectacular, and it remains one of the more successful attempts at integrating CGI with live action. The film’s deeper meaning, however, is revealed through its plotting and symbology; to understand this, one should revisit its storyline, which fluctuates between futurism and fairytale.

A.I. is set in a world where the icecaps have melted due to manmade global warming. This has caused catastrophic global flooding and changes in weather patterns. As a result, most of the important coastal cities have been lost to the advancing sea, and populations have retreated inland. These changes have also led to a dearth of resources that has annihilated Third World societies. The survivors of the First World live in a civilization that is, on the one hand, full of techno gadgets and utopian material advances and, on the other, still scared by ecological and social collapse.

To meet labor demands, Westerners have invested in the development of highly advanced robots, which require much less resource to sustain than humans. Increasingly, these robots have come to closely resemble human beings, not only in appearance but in their ability to process reality.

The film follows the travails of one particular robot, or “Mecha,” named David (who’s played by the remarkable child actor Haley Joel Osment). David is a sort of “Adam,” a prototype designed to possess a true human sentience or, as described by his creators, “the [genuine] ability to love.”

David is introduced into a human family as a surrogate child. It is a family whose only son has been rendered comatose, suffering from a seemingly incurable condition. David, as programed, develops a strong emotional attachment to his human mother, and the mother, to him. One day, the family’s human child miraculously recovers and, when he returns home, a sort of sibling rivalry ensues between robot and boy. (In this rivalry, the human boy emerges as the the real villain; David, as designed, is nothing if not guileless, innocent, and kind.)

As part of this rivalry, the human child maliciously and subtly teases David by introducing him to the fable of Pinocchio, in which a puppet is turned into a real boy by “the Blue Fairy.” A seed is planted in David’s mind, and, unable to distinguish fairytale from reality, the robot concludes that if only he could find the Blue Fairy, he could be made human—and thus be loved by his mother in the same way she loves her flesh and blood.

Eventually, David unwittingly proves himself a safety hazard to his human sibling, and the decision is made to destroy the robot. However, the mother of the family is unable to execute the plan because of David’s uncanny likeness to a real child; she instead sets him free in a nearby wood. Devastated with grief, she imparts these final words of advice: “Stay away from Flesh Fairs. Stay away from all people… . Only Mechas are safe.” (The mother seems aware of the “inhumanity” of her people when compared to the gentleness of robots.)

Abandoned and alone, David clings fast to his hope of one day becoming a real boy and returning to his mother. Hence begins David’s quest for the Blue Fairy and his journey through a human civilization in deep crisis.

Despite his human mother’s warning, David is soon captured by a wild vigilante gang of humans. He is placed in an “Anti-Mecha Flesh Fair,” an event in which obsolete and unlicensed (undocumented?) robots are destroyed on stage in front of cheering throngs of humans.

While imprisoned and awaiting destruction, the naïve David asks his fellow robots for an explanation of what is happening. "History repeats itself!” is the answer he receives from a wizened old model, who goes on to explain that their persecution is a consequence of a conflict between “electricity and blood.” Here, David also meets his companion for much of the rest of the film, “Gigolo Joe,” a robot played brilliantly by Jude Law.

The anti-Mecha humans are a vaguely Midwestern and lower-middle-class lot (the tone of the setting is like that of a Country Music concert or tractor pull). They are led by a demagogue, who tells the crowd that it is the intention of the societal elite to replace humans with ever more sophisticated robots (a fear that will be dramatically vindicated). When it is David’s turn to be liquidated, he pleas for mercy: “Don’t burn me! Don’t burn me!” Both his cries and his uncanny similarity to a real boy sway the crowd, which demands he be spared. David (along with Gigolo Joe) thus barely evade being made a holocaust in the humans’ crude ritual. In a sort of “civil rights” moment for robots, the rabble rises up against its demagogic ringleader, allowing David and Gigolo Joe an opportunity to escape the pogrom.

Mecha at the Flesh Fair

Mecha at the Flesh Fair

I don’t use the word “holocaust” frivolously. Is is an ancient Biblical term meaning “a sacrificial offering that is burned completely on an altar,” and, within the context of this scene and the film, Spielberg is likely evoking images of sacrificial offerings as well as the “Holocaust” of the Second World War.

Like David, Joe was also designed as a playmate, only he is for adults. In A.I.’s version of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Rouge City,” Gigolo Joe was employed as a sex toy for lonely middle-aged women. Joe’s “game” is, of course, crass and degenerate; but Spielberg also make clear that Joe represents a kind of upgrade on humanity. In Joe’s words, “Once you’ve had a lover robot, You’ll never want a real man again.”

Joe makes a point of relating this truth to David in front of a kitschy Catholic Church ensconced in the sin of Rogue City. According to Joe, the mortal women (shiksas?) go to the Church to seek their Creator, yet when they emerge, they invariably seek out Gigolo Joe for more earthly salvation. Importantly, the reason the robotic duo had stopped in front of the church is because David mistook an image of the Virgin Mary for the magical Blue Fairy. It is a comparison, I am certain, Spielberg makes quite deliberately.

Gigolo Joe is on the run from the law and is scheduled for imprisonment (he was framed by a jealous human for the murder of one of his return clients). And his words of wisdom to David regarding humans are similar in sentiment to the advice David received from his human mother: “They hate us, you know. The humans. And will stop at nothing to destroy us.” When David insists that Joe is wrong and that his mother loves him, Joe corrects him: "She loves what you do for her. As my customers love what I do for them. But she does not love you. You are neither flesh, nor blood.”[1] Joe continues,

They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us…

Despite his “sexbot” appearance, Joe makes a profound and prophetic assessment—and one that is the key to understanding A.I. The root of human hatred of robots is not so much fear as envy—envy of a superior “humanity.” Joe also foresees that the meek Mecha will inherit the earth. (Despite all this, David holds fast to the feeling that his human mother loves him and insists on continuing his quest to find the Blue Fairy.)

Later in the film, when Joe is finally captured by the authorities and being hauled away for extermination, he identifies himself, cryptically, to David: “I am.” Then, comically, as he is dragged away: “I was.” (This is not the only place in the film in which the dialogue and imagery shift away from sci-fi realism and take on a kind of fairly tale or esoteric hue.)

This expression “I am,” uttered as a self-identification, has a very specific religious meaning. It is the name that God uses to identify himself to Moses in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 3:14), and it is a frequent expression in the Torah as the name of God. The Jewish conception of God is that God is synonymous, first and foremost, with the Jewish people; hence every Jew is also God (or a part of him). Is Gigolo Joe identifying himself as a Jew? Perhaps metaphorically … unless, of course, the robots are the metaphor.

Eventually, David’s quest for the Blue Fairy ends when he encounters her in the form of a statue amid the submerged ruins of the Coney Island amusement park. There he sits in a submersible vehicle, baptized by the ocean, vainly praying to this watery siren (an “idol,” which you’ll remember, has already been explicitly compared to the Virgin Mary). Alas, his innate nature is such that a “conversion” is impossible.

David's devotion

David's devotion

Two thousand years pass—the length of time between the birth of Christ and the making of the film—and the ocean freezes around him … as he prays, endlessly, hoping to become “real.”

After the ice age, David is excavated by a race of highly evolved Mecha. They are, in fact, Mecha descended from David’s own race of robots. Two thousand years later, carbon-based civilization has been replaced by silicon. Intriguingly, much like the aliens of Close Encounters of a Third Kind, in physical form, these advanced robots tend to remind one of emaciated prison-camp inmates, with an aura of both long suffering and benevolence.

The Aliens of *Close Encounters of the Third Kind*

The Aliens of *Close Encounters of the Third Kind*

Soon it is revealed that humans have gone extinct. Anti-Mecha fears and Joe’s prophecies have proven accurate. Effectively, humans birthed a species that became better than themselves through scientific (or religious and “ethical”?) development. Man lost a competition for dominance in much the same way species may develop a subspecies of itself through mutation, and then lose a struggle for survival against it.

Tapping into David’s memories, these evolved Mecha are able to recreate the setting of his human home. They are even able, at his request, to resurrect his human mother through the DNA of one of her locks of hair (which David’s teddy bear companion has preserved). The rub: she’ll only last a day, at the end of which she’ll die. In a scene suggestive of rabbinical counseling, an advanced Mecha gently explains to David the terms of this interaction before gaining his consent. The ensuing scenes, where loving mother and loving child spend their last joyous but fleeting day together, like a macabre cereal commercial, are undoubtedly Spielberg at his most mawkish and manipulative.

When the mother passes away into oblivion at the end of the day, little David lies next to her in bed (in what, in Freudian terms, could be seen as an Oedipal victory over an absent father). David drifts off to sleep, suggesting that he has finally become a real boy … a mortal … which means that he, too, will cease to exist. As the narrator describes it: “And for the first time in his life, he went to where dreams are born.”

In embracing Mother—humanity, the Blue Fairy, the Virgin Mary—David has converted to a faith that promises a selfish personal afterlife, but which will ensure he does not inherit the earth, as do others of his kind.

So what has just happened here?

Is A.I. merely another cautionary tale of technological development gone amok? Is it merely an arty variation of “robot apocalypse” movies like James Cameron’s Terminator series?[2]

Or is there, as one strongly senses, a deeper metaphor at work? Who are these manmade robots? These rejected and cast-out Golems, who—unlike the Golems of Rabbinic fables (among whom Adam and Eve are included)—prove more intelligent and divine than their creators? Who are these beings that are both irresistible saints and irresistible entertainers (and smarter, more industrious and productive workers, endlessly capable of adapting, “progressing,” and evolving)? Who are these descendants of “David,” prophesied to inherit the earth while all other nations of man are cursed by God are destroyed (and destroyed in a flood of Biblical proportions)?

And what are we to make of the striking Anglo-ness of Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment? Is this casting simply an effort to more deeply conceal an esoteric message? Or is it an abstruse form of scapegoating (much like that carried out by the Gentile Martin Scorsese in the film The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort)? (The term “scapegoating” derives from the ancient Jewish practice of figuratively placing the sins of the tribe onto a goat and then sacrificing the animal. Thus the goat, like Christ, dies for the tribe’s sins, thereby absolving it.) Or perhaps this casting speaks to how “robots” have come to so closely resemble “humans,” though not, as we learn, in their ultimate evolution? (Or maybe Spielberg simply wanted to get butts in the seats by casting cute actors?)

Whatever the case, Spielberg (using images and ideas from Kubrick) has created a work of potentially great longevity (despite its current obscurity), largely because he has imbued A.I. with esoteric elements analogous to those in Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the ancient myths of Scandinavia, Rome, Greece, and Judea.

A.I. is certainly not high art; nevertheless, I imagine that it will have a staying power, whereas better films will prove ephemeral. After all, when one reviews the Biblical oeuvre, one is struck by the innumerable instances of crude, convoluted, unimaginative, and simply soporific tales—which have, nevertheless, remained touchstones in Jewish and Occidental cultures because they are imbedded in peoples’ ethnic and religious understandings of themselves.

In other words, Spielberg and Kubrick have created a story with an exoteric value— that is, the sci-fi, CGI-laden, sentimental “entertainment” that is consumed by the masses—and one that simultaneously carries an esoteric meaning—which speaks to those parties with ears to hear.

Kubrick decided well before his death that he would not be the director of A.I., and he considered Spielberg’s aesthetic far better suited to dealing with a child-centered story (which, as mentioned, even includes a robotic teddy-bear). Certainly, the “coldness” in much of the film (at least in comparison to Spielberg’s other offerings) would have been greatly magnified had Kubrick helmed the project (and it would have likely turned off a great deal of the movie-going public). As a director, Kubrick’s interests were never in “humanizing” protagonists; his cinematic world is one of “de-humanization,” in which landscape, color, and abstract ideas overwhelm the drama. Kubrick was also a master at wryly and caustically satirizing his protagonists’ “authoritarian personalities” (most notably in Paths to Glory, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket).

Spielberg, on the other hand, had E.T. on his résumé, the heart-warmer about a trans-galactic immigrant who was more “human” than the humans. (E.T. was also a parable, and, in retrospect, Spielberg’s rehearsal for A.I..) This was likely Kubrick’s real motivation for selecting Spielberg: to create a protagonist that audiences could feel deserved, in some way, to outlive humans. And certainly, handing the film to Spielberg gave Kubrick’s vision greater salience in the world: more eyes would see it, and thus more kindred minds might understand it. Additionally, if the film was, in fact, intended to carry the esoteric message I’ve suggested, Spielberg is a most subtle vehicle for delivering it. Kubrick is a darling of film buffs and academics, and his works are picked apart endlessly for possible esoteric meanings.[3] A Spielberg movie, on the other hand, is “just a movie,” that is, art that can be passively absorbed by audiences and critics without undergoing much deep analysis.

A.I. thus represents a rare synthesis: the originator of the film’s mythos and ideas—which are shocking and disturbing in unmediated form—had the self-awareness and honesty to hand the project off to another director who, though inferior as an artist, was much better skilled at imbuing the film with entertainment value and “innocence.” And it is fitting that Kubrick and Spielberg carried forth this work together, like Biblical scribes, as it is a story bigger than either one of them. The exoteric myth of A.I. is that of Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to become a real boy; the esoteric myth is that of Exodus, in which the Chosen People must flee a persecuting and degenerate society, which is, afterwards, destroyed by “God” or “I Am”.[4]

Those who wish for a rebirth of Occidental civilization would be wise to follow this example and learn the importance of collaboration—and of finding the right messenger. A.I. is a masterpieces of kitsch. Let us strive to make masterpieces of high art!

  1. In the midst of this tirade, one is tempted to wonder if Spielberg feels the same of his audiences, for whom he furnished entertainment, moral instruction, and enlightenment, even while, perhaps, believing himself to be envied and reviled by these very same ungrateful hypocrites.  ↩

  2. In these films, Cameron predicts that Austrian-accented Nazi robots will inherit the earth … quite a different vision to Spielberg’s!).  ↩

  3. Incidentally, A.I. compels another look at the more opaque 2001: A Space Odyssey.  ↩

  4. In this effort, Spielberg and Kubrick remind me of a less cohesive, less complementary version of the Cohen Brothers, who are, likewise, deeply convinced of shared goals and through a effective, close, and egoless collaboration have brought into the world works they feel serve a purpose larger than themselves.  ↩