Rarely has a remake felt more contractually obligated than the 2015 version of Poltergeist.
Stanley Kubrick always referred to the story as "Pinocchio." It mirrored the tale of a puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. And what, after all, is an android but a puppet with a computer program pulling its strings? The project that eventually became Steven Spielberg's "A. I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001) was abandoned by Kubrick because he wasn't satisfied with his approaches to its central character, David, an android who appears to be a real little boy. Believing special effects wouldn't be adequate and a human actor would seem too human, he turned the project over to his friend Spielberg. Legend has it he made that decision after being impressed by Spielberg's special effects in "Jurassic Park," but perhaps "E. T." was also an influence: If Spielberg could create an alien who evoked human emotions, could he do the same with an android?
He could. As David, he cast Haley Joel Osment, who had scored a great success in "The Sixth Sense" (1999). Osment's presence is a crucial element in the film; other androids, including Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) are made to look artificial with makeup and unmoving hair, but not David. He is the most advanced "mecha" of the Cybertronics Corporation -- so human that he can perhaps take the place of a couple's sick child. Spielberg and Osment work together to create David with unblinking eyes and deep naïveté; he seems a real little boy but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. This reality works both for and against the film, at first by making David seem human and later by making him seem a very slow study.
David has been programmed to love. Once he is activated with a code, he fixes on the activator, in this case his Mommy (Frances O'Connor). He exists to love her and be loved by her. Because he is a very sophisticated android indeed, there's a natural tendency for us to believe him on that level. In fact he does not love and does not feel love; he simply reflects his coding. All of the love contained in the film is possessed by humans, and I didn't properly reflected this in my original review of the film.
"We are expert at projecting human emotions into non-human subjects, from animals to clouds to computer games," I wrote in 1991, "but the emotions reside only in our minds. 'A. I.' evades its responsibility to deal rigorously with this trait and goes for an ending that wants us to cry, but had me asking questions just when I should have been finding answers."
That is true enough on the principal level of the film, which tells David's story. Watching it again recently, I became aware of something more: "A. I." is not about humans at all. It is about the dilemma of artificial intelligence. A thinking machine cannot think. All it can do is run programs that may be sophisticated enough for it to fool us by seeming to think. A computer that passes the Turing Test is not thinking. All it is doing is passing the Turing Test.
The first act of the film involves Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor). Henry brings David home to fill the gap left by their own sick little boy, Martin (Jake Thomas). Monica resists him, and then accepts him. But after Jake is awakened from suspended animation and cured, there is a family of four; Jake is fully aware that David is a product, but David doesn't understand everything that implies. Possibly his programming didn't prepare him to deal one-on-one in real time with real boys. He can't spend all of his time loving Mommy and being loved by her.
He imitates life. He doesn't sleep, but he observes bedtime. He doesn't eat, but so strong is his desire to be like Martin that he damages his wiring by shoving spinach into his mouth. He's treated with cruelty by other kids; when he reveals he doesn't pee, a kid grabs his pants and says, "Let's see what you don't pee with." After faithfully following his instructions in such a way that he nearly drowns Martin, he loses the trust of the Swintons and they decide to get rid of him, just as parents might get rid of a dangerous dog.
Monica cannot bring herself to return David to Cybertronics. She pauses on the way and releases him into a forest, where he can join other free-range mechas. He will not die. He doesn't get cold, he doesn't get hungry, and apparently he has an indefinite supply of fuel. Monica's decision to release him instead of turning him in is based on her lingering identification with David; in activating him to love her, she activated herself to love him. His unconditional love must have been deeply appealing. We relate to pets in a similar way, especially to dogs, who seem to have been activated by evolution to love us.
The center act of the movie shows David wandering a world where mechas have no rights. He is accompanied by his mecha bear, Teddy, who is programmed to be a wise companion, and they are discovered by Gigolo Joe, a mecha programmed to be an expert lover. They visit two hallucinatory places designed by Spielberg on huge sound stages. One is a Flesh Fair, not unlike a WWF event, at which humans cheer as mechas are grotesquely destroyed. David, Joe and Teddy escape, probably because of their survival programming, but is David is dismayed by what he sees? How does he relate to the destruction of his kind?
Then there is Rouge City, sort of a psychedelic Universal City, where Joe takes him to consult a Wizard. Having been fascinated by the story of Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, David has reasoned that a Blue Fairy might be able to transform him into a human and allow Monica to love him and be loved. The Wizard gives him a clue. After Joe and David capture a flying machine, they visit New York, which like many coastal cities has been drowned by global warming. But on an upper floor of Rockefeller Center, he finds that Cybertronics still operates, and he meets the scientist who created him, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt). Hobby is Geppetto to David's Pinocchio.
Now again there are events which contradict David's conception of himself. In an eerie scene, he comes across a storeroom containing dozens of Davids who look just like him. Is he devastated? Does he thrash out at them? No, he remains possessed. He is still focused on his quest for the Blue Fairy, who can make him a real little boy. But why, we may ask, does he want to be real so very much? Is it because of envy, hurt or jealousy? No, he doesn't seem to possess such emotions--or any emotions, save those he is programmed to counterfeit. I assume he wants to be a real boy for abstract reasons of computer logic. To fulfill his mission to love and be loved by Mommy, he concludes he should be like Martin, who Mommy prefers. This involves no more emotion than Big Blue determining its next move in chess.
In the final act, events take David and Teddy in a submersible to the drowned Coney Island, where they find not only Geppetto's workshop but a Blue Fairy. A collapsing Ferris wheel pins the submarine, and there they remain, trapped and immobile, for 2,000 years, as above them an ice age descends and humans become extinct. David is finally rescued by a group of impossibly slender beings that might be aliens, but are apparently very advanced androids. For them, David is an incalculable treasure: "He is the last who knew humans." From his mind they download all of his memories, and they move him into an exact replica of his childhood home. This reminded me of the bedroom beyond Jupiter constructed for Dave by aliens in Kubrick's "2001." It has the same purpose, to provide a familiar environment in an incomprehensible world. It allows these beings, like the unseen beings in "2001," to observe and learn from behavior.
Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are "problematical," go over the top, and raise questions they aren't prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David's. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let's assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.
After some pseudoscientific legerdemain involving a lock of Monica's hair, they are able to bring her back after 2,000 years of death--but only for 24 hours, which is all the space-time continuum permits. Do they do this to make David happy? No, because would they care? And is a computer happier when it performs its program than when it does not? No. It is either functioning or not functioning. It doesn't know how it feels.
Here is how I now read the film: These new generation mechas are advanced enough to perceive that they cannot function with humans in the absence of humans, and I didn't properly reflect this in my original review of the film. David is their only link to the human past. Whatever can be known about them, he is an invaluable source. In watching his 24 hours with Mommy, they observe him functioning at the top of his ability.
Of course we must ask in what sense Monica is really there. The filmmaker Jamie Stuart informs me she is not there at all; that an illusion has merely been implanted in David's mind, and that the concluding scenes take place entirely within David's point of view. Having downloaded all of David's memories and knowledge, the new mechas have no further use for him, but provide him a final day of satisfaction before terminating him. At the end, when we are told he is dreaming, that is only David's impression. Earlier in the film, it was established that he could not sleep or therefore dream.
Why would one mecha care if another obtained satisfaction? What meaning is there in giving David 24 hours of bliss? If machines cannot feel, what does the closing sequence really mean? I believe it suggests the new mechas are trying to construct a mecha that they can love. They would play Mommy to their own Davids. And that mecha will love them. What does love mean in this context? No more, no less, than check, or mate, or π. That is the fate of Artificial Intelligence. No Mommy will ever, ever love them.
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