“I am convinced that there is not a god.” – Douglas Adams, novelist
“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.” – Alan Perlis, computer scientist
Millions have starved to death. As sea levels creep further inland, pregnancies of the privileged survivors are licensed by the state. Robots are the servile class, made to satisfy the economic and sexual needs of humans.
In a room at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, high above the drowned streets, a robotics professor stabs a woman and then orders her to undress. She complies without hesitation. He opens up her face and dismantles the brain, illustrating her shortcomings to his laughing colleagues – all healthy and wealthy. The professor will set about creating a robot to succeed where humans have failed: always loving, never ill, never changing. After the automation of every other human desire, a robot child will finally fulfill the demand for love. His name is David.
In 2001, the year that launched both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, I was 12 years old. That summer, I saw A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film that kick-started a lifelong interest in how filmmakers imagine the future. This is a corner of cinema overwhelmingly populated by dystopia; the world of the future is conceived around its end.
For my generation, of course, the apocalypse is not only a theoretical storyworld but a fast approaching certainty. It’s as real as the robots that take us there.
Unfeeling, unblinking, uncomprehending of the worth of a human life, they are out to get us. Gouging out our eyes. Opening airlock doors to predatory forces. Refusing to open airlock doors for vulnerable humans. Even living in the present isn’t safe – robots will still come here from the future and hunt us down. If we take futuristic cinema at its word, then the supremacy of artificial intelligence is as inevitable as the longevity of capitalism. Under both, we are doomed.
Each week another billionaire insists that artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to our species, not acknowledging the irreversible damage already set in motion by a pre-Singularity world. Doesn’t it ring a little hollow to blame our certain doom on robots that don’t even exist yet?
On the other hand: a robot in the shape of a 12-year-old boy learns to feel love. It’s an idea that sounds mawkish and phony - the last thing you’d expect from Stanley Kubrick, who developed it for years. After Kubrick’s death, the project was taken up by Steven Spielberg, the faery king of artifice himself, and in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence was met by critics with a resounding ‘meh’.
The film’s awkward mix of action, sci-fi, family drama, and fairy tale had produced an uncomfortably melancholy film. The same technology that made dinosaurs look so real made humans look odd and unnerving. The slopes of the uncanny valley are steep and hard to scale.
Yet, when 12-year-old me left a screening of the film my eyes were wide in excitement and my body was trembling in fear. I had seen the future.
The David project fails. The robot child loves his adoptive mother with an unseemly sincerity, and she abandons him in the woods with his gravelly supertoy Teddy. Joining other discarded robots, he is captured by a balloon resembling the moon (appearances are not to be trusted). He is taken to a Flesh Fair, where the destruction of the economically useless is a violent spectacle of mass entertainment. Chainsaws, cannons, buckets of acid: it is, they proudly declare, a ‘commitment to a truly human future.’
None is more human than the hulking master of ceremonies Lord Johnson-Johnson, the very vision of excessive corporeality. He addresses a braying crowd of fellow humans—merely reduced as a unit to their cheers and grasping arms—declaring his mission to demolish artificiality. His lines could be ripped from a piece by one of Spielberg’s more vicious critics:
‘Do not be fooled by the artistry of this creation. No doubt there was talent in the crafting of this simulator. Yet, with the very first strike, you will see the big lie come apart before your very eyes.’
Here they are, the humans we will become, so bloated and angry in their ivory tower, so merciless, so ugly, so tragically involved. Can’t they see that this is a movie?
Artificiality is never demolished, though. Not entirely. Enter Gigolo Joe, an all-dancing, all-shagging robot prostitute. One-hundred years of Hollywood glamour poured into the beautiful shape of Jude Law – an actor whose staccato charms are the perfect fit for a character who represents human emotions without understanding their meaning.
Joe is a hundred times more perfect than his clumsy, fleshly audience could ever hope to be. Smooth skin. Sculpted hair. Wide grin. He’s practically a movie star. He skips a soft shoe down iniquitous alleyways, trading in vice with the mirth of an ice cream vendor. The pinpoint precision of Gene Kelly soldered to the cheerful hedonism of John Waters. Joe is at the Flesh Fair not because he’s defective, but because he’s been framed for murder – suffering the sins of the human world.
Also at the Flesh Fair is Teddy, left behind and taken to the lost & found box. As his human handler fumbles for the off switch, Teddy’s plaintive questions go ignored:
‘Do you know David? Where’s David? Can you help me find David? I have to find David. Are you taking me to David?’
That calm, monotonous baritone – where have we heard that before?
‘I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
More than any other image, the terror of post-human intelligence is embodied by HAL 9000 and his lifeless red gaze. Eliminate the unnecessary. Discard sympathy. Assume control. For Kubrick, 2001 was the year artificial intelligence would destroy irrational human life. Deviate from the operational imperative and you will be undone.
Spielberg’s robots, on the other hand, know no such fealty to correctness. They alone, unbothered by separating the real from the phony, are capable of unconditional love and unrestrained passion. They whisper to each other, passing on the streets between homes and hotels, in the holding cages of the Flesh Fair: humans are not to be trusted. Humans are blinded by the actual, and don’t know the value of pretense.
Kubrick never lived to see 2001. Spielberg and I did. We were not living the clean, ordered lives of astronauts. We had not become healthy specimens advancing the species with reason and cunning. Such visions of the future have diminished and dystopia has overtaken science fiction at such a pace that it is almost keeping up with reality.
Millions are starving. Sea levels are rising. The wealthy build their barricades. Those defective beings who do not or cannot work are discarded with spectacular violence. Truly, this is the future that I was promised. Spielberg found 12-year-old me in that theatre and gently, insistently showed it to me: an unkind, drowned world where innocence is punished and reviled. But it’s not because benevolent humanity has been confounded by robotic cruelty. Humans are given every freedom that sci-fi can offer, and they still outsource love to their machines. It was then that I was told: the future depends on your capacity to care.
‘Originality without purpose is a white elephant,’ says Lord Johnson-Johnson, as the buckets of acid are refilled and a boy who loves too much is placed center stage.
David’s journey continues. He finds cities unfit for children. The world is not loving. His dreams are not possible. He is not special. Distraught, he throws himself from the same skyscraper where he was built. A robot can learn to understand the value of a life, and then to take his own.
He descends to the bottom of the ocean that humans invited upon their own metropolis, and finds the words once upon a time. Trapped in a watery grave, he dies out eternally begging his fictional savior, the Blue Fairy, to make him real.
Then finally, the reviled coda. We launch forward 2,000 years – not with the throw of a bone but with a dissolve that softly signifies the death of every human on Earth. Post-human beings offer a temporary resurrection, and the robot child gets his wish for one perfect day with his mother. The proverbial happy ending: cloying, mushy, and fake.
But what is real? Humans and their jealousies, their violence, their inevitable deaths? Their allegiance to intangible forces instead of one another? Their abhorrence for uselessness?
Where would we be if the only material available to use were that which already exists?
We need fabrication, artificiality, playacting, because without them we lack the imagination to even conceive of a desirable future at all. This river will flow to where we choose to divert it, if only we can build the tools to do so.
Will we be the humans tearing apart those who cannot fight back, who cannot justify themselves? Or will we be the ones living for love, for pleasure, for possibility?
Spielberg’s dystopian vision retains a sincere humanity at its heart even while acknowledging that that heart isn’t beating. I can hear his quiet, pained rallying cry for artifice. He enticed me into the cinema of the future with the same words that lead David to his blissfully counterfeit resolution:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in London. He watches a lot of arthouse movies but mostly talks about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.