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The Kubrick Corner

PART 14: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

PART 1: More than meets the eye
Introduction to themes
The Kuleshov effect
Kubrick as cold rationalist
PART 2: Opening Shots
The Kubrick Aesthetic & Spectatorship Theory
Concept Art and Storyboards
Kubrick's bathrooms
Dinner with Stanley
PART 3: The Killing
Simultaneity and Overlap
The Unknown Kubrick
The Early Films
PART 4: Paths of Glory
Creation and Destruction
PART 5: Spartacus
I Viddied Spartacus
PART 6: Lolita
Michael Ciment on Lolita
1962 Kubrick interview
PART 7: Dr Strangelove
War and Sex
PART 8: 2001: A Space Odyssey
A Cold Descent
SF Capital
Three Metamorphoses
PART 9: A Clockwork Orange
Alex as artist
Crime and Punishment
The Decor Of Tomorrow's Hell
Spectacle and Violence
PART 10: Barry Lyndon Reconsidered
The Vanity of Existence
Narrative and Discourse
Kubrick's Narrator and "The higher aesthetic"
PART 11: Imperfect Symmetries
Animal friends
Historicism and Hauntology
4 Articles
The Uncanny
PART 12: Deconstructing Masculinity
The Jungian Thing
Kubrick's Ulterior War
AMK Essays
Who am I?
Anybody's Son Will Do
PART 13: Eyes Wide Shut
3 Articles
Contemporary Sexuality and its Discontents
Squalid Infidelities
Crazy cults and Grotesque Caricatures
Was Eyes Wide Shut completed?
PART 14: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Kubrick's A.I. by Ian Watson
New AI Page
PART 15: Kubrick's Psychopaths
Kubrick's office and grave
A Collection of Letters
The Quote Page
Scorsese on Kubrick
Kubrick Interviews
Useful weblinks, books and Guestbook

"Kubrick's ideas were much more extreme. More overty sexual. Huge phallic skyscrapers, buildings with their legs wide open.” – Jude Law


“Spielberg's approach to Gigolo Joe was the perfect middle ground, compared to Kubrick's far darker original vision. The character was originally much more aggressive, sinister, and far from Spielberg's revised conception as an innocent who's abused. He's a hooker who ultimately comes round to learning to love in a different way."- Jude Law


"[In the original concept], once David was dumped he met up with a more adult mecha who led him through a more adult mecha world, and Gigolo Joe was much darker, much more aggressive, much more twisted." - Jude Law


"[Kubrick's verision of] Gigolo Joe was, and forgive the double-entendre, Stanley went all the way with this guy. It was an interesting, black figure who was to make a lot of money and was as greedy as his masters who built him. A very interesting character, but  it would be an R-rated film, and it would be a different story. It would still be the story about the boy who wants to become real, and the fairy tale, all of that was untouched by Steven, that's all in Stanley's script. It is just individual characters that were much more  pessimistic and much darker." - Jan Harlan



Jason Francois



In “2001: A Space Odyssey” man conquers himself and his machines, transcending the physical and becoming God. God is dead, Nietzsche says, and we shall take his place.


(Note: "God is dead" is not meant literally. Rather, it is Nietzsche's way of saying that man's infantile idea of God is no longer capable of acting as a source of any moral code or teleology. It is a way of saying that humans are no longer able to believe in any such cosmic order since they themselves no longer recognize it. As such, we must step forward (as StarChildren) and take the moral responsibility to fill this void.)

“2001: A Space Odyssey” ended with a child called Dave, in a bedroom. In that film, God-like beings created a simulated cage for us to shed our old bodies and become greater than ourselves. Kubrick’s second science fiction epic, “AI: Artificial Intelligence”, likewise ends with a child called David, in a bedroom. But in this film, God-like begins create a simulated cage for us to cling to our comfortable delusions.

AI is a quaint fairy tale told by Mechas to Mechas. It is an allegory in which the humans are the divine beings and the robots are the humans. While “2001 A Space Odyssey” dealt with the death of God, AI deals with the destruction of heaven. Heaven (and by extention, religion) being that place of happiness and delusion. To paraphrase Professor Hobby, “man’s fundamental flaw is his insistence on hoping for things that do not exist.”

With AI, Kubrick’s content is one of science fiction and fairy tale, so immediately he demands that his form be likewise. Here we have two stories, a science fiction story, and a fairytale story. While “Full Metal Jacket” dealt in twos, and “Eyes Wide Shut” dealt with reflections, AI’s narrative is staggered. That is, the science fiction story begins and ends, 1 act before the fairytale story.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” incorporated much mythic symbolism, using Homer’s Odyssey and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as a backbone. With AI, Kubrick seems to draw from the Adam and Eve myth, and Dante’s Inferno.

The film begins with God creating man. When David meets Professor Hobby (God), Hobby says: “My son was one of a kind. You are the first of a kind.” The line is a nod to Biblical lore, where God’s “only begotten son” was “one of a kind” and his first creation, was “the first of a kind”. Thus David is symbolic of both Jesus and Adam. First God and first man.

The first act of the film takes place in the Garden of Eden, with Monica becoming symbolic of Paradise and eternal happiness. David is ejected from heaven because he disobeys God’s programming and eats the forbidden fruit (spinach). When David is cast out of Eden, he finds himself first in the Dark Wood and then in Rouge City, which represents vice and earthly sin. After sinning, he is cast into the Flesh Fair, which represents hell and eternal punishment. After his punishment he is cast into the Atlantic Ocean, where, after 2000 years of being “washed” and cleansed of sin (Dante’s Purgatory) he is set free and permitted to enter heaven (eternal life with Monica). Unfortunately, this promise of paradise is an illusion. He learns that he can only have Monica for one day. His first lines to her (“Would you like some coffee?”) highlights his fears that she will die and go to sleep forever.

The death of God (portrayed in 2001) is symbolised when humanity dies and the earth becomes frozen over. The reign of man has ended. With the coming of the ice age, goes man’s beliefs, morals and customs. But the film makes a point that man’s spiritual beliefs have long faded. The Blue Fairy and the Church of Immaculate Heart, both nothing more than a robotics company and a glorified search engine, highlight the way mankind has drifted far away from his superstitious past. Man now finds his miracles in technology rather than religion. We are our own gods, Kubrick says, and modern man now finds happiness elsewhere.

With mankind’s death, the SuperMecha step in. They are nothing more than evolved humans. The new rulers of the land. After the Singularity, they are the next stage in intelligent evolution. In a sense, they are the Star Children.

Kubrick’s point, however, is in debunking myths. While other Mecha (Giggolo Joe and the SuperMecha) reject God (see how Joe humours David’s childish beliefs during the Dr Know scenes), David is human, wishing and dreaming for things he can not see. Kubrick’s point is that David’s ability to blindly love, is actually a step down. By making David more human, Hobby has made him less logical. As such, for 2000 years, David wishfully hopes and prays to the Blue Fairy, but she never returns to help him.

Time goes by, but David stands by his faith. A faith so indoctrinated into him by his Mother’s Pinocchio fables. He sits in the dark, praying, hoping, but the Blue Fairy refuses to appear and take him to paradise.

Here Kubrick presents the tragedy of human kind- there is no “Fairy Godmother” to protect us. The ultimate curse for a religious believer is to be separated from his God, rejected by Him, or worse to witness God’s death. It is an existential crisis.

But help arrives. David is spiritually and physically saved, not by supernatural fairies, but by the SuperMecha. They are now the only Gods. Like the StarChild, the SuperMecha have usurped man’s authority and substituted their own logic and values. They descend into the ocean and save David. Feeling pity for him, they grant him a slice of heaven, albeit for their own selfish reasons. Using his memories, they create a simulated world for David to spend one day with Monica.

In the science fiction story, David’s wish (the blue fairy) dissolves before his eyes. In the fairytale story, David’s wish (Monica) does not perish. He chooses to remain deluded. He closes his eyes and refuses to believe that she fades away. He chooses to become human and enter that place where (as the narrator says) dreams are made off.

Thus, to be human, David had to regress to this infant state, believing in the paradise dream. Believing in the storybook fables his Mommy once read to him. David is a machine, in a Mecha simulation, cradling his simulated mother in his metal arms. It’s an entire bedroom full of unreality, yet it makes David happy. This, sadly, is humanity, Kubrick says.

What’s worse is that the love felt by son for mother, and mother for son, are programmed and totally fabricated. David is a machine programmed to love his mother and Monica, likewise, is now a machine programmed to love him back. Spielberg hints at this during the first act by drawing parallels between Monica and the female AI (they both use mirrors), but it only sinks in with sickening force during this final bedroom scene. This nightmarish ending fits firmly in with Kubrick’s philosophy; his belief that there is no love in the conventional sense. True love, even in its empty perfection in this fairytale story, is a most hollow thing, more hollow than hollow, since it is a mockery of the hallowed love for God. Whether it be love in the form of a real human mother or a spiritual mother like the Coney Island Statue, love itself is, like fair ground cotton candy, sweet but without substance.

Thematically, there are some problems with the film. Firstly, Spielberg puts the Flesh Fair before Rogue City. You cannot have Hell precede sin. It just doesn’t make sense. Secondly, the film doesn’t properly convey Kubrick’s belief that heaven is a mirage. Kubrick designed his endings to be self-contained. Like a Rosetta stone which prompts you to revaluate everything you’ve just seen. Spielberg’s ending, though sad and painful, doesn’t communicate well enough. It’s too talky and the audience is not given enough room to think. Thirdly, the Blue Fairy/Monica mirroring is not made apparent. Kubrick’s drafts had the fairy dissolve into dust and Monica, a hologram, dissolve into pixels when touched. Both David’s fairy tale (religion) and the SuperMecha’s fairytale (fable) were implicitly linked. The fourth and biggest problem is that the AI are portrayed as being inferior to humans. Spielberg treats them as battered ethnic minorities, instead of exponentially advancing beings who quickly take God’s place.

Sarah Maitland, who worked with Kubrick on AI, said that the movie was intended to make us love AI. In AI’s drafts, after approximately 3000 years, the human race extinguishes and the robots take over. Kubrick didn’t see robot beings as just machines, he saw them as perfect human beings. Logical, with limitless intelligence and knowledge. He saw them as beautiful and perfect beings. He saw them as monoliths. Elegant. Precise. Perfect. Like “2001”, AI was conceived as a spiritual film about mankind’s future, about the development of a new form of life, and what we must shed or acknowledge, in order to get there.

Spielberg was quoted as saying, “I felt I was like those guys in CSI, trying to put things together (Kubrick’s material), trying to flesh out a face from a skull.” Even if he didn’t properly arrange or flesh out the material, enough of Kubrick’s thoughts shine through Spielberg’s film for us to piece things together.

The ending of AI, unfairly hated by critics, is by far the most interesting thing about the film. Kubrick is affirming 2001’s bedroom sequence, effectively saying that to become human is to die. It’s no surprise that David and Dave Bowman both share the same first name. To remain Dave Bowman is to never become the StarChild.

Interestingly, while 2001 had man fight machine and become God, AI presents the flipside. HAL wins. Machine becomes God and humanity fades away, nothing but a memory.

HAL wants to triumph over man, but David wants to become a human. HAL wants to move forward, David wants to move backward. In Kubrick’s eyes, David wanting to be human means he wants to become a fundamentally flawed being. To the SuperMecha and the StarChildren, David is a quaint object. They shall continue progressing, continue evolving, while he sits there, pretending to sleep, remaining blissfully deluded. And yet, the SuperMecha long for David’s delusions. They too are searching for the magic of humanity. That elusive spark (Teddy?). While they tell the "David fairytale" to their young, warning them about man’s silly flaws and delusions, they silently wish for something we have. 

Ultimately, with AI, Kubrick presents the reverse to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It is a cautionary myth, told by the Gods, warning their offspring of the flaws of humanity. Instead of Dave defeating the machine (HAL) and becoming the God (StarChild), we have machine Gods (SuperMecha) mocking a machine child (David) for wanting to be human.

It’s the monolith laughing at Dave Bowman, heckling him for wanting to put on his spacesuit and get back in his space pod.

On the “Lost in La Mancha” DVD, there’s a special feature in which Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam talk about Gilliam’s failed attempt to make “Don Quixote”. During the conversation, Rushdie briefly mentions A.I., a film which Kubrick never got to make. Gilliam’s reactions to the words “AI” are priceless, and sum up my feelings about Spielberg’s film.

It’s a frustrating film, and personally it gets worse and worse the more I watch it. But if taken on a purely conceptual level, Kubrick’s point is clear. He’s telling 2001’s odyssey as a fable, from the point of view of the monolith. This is how we got here, the monolith makers say, and this is the boy who didn’t want to come. The boy called David, who chose artificial intelligence (humanity) over something more.


Spielberg, Iconophobia, and the Mimetic Uncanny


David Sterritt


“The fascinating image of a double is therefore ultimately nothing but a mask of horror, its delusive front: when we encounter ourselves, we encounter death.” – Slavoj Žižek (1992,21)

”The final element needed is Time, the time in which a thinking-machine (in the form of a little boy) can exercise insurmountable Faith.” – Stan Brakhage (2003,246)

Critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell has suggested that `images are like living organisms’ with drives, desires, needs, and a tendency to behave, or appear to behave, as if they have lives of their own. Seen in these terms, the motion-picture mechas in Artificial Intelligence: AI are examples of the `living image’ that artists, alchemists, and others have dreamed of creating since antiquity: a replica that’s not a mere copy but a holistic simulacrum of a biological creature – what Mitchell aptly calls a `work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction’ (2005, 11, 309). Telling the Pinocchio-like story of a futuristic android `mecha’ who dreams of becoming a real boy, this 2001 fantasy amounts to Steven Spielberg’s intuitive working-through of various philosophical issues related to the `living image’ and its discontents. Put into dialogical play by Stanley Kubrick when he conceptualized the film, these issues underwent further vicissitudes when he bequeathed it to Spielberg, a filmmaker with more humanistic and optimistic sensibilities (Friedman 2006, 46-9).

Notwithstanding the aesthetic and intellectual shifts caused by this changing of the guard, the film’s most telling philosophical concerns remained fundamentally intact. At its core, AI represents a complex, acutely troubled, sometimes barely coherent reaction to uncertainties posed by the mimetic uncanny that contemporary science has brought forth. The protagonist, a mecha named David, embodies those uncertainties by way of his dual nature as an artificially manufactured creature and a virtual duplicate of a generic human being. Apprehensions sparked by the idea of such an entity are embedded in the very origins of the AI project. One reason why Kubrick decided not to direct the film himself, for instance, was his realization that, given his proclivity for photographing his movies over unusually long periods of time, the child star would visibly age during the production process, discombobulating the flow of cinematic time in the finished film. Anxiety over the palpable effects of time on the human organism therefore played a significant role in AI right from the planning stage. Indeed, given the abundance of mirrors and mirror images in some parts of the film, one wonders if Kubrick thought of a line written by Jean Cocteau for the angel Heurtebise in Orphée: `I give you the secret of secrets….All of you, look at your life in a mirror and you see Death at work’. As a marvel of technology that stands outside biological time, David can look into a mirror and see nothing more disturbing than his immunity to temporality and its works; this is one source of his uncanniness in the biocentric world of ordinary mortals.

This essay discusses AI along these lines, making four major points. One is that the hostility of the human `orga’ characters toward the artificial mechas is related to terror of the paranormal doppelgänger – a sensation that Mitchell (2005, 310) describes as `horror of…one’s own mirror image rendered autonomous’, reflecting traditional fears of the uncanny double as a portent of death and an existential threat to the `authentically’ human. My second point is that the abandonment of David by his `mother’ acts out this fear on two psychosocial levels: as the expulsion of an alien presence from the threatened body of the family, and the ejection of an anomalous intruder from the communal corpus. My third point is that the feral chaos of the Flesh Fair scene is no mere rebellion against technology but an orgy of iconoclasm, in which the public smashing of uncanny mecha-images is an act of `creative destruction’ (Mitchell 2005, 21) that transmutes obliteration itself into a potent form of iconography. And lastly I find that David’s eventual transfiguration into an ambiguous new state of being, a sort-of-maybe-human state, is an uneasy attempt on Spielberg’s part to exorcise the brooding fear of specular simulacra that made AI, as Kubrick originally conceived it, less a Spielberg-style fantasy than a thinly veiled sequel to a pair of Kubrick films – A Clockwork Orange and The Shining – that are, paradoxically for this master of cinematic iconography, forcefully iconophobic works.


A brief plot synopsis will refresh our memories of AI. In the not-so-distant future, global warming has melted the polar icecaps and flooded coastal cities. Migrating inland, humankind survives by reconfiguring its social rules – families are allowed to have only one child, for example – and producing new technological wonders, including ultrarealistic mechas. In a new breakthrough, the robot scientist Professor Hobby (played by William Hurt) develops the first mecha that can be programmed to love the people who own it. The prototype is David (Haley Joel Osment), a preadolescent boy mecha.

David is purchased by Monica and Henry Swinton, a well-to-do couple whose son, Martin, has been cryogenically frozen after contracting a terminal illness. Monica activates David’s ability to love, and before long he’s a full-fledged member of the Swinton family, albeit one who can only mimic biological functions like eating and sleeping. Things change when Martin, unexpectedly cured of his disease, returns to the household and becomes David’s rival for attention and affection. Psychologically stressed by the new faultlines in the family, Monica abandons David in a forest, where humans capture him and bring him to a Flesh Fair, a sadistic circus in which ownerless mechas are savagely destroyed. David escapes with help from Teddy, a toy bear that Monica let him keep, and a new acquaintance named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex-worker mecha framed for murdering a human.

Wanting to become a real boy worthy of Monica’s love, David tries to find the roboticist who designed him, eventually finding Professor Hobby high in a Manhattan skyscraper. Traumatized by the sight of countless David-like mechas just off the assembly line – here the uncanny double of the human finds his own uncanny double, many times over – David plunges into the sea and begins a vigil before a Blue Fairy statue in the underwater ruins of an amusement park. After two millennia he’s discovered by highly advanced supermechas of the future, who revere him as an early-model mecha who knew human beings, now extinct. David wants to be reunited with Monica, and the supermechas give him a reasonable facsimile, presenting him with a Monica clone; the catch is that she can only exist for a single day. When the joyous and contented day is over, David lies in bed with Monica at his side, and falls asleep – like a real boy – for the first time.

Uncanny Valley

I’ll begin my discussion about a hundred years ago, when German psychologist Ernst Jentsch wrote an essay called `On the Psychology of the Uncanny’, arguing that uncanny feelings are a special kind of fear sparked by cognitive uncertainty in the face of a stimulus or experience too radically unfamiliar to be readily absorbed. In storytelling, Jentsch wrote, an excellent way to create uncanny effects `is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure…is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused upon his uncertainty…’ (Freud 1919, 219-20). Thirteen years later, Sigmund Freud quoted this with approval in his essay on `The “Uncanny” ’, but went on to identify two obvious weaknesses in Jentsch’s account: Not every encounter with the new and unknown produces fear, distress, or revulsion, and uncanny feelings can arise in situations where intellectual uncertainty is negligible or absent. These and other considerations led Freud to reverse a key element of Jentsch’s hypothesis, describing the uncanny as a specific kind of dread rooted not in fear of the unknown, but rather in `that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’. Freud also noted that the uncanny is a richly ambiguous concept – so much so that the words Heimlich and unheimlich actually switch places in different written works (1919, 220, 224-5).

All of which brings us to Uncanny Valley, a metaphorical lowland mapped by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who picks up where Jentsch and Freud left off. In a 1970 essay, Mori warns that advances in robotics and prosthetics may be undercut by their own success, since designs that are too humanlike produce feelings of uncanniness – or `negative familiarity’, in Mori’s words – and generate exactly the kind of dread described by Freud, fueled not by the novelty of, say, the android or mecha, but by its capacity for seeming old and familiar in strangely disquieting ways. Mori illustrates this concept with a diagram that traces two sweeping upward curves. The left-hand curve has modestly humanlike artifacts at the lower elevations – prosthetic limbs, theatrical puppets, and such – and real human beings at the summit. At the bottom of the right-hand curve are mere industrial robots, hardly resembling humans at all, and at the top are ingeniously made androids that please us with their convincing likeness to our own species. Between the pinnacles of these curves – one bearing a person, the other bearing what Blade Runner would call a replicant – is the plunging abyss that Mori calls the Uncanny Valley, representing his finding that the more humanlike a robot appears, the more it pleases us, but if it becomes too humanlike, its very verisimilitude can produce feelings of strangeness, shock, even horror (1970).

Mori doesn’t claim to know the mechanisms behind these responses, but one conjecture holds that when an object seems partly or sort of human, its humanlike traits are thrown into relief by their clearly nonhuman background, gratifying our all-too-human narcissism; yet when an object seems almost or virtually human, the nonhuman traits leap into the perceptual foreground, jolting our narcissism and perhaps touching off hostilities toward the anomalous Other implanted during the evolution of our species. Mori speculates that self-preservation instincts of a more intimate kind may also be involved, pointing out that each of us is fated to fall into the Uncanny Valley when we die, since then the body itself becomes an anomalous Other – cold, pale, unfeeling, unmoving, at once a human object and an inert parody thereof. Mori concludes by encouraging us to be pleased that our final fall is into the still valley of corpsehood and not the agitated valley of `the living dead’, thus finishing his influential paper with something of a cinematic flourish (1970).

All this has clear implications for practices as different as cosmetic surgery and video-game design. Discussing the Xbox 360 game Peter Jackson’s King Kong, technology writer Clive Thompson observes that its most frightening feature isn’t the towering ape or the prehistoric monsters – it’s Naomi Watts, pictured on the game screen with `lifeless eyes, plastic skin, and weirdly slack mouth’ (Mangan 2007). On this view, Kong’s companion has tumbled into Uncanny Valley, which is an occupational hazard at a time when computer graphics have enabled electronic media to erase the line between photographic reality and digitized hallucination. To those who share André Bazin’s respect for the photographic image as an indexical representation of ontological reality (1967, 9-16), cinema’s growing reliance on computer-generated pixels is a sign of the medium’s impending doom. But for those with more optimistic outlooks, the ability to blend digital and photographic images is giving us what film theorist Daniel Frampton calls `a new kind of fluid film-thinking’, as in movies like The Matrix, which operates, according to Frampton, on `one plane of film-reality: there are no “recorded” and “digitally animated” parts, just one level of film-world’ (2006, 205). Among the trailblazers, innovators, and kung-fu masters of this metastasizing field, Spielberg stands with the most prominent; and nowhere is his fascination with simulacra more forcefully expressed than in AI.

The living image

When he says that images are like living organisms, Mitchell means we can understand them in fresh and original ways if we hold onto our immediate, often visceral responses and take them literally for a change – not naïvely or permanently, but as useful heuristics rooted in the direct connection we feel with pictures and designs that move us. This connection, so strong that it seems like two-way communication, can be very pleasurable when it kicks in. But it can be disquieting when it gives rise to the uncanny, which Mitchell defines in Freudian terms as `the moment when the most ordinary forms of disavowed superstition (monsters in the closet, toys coming alive) come back as undeniable truths’ (2005, 7, 13). So we play it safe, like people of past eras, by approaching images with a kind of double consciousness, valuing their qualities of `vitality’ and `energy’ yet disowning their links with the actual living things they mimic, resemble, or evoke. The result is classic Freudian disavowal: We know they aren’t living, vital things, but all the same….

This mindset is especially prevalent in a media-drenched society where images proliferate like mad, and it has profound consequences for what Mitchell calls our `metapicture’, the image we have of images themselves – an über-image that arises from the ways certain pictures `stage…the “self-knowledge” of pictures’ and therefore the self-knowledge of beholders, too (1995, 57, 48). The metapicture is both a source and a result of our double consciousness, and differing versions of it provoke image wars waged by antagonistic cultural factions, each committed to its own conception of how the current `iconoclash’ should ultimately play out.  Some images are more caught up than others in this struggle, and at the turn of the twenty-first century it’s hard to find more hotly fought-over examples than two that Mitchell singles out (2005, 10, 11, 18). One is the image of the World Trade Center, which was chosen for attack precisely because it was a ubiquitously recognizable icon, and was destroyed in such a way that its obliteration became an indelible icon in its own right. The other, far milder to look at but equally fearsome in many eyes, is the first mammal to be successfully cloned from a nonembryonic cell: gentle Dolly, the biogenetically engineered sheep.

As a living clone during her six-year lifespan, Dolly was the living image of the `living image’, an organism that didn’t just resemble but actually reembodied the parent whose cell had spawned her. Clones are controversial for various reasons: Many religious conservatives regard them as unnatural entities, even if they’re produced for purposes of research rather than procreation, and some secularists oppose cloning because it can generate malformed organisms unable to live properly, or to live at all. Even for sympathizers, moreover, clones have a powerful, sometimes unsettling mystique by virtue of their novelty, their origins in experimentation hard for nonscientists to understand, and uncertainties as to how advanced, widespread, and important to our ordinary lives they may become.

In short, among `living images’ clones may be the uncanniest of all, dwelling in a corner of Uncanny Valley reserved for creatures whose similarity to authentic humans, already too close for comfort, is made still more disturbing by our knowledge of their not-quite-natural beginnings. Hence their significance in the contemporary image wars, where Dolly is still the poster animal for biogenetic derring-do, and hence the strong attention they receive from modern-day iconoclasts. It’s interesting too that robot scientist Mori and art theorist Mitchell both use paradoxical formulations to capture the elusive nature of the phenomena at play here. As noted, Mori speaks of `negative familiarity’ to describe the uncanny feelings we get from close encounters with overly human replicas, while Mitchell sees iconoclasm as `creative destruction’ whereby `a secondary image of defacement or annihilation is created at the same moment that the “target” image is attacked’, producing a new icon that’s as tantalizing to idolaters as the icon so spectacularly smashed (2005, 18, 21). It goes without saying that the wide-screen extravaganza is one of the most efficient media in history for creating spectacles of creative destruction – moving-image icons, fetishes, and commodities for an emotionally numbed age.

An evening at the Flesh Fair

All the thinkers I’ve mentioned see the uncanny as a locus of uneasiness and disquietude at best, outright fear and loathing at worst. Looking at AI, we see those emotions doing especially hard work in the Flesh Fair episode. The purpose of this extended scene is to display in ferocious and frightening terms the raging hostility directed by orgas at the mechas who share their world; the action consists of tortures that would be considered outrageous even by the George W. Bush administration, with mechas being `torn limb from limb, chainsawed in half, or melted by buckets of steaming acid’ in vignettes `recycling imagery from Inquisitional torture to African-American lynching’, as one critic describes it (Koresky). The film partly rationalizes this spectacle: Damage is inflicted only on mechas that have outlasted their usefulness; they feel no pain; and the lurid carnival is aimed at an audience of raving rednecks who may not have many other pleasures in life. Still, the brutality of the scene is jarring, especially compared with Spielberg’s other movie fantasies; it’s as if he were transfixed by the hellish vision of ordinary people thrown into sadistic tantrums by what psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Žižek calls the `obscene superego agency’, a.k.a. `the mad-obscene law which is incommensurate with our well-being insofar as it derails the psychic equilibrium’, decentering the individual from within. Such a plunge into `the “impossible”/traumatic/painful enjoyment beyond the pleasure principle’ (Žižek 1992, 106, 182) must be impelled by some psychic condition within the subject, and I see its operation in the Flesh Fair mob as, at least in part, a reaction to the existential terror provoked by dread of the doppelgänger, the unnatural double that uncannily mimics oneself or another authentically human subject. Seen in this light, the mechas of the world become humanity’s evil twin, and if humans of the future carry the same folkloric unconscious as people of times gone by, the sinister dead ringers will be feared and hated as doppelgängers – and clones, for some people – traditionally are: as threats, ill omens, and harbingers of baleful things to come. The iconoclastic orga-orgy at the Flesh Fair is thus a feral celebration of paranoid hate’s ability to make the superannuated, annihilated icon into the transmuted, invigorating icon through the very act of its obliteration.

To understand how fear-driven iconoclasm plays out more generally in AI, we must uncover one of the film’s most crucial themes. The scientists who created David were motivated not by altruism or greed, but by their sense that humanity badly needed a new, mecha kind of love – a love that’s manufactured, programmed, bought and paid for, but sufficiently obtainable and reliable to be longed for all the same. What fuels this need is the waning of humans’ own capacity for authentic love, which is running out in ways so conspicuous that ordinary denial is wearing thin and stronger psychic defenses must be set in place. The declining power of human love is evident in the social and domestic life envisioned by the film (note the cool, sterile atmosphere of the Swinton home, for instance) in a technologized future that has preserved its physical existence at the expense of its spiritual strength. This spiritual void is symbolized by the missing children of Professor Hobby and the Swintons, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum recognizes when he notes that Professor Hobby created David partly to fill the aching emptiness left by the death of his own son; the film generalizes this by implying that `all robots point to…lacks, absences, and failures in the people who make them’ (2001). The movie’s eagerness to pulverize mechas is thus a symptom of profound insecurity bred by human failures and inadequacies, of which the mechas are walking, talking witnesses – vivid simulacra of things the humans don’t want simulated.

David in the bewilderness

A boy’s best friend may be his mother, but David isn’t a real boy, and we discover before long that Monica isn’t a real friend. At first she seems relatively unscarred by the inadequacies and insecurities just mentioned. Or perhaps we see her that way because the film prods us into sympathy with her, showing how wounded she is by the catastrophic illness and virtual death of her son Martin, languishing in cryogenic suspension. Martin is also languishing in Uncanny Valley, since in his deathlike paralysis he is a (literal) embodiment of the terrifying Other hypothesized by Mori: the autonomous corpse, whose dreadful demeanor (cold, pale, unfeeling, unmoving) demonstrates the blurriness of boundary lines between the living image and the unliving twin that haunts it.


Simultaneously mourning the boy’s moribundity and longing for his rebirth into the world, Monica and Henry have good reasons for acquiring a mecha as an outlet for their parental impulses; but their seemingly rational decision is destabilized from within by two inescapable considerations. The first: Martin is an intensely ambiguous being, caught in a liminal zone between the living and the unliving image; but so is David, mutatis mutandis, and this makes him a less-than-ideal surrogate for the frozen boy he’s meant to replace. The uncanny aura hovers about each of them, bringing subliminal confusion to the human subjectivities that bond with them. The second: Martin recovers from his illness and returns to normal life, casting off the uncanny stain and offering the prospect of a household cleansed of that impurity for good. This change renders David superfluous in the family’s balance of psychodynamic power; and worse, it makes his own uncanny stain more conspicuous and disquieting than before. Yesterday he was an indispensable place-holder for the family’s procreational urge; today he is a surplus and an excess, the not-quite-living image of someone who has regained the power to live under his own steam.

Before this development, Monica had taken David to her heart, welcoming his presence and uttering the pseudomagic spell that transformed him from an emotion-free automaton to a loving and desiring one. Faced with his newly redundant status after Martin’s return, however, Monica adjusts her allegiance in a heartbeat, channeling her maternal attentions to the biological child and making the fateful decision to abandon her uncanny humanoid in a forest `so drear, so rank, so arduous’, as Dante called a similarly darksome wood (Alighieri c. 1309, 28). As suggested above, Monica’s abandonment of David operates on two overlapping levels. Domestically, her casting out of David – a skewed reenactment of the Garden of Eden myth – represents her need to purge the body (here the body of the family) by expelling an alien structure that threatens its integrity and health; since this is a defensive need rooted in psychobiological instinct, it’s as ineluctable for Monica as it is unknowable by her nonbiological quasi-child. Culturally, the banishment is an expulsion from the communal corpus (the body politic) of what anthropologist Mary Douglas would call an anomalous intruder (a telling phrase, since for Douglas the `anomalous’ and the `ambiguous’ are overlapping terms) that subsists between and beyond the socially useful categories of insider and outsider (2002, 47). When she discards David in the wilderness – or the bewilderness, to borrow psychoanalytic scholar Peter Swales’s colorful word (Watson 1995, 13) – Monica acknowledges her son’s escape from Uncanny Valley by exiling her mecha there. In keeping with Uncanny Valley law, she would have no need to banish David if he were a mere household appliance with arms and legs, or if he were so human-like that his android-hood was undetectable. It’s being almost a living image that makes him ambiguous, anomalous, and doomed.

As a venture in iconoclasm, Monica’s expulsion of David is vastly less spectacular than the demolition derby at the Flesh Fair, which more conspicuously serves the creative-destructive function of transforming icon-smashing into iconography. The banishment and its aftermath serve that function nonetheless, however, since Spielberg makes up for their comparatively modest scale by injecting them with sure-fire emotional overtones snatched from preexisting myths, folklore, and fairy tales, some little known to average moviegoers (e.g., Gnostic tradition) but others as familiar as the Pinocchio and Garden of Eden stories. Supercharged with these ingredients, David’s ordeal sustains a level of sentimental pull and specular appeal that compete reasonably well with those of major Spielberg hits like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. (The weaker performance of AI at the box office is most likely due to other aspects of the film, including its notorious finale, which I’ll discuss presently.) Jettisoned in the wilds with no companions but faithful Teddy and the outcast Gigolo Joe, an almost-living image accused of killing a fully living one, David escapes destruction by the skin of his artificial teeth, but it’s painfully clear that humanity has always already rejected him. He terrifies humans in ways that neither he nor they can understand, and Mitchell is right to call his story an `extreme exaggeration of the uncanny’, limning a sentimental portrait of mother-son contentment that’s blasted to bits by the `horror of the double’ coiled within it (2005, 310).

After surviving further tribulations, David topples into an ultimate Uncanny Valley beneath the sea. There he keeps vigil before the Blue Fairy for two thousand (biblical) years, and then gains deliverance from the supermechas of the future, who treasure him as a quasi-living link to the fabled age when humans still walked the earth. As his story comes to an end, David apparently comes to life, becoming a truly living image at last – but in a crowning paradox, he is the living image of a dead original, a race that no longer exists. David is thus a loser once again, and despite Spielberg’s decision to pull out the sentimental stops in the story’s last chapter, there’s little comfort in David’s hopeless tryst with an image that’s less alive than he is, the ghostly simulacrum of his long-dead mother. Monica has no more ontological authenticity for David now than he had for her when she abandoned him; and insofar as her one-time embrace of David was steeped in the self-deception of a desperately deprived mother, the final scene’s inversion of their earlier relationship is best interpreted as a return of the repressed with a vengeance. It’s also a revealing clue to the psychological game Spielberg is playing with his audience, as Rosenbaum (2001) observed in his review:

One might say that the emotional conflicts experienced by Monica when she first encounters David implicitly remain our own conflicts throughout the film, but Spielberg is too fluid a storyteller to allow us to remember this ambivalence much of the time. He invites us to fool ourselves just as we always do with his films and just as Monica sometimes does with David – a deception based on primal emotional needs and repressed realities. This repression is generally sustained in most Spielberg films, but here the repressed knowledge and emotions periodically come back like icy waves lapping around our ankles.

We feel those icy waves acutely at the end, when Spielberg’s legendary storytelling powers unexpectedly desert him, leaving the narrative, the characters, and us in a state of confusion that is, by virtue of its sheer contorted strangeness, as fascinating as anything in the film.

The key to existence?

`Many critics hated the ending’, writes Spielberg commentator Andrew M. Gordon (2008, 238), and it’s remarkable how numerous and various were the reasons for their dislike. Village Voice reviewer J. Hoberman called the film’s resolution a `shamelessly milked miracle…replete with thunderous wonder, appropriate white light, and a symbiotic reunion so obliterating in its solipsism it could split your skull’ (Hoberman 2001, ‘Mommy’). Roger Ebert deemed it a `facile and sentimental’ conclusion that `has mastered the artificial, but not the intelligence’ (Ebert 2001), while a Tikkun magazine writer said that the sequence, `bathed in morgueish blue light, borders on necrophilia, but Spielberg’s treacly piety drains it of even that enjoyment’ (Gordon 2008, 238). I wrote in The Christian Science Monitor that the film’s last portion would provoke `either cheering or jeering’, adding that Spielberg often `energizes his movies by tapping into…religious impulses’ but is `a fundamentally earthbound filmmaker’ who provides only the `illusion of connecting with something greater than ourselves’ (Sterritt 2001). Other critics praised the movie and its finale, but even some supporters lent ammunition to the detractors, as when a writer in the Journal of Religion and Film concluded an exhaustive analysis by discussing no fewer than nine interpretations of the ending, none of them definitive (Flannery-Dailey). This is evidence of complexity for some, of muddleheadedness for others. I find it evidence of both, failing on narrative terms but succeeding as a polysemic manifestation of Spielberg’s most interestingly conflicted attitudes toward life and art – a subject of no small interest, given his unquestionable status as the most powerful imagemaker in the world.

A good way to begin investigating the film’s conclusion is by looking again at the Flesh Fair scene. As we’ve seen, this is driven in large part by abhorrence of the doppelgänger, traditionally a portent of calamity – and in this case an accurate portent, since at the end of AI mechas are still quasi-living their quasi-lives after humanity has vanished from the cosmos. To immediate hatred of mechas as a threat to human superiority fantasies, therefore, we can add long-term hatred of mechas as the winning contestants in the existential struggle to survive on a declining planet. Since one of Kubrick’s abiding themes is the neverending clash between humanity and the machine – between the orange and the clockwork – the human-free ending of AI joins the Flesh Fair episode, the abandonment scene, and other such forbidding moments as clear expressions of that filmmaker’s moody pessimism rather than Spielberg’s usual sunny outlook.

We have to modify this inference, though, when we recall that the story’s hyperbolic mecha-hate has a very upbeat flip side: the loving, even reverential view of humans expressed by the future supermechas when David communes with them. Their access to moral and metaphysical truth is underwritten by their resemblance to the Giacometti-like space folks in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who likewise manifested Spielberg’s career-long case of messiah-itis. `Human beings must be the key to existence’, one of them declares in awe-struck (telepathic) tones – and we feel the supermecha doth protest too much, since if humans were as excellent as all that, they wouldn’t have needed to cultivate near-psychopathic hate for their biocybernetic alter egos, who are physically harmless, after all. Spielberg himself may have felt he’d gone out on a limb with such over-romantic praise for such a clearly flawed species, since he withholds it until the point in the story when the vaunted human race has perished and time has erased the evidence of its (our) capacity for gratuitous malevolence and reckless self-deception. Perhaps we’re meant to take the human-worship critically and ironically, in which case Kubrick’s sensibility is again asserting itself. Or perhaps we’re meant to accept it at face value, in which case its exaggerated view of humankind’s meritorious nature is at once an outbreak of characteristically Spielbergian idealism and, more interestingly, a sort of cinematic parapraxis that reveals – through its very effort to conceal – a specifically Spielbergian dread.

Spielberg is an artist who has devoted virtually his whole career to celebrating the essential goodness of human beings, making even the Holocaust of Schindler’s List and the slave traffic of Amistad into arenas for benevolence and self-sacrifice. It takes only a smidgen of psychoanalytic thought to see Spielberg’s energetic advocacy of intrinsic human virtue as a reaction formation geared to staving off a primal fear that just the opposite may actually be the case – that if aliens from outer space or future times ever did pay us a visit, for instance, they might not be the human-loving ego projections of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or AI, but might rather be judgmental, unforgiving superego figures who find the essence of humanness in our contemptible proclivities for hatred, violence, and cruelty. Since this isn’t an ordinary reaction formation like mine and yours, but a top-of-the-line reaction formation that makes lots of money, it’s fair to suggest that the vast number of people who buy tickets for Spielberg’s films (including me) share similar forebodings, and welcome similar fantasies, for similar reasons.

However much the films may work as therapeutic or tranquillizing agents, I don’t mean to suggest that Spielberg is particularly aware of such a function, much less that he designs his movies as high-minded exercises in pop-culture healing. He has dwelled for decades in the rarified sphere of certified media celebrity, and he appears to be quite comfortable about holding his legions of admirers at a distance, sharing their commonplace fears and aspirations more in theory – and movie fantasy – than in the everyday world of ordinary living. This gap between the artist and his audience may account for two specific aspects of the Flesh Fair’s remarkable ferocity: the sharp delineation of its audience as proletarian rabble, exaggerated versions of the people who favor R-rated sex and violence over Spielberg’s usually PG-ish entertainments; and the way its overkill makes the prevailing atmosphere of the earlier scenes, where the uninviting atmosphere of the Swinton home is bathed in a Spielberg-style glow of middle-class wellbeing, appear all the more idyllic by contrast. The brutal Flesh Fair episode thus emerges as a distinctively Spielbergian device, at once stoking inchoate fears and purveying avoidance mechanisms, all of which – fears and defenses alike – are rooted in a fantasy life that Spielberg has nurtured in his own unconscious and now imparts to others with unsurpassed skill.

David’s day at the movies

Or rather, unsurpassed except in the movies and moments that simply don’t work – with critics, as measured by unfavorable reviews, or with audiences, as measured by weak attendance. As noted, AI received mixed reviews (often pro and con within a single article) and was a box-office disappointment, especially in the American market, where its earnings dropped fifty percent in its second week and sixty-three percent in its third (Hoberman 2001, `Dreamlife’, 16). As noted also, even many of the commentators who found much to admire in the film were puzzled by its finale, which seemed like a foray into Spielberg’s longtime specialty – sentimentality calculated to the decimal point – that Spielberg had somehow managed to botch in all kinds of ways. I share this puzzlement. It isn’t even clear what’s going on in the scene – has David really become real? If so, why now? And what will he see when he wakes up – his mother’s body decaying like a vampire caught in the sun?

A plausible explanation for this confusion is that of all the episodes in the movie, this one was transplanted most directly from Kubrick’s original scenario, in its prevailing spirit if not in its moment-to-moment content. I’ve found a trail of iconophobia running through many scenes and sequences of AI, and a deep suspicion of the visible is one of Kubrick’s trademarks, rarely analyzed by critics but no less important for that. This is not the place to follow the thread of iconophobia throughout his body of work, but the deceitfulness of visual representation can be found everywhere from the trompe-l’oeil masquerades of Peter Sellers in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to the antipsychological reverse-zoom shots of Barry Lyndon and the very title of Eyes Wide Shut, his final film. (Remember too that when A Clockwork Orange was blamed in the UK for inciting off-screen violence, Kubrick pulled it from distribution rather than defend it as a work of art.) The steady presence of iconophbia in AI culminates in the finale, when the gesture that confirms David’s sort-of-maybe humanness turns out to be shutting his eyes and losing his consciousness, whereupon the movie fades from view like a dream at daybreak, taking with it the interminable trials it has visited on David for two and a half hours.

Kubrick found imagery to be a first-rate torture device, and thinking back on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, one can imagine how grateful Alex would have been to shut his eyes while undergoing the Ludovico Technique, or Jack Torrance when the Overlook Hotel morphs into an Uncanny Valley of the animated, agitated dead. In those films, as in the ending of AI, a protagonist enters two-way communication with a set of private fetish images (Alex’s ultraviolence, Jack’s sadomasochistic demons, David’s memories of the maternal) whose old, familiar nature conjures up inexorable uncanniness before their very eyes, and ours. Truly, pictures are untamable entities that can torment, persecute, and even kill. Such is the dark and lethal side of Mitchell’s living-image metaphor, and of Kubrick’s profoundly ambivalent engagement with the visual. In his cinema, the simple act of seeing – perhaps the oldest and most familiar of all human acts – is fraught with danger. For him a movie’s vision is a shining, a clairvoyance, a glimpse beyond the veil, rendered real for the characters by the logic of their narrative, and made immediate for us by being caught within a frame, compressed to two dimensions, and reflected from a luminescent screen. Of the many ways to interpret the quasi-incestuous rendezvous at the end of AI, one of the most useful is to see the scene as David’s day at the movies, with his own private star performing her old, familiar routines in the old, familiar space they used to share. Spielberg supplies the warm and fuzzy pictures, and Kubrick is the ghostly impresario behind the scenes. This was even more explicit in Kubrick’s original plan (Bastian), where the supermechas create not a clone but a hologram of Monica, so that when David reaches out to touch her, his hand passes through thin air.

Why would an artist as self-confident as Spielberg want to channel Kubrick’s spirit so directly at the end of AI, one of the few films that Spielberg takes credit for as both director and screenwriter (Morris 2007, 299)? I can only speculate, but I’m tempted to see the sequence’s image-anguish as an expression (probably unwitting) of anxieties related to Spielberg’s intermittent efforts to grow up as a filmmaker, to trade being a real boy for being a real man, to abandon the kid stuff of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones for the grownup melodrama of Saving Private Ryan and Munich and the like. He backslides regularly – he’s wrapping up Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as I write – and even his smartest films, like Schindler’s List, imperfectly suppress his adolescent weaknesses for reductive plots and simplistic psychology. To the extent that Spielberg recognizes his limitations – and an artist this productive must have some degree of self-awareness – he may dimly feel that his facile knack for pumping out instantly endearing pictures is his curse as well as his blessing, and that his compulsion to make them so endearing has stunted his artistic growth.

Seen in this light, the uncanny ending of AI reflects Spielberg’s deep-seated uncertainties about maturity and authenticity, and whether they’re everything they’re cracked up to be, and if they’re even possible for him. In the end, AI is a Spielberg movie through and through. What his pictures want – what they desire and what they lack – is what David wants: to be real, and to love, and to be loved in return. The misfortune for his pictures and his mechas is that they’re not quite the living images they so desperately wish to be.


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