AI as Frankenstein


Steven Spielberg kicked off the Turn of the Century with a remarkable change of tone.

While this might have been because he accepted the task of completing another film makers vision, his insistence on completing what some claimed might have been Stanley Kurbrick’s greatest masterpiece, suggests Spielberg saw something in the material that conveyed what he wanted to say as well.

Spielberg, largely a teller of fairy tales, had only dabbled at the edges of mythology.

At any other time, Spielberg’s AI would have simply become a retelling of the story of Pinocchio – which in some fashion this is. But there is a tension in the work, partly I suspect due to the fact that Kubrick had apparently intended to retell Frankenstein, as he had in his masterpiece, “2001” but with more direct connections to the story Mary Shelly created as a social commentary on life in our times.

Ai and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein have so much in common, it is difficult not to see the influence on both Kubrick and later, Spielberg.

In accepting the task of completing a project Kubrick envisioned, Spielberg came to the work with significant person experience to understand the basic premise of Frankenstein: fear and death.

Someone had come too close to invading Spielberg’s California home with the intent of hurting him and his family, and worse, a similar event occurred at about the same time Spielberg was filming AI which resulted in George Harrison being stabbed in his own home, despite very elaborate security.

 Terror and vulnerability shape AT in a way not possible prior to the threats against Spielberg.

While he has always seen himself as a lost child in the past, Spielberg expressed his fear more innocently as in ET and Empire of the sun, and through the ability of the main character to overcome these fears.

It is hard to say whether Spielberg came up with the Frankenstein model or Kubrick, since Kubrick’s film, “2001” is also modeled on Shelly’s Gothic masterpiece. Yet it is clear that Spielberg used the model to bring a level of terror into this film not present in most of his prior works.

Spielberg was likely responsible for setting the opening of the film in Trenton, New Jersey, not far from one of the places where he lived as a young boy – thus establishing his alter ego in the film as he had with Elliot in ET, Jim in Empire of the Sun, as well as other characters in other films. This means Spielberg intended to use the character to continue exploring his own unresolved childhood issues as he has in other films.

But much has changed in the world and in Spielberg since he delved into fantasy the way he had with films as late of Hook. Poet Blake once said innocence must be tempered with experience in order to be valid and mature. Nothing so brings reality closer to home than fear of death.

Frankenstein and AI have a lot of similarities especially in structure (although it is clear that Spielberg inserted Pinocchio into the tale as well).

AI and Frankenstein being with the same premise: death of a loved one that inspires one of the survivors to seek immorality.

In Frankenstein, the good doctor is moved by the death of his mother, and vows to find a way to cheat death in the future.

Dr. Frankenstein pursues dark arts of recreating life because of his mother’s early death, dying in childbirth. Dr. Frankenstein, although filled with good intentions, ignores advice warning him against his dark path. Dr. Frankenstein became ashamed of his creation and tried to destroy it, and much of Shelly’s novel deals with how the so-called monster became aware of his less than human stature.

AI gives us this, too, but more benignly. In AI, the loss of a child inspires the father to seek out a replacement to fill the hole in his wife’s heart.

Spielberg and Kubrick appear to be making a similar statement about modern science and the wisdom of seeking to create artificial life.

The artificial boy, however, soon takes a back seat to a human boy, then struggles to find a way to become human.

The heartbreak in Frankenstein is the fact that he managed only to increase human suffering, among the loved ones he sought to spare, as well as inside his nameless creation.

The same might well be said for AI, in which, the boy created to fill the vacuum of an aching heart, creates even greater heart ache in the end.

Spielberg in some ways has become the symbol of perpetual childhood, a dreamer of dreams, a Peter Pan clinging to visions of Never, Never Land, and thus this character seems to embody him and his altered vision of the world.

Where as once his characters fought against growing up – such as in ET – now Spielberg explores the horror of a child who cannot grow up.

Like Frankenstein, AI gets rejected by the very person who ached for his creation. Both monster and artificial child are abandoned and left to wander a hostile world forever seeking to restore their master’s love.

In Frankenstein we find no hope for renewal. The death of monster and master is inevitable.

Frankenstein and AI parallel each other in other ways as each creature seeks to find a way to fit into society, and how often the people who admire you most at first are the ones who cause you the most pain.

Dr. Frankenstein abandons his monster, presuming him dead, then later hunts for him with the aim of destroying the monstrosity he created, only to learn that the creature has become very human like with a consciousness and emotions.

Spielberg’s monster is really the fulfillment of his own base fears. In the film, the mother figure abandons the boy in the woods, leaving him to find his own way in the world. He eventually finds allies there, a society of outcasts from whom he learns the lessons on life.

Ironically, Frankenstein finds similar friends, although he has to spy on them to get his lessons.

In both stories, this wander the world and finding friends serves as a pivotal point in each creature’s life.

Frankenstein and AI also have similar touch tone scenes, moments of hope is offered and then denied.

Such as when Frankenstein’s monster is living in the woods and encounters an old blind man who sees the soul in the monster and connects with it – a point at which the monster can be saved because of the offer of love. But the monster is soon accosted by the old man’s son, who mistakes him for an attacker.

Love can also save the boy in AI, but the lack of it drives him out.

Spielberg – perhaps following the directions laid out by Kubrick – weaves two important story lines into AI, so that we get aspects of the Pinocchio fair tale combined with the myth of Frankenstein, though in many ways they are really the same tale.

It is hard to say what Kubrick intended in regards to the boy in AI or if he intended to use the Pinocchio fairy tale the way Spielberg did. Yet you can feel the tension between the two inclinations as if echoing a similar conflict inside Spielberg, the fairy tale offering the character hope of making the transition to human, while the myth denies it.

 Monster and boy wander the woods, and eventually become the victim of mob violence and flee.

You can almost sense Spielberg’s mistrust in popular taste as mob riots to destroy machines that do things better than human’s can. We seem similar mob scenes in Frankenstein when the mob hangs an innocent woman for the death of a child.

While the scene of destroying robots echoes image of the Holocaust when Nazi-brainwashed masses rove through the streets destroying anything Jewish. But you can feel a sudden connection not present in other films, as Spielberg depicts violence he now for the first time in his life truly understands. There is savagery in these scenes even Private Ryan doesn’t quite express. Perhaps for the first time in Spielberg life, he can feel the reality of Holocaust, and how popular opinion can turn without warning into a vicious attack, and how useful beings and popular people can be the victim of their own success – as jealousy becomes a vehicle for hatred. These savage mobs hate the robots because they can perform better than these humans can. The savage that invaded Spielberg’s estate had similar rages inside him.

Oddly, this film comes at a time when Spielberg edited out the weapons out of the hands of the police in ET from scenes in which they pursued the heroes in that film.

Unlike the AI character, Spielberg seems to have changed, like the times; Spielberg seems to have taken a step back from his earlier film alter egos who distrusted authority.

Society itself seems to react like a pendulum, swinging away too much regulation to freedom then back when elements of society go too far in violating social norms.

AI gives us our first glimpse of a significantly changed Spielberg. He may already been changing prior to this, although it is clear that his films are affected by the attempted attack on him.

Both Frankenstein’s’ monster and AI’s boy seek salvation. The monster seeks out his master. The boy seeks the return of his mother through the Blue Fairy. Each of their searches takes them into a frozen world that eventually entombs them, if not death, then something very close to it.

AI differs from Frankenstein in several significant aspects. For one, the monster is a creature of great strength, and as he grows frustrated he loses control of himself, and become the purveyor of other people’s death.

The boy in AI retains his innocence, despite similar frustrations, and remains more like Pinocchio or ET to the end regardless of his inability to get what he wants.

Spielberg, of course, defended the end of AI by claiming he had remained true to Kubrick’s vision. This is absolutely believable since the concluding scenes in “2001” are equally weak; a literal God in the Machine ending that weakens the story considerably.

But you have to wonder how much Spielberg struggled to keep the boy innocence and how much this reflected his own fears – and the struggle to keep himself from becoming a Frankenstein monster after his personal ordeal in the real world.

Elliot in ET, Jim in Empire of the Sun, the boy in AI as well as others are all symbolic images of Spielberg, each struggling to overcome challenge in life.

Yet the AI boy is more pathetic, more helpless and less likely to get his wished fulfilled than any Spielberg substitute character before him, and you have to wonder if some of the film makers personal problems spilled out onto the screen, giving us a character that is darker, sadder and more troubled than any of those who preceded him – not mean enough or so much out of control to ever evolve into a Frankenstein monster, at least, not yet… but a character unable to get back or even with those who created him. So we never get the satisfaction of vengeance-fulfilled the way we do with the tragic end of Shelly’s book.

Yet like the monster, the boy in AI seems to have no control over his own fate, clearly echoing some of the events transpiring in Spielberg’s real life, and you have to wonder how much of this was intentionally inserted into the text and how much crept into the film unconsciously.

AI marks an even more significant change in Spielberg’s film making.

While the film continues to present us with a main character in need of rescue, in AI something goes fundamentally wrong.

While ET, Saving Private Ryan, Poltergeist, Empire of the Sun and other Spielberg films we see the subculture pulling together to perform the rescue when mainstream society can’t or won’t, in AI even the subculture can’t. This makes me think Spielberg is reflecting on his own situation where he is vulnerable despite his wealth and power.

In AI like Frankenstein, the creature truly is totally on his own, an aspect Spielberg will again exploit in films following this, bringing his character even deeper into the nightmare.

In some ways, Spielberg has notched up the horror element from even the tragedy of Frankenstein.

Not only is the body in AI alone, but he will live forever, unchanging and so will his isolation.

In Frankenstein, the monster dies.

In AI the horror goes on and one, outliving even those he is seeking to rejoin.

In AI, Spielberg’s alter ego not only can’t rely on his friends and loved ones the way he could in the past, but he will be confronted with isolation and torment in perpetuity with only the vague hope that the magic of the Blue Fairy (a substitute for ET) to save him, a Blue Fairy that doesn’t actually exist.


Email to Al Sullivan


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