AI revisited or AI as ET


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Although Steven Spielberg once claimed that he would never make a sequel to his 1982 classic ET, in some very important ways AI is that film.

In rejecting the concept of a sequel, Spielberg claimed that the story was complete in and of itself, and though encouraged to provide another film that would bring the audience back to ET's planet or to provide an additional story in which ET plays an important part, Spielberg encouraged people go take the amusement park ride.

But in the back of his mind, Spielberg must have pondered what might happen if ET came to earth and found no Elliott or worse, a hostile population of kids and adults waiting for him.

And thus AI seems to pick up on that theme of bringing an alien in the guise of a created boy into a world where he is seen as something of a threat to the human ego.


In helping complete a movie and vision that Stanley Kubrick's death interrupted, Spielberg seemed to impose this altered ET model on the story in order to explore its implications.

In some ways, AI is ET but told from the point of the alien rather than a sympathetic Elliott.


There is plenty of evidence in AI to support this supposition from small items such as the AI boy overhearing the mother's reading of the fairy tale Pinocchio the way Elliott and ET overheard the mother in ET reading Peter Pan.


The rising moon -balloon used by the robot hunters is an image straight out of ET, as if Spielberg wanted to allude to this comparison in making the later film.


As in ET, the boy robot and his non-human companions are hunted through the woods. Unlike ET however, the aliens are caught and we get to see what humans might actually do when catching the foreign invaders.

What would have happened to the frogs in ET if Elliott had not rescued them? Would the humans have dissected ET if they got to him first?

IN AI, human kind, threatened by the superior ability doesn't even use the excuse of pursuing knowledge to destroy those non-humans they turn it into a game and destroy them outright.


As in ET the boy robot seeks to go home. Unlike ET, home doesn't want him. -- Although in some ways AI does get home to find that "his kind" has inherited the earth.


These observations come during my second attempt to appreciate the art of AI.

Several friends, whose opinion I value, encouraged me to try again. So turned off by the film that I mistakenly stopped the film before the Robot Boy made his trip back to Manhattan seeking the blue fairy.

Perhaps I felt a little guilty for writing my previous review of AI without having actually finished watching the film.

In a 1991 interview Steven Spielberg blamed critics for being mean-spirited and said we are so intent upon being clever that we do not give the proper analysis of the film.

In my first review -- to which there will be a link at the end of this essay -- I am guilty of both, though I did explain why AI failed to impress me and I tried to explain where I thought the film went wrong.

While I still believe my original arguments had merit, I went back to the film seeking to find what other people found so impressive about it. One friend, a film buff named Chris, claimed AI was his favorite Spielberg movie.

To be fair, some of the elements I had thought of as unbearable during my first viewing bothered me less when I went back and viewed the film again, from beginning to end.

My dear friend and SF expert (and Stanley Kubrick fan) said Spielberg might have been better off if he had abandoned Kubrick filmed scenes and started from scratch. Indeed, Spielberg and Kubrick mix about as well as oil and water -- although some of the challenge in watching the film is to determine which scenes were which directors.

In returning to the film, I found many more fundamental flaws than I had during my first viewing, though the ideas and the visuals are so lofty that I came to see AI as a glorious failure.

The most obvious flaw is that AI is outrageously sentimental -- as manipulative as ET but without many of the redeeming qualities.

As pointed out in my first essay, AI changes styles  so often and so abruptly that it sometimes becomes a kind of visual ingestion (Yes, Steve, I'm being clever here, but I hope not mean), We jump from style to style without being properly prepared -- we go from the ultra realism of the home scene to a surrealistic style in the witch hunting scenes, to cartoon adventure in the search for the blue fairy to fairy tale for the trip to and through Manhattan, back to  pseudo realism for the ending sequence.

Fairy tales can be realistic or cartoon, even adventurous-- as ET well proved -- but they must play all at once, wearing the styles together so that we are clued in from the tart as what to expect.


This brings us to the most obvious and fundamental flaw in AI.

In modeling AI after Pinocchio, Spielberg failed to incorporate the dynamics of the original characters.

Pinocchio was something of a problem child, getting himself into precious situations. The AI boy is much too innocent

While the film follows the Pinocchio script, the character does not.

In some ways Pinocchio is a retelling of the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. The character gets into trouble partly because he gullible and partly because he gives into temptation, but in the end, his salvation is the result of his redemption.

The AI boy is too perfect. He does nothing wrong. He gets in trouble through no real acts of his own but is dragged through scene after scene.

Even ET does stuff. He gets drunk, and into trouble, but he also plays a significant role in his own rescue, he builds the device that calls his people, he aids the kids when they need to fly.

Spielberg and his dear friend George Lucas often give short shrift to surface plot. In most cases, Spielberg can get away with it because of the rich bed of images and allusion on which he builds his story. Lucas, whose tales often require strong surface plot, does not.

But in the case of AI, Spielberg's neglect of the most common feature of plotting -- cause and effect -- leaves us with a lifeless, helpless central character.

Simple plotting would have shown Spielberg the weaknesses of AI and allowed him to correct the flaw before we ever saw it on the screen. This means determining what a character does next and how he gets out of is present predicament.

Since nearly in every instance, the Robot boy does nothing but has other people rescue him, we can see why AI fails. The boy is brought home, turned on, ignored and abandoned. He is hunted caged rescued and led by the nose to the arms of the blue fairy -- which he spends 2000 years staring at until he is finally rescued by robots that grant his wish and give him one day to spend with the mother who abandoned him.

  This is hardly the stuff that inspires cheers from an audience, since the main character has done little to overcoming anything by which to win our admiration.

Yet wee are expected to feel even more sorry for him than he already feels for himself.

I don't think that is possible.  (I'm being clever again Steve -- sorry.).

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