Steven Spielberg's A.I. is Actually a Horror Movie


More than a century ago, Carlo Collodi probably did not imagine that The Adventures of Pinocchio, which was intended to educate children, would give rise to so many variations that surpass the original. Among them, Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence(2001) is one of the most brilliant adaptations. Although many of Spielberg's works are growing-up stories, like E.T.(1982), The Adventures of Tintin(2011), and Ready Player One(2018), A.I. is undoubtedly the most special one, because its underlying tone is a completely tragic one.

A.I. tells the story of a child robot named David, who desires to become a real boy in order to win the love of his human mother, Monica, and sets out on a journey to find the legendary Blue Fairy. This story is clearly a science fiction version of Pinocchio - the puppet has been replaced by artificial intelligence, and the Blue Fairy is still the key that appears throughout the story.

I believe Haley Joel Osment would have moved everyone deeply with his big blue eyes and his role as David, whose love for Monica spans thousands of years. I feel the same too. When I was a child, I cried every time I watched it.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Haley Joel Osment's big blue eyes in A.I.

However, when I revisit it as an adult, I suddenly realize that besides getting touched by the story, it also contains immense sadness, despair, and even horror.

Yes, you read that right. A.I. is actually a horror story.

Despair Over Unchangeable Fate

Monica Swinton(played by Frances O'Connor) is devastated by the illness of her biological son, Martin. Her husband proposes adopting a child robot named David, which she eventually accepts. Although David quickly captures Monica's heart, David loses his purpose as a substitute after Martin regains his health. At Martin's birthday party, a conflict erupts between the two boys who have long held resentment against each other. In the end, David falls into the pool while holding Martin. As people panic to save Martin and forget about David who is at the bottom of the pool, David’s fate has been determined—he can never truly join the human world as an alien/non-human.

When Monica banishes David to the wilderness, he holds onto her tightly and begs her not to abandon him while crying, which makes the most heartbreaking scenes in the history of film.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

However, David does not understand that while part of the reason why Monica deserts him is due to human distrust, suspicion, and fear of artificial intelligence, the more important reason is that it is human nature for mothers to always tend toward loving their own biological children. So even if David can truly become a human, Monica will still not choose him. This is a kind of despair that must be acknowledged.

Another kind of despair is that no matter how hard David tries, he can never achieve the goal of becoming a real human. From the perspective of anthropocentrism, the immortality of artificial intelligence is a "curse" to becoming human. This curse is deeply ingrained in David's DNA, given that he was designed by human creators to simulate human thinking, and also ingrained in the materials that he is made up of, which are steel, alloy, and machinery…

A mistake is made when the intent behind an action is wrong, and so is it when the goal of that action is never achieved. When these mistakes pile up, no matter how hard one tries, it will only exacerbate the sense of despair and tragedy. From this perspective, the horror of A.I. is like the horror of Greek tragedy; it is the horror instilled when inconspicuous human nature is confronted by the huge compelling force of destiny.

Horror Over Extreme Oedipus Complex

It is hard to watch A.I. without coming to David's defense: what did he do wrong? He just wants his mother's love!

Yet after several rewatches, I now think otherwise. Monica's feelings for David are extremely complex, but they do include her love for him as a mother. However, it is difficult to accurately define David's feelings for Monica.

If his feeling is defined as a child's love and attachment to his mother, then it is extreme, exclusive, and distorted. According to Sigmund Freud's theory, children are sexually active but do not have sexual ability. Children's (heterosexuals) first romantic interests are their opposite-sex parents, and resultantly, they become extremely possessive and desperately want to exclude their same-sex parent from the family. For David, his father did not play any role in his birth. Although his father brought him into the family, it was his mother who gave him life.

David's feelings for Monica are an extreme manifestation of the Oedipus complex, because he hates not only his father, Henry, but also his brother, Martin, and all those who share his mother's love with him.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Freud's Oedipus complex only applies to a specific period of a child's growth. As children mature, they will develop a healthier attachment to their mothers. However, David is an eternal child and will not change. This is the terrifying part about him. His inseparable attachment to Monica transforms into extreme possessiveness, which has a sinister side to it, so much so that in many instances, this heartwarming movie gives a strange feeling of horror.

For example, David stands motionlessly outside the door as he watches Monica sleep. In another instance at the end of the story, David finally gets rid of his detestable father and brother from his life and goes into deep sleep with his mother, happy ever after, in his dream that is constructed using advanced artificial intelligence. Witnessing David’s maturity and how Monica relishes the moment in that scene makes my hair stand on end. This just does not appear as pure kinship.

Perhaps, the best way to resolve the horror will be to define David's feelings for Monica as a simulation of the love between artificial intelligence and humans. It is not really love, but a computer program about love.

David's feelings are not spontaneous but pre-designed. As a result, the emotional response generated while watching is, in fact, a misinterpretation.

If David were programmed to continuously learn and understand the human society, and during this process, chooses to love Monica of his own accord, it would then be reasonable for the audience to feel touched. However, in the story, whether is it fighting for his mother’s affection with Martin or searching for the Blue Fairy, David only follows his initial programmed setting—to love his human mother unconditionally.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

In other words, David possesses eternal love not because he has a soul, but because he is just a machine that is working perfectly the way it is supposed to.

Does David really have so-called "humanity"? What are we humans wishfully moved by? When you think about it this way, isn't it even more terrifying?

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