Ghosts in the machine

Film - Philip Kerr on how Steven Spielberg has delivered a really intelligent vision of the future

According to Richard Dawkins, the true function of life is DNA survival: "Everything makes sense once you assume that DNA survival is what is being maximised." In other words, life's one and only meaning is that our DNA should successfully manipulate its way into the next generation. "DNA neither knows, nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

So when, in this post-Nietzschean, "God is dead" world, human beings such as Steven Spielberg make a film about man as Demiurge, creating the perfect robot, the joke is on all of us. Because, once you have tossed away the nonsense of man made in God's image, then the idea of the sanctity of human life is clearly oxymoronic. Add this to the Darwinian view of life as expressed, with perfect nihilism, by Dawkins, and it becomes tempting to conclude that we are robots already - hugely complicated, wonderfully subtle robots, yes, but robots none the less. We are the supertoys that last for only a summer.

Wisely, Spielberg avoids many of these unpalatable truths in his latest film, AI: Artificial Intelligence, a futuristic, dystopian project that he inherited from the late Stanley Kubrick.

For all that we connect Spielberg with UFOs and extra- terrestrials, surprisingly this is his first peek into tomorrow's world. Based on Brian Aldiss's short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, AI is the tale of David, a robot with a difference: he is a robot child, a perfect facsimile of a ten-year-old boy, who is programmed to love, with unquestioning devotion, the childless parents who have brought him home. David is brilliantly played by Haley Joel Osment (Sixth Sense), and I have little doubt that his performance as a human Bambi will be nominated for all sorts of awards.

For your sake, I am reluctant to reveal too much of the plot, except to say that it recalls other myths of the Promethean plasticator, such as Pinocchio and Frankenstein (and, more recently, Blade Runner and Robocop).

"Remember," says Frankenstein's creature, "that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded . . . Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous." Here, in essence, is the plot of AI. But don't make the mistake of dismissing this film as something you've seen before. Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay using Kubrick's own notes, takes the Promethean myth and reinvents it to create a visually stunning film that may actually be too clever for its own good.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, AI has not fared well at the American box office, and the reason is not hard to see. At the very least, Spielberg's vision is too bleak for an American sensibility that has been weaned on the saccharine cinematic pleasures of Walt Disney and, come to think of it, Spielberg himself.

AI may also have offended Middle America's Jesus habit, given that, by the icy end of this film - which recalls the last pages of Mary Shelley's novel - it is clear that there neither has been, nor will be (and I'm giving nothing away here), anything as high camp as a Day of Judgement and a Second Coming. To put it plainly, Jesus has been a no-show.

If I do have a criticism of the film, it is that the end is too literal, too explicatory. Kubrick, directing the same film, would have enigmatised his ending, as anyone who has seen the oblique conclusion of 2001 would understand. But this hardly detracts from the overall brilliance of Spielberg's movie and, although AI is not as good as 2001 - the benchmark against which all cinematic sci-fi must be measured - it's possibly the best, and certainly the most thoughtful, sci-fi film there has been since Kubrick's classic.

One might go so far as to say that it is Spielberg's most original cinematic vision, were it not for the 90-page treatment and the 600 drawings that he inherited from Kubrick. And yet, it's the better film for not having been made by Kubrick. His prevailing aesthetic was one of cold indifference and cruelty, and it's all too easy to see how the same material would have allowed him to indulge his predilection for exploitative nudity and weird sex.

Jude Law plays Gigolo Joe, a love robot. "Once you've had a robot lover," he tells a shy spinster, "you'll never want a real man again." You just know that the man who brought you a "Singin' in the Rain" rapist in a bowler hat would have devised something equally pitiless and bizarre for Gigolo Joe and his client. Gigolo Joe stuck in love-overdrive while mounted, perhaps? The mind boggles.

Spielberg avoids these pitfalls, and his huge understanding of children enables him to deliver a film over which all the family, not just adults, will wonder. As futuristic visions go, it is one of the best there has been, even though the science supporting the film already looks oddly dated.

My own feeling is that we are already seeing the collapse of a rigid separation between man and machine; and, in the timescale envisaged by the film, it seems more probable that man and his soft machines will achieve a kind of symbiosis.

In his book The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle held that the "Cartesian" tradition represents the human body as a purely physical thing (the machine) and the human mind as a purely non-physical thing (the ghost) that somehow inhabits the body and "operates" it from the inside. Ryle argued that this is fundamentally misleading. It does not, however, seem unreasonable to expect that, within a couple of hundred years, we really will be, in Ryle's contemptuous phrase, the ghosts in the machine.

AI: Artificial Intelligence (12) is released nationwide on 21 September

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot