A sci-fi fairy tale shows us a deeply sad future that’s already here
The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
The movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The future: A.I. begins with a brief summary of the sorry state of the world: climate change has melted the polar ice caps, wiping out coastal cities and severely reducing the human population. With regulations in place for reproduction on a resource-starved planet, corporations developed Mecha — androids that appear human but lack emotions. They’re seen as objects — useful for labor or sex work, just human enough to not be strange but machine enough to not mistake them for people.
The story kicks into gear when Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) pitches taking Mecha to the next level: a machine that can love. That Mecha becomes David (Haley Joel Osment), an experimental Mecha designed to imprint on his owners and love them unconditionally, forever. And it works — David is given to a grieving couple whose son is in suspended animation due to a rare disease. After some hijinks, he’s accepted, until Martin, the boy he’s filling in for, comes back.
Unfortunately Martin is cruel, and thanks to his manipulation, David is forced from home into a Pinocchio-esque journey to find a “Blue Fairy” and become a real boy. Through his eyes, we see a nihilistic theme-park vision of the future, where little is done to solve the still-looming climate apocalypse but neon cities and their pleasures boom.
The past: A.I. was released in 2001, but was originally going to come out long before that. Based on Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” the film began as a Stanley Kubrick project in the ’70s, languishing in development hell until the famed director’s death in 1999. Steven Spielberg then took over, reportedly hewing closely to the plans Kubrick had for the film.
This meant that, at the time, the critical reception of A.I. largely revolved around its status as a strange hybrid of Kubrick and Spielberg’s sensibilities, the last work of an idiosyncratic master carried out by one of his most prominent — and stylistically different — admirers. Most, like Roger Ebert, felt that the result was a frustrating film, attempting to parse where one man’s vision ended and the other’s began.
But A.I. was an extremely fitting film for 2001, a year characterized by cinematic restlessness. Unsettling arthouse classics Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive premiered. Shrek, which skewered Disney-style fairy tales with pop culture cynicism, also arrived, unwittingly laying the groundwork for surreal internet memes a decade later. Films that would spawn, extend, or hope to begin franchises floundered in every direction, with understated hits like Ocean’s Eleven arriving alongside strange blockbusters like Jurassic Park III and showstoppers like The Fellowship of the Ring.
No one knew what the 21st century would mean for movies, and a sad sci-fi fairytale about a robot boy created to stand in the void between a bleak future and an idyllic past could not have been a better match for the times.
The present: At first glance, the hedonistic carnival of A.I.’s cities do not seem to hew terribly close to our current moment. Like a lot of cinematic futures, this one seems too loud, too garish, to ever be real. Jude Law as Gigolo Joe? The horrific robot bloodsport of the Flesh Fair, where obsolete robots battle to the “death?” We don’t really have anything like that yet, right?
Only we do. The seeds of this future have already bloomed in our present. Its subtext is our subtext, a world formed by people with all the power afforded them by technology but none of the will to dream or love. The former would demand a clear-eyed response to shared crises looming ahead both at home and abroad; the latter would lead us to wield our innovations compassionately. Instead we have a world where algorithms reinforce biases and outrage is commodified, where every innovation is part and parcel with a new indignity. A lack of humanity that at every turn denies the option of a better future for all in favor of a more extravagant present for a few.
In A.I.’s final 20 minutes, it’s revealed that this is the end of the world. In 2,000 more years, climate change will claim the last habitable portion of the Earth, and David will be the only one left who remembers humanity. Still a child, all David wants to remember is the human mother he imprinted on, but the viewer remembers everything else — that the world was doomed by rage at the pending self-imposed disaster that humanity refused to face and instead directed toward the Mecha they created, the Mecha that would outlast them.
“They made us too smart, too quick, and too many,” Gigolo Joe, the Mecha sexbot that becomes David’s unlikely companion, says in one of his final scenes. “In the end, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us”
A.I. is refreshing because it is not interested in the question of whether or not we should create self-aware synthetic life, but instead asks what our responsibility toward it would be. If you can create a robot to love a human, one character asks early in the film, how do you get a human to love them back?
In the end it doesn’t matter. Humanity doesn’t even love itself enough to ensure its own survival.