Fritz Lang’s masterpiece classic Metropolis (1927), and Steven Spielberg’s modern fable A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) are joined together by the common theme of cyborgs infiltrating the ranks of humans. While A.I. experiments with the idea of cyborgs living among us as humans, and the consequences of their longevity, Metropolis shows the perverse effects of a single troublesome robot.
A. I. plays on your emotions, gaining sympathy for it’s protagonist cyborg, David (Haley Joel Osment), a beautiful boy child, who is sweet and innocent and wants nothing but genuine love from his “mother.” As the movie progresses, we feel his desire, and the performance of the character drives the movie. This is in contrast with Maria (Brigette Helm), of Metropolis, who is a demonic trickster, a manipulative seductress designed to subjugate, and who eventually leads to the utter chaos which colors the film’s climax.
David represents technology with a face, it makes us ask ourselves if we could ever create something which surpasses us in dignity. We are presented with the notion of a robot who can love, which leads to ever more complex questions: “What’s the definition of love? Is love symmetrical? Is it always based on reciprocal emotions? Is family love, by parents and siblings, a biological given or culturally conditioned?” (Levy, 2005).
Both films involve the idea robots as sex workers, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) being a prominent character in A.I., and Maria engaging in a hypnotic erotic display: “He literally rebuilds Maria and reintroduces her to the masses as an exotic dancer in a seedy nightclub. Here the robot Maria dances half-naked in such a seductive fashion that a riot breaks out and during the chaos the local waterworks is all but destroyed and the lower levels of the city become flooded” (Cornea, 2007, p. 18). This might suggest that technology cannot love, but only be the instigator of lust, that if one tries to treat robots as humans, it will always lead to perversion, sexual or otherwise. On the other hand, in the case of David, it may demonstrate a widespread misunderstanding of the robotic being: that they will love if they are shown love, that they simply need to be viewed with a transformed eye.
The social struggle between humans and cyborgs is brought to the foreground when David is captured and forced to participate in the Flesh Fair: “The Flesh Fair represents orga angst against mecha. Many orga see the mecha as a threat to the future of humankind. To quash their fears, captured mecha, most of whom have pain receptors like David, are subjected to terrible ends” (Kowalski, 2008, p. 258). This kind of sadistic purging ritual is exactly what happens in to Maria: “In the last chapter of this picture, after the artificial Mary has turned traitor to Rotwang and Masterman, the "woman" is discovered and burned. During this scene the manufactured Mary suddenly changes into the form of the metal creature” (Hall, 1927). While some level of malice seems to be necessary to destroy such life-like machines, one must admit that such a display is only criminal if the robots are, indeed, alive. Should these robots, which seem exactly like people, be treated like people? This is the question that infects A.I., and the film never gives a clear answer. Metropolis, on the other hand, has a clear answer: Maria is evil, the science that brought her about is perverse, and nothing but ruin will come of her. She represents a complete corruption of the human form, down to the fact that she is identical and opposite to the virtuous leading lady.
While Metropolis tells stories of cyborgs with a warning, A.I. is much less sure of itself, and far more open to contrasting interpretations. The robot Maria represents the moral decay that infects the city of Metropolis: “When the film ends with the apocalyptic destruction of the city and the start of a new future, we have been warned of what modernity could become” (Prakash, 2010, p. 4) David, on the other hand, who is almost definitely the most virtuous character of the film, represents the kernel of goodness inside humanity, in fact, he is only ever violent against a robotic double of himself. His inability to be corrupt may represent his worthiness—or it may just be a hint that he has far less in common with humanity than he thinks.
Kowalski, D. A. (2008). Discussing Five Spielberg Films. In Steven Spielberg and philosophy (p. 258). Lexington, KY. The University Press of Kentucky.
Cornea, C. (2007). Introduction: The Formation of the Genre. In Science fiction cinema between fantasy and reality (p. 18). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Levy, E. (2005). A.I. Artificial Intelligence: Spielberg’s Grimmest, Darkest Sci-Fi. Emanuel Levy. Retrieved from link.
Prakash, G. (2010). Introduction. In Noir Urbanisms (p. 4). Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press
Hall, B. (1927). Metropolis. The New York Times. Retrieved from link.
This paper was written for my Science Fiction Cinema college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.