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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

Spielberg, Genre & Creation

From E.T. to A.I.: The Evolution of Steven Spielberg’s Science Fiction Fairy Tales

Mehdi Achouche

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1Spielberg has traditionally been dismissed by film critics as a commercial director associated with the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster in the late 1970s. His science fiction (SF) and fantasy films have often been framed as paradigmatic of everything that is allegedly wrong with his cinema. Robin Wood famously labeled his films “compensatory fantas[ies],” berating the “Lucas-Spielberg syndrome—films catering to the desire for regression to infantilism” (158, 155). In what is perhaps the most famous dismissal of Spielberg, Andrew Britton in the 1980s rebuked “the politics of Reaganite entertainment,” of which Spielberg was seen as the figurehead, his films “catering... to a sentimental fantasy of escape” in the worst sense (loc. 4125). Such censure has continued unabated to the present day, going indeed far beyond his SF and fantasy movies—a recent Guardian review of War Horse called the film “coercively sentimental,”1 while Variety dismissed Bridge of Spies as “feel-good time for the whole family,... putting it on track to top War Horse.”2

2Beyond the traditional criticism of Spielberg’s sentimentality, infantilism and family-friendly values, the science fiction film genre is often seen as symptomatic of his willingness to avoid confronting reality and provide audiences with the worst kind of SF: special effects-laden escapist spectacles. Even among science fiction fans, the director is frequently seen as symbolizing everything wrong with the lame side of science fiction, often dismissively called “sci-fi”: “repugnant sci-fi” (Clute and Nicholls 2059), Hollywood’s usual heavy-handed ways with “sci-fi” (id., 276), films which are, according to the reference encyclopedia on science fiction, “simply wish-fulfillment or slam-bang space opera” (id., 2059). Spielberg, who always saw himself as the “Cecil B. De Mille of science fiction” (McBride 3), is thus typically considered the epitome of what science fiction writer and screenwriter Harlan Ellison, in his typically colorful language, describes in the following manner:

First of all, the hideous neologism “sci-fi”—which sounds like crickets fucking—is at the core of this seeming malaise. What is called “sci-fi” is not, I repeat NOT, science fiction. It is special effects movie/television produced by and for imbeciles. Giant lizards, moronic space battles with spaceships acting as if they were Spads and Fokkers dogfighting in atmosphere, recycled fairy tales, and illiterate appeals to paranoia. They bear as much relation to science fiction of quality (whether film or tv or books or magazines) as Dachau did to a health spa.3

3While science fiction as a film genre tends to be “marginalized, relegated to the realms of escapism and utopia... or classified as suitable mainly for children or adolescents,” as Stephen Neale notes (quoted in Gordon 5), its Cecil B. DeMille has therefore been further stigmatized, even by practitioners in the field who often associate him—and much of visual science fiction—with the escapist and wish-fulfilling side of the genre—“recycled fairy tales.” Darko Suvin, in his seminal 1972 study of science fiction, notes that the fairy tale, contrary to (good) science fiction, “does not use imagination as a means to understand the tendencies in reality, but as an end sufficient unto itself and cut off from the real contingencies,” devoid of any Brechtian “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin 372, 375). Because of this “wishfulfilling element,” its blissful ignorance of social realities and its reliance on irrationality—in other words, the lack of what critics call science fiction’s inherent realism—“SF retrogressing into fairy-tale... is committing creative suicide” (375).

4Yet recent years have witnessed a reevaluation of Spielberg’s films. Andrew Gordon (2008) calls Spielberg “our wizard of the suburbs,” one who transforms “homes into fairy tale cottages, bring[ing] back some of the magic that had been leached out of mass-produced lives” (4). More recently, and perhaps contradictorily, James Kendrick (2014) looks beyond Spielberg’s films’ “surface pleasures” to glimpse “fissures of darkness, despair, loneliness, and regret that conclusions, no matter how upbeat on the surface, couldn’t fully resolve” (loc. 86, 169). Even Spielberg’s critics often acknowledge the evolution of his recent dystopian science fiction films (A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds), with Robert Kolker admitting that these films are “somewhat cooler in tone and in their embrace of the viewer;... less eager to please” (304). And while Gary Westfahl laments, in his encyclopedia of science fiction films, Spielberg’s “pernicious influence on the entire genre,” and the fact that “science fiction film is drowning in a sea of saccharine, and Spielberg keeps pushing its head down,” he also concedes that his films since A.I. have “gr[own] marginally more watchable.”4

5Science fiction is, indeed, central both to Spielberg’s appeal to audiences and to his identity as a filmmaker, and his influence on the genre has extended through the dozens of SF movies he has produced over the years (Back to the Future, Men in Black, Transformers, etc.). Yet there has been a striking evolution in the director’s approach to science fiction, one that is indicative of his broader development as a filmmaker and consistently linked to the fairy tale. The use of the latter genre, especially as reimagined by Disney in the 20th century, links E.T. The Extraterrestrial and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, while the symmetry between their very titles points to the connection between both films and his two science fiction cycles, separated by a period of twenty years. And while it would be restrictive to categorize Spielberg’s films according to their genres (A.I. for instance can also be compared to Empire of the Sun), science fiction does provide Spielberg’s cinema with his richest metaphors and the most obvious way to tackle a story focalized on a child and his idiosyncratic vision of the world around him. This chapter explores, then, both the similarities and differences between E.T. and A.I., and to a lesser extent Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what these reveal about Spielberg’s evolving approach to science fiction and the fairy tale, and how he uses both genres to address issues of wishfulfillment, development of the self and storytelling.

6Many critics have noted how Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. tap into the science fiction genre to offer their protagonists and their audiences a form of enlightenment and redemption from the stars. Benevolent and god-like aliens land on earth and literally bring light, wonder and relief to characters whose lives were less than accomplished and fulfilling up to that point. The two films represent a significant break with both alien-invasion films from the 1950s—War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953), Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)—and the brooding, dystopian, inward-looking productions from the 1968–1977 period—Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), THX-1138 (George Lucas, 1971), Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)—which kept emphasizing overpopulation, pollution, nuclear holocaust and/or the dangers posed by multinationals and techno-science; these more recent films were themselves inspired by the then-prevailing “New Wave” science fiction (a name inspired from French cinema), which typically relied on dystopian settings to question U.S. institutions.

7Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’s Star Wars, both released in 1977, would put an end to that cycle by reintroducing aliens, a sense of adventure and fun, as well as out of this world wonders, making the genre the cornerstone of blockbuster cinema. Both films rely on myths and fairy tales to rejuvenate science fiction, leading many critics to dismiss their brand of SF as escapist fantasy. Nevertheless, while Vivian Sobchack is certainly right to contrast 1970s SF films—which she describes as “bleak and hopeless” (234), and “overtly despairing in their evocation of a future with no future” (226)—with their brighter, more optimistic counterparts from the late 1970s and 1980s, equating the later films, and especially Spielberg’s, with “domestic hope” (226), “suburban cleanliness” (227), “nostalgia” or a “yearning for childhood” (229), is problematic, insofar as films like Close Encounters and E.T. do not simply internalize, but also reflexively thematize those themes. This is what Morris stresses repeatedly throughout his study, underlining the importance of the film’s “mechanisms in constituting the spectator as subject” (7). The 1977 and 1982 films increasingly emphasize the exploration and the questioning of dysfunctional family relationships (Spielberg’s main obsession) by making the fairy tale nature of their stories an increasingly foregrounded part of their discourse. Gordon writes that “[g]rounding the fantastic in the familiar and the domestic is a favorite device of Spielberg’s films” (42), but the reverse is also true: the familiar and the domestic are framed through a science fictional fairy tale narrative, so that defamiliarized issues can better be addressed. The fairy tale, whose primary focus is family relationships (Greenhill and Matrix, loc. 15), the home and the staging and resolving of a child’s anxieties through symbolical language (Bettelheim 23, 61), allow these films to adopt a child’s perspective, see the world through his/her eyes and rely on a structural tension between that perception and the audiences’.

The Failure of Home

8In Spielberg’s fairy tale SF, parents invariably fail their children. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary is portrayed as a father who is unable to fulfill his paternal duties because of his childlike nature and aspirations, and who will finally leave his family behind. E.T. opens with Elliott’s father having abandoned his family to run away with another woman, while E.T. himself has been fortuitously abandoned in the woods by his own alien family. A.I., which systematically brings to the fore the fairy tale qualities of the previous two films, has both parents consciously deciding to literally abandon David, with his mother leaving him behind in the woods like the huntsman in “Snow White.” The difference between the three films is how both E.T. and A.I. start where Close Encounters ends, dealing with, like many other fairy tales, “separation anxiety”: separation from the father (with E.T. as possible commentary on divorce) or the mother (A.I.). Bruno Bettelheim argues that most fairy tales will use the separation trope to symbolically help the child grow in maturity and resolve psychological conflicts typical of childhood (26). The irony in both Close Encounters and A.I., then, is how their child-like protagonists are, like Pinocchio and Peter Pan, incapable of growing up.

9The various cuts of Close Encounters have emphasized Roy’s childish nature, notably in the expository scene introducing the character and immediately characterizing him as a failing family man. The original theatrical version of the scene opens on a close-up of a Pinocchio music box, the character of Pinocchio spinning while the instrumental version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which opened the 1940 Disney version of the fairy tale, is playing [13:37], thus foreshadowing the theme and ending of the film. Later cuts (the 1980 “special edition” and the 1998 “director’s cut”) offer longer versions of the same scene, which make clear that Roy’s family issues, with both his wife and his children (most notably his eldest son), were not created by his sudden obsessions with his alien-implanted visions but preexisted them—a crucial addition (Kendrick 46–47). The scene offers an insight into a deeply dysfunctional family, with Roy’s model railway track—which is on the brink of derailing when he unconvincingly tries to act the father to his son—taking up most of the living room (Gordon 63–65). His wife loudly complains about the clutter and chaos—foreshadowing the literal invasion of their home by Roy’s new obsession with UFOs—as well as his treatment of the children. Roy pays little attention to either and finally screams at one of his sons. The Pinocchio insert shot has been edited out of the 1980 version, but this time Roy insists in taking his family to the theater to see Disney’s Pinocchio, which everybody adamantly declines. In all versions, his wife finally manages to get Roy’s attention when she derisively calls him “Jiminy Cricket,” acting more like his mother—or his conscience—than his wife. Roy’s conflict with his family is thus each time linked to Pinocchio and the fairy tale, stressing how Roy’s home is a troubled one and how the rest of the story will deal with that situation. The end of the 1980 cut of the film includes the instrumental version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” when Roy has finally entered the mothership and about to fulfill his dreams, and then during the end credits while the ship is shown leaving earth [120:13, 124:42]. By bookending the 1980 version, the musical theme highlights how Roy’s emotional journey is completed, with his real journey to fairy land about to start. But to do so, he must first symbolically leave behind a mother and her son to join childlike aliens who welcome him in their midst by showering him with fairy-like “magical dust” once inside the ship, as the Pinocchio theme starts playing [119:52].

10The fact that much of the family table is taken up by Roy’s toys in the expository scene is noteworthy since, as Kendrick points out, dinner scenes are often used by Spielberg to describe a given family’s dynamics (181). Later in the film, Roy becomes fixated on the mashed potato in his plate and soon plunges his hands into it and plays with it like a child, creating consternation among his family [1977 version, 54:57]. He finally breaks down in tears, a deep focus shot showing both Roy in tears in the foreground and his young son in the background crying, as well as the poor sight his father offers. Although Roy insists he is “still daddy”—and tells his wife in a later scene, “I am an adult” [1977, 69:48]—the shot equates him—quite unfavorably—with his son. This is in stark contrast to a similar scene in Jaws, as stressed by Kendrick (53), where Chief Brody’s younger son imitates his father’s gestures while sitting at table, creating a scene of domestic felicity in front of a moved Mrs. Brody and marking her tired, troubled husband as the authority figure in the family and in the seaside community under siege [38:00]. The poignancy of the mashed potato scene is revealed in the new version, as we come to understand that Roy’s tears are not triggered by his UFO-induced visions alone, but also by his deep discomfort as a family man who increasingly wants out.

11E.T. can be seen as a sort of unofficial sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, opening with the earlier film’s last shot: a starry night sky, a similar-looking spaceship landing and similar-looking, child-like aliens stepping out. As in the previous film, the family is made up of two sons and one younger daughter, while the father is missing, which creates the true emotional crisis of the story. Another dinner scene early on reveals the tension created in the family by that absence, especially from Elliott’s point of view (Fig. 1) [16:40]. Elliott is obsessed with his father, at one point finding his father’s shirt and smelling the scent of his deodorant on them, sadly reminiscing about the times they spent together and “went to the movies” [57:05]. Elliott’s older brother yells at him during dinner, “Damn it, why don’t you grow up!” complaining about his treatment of their mother and his insistence on having seen a fantastical creature the day before [18:54]. The first time any kind of harmony emerges inside the home is when E.T. establishes his connection with him by imitating Elliott’s every gesture, as though the young teenager were the grown-up in the room [23:00].

Fig. 1 — E.T.: tense dinner-table scene without father.

Fig. 1 — E.T.: tense dinner-table scene without father.

12A.I., which hews closest to the traditional fairy tale structure, most notably that of Pinocchio, devotes its first act to the family’s growing problems, before separation leads David on a quest for his mother, Monica. A first dinner scene has David imitating his mother’s gestures, before bursting out laughing—but it is a manic laugh that alienates him from Monica and the other adults, emphasizing his uncanny quality instead of humanizing him [17:07]. Later, another dinner scene will witness David’s physical and emotional collapse—reminiscent of Roy Neary’s breakdown—as he tries to once again imitate human beings (this time his “evil” brother) by ingesting food which his robotic body cannot process [32:47]. Rather than crying like Roy, the skin on David’s face starts sliding off, a travesty of tears that reveals the travesty of the robot trying to simulate a human being, but also of this family trying to simulate a happy, functioning one (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 — A.I.: David’s face sliding off as his body fails to ingest food.

Fig. 2 — A.I.: David’s face sliding off as his body fails to ingest food.

13The first act is essentially a family melodrama set inside the Swinton home, an oddly circular, upper-class, gray, cold and tidy place, the antithesis of Roy’s and Elliott’s suburban homes. It is also full of metallic and mirror reflections that keep calling into question the authenticity and the identity, not only of David but of his adoptive family as well, lost as they are in the contradictory feelings and impulses they have for their “replacement boy.” David, here, is essentially the “adopted” step- or half-brother often victimized in fairy tales, while the absence which looms over this family is no longer that of the father but of the son—the “real” one. Family love is what is essentially missing from these various homes, and David, contrary to E.T., will fail to re-enchant it.

14Finally, A.I. makes clear from the start both its fairy tale nature and the ambiguous treatment it will make of the SF genre. The first scene following the prologue shows the two parents arriving in a cryogenics clinic, Monica proceeding immediately to read Robin Hood to her cryogenized son—a variation of the sleeping beauty motif—trying to precariously simulate domestic bliss, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” used in Disney’s 1959 animated version [6:51]. In this scene, various murals depicting scenes from numerous fairy tales can be seen in the background, the actors’ positions within the frame enabling viewers to get a good look at the frescoes illustrating Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio. When Monica starts reading Robin Hood to the sleeping Martin, she explains that “Marion’s wish came true” [8:05]. This recalls the fairy tale theme present in Close Encounters: wish-fulfillment, the equivocal consequences of having one’s dream actually fulfilled, and telling oneself stories with happy endings (Monica is really reading the story for her own benefit). The fact that the previous scene (and the film) started with a voice-over narration reminiscent of fairy tales (its cadence and tone, its starting with “those were the years of...”) emphasize what was only implicit in the previous films: that the audience is being told a story, one that stresses its own nature as a fairy tale about fairy tales [1:00].

Looking for the Way Home

15Like E.T., David has been abandoned in the woods and is trying to find his way home, both literally and symbolically. David wants to make sure his mother will accept him and love him by becoming a real boy, while Elliott, like Roy’s eldest son, longs for paternal attention and affection. All are looking for their own improved version of home, as befits a fairy tale (Bettelheim 308; Zipes 1–4). If the titles of both films connect David and E.T., David really is the amalgamation of both E.T. and Elliott, who, as Morris underlines, are essentially the two facets of the same character: E(lliot)T (89).

16Both Elliott and David rely on fairy tale beliefs to help them out of their emotional predicament, and both films dramatize their stories of shattered homes and emotional journey through the lens of the fairy tale. David becomes obsessed with the story of Pinocchio, while E.T. references Peter Pan. The playful E.T. recalls Peter Pan visiting from Neverland, while David, like Roy before him, is looking for the fairy that will fulfill his dreams. Peter Pan is cited in E.T. in the key scene where Elliott and E.T. listen to Elliott’s mother reading the book to his younger sister in bed, while hiding in the walk-in closet, which also serves as a corridor linking Elliott’s bedroom to his sister’s (Fig. 3) [57:45]. Following E.T.’s healing Elliott’s bleeding finger with his illuminated finger—the blinding light symbolizing mystery and hope (Morris 93)—we hear the mother reading the famous lines—“she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies”—unknowingly commenting on the magical powers the alien has just exhibited through his wand-like finger. A subsequent POV shot (from E.T.’s perspective) shows us, through the crack in the door, the mother reading the lines “do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe,” to which her daughter enthusiastically answers: “I do! I do! I do!” As indeed she should, since E.T. is close at hand.

Fig. 3 — E.T.: E.T. and Elliott in the corridor, listening to Marie reading Peter Pan to Gertie.

Fig. 3 — E.T.: E.T. and Elliott in the corridor, listening to Marie reading Peter Pan to Gertie.

17E.T. and Elliott both watch this typical scene of domestic felicity, underscored by the harp playing on the soundtrack. Both are cut off from this scene of family bliss, mere onlookers who cannot reveal themselves because they are, literally, alienated from other human beings—significantly, the scene takes place after Elliott reminisces about his absent father. But Elliott and E.T. do have each other for comfort: the final shot shows them both from behind watching through the aperture, hugging each other, while the camera stands at a respectful distance and films them through the other two doors, which frame the shot (Fig. 3). We, too, are peering through the closet doors, in our case at the two lonely children—E.T. is constantly characterized as one and is, as can be seen here, Elliott’s size—and their own (albeit precarious) replica of domestic felicity. We are watching the watchers, as we, too, are being told a fairy tale.

18Such a scene therefore draws attention to its fairy tale nature, like the “fairy dust” falling on Neary inside the mothership or the tiny Tinker Bell-like UFO in Close Encounters of the third Kind [1980 version, 120:35]. As Morris points out, the unexplained resurrection of E.T. in the last act can only be explained by Elliott’s believing in the extraterrestrial just as children believe in Tinkerbell (88). The scene draws parallels between fairies and aliens, between pirates—which the mother has just mentioned while reading Peter Pan—and the sinister government agents seen lurking outside the house in the next scene, between the Lost Boys and the children at the heart of the film’s plot. Most adults, especially men and figures of authority (the government agents and their leader, the biology teacher) are nameless, faceless beings, shot from the waist down, shown with their hands in front of their faces, from behind or wearing masks, until the last act (Gordon 87). In the meantime, whole stretches of the film are centered on the children—notably the Halloween street sequence, where the whole neighborhood is taken over by children and fantasy, E.T. and even Yoda! This recalls one character’s quip in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that watching for UFOs is like “Halloween for grown-ups” [1977, 35:07].

19The film gives way to fantasy, which culminates in the famous shot of E.T. and Elliott “fly[ing] to the moon” [1:04: 50]. This shot, which has since then become the logo of Amblin Entertainment, is important as it conflates science fiction—travelling to the moon—and the fairy tale—the bicycle replacing a broom or carpet. But the image is also about reenchanting the everyday. The film repeatedly tries to convey the wonder which the alien feels at the strange world that is suburbia, presenting audiences with a defamiliarized version of a familiar environment—a typical narrative strategy of science fiction, which the film puts to great effect to reframe a lonely, sad place (the fatherless home) into a(n) (re)enchanted one. POV shots (especially from E.T.’s perspective) abound in the film, sometimes even foregrounding the technique through frame-within-the-frame composition (the closet doors or the two holes cut out in the sheet covering E.T. during Halloween night). E.T. transforms the house and the neighborhood into a carnivalesque place where anything is possible, making Elliott’s bedroom and the living room into the alien’s new playground. This is what makes the “home invasion” by government agents—the destruction of the home is a recurrent motif in Spielberg’s cinema—all the more horrific. “This is my home!” screams Elliott’s mother, hugging her children. The agents, dressed like monstrous astronauts, have been made alien, while E.T., the “man from the moon,” as Elliott’s sister repeatedly calls him, is already a member of the family and recognized as a human being. The alien, mysterious, fascinating world, which is the real focus of this science fiction film, is therefore the home itself. The sense of wonder conveyed by the film, a key element to many SF texts, is thus as much about E.T. discovering our own world, made strange, funny and harmlessly silly through his eyes (E.T. watching television, the neighborhood taken over by imagination), as it is about him transforming everyday objects into magical devices. The film thus associates the restored sense of wonder of childhood with the wonder science fiction cinema can bring us.

20In this sense, E.T. can be seen as the polar opposite of Close Encounters: it is not about a father escaping a deteriorating home to reach a fantasy world, but about a child abandoned by his father who learns about the importance of “home,” of staying and of “being good,” as E.T. enjoins the children before living [105:22], delivering the traditional moral expected of a Disney-esque fairy tale. In E.T., then, Spielberg harmoniously combines the fairy tale and science fiction to stage the symbolical healing of the family and the growing maturity of a child, while defamiliarizing the everyday and creating a sense of wonder conveyed through the eyes of childhood.

Deconstructing E.T.

21A.I. can be interpreted as both a validation and a deconstruction of E.T. Both films play on the “trope of the child trying to cope in a hostile world” as a means to “cop[e] with ego disturbance”; both films reenchant its protagonists’ lives and teach a lesson of sorts on the family and home by intertwining fairy tale and science fiction (Zipes 3, 366). This is what many lamented as the debasement of science fiction, but also what led Stanley Kubrick to contact Spielberg.

22Kubrick talked about the film with Spielberg as early as 1984 and was inspired by E.T. in his development of the story, notably concerning the infusion of the fairy tale into the science fiction setting (Harlan and Struthers 7; Morris 300; Kendrick 171). The film is based on a 1969 short story by SF author Brian Aldiss, whose annotations in the margins of his story following his first encounter with Kubrick in 1976 prove that the fairy tale was early on central to the development of A.I.: “I know Stanley K. has Pinocchio in mind” (Harlan and Struthers 10–11, 12). This was to the chagrin of the author, who did not share Kubrick’s interest in the fairy tale form but favored a purer and more “authentic,” i.e., rational, science fictional approach. Kubrick had read Bettelheim’s book that year and later recognized the parallels between his project and Spielberg’s SF cinema, especially E.T. (Harlan and Struthers 12, 18). He also recognized the potentialities contained in a meeting between both genres for what he calls, in his hand-written notes to the story treatment, “the Pinocchio syndrome” (Harlan and Struthers 12, 18). Spielberg wrote the screenplay based on the many previous treatments and Kubrick’s ideas, while adding his own take on the story. It was the first film he would both write and direct since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A.I. is a film that is greatly indebted to 1970s science fiction cinema because of its dystopian and post-apocalyptic setting, its story of environmental disaster and overpopulation regulated by mandatory birth control and robotic child replacements—Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (Michael Campus, 1972) has an almost identical premise. By finally taking over from Kubrick after the latter’s death, Spielberg was thus tackling the kind of extrapolative, dystopian science fiction he had done so much to render old-fashioned, while this time contrasting it with the fairy tale logic of his previous two SF tales to create the dramatic tension at the heart of the film. Essentially, A.I. is an SF adaptation of Pinocchio, yet it should also be seen as engaging in a critical reconsideration of E.T. If the latter tried to imagine the consequences of Roy leaving his family to escape into fantasy, A.I. is interested in imagining what might happen if the family decided they did not need E.T. anymore.

23The voice-over narration that bookends the film—“Those were the years after...”—presents it as a once-upon-a-time story set in a wondrous yet dark and threatening world, in our future but in the narrator’s past [1:00] (Kendrick 183). The premise is grounded in the tension between the fairy tale-related dreams of the robot David, who wants to become human and be loved by his mother, and the dystopian reality around him, as this is a hopeless dream in a world which cannot be saved by magic. David is again an otherworldly creature supposed to bring joy and contentment back to a shattered home, yet the idea is from the very start described as a selfish one on the part of parents who are oblivious to their robotic son’s feelings. The dramatic conceit at the heart of the film lies in the opposition between David’s programming—to unconditionally love his mother, Monica—and her (and all the other humans’) selfishness and weaknesses. To cope with the situation, David chooses escape by becoming obsessed with the story of Pinocchio. Incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, David, once he has been abandoned, goes in search of the Blue Fairy to become, like Pinocchio, a “real boy.” The tragic irony of this quest is that the other characters, like the audience, know that this is an impossible dream, but David will dream on to the very end, mixing up “flat fact” and “fairy tale,” as the visit to Dr. Know makes clear, a confusion which creates the pathos at the heart of the film [82:51]. Wish-fulfillment is here more clearly associated with self-deception, yet it is his self-deception that makes David an enduring and endearing character, and that is the film’s central theme.

Fig. 4 — A.I.: Monica putting David to bed.

Fig. 4 — A.I.: Monica putting David to bed.

24A.I. self-reflexively alludes to E.T. on several occasions, with references that are often signaled by the repeated presence of a familiar motif on screen: the moon. A crescent moon is shown at the outset to be the symbol of the cryogenics clinic where Martin is kept, associating the symbol with sleep and dreams [6:51]. In a later scene, Monica puts David to bed in a bedroom reminiscent of the one glimpsed in E.T. during the Peter Pan scene (the same blue crescent moon can be seen in the background of both scenes, again associated with sleep and dreams) (Fig. 4) [18:56]. This time however, the mother does not read him a fairy tale, and discomfort soon creeps in: David, who is unable to sleep, just stares into nothingness, while the editing implies Monica is thinking of her real son, who is portrayed “sleeping” in a cryogenic bed bathed in the same blue, artificial light. The bedroom scene, like the dinner scene which preceded it, is a travesty and a simulation of happier ones—in the film’s reality and in Spielberg’s filmography. A subsequent bedroom scene foregrounds how David’s situation has gotten worse: a slow tracking shot leads us from David sitting on the floor away from the bed to Martin in bed being told the story of Pinocchio; David is cut off from domestic felicity like E.T. and Elliott had been (Fig. 5) [31:58]. Unlike Elliott, however, David has no magical friend to turn to, instead listening intently to the story of the wooden puppet which was made into a human being and won the love of his parent—his only chance to get into the bed with his mother again.

Fig. 5 — A.I.: Monica reading Pinocchio to Martin, while David listens offscreen.

Fig. 5 — A.I.: Monica reading Pinocchio to Martin, while David listens offscreen.
  • 5 Voiced by Robin Williams, himself closely associated with the fairy tale thanks to Spielberg’s Hook(...)

25David becomes obsessed with fairies, avidly looking, from the second act onwards, for the Blue Fairy in a quest for humanity, like Roy trying at all costs to reach the mountain that obsesses him, and like E.T. fixating about contacting home. His adjuvants are Teddy, a robotic teddy bear (the film’s Jiminy Cricket), and Gigolo Joe, another robot outcast, whose song and dance routines further recall Disney’s films. The narrative is, on occasion, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming et al., 1939): the trio finally arrives in Rouge City/Emerald City (also reminiscent of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio), where they meet Dr. Know (Oz),5 a digital puppet used by the fake magician, his scientist creator, Dr. Hobby. Like Pinocchio, David’s quest puts him in contact with the evils of the outside world, yet his innocence remains intact throughout thanks to his unwavering affection for his mother and his obsession with the Blue Fairy. On the way, he is captured by Lord Johnson-Johnson, who, like the evil Stromboli in Pinocchio, forces him to perform in his robot show and attempts to execute him publicly. Johnson-Johnson captures David and the other robots from an aircraft shaped like a full moon, deceiving the characters but also perhaps audiences, who have come to expect more positive attributes from Spielberg’s trademark symbol (Fig. 6) [58:22].

Fig. 6 — A.I.: Lord Johnson-Johnson’s moon-shaped aircraft dwarfing Gigolo Joe.

Fig. 6 — A.I.: Lord Johnson-Johnson’s moon-shaped aircraft dwarfing Gigolo Joe.

26Thus, every time A.I. is about to bring magic to David’s world in a manner similar to E.T., stark reality intrudes and breaks the illusion, refusing the familiar Spielbergian wonder audiences have come to expect. Conversely, every time the plot threatens to become too grim (most notably when David commits suicide by jumping to his death [103:02]), the fairy tale-related fantasy reappears (David survives the fall and finds an underwater statue of the Blue Fairy set in a Pinocchio-themed section of Coney Island), only to sustain and revive his illusions, even after the Blue Fairy has been unmasked as a ploy by Dr. Hobby. This time, no transcendent ascension will redeem the characters, as verticality is only associated with decline and fall (this scene takes place in a partially submerged New York City). A dialectic between hope (or “dreams,” which is the word the characters often use) and reality thus sustains the film, while the notion of simulation—of human beings, human feelings and love, actual places, as underlined by the constant mirror images—underpins the film’s structural ambiguity: is David only simulating a love for his parent that has been programmed into him or is it “real”? And is there any difference between his feelings and a human being’s “natural” feelings? From a director who has long been associated with emotion and sentimentalism by his admirers and critics alike, such issues come across as a fundamental revision of previously secure values. When Gigolo Joe and David discuss our Lady of the Immaculate Heart in Rouge City, they compare her to the Blue Fairy, while her statue and the entrance to her church is bathed in a familiar blue light, associating her with sleep and dreams [81:58]. The characters thus compare religion to fairy tales, as humans also believe in irrational things and their own fairy tales, which bring them comfort and fulfillment. They can also readily delude themselves by wanting to replace their missing children with robots, which they paradoxically believe to be mere objects. As Joe explains to David, “Only orga believe in what cannot be seen or measured. It is that oddness that separates our species” [88:16]. How, then, are David’s fantastic ideas different from a human being’s?

27David is, in effect, a child confronted to an adult world he does not understand. Accordingly, the film continuously contrasts his perspective on things and the adult, rational reality that actually surrounds him, much like E.T. itself adopted the children’s and E.T.’s perspective throughout. David is inhabited by the same wonder and defamiliarizing gaze as E.T., projecting sweet fantasy on a stark and grim world. Although he and we cannot rely on the same deus ex machina, this is precisely what seems to happen in the last act, set 2,000 years in the future. It is revealing that many viewers at the time interpreted the mysterious beings we then see exploring the ruins of earth as alien entities studying and trying to salvage human civilization, when in fact the script calls them “SuperMechas,” the descendants of the robots created by humans (Harlan and Struthers 122).6 Audiences have come to expect aliens as the deus ex machina of Spielberg’s films, the creatures who might reintroduce wonder into his fictional worlds. The narrator of the story is now revealed, through his familiar voice, to be homodiegetic: one of the SuperMechas has been telling us David’s life story all along. The divide between fantasy and reality is now precariously bridged by these beings who, thanks to their advanced science, materialize a holographic Blue Fairy and grant David’s wish—not by transforming him into a boy, but by resurrecting Monica through cloning and creating a simulation of his home. The motifs of circularity and mirroring prevalent in the film come into play once more, the last act echoing the first, but offering viewers and David an idealized version of it. The full moon reappears in the background, visible through the bedroom window when the SuperMecha narrator accepts to resurrect David’s mother [125:30]. The moon represents a symbol of magic and hope at long last, and yet it is also, once again, the symbol of dreams and illusions: what is happening is David’s dream version of home, as intimated by the earlier extreme close-up of his eyes opening when he discovers he is back home, waking up from his 2,000-year-long sleep. Lost himself in an illusion of domestic bliss, David is still dreaming.

28Many viewers and critics reacted negatively to this twist, accusing Spielberg of betraying Kubrick’s dark vision and falling back on his usual sentimental tropism; one viewer accused the last segment of “gush[ing] with the shameless sentiment that Spielberg is notorious for, spilling over with pretentious speeches and weepy-eyed actors. The dramatic impetus slows to a crawl, and the complexities suddenly descend into movie-of-the-week territory”7 (see also Gordon 238). Such a view, however, fails to see the structural irony at work. We know that this “fairy tale ending” is a simulation, that this Monica is not the “real” one, that this place does not really exist and that David is willingly fooling himself by listening to her whispering into his ear how much she has always loved him. Criticizing such an ending for proposing unadulterated happiness is failing to distance oneself from David, the mellow soundtrack and the fairy tale delusion of domestic happiness that the film has systematically undercut. As Kreider astutely remarks, David was Monica’s toy to replace her lost son, and now Monica’s clone is David’s creation to play the part of his deceased mother (34).

29The film ends with a crane shot pulling out from David’s simulated home, where the lights are slowly going off and sleep is settling in, as the fairy tale draws to its close—except that the narrator makes clear that it is death, not sleep, that is moving in. The concluding voice-over says that David is finally granted a form of peace: “for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born” [131:45]. A similar comment could have been made at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., whose main characters left for a dream world of their own, yet there is a distinct irony in characterizing the ending of A.I. as such. Wish-fulfillment is still present, with David pretending he has found a way back home and to his mother’s heart, and yet so is the character’s failure to learn or grow up. On the other hand, David has symbolically proved himself worthy of a human being by following his dream and overcoming every obstacle thrown his way, and is duly rewarded by the fairies—by being able to dream on.


30The progression from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T., and from the father regressing into childhood to the son growing up into an adult, allows Spielberg to elaborate on his use of, and his discourse on, the fairy tale. From an arguably wish-fulfilling device in a film which defends it as such, it becomes a more constructive and positive force in E.T., a movie which uses science fiction tropes to create a modern science fiction fairy tale. The 1982 film displeased many critics who wanted to see science fiction exclusively as a realist genre ideologically related to reason, social commentary and enlightening estrangement. What the film proves is that the genre—its iconography and its structural sense of wonder—can be productively combined with the fairy tale and fantasy to offer stories that resonate with large audiences. This should come as no surprise, as psychoanalytical criticism in science fiction informs us that “the battles with sinister monsters or extraterrestrial forces are an externalization of the civilized person’s conflict with his or her primitive subconscious or id”—a comment which evokes Bettelheim’s analysis of the fairy tale (Tarratt 347). A.I. reclaims the Pinocchio analogy from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but consists in a revisitation and reconsideration of E.T. and its own treatment of the science fiction fairy tale. Foregrounding and thematizing its fairy tale structure, A.I. relates the story of a child who relies on the fairy tale in a science fiction world, playing on the dissonance between the two genres in order to offer an ambiguous conclusion regarding the power and role of those tales. Magic no longer works in a world where delusions and simulations abound, yet fairy tales are associated with a deeply human longing for stories which can help individuals make sense of their own feelings and wishes, and thus help them define themselves. By foregrounding its own nature as a fairy tale, A.I. metafictionally problematizes its own function, and therefore E.T.’s, as a film about childhood longings and anxieties, and the stories we tell ourselves to address those longings and anxieties, as children or as parents. The metafictional conceit also allows Spielberg to engage in a critical conversation with himself and his own cinema by coming to grips with a fairy tale, Pinocchio, which has arguably held the same attraction for him as Peter Pan. A.I., despite its complex authorship and its markedly darker and colder tone, is a film which feels deeply Spielbergian, including in the way it takes a step back to better contemplate and consider Spielberg’s cinema. A.I. would pave the way for a new cycle of science fiction films (Minority Report and War of the Worlds), which would also offer audiences a radically different approach to a genre the director had done so much to transform twenty years earlier. Because of this, no other films can arguably provide a better insight into Spielberg’s identity and evolution as a filmmaker than E.T. and A.I.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Warner Bros., 2001.

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Britton, Andrew. “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment.” Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press 2009. Kindle edition.

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Clute, John and Peter Nicholls. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995. Electronic version.

Denby, David. “Face/Off. Steven Spielberg meets Stanley Kubrick.” The New Yorker, July 2, 2001. Accessed on 1/11/2016.

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Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.

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Struthers, Jane M. and Jan Harlan. A.I. Artificial Intelligence: From Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg: The Vision Behind the Film. London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” College English 34.3 (Dec. 1972): 372–382.

Tarratt, Margaret. “Monsters from the Id.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003, 346–365.

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1 Accessed on 15 January 2016.

2 Accessed on 15 January 2016.

3 Accessed on 1 April 2016.

4 Accessed on 1 April 2016.

5 Voiced by Robin Williams, himself closely associated with the fairy tale thanks to Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Aladdin (1993), in which he played the genie who grants wishes.

6 Many online forums show the confusion in many viewers’ minds:,, Accessed on 2 November 2016.

7 Accessed on 11 April 2016.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — E.T.: tense dinner-table scene without father.
Fichier image/jpeg, 267k
Titre Fig. 2 — A.I.: David’s face sliding off as his body fails to ingest food.
Fichier image/jpeg, 199k
Titre Fig. 3 — E.T.: E.T. and Elliott in the corridor, listening to Marie reading Peter Pan to Gertie.
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Fichier image/jpeg, 168k
Titre Fig. 4 — A.I.: Monica putting David to bed.
Fichier image/jpeg, 225k
Titre Fig. 5 — A.I.: Monica reading Pinocchio to Martin, while David listens offscreen.
Fichier image/jpeg, 187k
Titre Fig. 6 — A.I.: Lord Johnson-Johnson’s moon-shaped aircraft dwarfing Gigolo Joe.
Fichier image/jpeg, 277k


Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3.

Mehdi Achouche is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at Jean Moulin University, Lyon, France. He works on science fiction cinema and technological utopianism, and more broadly on the representations of progress on the big and small screens and in popular culture.

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