A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

David (Haley Joel Osment) wants his mommy (not pictured) in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Steven Spielberg; screen story by Ian Watson, based on the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Janusz Kaminski. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Rick Carter. Starring Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt.

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence that occurs at about the halfway mark–one that perhaps best illustrates the film’s uneasy command of its subject matter. A mechanical lifeform (or mecha) that looks and sounds exactly like a little boy is dragged into the middle of a “Flesh Fair,” where such creatures are destroyed on stage in a variety of imaginative ways, all before a large, cheering crowd. The boy, named David (Haley Joel Osment), is put under a vat of battery acid, and audience members are urged to make a lucky toss that will connect with a target, tip over the acid, and destroy David where he stands. A swarthy impresario (Brendan Gleeson) urges the audience not to be fooled by David’s appearance. But when David starts pleading for his life, the crowd turns inquisitive, then hostile, and after a pregnant pause, everyone in the cheap seats begins to throw things—not at poor David, but at the carny who dragged the “boy” on stage. The film posits that among the hundreds gathered to participate in an organized event that celebrates vicious cruelty towards machines, not a single one would reject David’s artifice and try to kill him on the spot. See, that’s the thing. I feel like someone would have.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But for me it signifies the chief disconnect between A.I.’s concepts and execution: sentimentality that frequently thwarts its own attempts to be probing. A.I., which tells the tale of a mecha gifted (or perhaps cursed) with the ability to feel permanent love in a world that hates and fears him, is filled with dazzling images and heady ideas, but its inability to fully engage with those same ideas makes it one of the most frustrating film experiences of the last decade. It crosses a lot of sub-genres (adventure, psychological thriller, sci-fi dystopia, quasi-religious allegory,  and even one or two horror elements) but it also cuts corners with how it approaches them.  Tonally, it veers all over the place, which would have been interesting. But the fuzzy-wuzzy throughline it suggests makes every single element feel trivial and disjointed. It’s maybe the kindest movie about a bleak future that you’ll ever see.

It is difficult to discuss A.I. without mentioning its history. Sooner or later, you start talking about the fact that it could have been made by Stanley Kubrick. A.I. is indeed the brainchild of Kubrick, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, labored on for years, orphaned by Kubrick’s death in 1999. Steven Spielberg picked up the reins to finally bring this vision to the screen, and you can see on a superficial level why Spielberg, the most successful commercial director of our time, might have been the right choice for this material: its epic scope, sci-fi thrills, and blending of the fantastic and homespun fit him like a glove. It is in A.I.’s emotional center, however, that Spielberg missteps, because he bluntly enforces an empathy with his hero that is unwavering and unambiguous. The decision to make David a focal point is not an unsound one, but it is a challenge, and would have benefitted from Kubrick’s more clinical approach. Spielberg, on the other hand, loves too easily, and is unwilling to ask the big questions about David’s psychological makeup. Instead, he prefers to tell an inherently chilling story in the sweetest terms possible. David’s plot even elbows more poignant ones out of the way, which would be a fine approach for a film about emotional distance, but not one that presumes a sympathetic pull. If David is a being who is held captive by his own passions, then the movie should stand outside those feelings and examine them, not fall for them.

The film operates in four movements, the first of which makes some effort to underline the most unpleasant aspects of the premise.  We begin with Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor), an middle-class housewife, grieving over her son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is stricken with an unknown illness and frozen in medical suspended animation. Her husband Henry (Sam Robards), desperate to shake Monica out of her reverie, agrees to house the robot David, who can be programmed to feel love, in what amounts to a glorified beta test. David, in his out-of-the-box programming, is inhumanly friendly, and peers into Monica’s daily routines with wide-eyed wonder. Monica is at first horrified (she screams at her husband, who seems to have his own problem with understanding human emotions), but she gradually comes to accept David in her household, leading to a remarkably acted scene where she “imprints” on David: speaking a string of code words that transform the dead-eyed little droid into a loving son. David’s face falls ever so slightly into something more recognizably human, and suddenly calls Monica “mommy,” which is answered by O’Connor’s finest acting moment in the movie: a flash of guilt swallowed up by hope.

There’s something very unnerving about a stranger treating you with familiarity, and David’s use of “mommy” in this sequence is more than a little creepy. But the movie misses the moment, and goes for warmth. Way too much of it. David is not human (let’s be clear about this), and while Monica may have asked what her husband was thinking in bringing David home, what is she thinking? The steps to her essentially adopting David are made rapid and murky, and when she activates his love program, we’re already thinking of the ramifications: how can David function as a child for them without aging, possessing no bodily functions, no opinions, or having a full range of emotions? That Monica is so desperate for a child that she will accept a false one is an interesting concept, pointing to a sense of self-destruction within her, but the scene is presented dripping in simple syrup. Is she even thinking about what might happen if Martin comes home?

Obviously not. Martin, of course, does return home, and the ensuing battle between the two children for parental affection is dampened by David’s lack of culpability: at every step he is made out to be a victim, which robs the narrative of desperately needed nuance. Dialogue references a more potentially complicated worldview, like when a regretful Henry speculates that if David knows how to love, “maybe he can learn to hate.” But aside from one moment towards the end, this seed of doubt is intended only to motivate Monica; after David is perceived to have intentionally hurt Martin, she abandons David alone in the woods, giving him a few desperate instructions to avoid being captured, and then speeding away, with a talking teddy bear named Teddy (voice of Jack Angel) as his only companion. It’s a striking scene, beautifully acted; but it’s also completely oversold by overbearing music and shot selections. The more it tells you how to feel, the more one rebels at how slanted and mawkish it is. Wouldn’t it be more complex if Monica’s decision was more defensible? I’m intrigued by the drama of a family that would essentially throw a child out with the trash, but this is the kind of movie that has to gloss over that point in order to preserve its own conventional narrative. There’s a word for that kind of thing: “flawed.”

We now open up the second (more episodic) portion of the film, where David wanders the woods in an attempt to win back his mother’s love by trying to find The Blue Fairy (he is a student of Pinnochio). He encounters a subculture of droids, and a human wasteland of filth clubs and robot abuse forums that can best be called “Philip K. Dickensian.” Here we get the Flesh Fair, and a sequence of mechas picking over the corpses of their comrades for spare parts, and a trip to Rouge City, capital of the sex trades. It looks like a futuristic Atlantic City, only with a bit more depravity. All very inventive, even if the sudden increase in scope sits ill at ease with the opening; they don’t quite feel part of the same world.

This section is also where David encounters Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sexbot framed for murder, who has a puerile understanding of women. David feels love, but Joe makes it, and together they form a curious pair. Jude Law is very good in the role, especially its physicality (note the exquisitely timed moment where he pauses to watch the star of a holographic commercial, and perfectly mimics his theatrical body language, or his little tap dance in the woods). But Joe only exists to give David someone worldly to talk to, and occasionally hijack control of the plot’s momentum (David is frequently relegated to a passive observer in his own journey). Joe’s not a character; he’s a device (literally); his set-up is far too lengthy, and his exit is unsatisfying.

Eventually, David’s quest brings him to face to face with his creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), who operates his company in the flooded ruins of Manhattan (would a major robotics firm still work out of such a place?). Hurt, a gifted and subtle actor, brings all the he can to a role that is never fully sketched in, because the movie is not about him, even though maybe it should have been (kind of like Monica). A grieving parent, he gave his dead son’s face to David, and hopes to fill thousands of homes with his model, which is more and more disturbing if you think about it. A.I.’s most edgy and daring material is found here, including the moment (alluded to earlier) where David finds dozens of copies of himself, and also attacks a functioning model out of jealous rage, so desperate for his mommy’s love. In the second half of the film, this is the rare moment that completely works, because it dares to address David’s desires as petty and small. He is broken, and this is effective. But this is also when, arguably, A.I. completely loses its way, because it doesn’t have the temerity to stick to its vision. So David tries to commit suicide, until he sees a statue of The Blue Fairy in the submerged Coney Island, so he goes down for a closer look, and his vehicle becomes trapped and…and…and…

Well. As I said, there’s a fourth portion here, which begins thousands of years in the future, when all humans are gone (only a robot could have an epilogue that exists thousands of years later, yet still feel an emotional continuity). An advanced group of supermechas, who look confusingly like aliens, find David encased in ice and create for him…well… What can be said is that this epilogue is played quite straight, creating a quantifiable catharisis…but the only way to truly accept it, I think, is to accept an ironic subtext, but that seems to fully go against the emotional cues we’re given. I would argue that the ending is an experiment conducted by the supermechas, and only “real” insomuch as it fulfills David’s needs in a way that reality could not, so perhaps it is real enough? But in this same ending, with its warm lighting and John Williams’ overbearing score, Spielberg again tips his hand into treacle. Instead of asking us to think, he distracts with a final downbeat that urges us to have a good cry. I don’t think that’s the correct approach.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (an ironic title, since the film ends up being about reaching a purely emotional truth) wants to be taken as a serious science fiction film, but is it? It does give us things to think about: the responsibility a creator has to his creations (biological and artificial), the question of what love really is, and the mental quandaries that people can feel when their loved ones are replaced by things. The evolution of self-awareness. The existence of the soul, and how that influences those who are built without one. The unattainable dreams that all creatures pursue. And that’s not even getting into the Freudian subtext of a boy who loves his mother and only his mother (speculation about the connection between Spielberg’s own broken home and this theme would go here, I guess–note that Henry never imprints on David). There’s a load of intriguing material here.

What harms A.I., unfortunately, is the fact that it is an intellectual puzzle presented by an emotional poet. I know that is not fair to either man, and I also do not know for a fact that Stanley Kubrick would have made a better film. But I think he would have made a more complex one, because he would have seen David as a subject, but not a hero, and would have given us a tour of his futuristic labyrinth without holding our hand. I also suspect Kubrick’s well-known cynicism would have been well-matched with his concepts, unlike Spielberg, who seems determined to find a white-bread bottom to the most disturbing imagery. And the four-part structure probably would have cohered better, because they potentially add up to a grimness that Spielberg is unwilling to embrace. Kubrick might have used the incidental human characters as a way to help illustrate the fall of man, but Spielberg’s direction is flat in this regard, and the apocalyptic elements come through only in dialogue. At every turn, the rough edges are discreetly sanded away; the more Spielberg tells us what to feel, the more we bristle at his conceit that there are easy answers in the world he has helped create. A lot of ideas are imagined, but they are free-standing, and don’t pay off. It feels facile.

And yet, I cannot dismiss A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Its superficialities are mesmerizing: the special effects, now almost ten years old, still carry their weight, and they are perfectly married to Janusz Kaminski’s photography, which favors harsh backlighting and graniness. Together, they create, well…not “reality,” but a persuasive alternate reality. And although I feel the emphasis on emotions are a betrayal of the concept, the performances are exquisite, even when they’re let down by the script (the screenplay is by Spielberg, and writing dialogue is not his strong suit). It is always compelling, sometimes thrilling, and if it is no masterpiece, it is at the very least a fascinating failure. Or maybe it isn’t even a failure any more than it is a success; perhaps it’s neutral. Even if it is annoying that the film offers tantalizing ideas and then leaves you empty-handed, you can almost see that as Kubrick’s final wicked joke from the grave. Scientists, storytellers, God. All creators, and they giveth so much. And then they taketh away.

Grade: C

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1927 – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog


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