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A.I. (2001)

Many years ago Stanley Kubrick asked author Brian Aldiss if he had any interesting stories he might use. Aldiss sent over several stories including one called Supertoys Last All Summer Long. The story fascinated Kubrick and he would spend much time over the following twenty or so years trying to figure out how to make it into a movie. Sadly he died before ever making the film. He did however discuss the movie with Steven Spielberg, even going so far as to suggest that Spielberg direct the project for him. After Kubrick passed away Spielberg decided to pick up the baton for his old friend and make the it.

So this summer we get the odd concoction of a movie that is equal parts Kubrick and Spielberg. Kubrick's films have a legendary lack of emotion while Spielberg has an equally legendary knack for pulling at the heartstrings. It's almost inconceivable that two such contrasting styles could be brought together easily. The fact is that those two styles don't mix easily and that makes the film simultaneously fascinating and disconcerting to watch.

The film centers around the creation of a robot boy so sophisticated that he can experience emotion, so that he might love. This robot, or mecha, is the creation of Professor Hobby who believes that this could be the perfect answer for parents desperate to have a child or replace a lost one. David (Haley Joel Osment) is the first such robot and he is placed with Henry and Monica Swinton. Their son has an incurable illness and has been cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found. Monica (Frances O'Connor) has no idea what to make of David. He looks incredibly real but is somehow... off, not quite right.

For David to truly love, there is an imprinting process that causes him to bond to someone. Monica is initially appalled at the idea but David grows on her and eventually her need for the love of a child overwhelms her uncertainty and she bonds with him. The change in David is subtle but it hits like a hammer as he suddenly seems truly real. Osment's performance is magnificent. Early on he seems less like a young boy and more like a baby in an older body. He stares in endless fascination at everything around him, absorbing all he sees and trying to mimic and learn.

Unfortunately for David, the Swinton's son Martin is cured and he returns home. Martin isn't amused by the mecha attempting to replace him and he begins a campaign to discredit David in his parents' eyes. It is a severely dark and twisted take on sibling rivalry. Eventually though Martin's efforts are rewarded and his parents feel they must get rid of David. The imprinting process is so total that he must be returned to his makers rather than being resold like other mechas. Monica drives David back to where he came from but can't go through with it. She leaves David in the woods, hoping to spare him destruction. On the surface it seems the kinder act but it proves to be an act of immeasurable cruelty.

This ends the first act and we suddenly find ourselves with a new mecha named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). He is a lover robot, meant to provide supreme physical satisfaction. He is busily working on charming his latest client, a woman escaped from an abusive mate. Things quickly go wrong for Joe and he finds himself running from the authorities. He comes upon a dumping ground for broken mechas. It has attracted quite a crowd of obscelete mechas searching for replacement parts. Joe and David meet up when they are captured by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) for use in his Flesh Fair, an event where mechas are brutally destroyed for the amusement of spectators.

There is apparently a great deal of animosity towards mechas. The world has changed greatly from out time. Global warming has melted the polar ice caps, flooding coastal cities. Survival has required strict population controls. As a result, mechas have become common, filling roles normally meant for humans. Lord Johnson-Johnson has built himself a niche by feeding the animosity created by these imitation humans.

The story is built heavily on the Pinocchio fairy tale. Abandoned by the woman he is hardwired to love, David sets himself on a quest to become a real boy so that he might earn back her love. Familiar with the tale of Pinocchio, David believes he must find the Blue Fairy to turn him into a real boy. It is this quest that forms the movie's backbone and its central question. What responsibilty does a person have to something that loves it? It is considered unconscionable to discard a person or even a pet that loves you. But does that hold true if the love comes from a machine? If it does truly love, can it still be considered a machine? And at what point does a machine become sentient and thus no longer bound to the conventions for dealing with a machine?

Perhaps the most horrifying thing about David is what might be termed the "Claudia Syndrome." I call it that because David faces a very similar problem to the child vampire Claudia in Interview with the Vampire. Both are basically immortal but both are trapped in a body that will not grow or change. Claudia grows and matures mentally but not physically and that eventually drives her mad. She cannot live a normal (for a vampire anyway) life because she is stuck in a child's body. David, had he been allowed to stay with the Swintons indefinitely, would have faced the same problem. We see later in the movie that Professor Hobby is busily preparing thousands of Davids for sale to the public. What he never addresses is what that means to the families. If it's tough to be stuck permanently in the body of a child, what would it be like for parents to have a child that never grows up? While the mecha might initially fill the parents need for a child of their own, eventually that lack of growth is going to cause them difficulty. It basically stalls the proper emotional growth of the family.

Questions along this line are nearly endless and without easy answers and this is why Kubrick struggled for years to make this movie. Spielberg faces the same questions and he doesn't really have the answers either. Kubrick talked of making a movie that would allow people to fall in love with AI machines. Perhaps instead his story sounds a cautionary note that we are heading for trouble with the development of intelligent machines.

David is a more advanced mecha than any previously created. He has the ability to truly learn and change. He is driven by desires and motived by emotion. Or is he? His spectacularly singled minded quest to earn back Monica's love could make one wonder. Does he truly love or does he simply follow programming to imitate love?

This quest could be very emotional for the audience except that we can't truly invest our emotions in David. He looks real but Osment's performance is so convincing that we know on a fundamental level that David isn't real. That keeps us at arm's length from the character. That could either be the movie's genius or failure depending on how you look at it. The distant emotion we feel for David helps highlight the film's central questions. On a basic storytelling level though, it keeps us from falling fully into the story and taking an interest seeing things turn out all right for the main character.

We meet a variety of mechas, most of which seem to fulfill a specific task. Gigolo Joe makes love to women. At the Flesh Fair we find a nanny mecha. Both of them seem happiest when performing the task they were created for. David isn't truly much different. He is happiest when allowed to love the person he is bonded to. The only difference between him and the other mechas is that his task is connected solely to emotion. For all of these mechas, their effectiveness is determined by how well humans accept them to perform their task. In our own world people have accepted the aid of machines in caring for children and experiencing pleasure so it isn't a huge leap to accept a human looking mecha to carry out more complex versions of the same tasks. But there is no device that can substitute for love.

A.I. is an endlessly fascinating film. The visual effects are spectacular. They blend seamlessly into the film to create a world and machines that are otherwise beyond our skills to create. It is lovingly shot and beautifully accented by John Williams' score. Spielberg took on possibly his most daring and mature project to date and mostly lives up to the challenge. I say mostly because the film asks big questions but isn't ready to answer them all. Whether or not that is a good thing is destined to be debated for many years. The ending is pure Spielberg but whether or not you accept it is based entirely on your own personality. Spielberg might not have hit this one out of the park but he has none the less created a challenging and important film that you should see.

- John Shea

A.I. - Artificial Intelligence
Directed by:
Steven Spielberg
Written by:
Steven Spielberg
Ian Watson
Brian Aldiss
Haley Joel Osment
Jude Law
Frances O'Connor
Sam Robards
Jake Thomas
Brendan Gleeson
William Hurt
Jack Angel
Ben Kingsley

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