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
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
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
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