by Sam Juliano
The idea behind A.I. was originally conceived by Stanley Kubrick, who subsequently entrusted the proposed project to Steven Spielberg. When Kubrick died suddenly in 1999, his widow successfully persuaded Spielberg to assume complete artistic control of the film, including the direction. Set in a future time when progress in robotics poses a conceivable menace to the human species, David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic boy, is the artificial life form who is capable of experiencing love. As a prototype, he is given to a couple whose real son is mired in what appears to be an irreversible coma. After a discordant initiation David and his mother bond, at which point the “real” son miraculously awakens from the coma, rejoins to the family, and tricks David into engaging in dangerous things. The father concludes that they must return the robotic boy to the manufacturer for destruction, but the mother arranges for his escape via abandonment. For the duration of the film David seeks to be reunited with his mother, and for a time is joined by “Gigolo Joe,” a robot designed to function as a male prostitute. David becomes frozen I an the ocean, and millennia later–long after the extinction of the human species–robots of the future rescue him and allow him to reunite with his mother for one day that will last in his mind for eternity.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence, fueled by some profound philosophical themes and issues of motherhood, is arguably one of Spielberg’s masterworks, and for this writer it ranks with Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun and E. T. on the short list of the director’s greatest achievements in cinema. Like the other three, it is extraordinarily moving, and it paints yet again a piercingly provocative view of childhood and of the human condition, tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness. The film is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” published in 1969, and it draws considerable influence from Disney’s Pinocchio.
The setting is futuristic, and the narrative commences after a catastrophic global warming-induced flood that has ravaged the landscape and exacerbated population pressures. Couples are required to secure licenses to have children, and the technological advances have now reached the point where companies are producing mechanical humans that are veritable doppelgangers of the real children, even to the extent of expressing genuine affection. Children who are obedient and stay young forever is an ideal scenario for prospective parents. Of course the very concept that “human love” has been replaced by “machine love” serves as the ironic juxtaposition of a film that strives to portray hope, but instead in large measure presents a dire picture of family disintegration, and lost capacity to love. In effect, the film is made up of three distinct parts. In the first, David strives to assimilate in a human family, while in the second part we follow his adventures during his search, until finally in the third part, he confronts his dream. The first part is clearly the most psychological as it documents the struggle for affection. The second part above all showcases Spielberg’s satire of American society in the context of David’s discovery of the world around him, after he is stranded alone. David’s abandonment suggests a ‘saturation’ of American consumer society where everything becomes disposable and interchangeable, once the trend is past.
The film’s most omnipotent and wrenching scene may well be the aforementioned one where the mother abandons her son to the forest. To save him she had no alternative but to abandon him to survive on his own, as the father had threatened his dismantlement and destruction. The robotic boy’s never-ending search for his mother of course mirrors the plethora of adopted, abandoned, lost and abused children in today’s society who are enlisted in an eternal mission to find love, only to become entangled in harmful vices when it is unconsummated. Then there’s a circus where robots are publicly sacrificed, reflecting a modern-day spectacle that’s all the rage in America, where an ecstatic crowd contemplates gigantic robotic trucks that clash and are eventually destroyed. Gladiator, Kubrick’s Spartacus and Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List are all recalled here.
In the film’s final chapter David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a superman whose only apparent goal is to satisfy women. Recalling the show Sex in the City, Joe seems to be a direct reference to the increasingly significant phenomenon of unmarried and independent women who do not need men to survive. He brings the child to the red city, a town of a thousand lights where vice reigns in what is an obvious transposition of Las Vegas.
Ultimately, as per chronicled in the utterly arresting sequence near the end, the earth becomes mired in a deep freeze, which is brought about by a planetary collapse of climate. The subsequent melting of the Arctic ice sheets and submersion of the coastal cities ends a two-thousand year freeze, which ‘reactivates’ David and his stored memories of a human civilization that has long ago disappeared, but his quest for his mother and human love endures with the advanced computer life forms that have replaced humanity–shapeless, sexless, emotionless, yet with a degree of compassion, as they assist David in realizing his goal. The short passage visualizing this fleeting moment is one of the most beautiful codas in all of American cinema since the advent of the new millennium. The conclusion of A.I. hasn’t pleased a number of critics and moviegoers, but it’s in keeping with the film’s myriad themes, which also includes the nature of existence, the responsibility mankind has to the sentient beings that it creates, and the issues that arise when man’s technical reach extends beyond his moral grasp.
The film again demonstrates Spielberg’s gift with young children, as can be seen with Haley Joel Osment, shifting seamlessly between a cold machine, a child in love and a dangerously obsessed creature. Francis O’Connor, who plays his mother, effectively conveys the ambivalence of her feelings, while Jude Law as the gigolo shines in his extroverted mode.
Spielberg alumni, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn all make major contributions to Spielberg’s futuristic parable. Kaminski’s elegiac canvasses are tinged with melancholy, and are perfectly accentuated by the bittersweet music. But it’s a film that stays with you largely because of its philosophical themes, which in the end question the validity of eternal life, the fleeting nature of mortality and how the power of love can transcend centuries. It’s a film of lasting and significant emotional resonance and it’s my choice for the best movie of 2001.