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Other Rosenblum Writings:
Amores Perros
Bridget Jones's Diary
The Widow of
Saint-Pierre

 

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by Shari L. Rosenblum

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the Stanley Kubrick project written and directed by Steven Spielberg, graces us with the best tradition of both of its fathers: a heart-rending insight into the child's world and a diversionary distancing of the human condition objectified. Flawed though it is in ways that might topple any work, it is in the end an experience of multiple wonders.

A.I. centers on a little boy - not a flesh and blood little boy, but a lifelike reproduction of the most seamless sort, an imitation of reality in look and feel, with the full and needy recreated heart of a child.

Haley Joel Osment, in a stunning performance that ties together disparate sections of a tale told in parts, plays David, whose story starts some time in the future, after the polar ice caps have melted and whole coasts have been left submerged under water.

This world into which David is thrust is a dystopia where limited supplies have forced the institution of laws that limit pregnancy and human expansion, where robotic creatures have been designed to fill the spaces where the lesser privileged of men once dwelt - butlers, nannies, gigolos - suppliers to meet the unquenchable demands of humankind. The only one of his kind, the first of his kind, he is a mechanical reification of child wonder and innocence designed to serve the greatest conceit and least forgivable greed of man: the desire to be loved unconditionally for all eternity by someone all one's own. David, despite and because of his automaton creation, is a Mecha (Mechanical) with an animated anima - a machine that can love.

But David's love function needs to be turned on, the product of an affirmative act - imprinting, as any real child might, on a parent or parents. And as it is for any child, to activate such love is to take on knowingly and in good conscience responsibility for an immense vulnerability.

A test case, a trial, prototype David is taken in by a couple, Monica (Frances O'Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards), whose own biological child, Martin, sleeps pending - frozen in a comatose state waiting for the advances of medicine to catch up and cure him. Empty and awkward, David appears at their door all in white, an almost alien light that takes shape as it enters its new home. At first, he seems no more than a human-form doll always under foot - eyes creepily wide open, sleepless even abed, in perpetual scientific consciousness - a stark contrast to the couple's child of flesh, who lies eyes shut and unconscious. And then one day Monica, for comfort, for ratification, takes the affirmative step, and David's eyes take on a soul, and the robot becomes a child.

But what happens to that substitute child if the real one should return? The question rings with the adopted child’s fear: can a stand-in compete with flesh and blood? Does giving a machine or a child the power to love place any burden on those who made him, or those who made him love? A.I. asks the question up front, even before David's story begins. What responsibility do we have to our creations? What obligation does there exist to return a love we have engendered to serve our self-importance? Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), genius Mecha-maker whose very name suggests, at best, a superficial emotional commitment, gives us the hint of an answer with a smug throw-away analogy: Didn't God make Adam to love Him? But the greater answer is not so pat - if we are created in His image to love Him, does He, should He, is He obligated to love us in return? And what if we, in God's image, create a new life in our own?

The rub is that David is more perfect a recreation of God's image than the Orgas (Organics) he imitates, and less false in form and substance, as the return of his flesh and blood brother Martin reminds us. He is taller and more agile than this human child for whom he was meant to substitute, and his internal mechanics are invisibly pure and sophisticated in contrast to the crude outer machinery that Martin relies upon to function - an incubator, an oxygen mask, a wheel chair, and, at one telling point, metal braces from ankle to waist, positioning him as far more mechanized than his Mecha brother.Quite like his mother (their mother), Monica, whose first appearance on the screen has her applying make-up, masked illusion, in a fade-out fade-in continuation of a Mecha woman performing the same mindless task, Martin returned fails to appreciate the irony of the comparison.

Soon, and in the way of the world, sibling rivalry and human coldness put the perfect puppet child at a distinct disadvantage, even physically displacing him from the womb-shaped moon-guarded almost-cradle that had been his bed in Martin's absence. As in Carlo Collodi's story of Pinocchio, which Monica reads to the boys at Martin's malevolent request, David cast aside longs for a Blue Fairy to come and make him too a real boy, worthy of a mother's love. But the more real he is, the more threatened everyone else.

In the second act, which takes its shape, if not its tone or substance, from the Pinocchio tale, hearth and home give way to the mysteries and dangers that lurk in forests and woods and fairytales, and the moon is no longer the maternal protection that watches over the child, but a bringer of destruction and despair in the form of a Flesh Fair, where Pinocchio's assassins come together with Kubrickian cynicism in the form of Orgas bent on demolishing the Mechas they've created. (All of them, Mechas and Orgas, are filmed with Spielberg's characteristically intent focus on faces.)

David through it all seeks the magical mother for whom he pines, the Blue Fairy who can make it all possible. He has as his constant companion on his quest, a walking, talking teddy bear, Teddy, a "supertoy" Jiminy Cricket for the future age with the soothing paternal voice of Jack Angel. Teddy, who once upon a time belonged to Martin, also knew their Monica as "Mommy." Like the puppet's cricket, he is David's conscience and his consciousness, and he gives the audience lightness at moments of great tension.

But there in the darkness, across adventures and misadventures, David also comes upon another mentor of sorts - Gigolo Joe, a lover Mecha played with disarming charm, robotic poise, and crafted oiliness by Jude Law, a fox indeed to match Pinocchio's own. "I know women," Joe tells David, promising that he can make even the Blue Fairy redden, "no two are alike, and after they've met me, no two are ever the same."

Joe is the counterpoint to David, with a programmed love that is all simulation, and can be turned off as well as on. But the more interesting development is that Joe, like Teddy, is more reliable than the humans who call their love real. Joe takes David to Rouge City (Pleasure Island, from Disney's Pinocchio?) and beyond to the end of the world to help him on his quest. And in one striking private moment, it is his cocky, cavalier words that strike out to dispute and deny the Cartesian philosophy that underlies the Orgas' egotism: "I am," he says. "I was."

From the 17th century on, Rene Descartes' dualist philosophy – distinguishing the merely mechanical from the soul-endowed, has served to deny the evidence of pain and worth in all that is not human. Descartes denied that animals could feel pain, despite the fact that they demonstrate all the same pain behaviors man does. He said there could be no feeling without a conscious state of awareness, and no conscious state of awareness without a true mind to perceive it. An ostensibly godly philosophy, celebrating the existence of man as God's creature, Cartesianism allows sadism with impunity as long as the victims are not human. "I think, therefore I am" is a deceptively benign form of prejudice.

And so god is called upon again, if only to challenge man's conception of his gifts.

The analogy between god and man, Orga and Mecha, may seem most blatant in the film's first act, where more than the flicker of an idea, briefly given voice, it resonates in the continual framing of David as recreated image - mirrored in coffee tins and off shining tables, multiplied in beveled doors and in mimetic gestures, reflected in a car's rearview growing smaller and smaller. But it should not be forgotten, at the very least, that the likening to Pinocchio has a God reference too: Geppetto, like Jesus, was a carpenter. And it bears noting, as well, that deep in the heart of Rouge City, among the least maternal of feminine imagery, stands a church, guarded over by Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart, the Virgin Mother o'erhued in blue, whom our hero confuses, momentarily, with his own sought-after Blue Fairy. "The ones who made us are always looking for the one who made them," Joe explains.

Were it I who directed, the film would have ended at the close of act two, with the haunted, hopeful horror of eternal prayer. But Spielberg takes us for another round - a final act that jerks and jars, and very rarely works at all, but takes us finally to a place where tears can flow. It is an ending less comforting, and less facile, than it may at first appear. There are those who will undoubtedly feel the the temptation to pull apart the threads of A.I. and filter through its tones, so as to give each father his due, or exalt the tendencies of one and decry those of the other. But this seems to me a temptation that should be resisted. The film is, like its centerpiece child, compelling precisely because it weaves together perfection and imperfection, artistry and reality, reason and sentiment.


©2001 Shari L. Rosenblum
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