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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.)
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
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."
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.
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