As the images, emotions and memories of this film go back and forth in my mind, so too does my opinion of it. If it isn’t Steven Spielberg’s most perfected and accomplished film, “A. I.: Artificial Intelligence” is almost certainly his most complex. The story behind it is almost as interesting and complex: Originally one of Stanley Kubrick’s many unfinished projects, it was nurtured for more than a decade, with Kubrick and his lifelong friend Spielberg each suggesting the other should direct it.
It should have been the combination of the best of both worlds: Kubrick’s immaculate cerebral ponderings on human nature combined with Spielberg’s soulful capture of the magic of childhood. Two ingredients used to tell a philosophical fairy tale about a robot boy’s quest for his mother’s love. A story that would dare to make us ponder the very nature of love and humanity. A combination of “Blade Runner” and “Pinocchio”.
After Kubrick’s untimely death in 1999, Spielberg ultimately decided to direct and write the film himself, as a personal favour for the man who had been his friend and mentor. The challenge was enormous, due to the scope of the film’s philosophical implications as well as Spielberg’s relative inexperience in screenwriting; his previous screenwriting efforts, not counting the short films he made as a teenager, consisted of three films he himself had directed: The passable “The Sugarland Express”, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” (one of his masterpieces) and the decent “Poltergeist” (officially directed by Tobe Hooper, though Spielberg was also an uncredited co-director). He had also written the popular but insufferably overrated “The Goonies”, which Richard Donner had directed. Bottom line, Spielberg is by no means a bad screenwriter but it clearly isn’t his strongest suit. Yet who else could have brought his friend’s vision to life? It was, as stated previously, an enormous challenge.
Did he pass it? After watching the film, reading and watching reviews and thinking about it, my answer is “mostly”. No, the film does not quite reach the heights it aspired to. It is indisputably flawed and falls short of the masterpiece it could have been. But it tries very hard, it dares to dream and to climb those heights, even if its journey is ultimately incomplete. To this day, it remains a polarizing film, derided by many, adored by some. Many legitimate criticisms can and have been made towards this film, and I will certainly repeat some of them. But if there is one thing that nobody can deny this film, it is its sincerity. Spielberg and Kubrick’s shared passion for the project is present in every frame, and Spielberg’s successful evocation of his friend’s unconsummated passion makes his love and respect towards Kubrick equally ubiquitous within the film. This itself gives “A. I.: Artificial Intelligence” a singular emotional power.
Look at the backwards tracking shots and the perfectly symmetrical framing. And observe the bright lights, occasionally coming out of the windows. Steven Spielberg has not only imitated Kubrick’s style, he has resurrected it and balanced it with his own. I can barely find the words to express how entrancing the world, sets and robots are. There is not one wasted frame, not one moment where I was not lost in the film’s intoxicating beauty. In terms of futuristic environments, it rivals the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Blade Runner”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and both versions of “Metropolis”, surpasses “Tron: Legacy” and the vast majority science-fiction films made in the past 10 years, and that’s including Christopher Nolan’s honourable “Inception”.
Much like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, this visual enchantment is not merely an end unto itself, it serves as a way to convey the film’s themes and ideas as much as the screenplay does, often compensating the screenplay’s weaknesses. It is as much an experience as it is a story, if not moreso. It is indeed David’s experience, his sensations and emotions that the audience is invited to share. This is where Spielberg greatest strength: his knack for discovering uncommonly gifted child actors and bringing uncommon depth out of them. This is something he demonstrated beyond any doubt with Henry Thomas in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” – still the best performance ever given by a child in film – and Christian Bale in “Empire Of The Sun”. And in Haley Joel Osment, who had already stunned audiences two years beforehand in “The Sixth Sense”, he found the film’s heart and soul, the very key to making it all work. I don’t know how, but he completely nails what may be the most difficult role ever conceived for a child. His nuanced balance of artificiality and authenticity is perfect. David is a robot who starts out as obedient, not quite understanding his “parents” but eager to please them. Programmed to love his mother, he neglects the father and treats him more as one would respectfully treat an acquaintance or family friend than our father. When the parents’ biological son Martin (Jake Thomas) unexpectedly recovers and mistreats him out of jealousy and resentment, Osment’s eyes make it clear he yearns to be his brother’s friend and thus is easily manipulated by him. Observe Osment’s repetition of the word “no” when his mother abandons him, notice how the first “no” is small and artificial-sounding before it gradually increases in volume and despair, along with Osment’s face. None of this feels calculated or pre-programmed, yet I constantly wonder if the character’s responses are or not. Not many adult actors could pull that off, let alone a child. Why Haley Joel Osment hasn’t become as respected and successful as Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio, and why this monumental performance wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, are two of Hollywood’s most maddening mysteries.
The film contains an interesting reflection on artificiality that takes place in the flesh-fair scene. The flesh-faire is a thinly-veiled and somewhat elitist jab at the NASCAR-loving working classes of middle America, depicted here as a frenzied mob of anti-robot luddites who capture robots to destroy them for their pleasure and excitement. David, having been abandoned by his mother, ends up as one of the many unfortunate captured robots. As he and sexbot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) are about to be executed, David does something the crowd has never seen a robot do before: He frantically pleads for his life. This prompts the fair’s organizer (played by Brendan Gleeson) to comment on how perfectly robots – as far as he can tell from David – have been programmed to replicate human emotions, but tells the crowd not to be fooled, because it is only an illusion. Is he telling this only to the crowd in the scene, or is it also a challenge to the audience, asking us to question the behavior David has exhibited so far? Given the film’s themes, I like to think so.
This moment, however, is slightly undermined by a previous scene that appears to contradict it: Earlier on, the first robot victim we see executed – fired inside a cannon through a ring of fire – is a comedian robot (a cameo by Chris Rock). As he is shoved into the cannon, the robot tries to talk to his indifferent executioners in a humorous effort to convince them not to kill him. While he does not “plead” in the sense we traditionally understand, he still displays an attempt at self-preservation that serves the same purpose.
Regardless, the brief reflection on artificiality reminded me in some respects of the pivotal Club Silencio scene in “Mulholland Drive” – the greatest film I have seen as of 2013, which came out on the same year of 2001. In that scene, our two protagonists witness a show that, in spite of the bandmaster’s repeated previous reminders that it is all an illusion, moves them – and the audience – to tears until the illusion is broken. The Club Silencio scene had greater profundity and emotional weight because the illusion’s rupture is the precursor to the film’s second, de-glamorized half, the beginning of Naomi Watts’s mental and emotional degradation as she wakes up to face reality. It connected with the audience because, more clearly than the flesh-fair in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”, it reminded them of the fabricated illusion that is traditional classic Hollywood cinema.
This brings me to what is easily the film’s most controversial aspect, the element for which it has received more criticism than any other: Its ending, or rather the continuation of its ending. Is it necessary? Maybe not. Maybe it should indeed have ended beneath the sea, with David praying to the inanimate statue of the Blue Fairy to become a real boy and gain the love of a mother he will never see again. But what follows is full of amazing ideas that somehow do not overflow the film; it still keeps going because of them.
Consider: 2000 years have passed, Earth has entered a new ice age (somehow I doubt it would take such a small amount of time for that to happen but it doesn’t matter) and what appear to be ambiguously robotic aliens discover David and Teddy frozen in their vehicle. They have the slender appearance of the “little grey men” of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” but no faces, and they appear to have circuitry. Are they cyborgs? Have robots become so human-like that robot and human somehow ended up merging as one? Or did Gigolo Joe’s earlier prediction that robots will outlive humans come true? The latter theory is made most likely by one of the film’s most moving and evocative images: An alien touches David, and as he does so, his memories are transferred to the alien and projected on his face. The aliens then form a chain of sorts, all sharing David’s memories.
David then awakes in a recreation of his old home, based on his memories, where he finds a simulation of the Blue Fairy (voiced by Meryl Streep’s beautiful voice) who, despite openly explaining to David that she and everything he is experiencing is not actually real, is nonetheless able to grant his wish to bring his mother back to life, for one last day.
This is achieved thanks to Teddy, who had kept a lock of the mother’s hair David had been persuaded to cut by Martin, as part of a cruel trick to scare the parents into thinking he was trying to harm her. Yes, it is completely implausible. There is no reason why Teddy would have kept that lock with him, other than to serve as this blatant deus ex machine. It appears just as implausible that the hair survived these 2000 years without crumbling to dust. All this came to my mind when the lock was produced, but I pushed the thoughts aside. I was captivated by what the aliens were doing to David, and what it implied. Were they using him as a lab rat to study the closest thing they had to a living human? Or were they rewarding him for his contribution to further knowledge and understanding of humans? Both are likely and equally fascinating possibilities.
Aside from the hair lock issue, there are other logical and philosophical problems posed by the film’s screenplay. Consider the parents’ decision to have David killed after he accidentally grabs Martin and falls in the pool with him to protect himself from bullies. Why didn’t they consider having scientists look into his perceived malfunctions? And when it comes to the decision to abandon him rather than kill him, it certainly fits the film’s fairy tale tone – the situation has appeared most famously in “Hansel & Gretel” and “Le Petit Poucet” – but it comes across as out of character for the mother to do so. Wouldn’t abandoning him in a world he doesn’t know appear more cruel to her than simply killing him to avoid further pain? It would have made much more sense for the father to do so: He was never called “father” by David, who treated him with the polite respect one might treat a family friend, rather than a parent. Conversely, he himself showed a lack of tact and sensitivity towards his wife and David when proposing they could “substitute” their comatose son with him and assuring her they could dispose of him if she wasn’t satisfied. He did not take his wife’s feelings and pain into consideration and – as most people probably would – talked of David as a product rather than a potential person. Abandoning him would be a way of getting rid of him without having to deal with his wife’s grief on his conscience.
The film’s biggest problem, however, arises when David finally arrives in the ruins of Manhattan and literally meets his maker, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), who created him in the image of his dead son. Dr. Hobby tells him that he is the first robot to want something without being told do. That is completely nonsensical: David was programmed to love his mother once she spoke specific words. It was specifically stated that this love would be irreversible, impossible to undo. His quest for the Blue Fairy was a quest to find a means to achieve the goal of being reunited with his mother.
So it would appear that the film’s biggest shortcoming is the fact that it doesn’t really address the question of how real a robot’s love can be. If a robot is programmed to love, is its love real? If not, can it become real? The answer is never clear, because the screenplay itself seems uncertain.
The film also does not address the fact that David received a lot of help from Joe and Teddy, who are also robots. Do they do it because they care for David? It could be argued that Joe just did it to get away from the police, but he could have done that in many different ways. And yet, upon closer observation, Joe’s actions do not seem to be motivated by emotional attachment to David so much as curiosity. He seems excited at the prospect of David’s discovery, but we don’t get any unequivocal evidence that he feels any kind of sincere, selfless attachment towards him. As for Teddy, it seems more likely that he is programmed to serve and follow his owner. He used to belong to Martin until the latter fell gravely ill, and spent a long time in a box until David’s arrival. By spending a long time with him and him alone, David had effectively become his owner. This was made clear when, in order to settle this matter of ownership, Martin and David both ordered Teddy to walk towards them and Teddy walked towards Martin.
Also incompletely addressed is whether David is capable of loving someone other than his mother. Had the screenplay made it clear he became attached to Joe and Teddy, it would have made it clear that a robot programmed to love can choose to love independently. Yet, upon closer examination, David seems to want Martin’s love as well, even if he doesn’t mention him after being abandoned. Perhaps it isn’t so much love itself that makes us human so much as the desire for love.
Films like this raise a wide variety of complex questions. It is impossible for them to give satisfactory answers, let alone answer them all. But it gives a good try. As a futuristic fairy tale, it works beautifully. Does it work as a philosophical tale? I go back and forth on whether it does or not. Above, I described how I felt the film failed to properly address the subject of love and whether or not it can be programmed. But has it really? David’s journey, particularly the much-criticized ending, raises many questions, not just about love, but about the human experience in general. Maybe the fact that I can never properly make my mind up on this constitutes, in and of itself, a remarkable achievement on the film’s part.