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Like, well, all of Steven Spielberg’s films, A.I. is stuffed to the gills with sacchariney melodrama meant to tug at all the requisite heartstrings and get us to contemplate “the bigger questions.” Questions like, what is the irreducible essence of humanity? Is it the capacity to love and experience emotion? And if we could transfer this capability to non-human, synthetic forms, what are the moral and ethical obligations we would have to our creations? These are timely questions to be sure, especially considering the accelerated evolution and sophistication of “smart” technologies that have already radically changed human life.
Such “bigger questions” might be found throughout Spielberg’s work. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind, through the Indiana Jones series, The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad he has, with varying degrees of success, meditated on issues like faith, life, and justice. And in general, I applaud this cinematic humanitarianism, even though it is more often than not a bit, shall we say, overbearing. Nonetheless, what is most distressing about A.I. is that it seems haphazardly cribbed together from Spielberg’s previous work, the aforementioned films as well as, rather obviously, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The piecemeal feel of A.I.‘s story may be related to Spielberg’s hand in the writing of the screenplay, and the multiple transformations it has undergone in its thirty-odd year life. Published originally as a short story by Brian Aldiss in Harper’s Bazaar in 1969, the story was optioned by Stanley Kubrick, who commissioned a “screen story” by Ian Watson. Kubrick, however, never got around to making the film, but asked Spielberg to do it. After Kubrick’s demise, Spielberg decided to rewrite the screenplay and direct the film, as something of a paean to his departed friend. Spielberg hasn’t done much writing lately (the last screenplay he penned by himself was 1977’s Close Encounters), and it shows. It would appear from A.I. that the director found himself on unfamiliar turf, and could only express the events and emotions of the story through endless citations of his own previous work.
Again like all of Spielberg’s work, the story has mythic proportions. And this is one of my own personal beefs with the director; everything must happen on a grand scale. So, we follow our robot hero David’s (Haley Joel Osment) fall from grace and ejection from the Eden of family life for which he was created, his trials and tribulations in the world of flesh, his descent into the underworld, and eventual apotheosis and reunion with his sainted human mother Monica (Frances O’Connor). The particulars of this version of the hero’s journey are as follows. Sometime in an unspecified future, after global environmental disaster, the human race finds itself unable to provide sufficiently for itself. Accordingly, the governments of the remaining “developed” nations step in to regulate who can have children and when, and begin to produce robot workers who will consume no resources but labor for mankind’s continued existence. Spotting a potential cash cow, Cybertronics engineer Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) develops a new generation of robot that will learn to love its “parents” and thus provide the “perfect” proxy for childless couples. Interestingly, in one of the story’s inconsistencies, we are shown a society obsessive about controlling consumption and the conservation of resources, which nevertheless is still steadfastly consumer-driven: the answer to all our problems can be found in the perfect product, in this case a robotic child. Just so, Dr. Hobby arranges a test run of David with Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica, whose own son has been cryogenically frozen until a cure for his illness can be found.
Just as the family is settling in with “mecha” son David, the miracle cure is found for organic son Martin (Jake Thomas). (“Mecha” is short for “mechanical,” and the film constantly refers to the uneasy relationship between human and cyborg with the awkward nicknames “mecha” and “orga” for “organics.”) Of course, tensions between the two “sons” arise and eventually the family decides they must return David to Cybertronics for “destruction.” Monica can’t bring herself to end David’s life in this way, so she rather inexplicably leads him into a dark forest and abandons him with the lame apology, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” Having recently become fixated on the story of Pinocchio, lost boy David sets out to find his own “blue fairy” who will turn him into a “real” boy so that his mother will love him back and he may return home.
David is helped along the way by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) a freelance love-mecha responsible for the sexual pleasures of lonely women. A.I. goes to great length to establish Joe’s heterosexuality, even while his pretty boy face, over-stylized appearance, fetishy black shiny suit, and overcoat scream “gay” at his every perfectly poised dance step and swish of his coattails. The two robot boys encounter the torture and persecution of non-humans at the hillbilly hoe-downs known as “Flesh Fairs,” where robots are dismembered, exploded, melted with acid, etc., for the delectation of humans engaged in a “celebration of life.” They visit Rouge City, a sort of love-mecha and prostitution central, and eventually make their way to the “end of the world,” the watery remains of New York City (coastal cities were all submerged by the melting of the polar ice caps, you see), all in search of the elusive blue fairy.
Admittedly, there is a lot of story going on here, and A.I. takes its good-natured time telling it—the film clocks in around two and a half hours. The good news (at least for me) is that there is no blue fairy waiting for David at the end of his journeys to grant him his heart’s desire. It’s a rather somber ending for David, and one that might thoughtfully suggest that the answer to human (or cyborg) misery is not to be found in the intervention of some mystical force, but by our own dedication to something like universal justice—and there’s that Spielbergian humanitarianism again. This possibility is, however, offset in general by the maudlin melodrama of the rest of the film and in particular by the final narrative “resolution” to David’s “real” boy/robot boy conundrum, which is the Nutra-Sweet-iest moment of the film. It’s not the best taste to have in your mouth as you head for the exit doors.