Artificial Intelligence (2001)

by Cynthia Fuchs


"I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the world!"

Little David (Haley Joel Osment) is the perfect child, affectionate, selfless, and docile. This perfection, according to the logic of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, is precisely his problem. David the robot boy is so unbelievably wonderful—indeed, so “artificial,” as announced by the movie’s title—that he just can’t be “real.” Still, he wants desperately to be “real.” Here, as in most science fiction, “real” is code for something else, actually, a lot of something elses, like flesh-and-blood, sentient, emotional, whole, worthy, valuable, endowed with civil rights, in a word, human. Pretty to think so.

It’s not surprising that David would believe in this imaginary hierarchy, given that he’s designed to embody that very principle, by the ominously named Professor Hobby (William Hurt), for a near-future corporation called Cybertronics of New Jersey (of all places). In fact, David’s a prototype for a consumer product, for parents who want no-trouble-no-mess kids. Hobby first comes on screen before a boardroom full of mucho-impressed civilians, extolling his invention, a “mecha [short for “mechanical”] of a qualitatively different order.” Hobby’s David (creepily modeled after his own dead son) exists solely to make human parents feel good about themselves, to love those humans absolutely and forever, to be the perfect, forever-and-ever child, the unreal child. Hobby convinces his boardroom audience of the moral and commercial soundness of his project, but it’s pretty clearly a bad idea.

cover art

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, William Hurt

(Warner Bros.)

The movie sets up this bad idea as if it’s a serious, occasionally ponderous philosophical dilemma, which is to say, the space where Spielberg and the ghost of Kubrick seem to be tussling for control of A.I. Its route to the screen has surely been circuitous, with the script credited to Spielberg (whose last screenplay was 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which might account for some of the rustiness in A.I.s structure), based on a screen story by Ian Watson, and suggested by Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” In itself, the roundaboutness of the route is of little concern, but the sheer length of time that the project took to come to the screen seems relevant, given that Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was perhaps most notable for its conceptual datedness.

Still, A.I.‘s convoluted origin story doesn’t quite explain the film’s emotional roller-coastering and narrative chasms. Take the start of David’s own travails among the humans. Hobby sends him home with a Cybertronics employee, Henry (Sam Robards), and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor), grieving the loss of their own son, terminally ill and cryogenically frozen until a cure might be found. At first, Monica resists David’s charms, which are certainly strange but also kind of grow on you (and have plenty of time to do so, as the film is 2 and a half hours long). His initial interactions with the woman he calls “Monica” are stiff and incoherent: he follows her around her house as she does what housewives do in Spielbergland, always underfoot and beaming up at her, unblinking and not quite comprehending activities like “doing laundry” or “eating dinner,” but content to watch her. That said, he’s an adept mimic, and sits at the table with his humans, forking imaginary spaghetti toward his mouth as if this means something.

But if David comes readymade to eat air and love his mother, he has to be programmed to want love in return. This “imprinting” process, which Monica must initiate by reciting a series of code words, culminates in a golden-toned mother-son embrace, awash with a beatifying filtered light. It’s painful to see, actually, because, for all the ostensible tenderness exchanged, Monica here incarnates the film’s initial bad idea, but in a way that exposes all the emotional manipulating that Spielberg either does very well or very inelegantly, depending on how much slack you’re cutting him (Jaws manipulates rather expertly, Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand, does so cloyingly). It appears Monica is so sad and lonely without her own son (distressingly, her husband is never around, except at the dinner table), that she accepts David not because he’s needy, but because she is.

It’s not clear if Monica’s alarming selfishness is supposed to be a plausible character development (some terms-changing plot trickery occurs at film’s end, suggesting she’s not as entirely horrific as she seems here, but a dupe in a larger scheme), but it is apparently necessary for the plot. That is, as soon as David calls Monica “Mommy!” his fate is horrifyingly sealed. His devotion to her is relentless, even when her own “real” son, Martin (Jake Thomas), miraculously returns home and the whole nuclear unit situation implodes. Martin is such a demonically jealous brother (the anti-perfect child?) that he actually convinces Monica (the stupidest mom alive?) to read Pinocchio to them aloud. Bingo: the real-boy-wannabe’s story provides the film with a narrative structure for its second half, namely, David’s journeys into darkness and squalor, as he seeks a “Blue Fairy” to turn him into a real boy (in the vain hope that being “real” will make his mommy love him). He gets a little jumpstart here when Monica literally abandons him in the very scary woods, leaving him alone and afraid, with only the ridiculous lament, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world!”

From here the movie picks up speed, launching into some standard science-fictiony action and effects. David meets a fairy godfather of sorts (but not the Blue Fairy) named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), an earlier model mecha designed to service human women, complete with his own built-in soundtrack: he cricks his neck and on comes Fred Astaire singing “Cheek to Cheek,” maybe not exactly what you’d imagine will be turning on futuristic-type women-on-the-go, but, okay, whatever. Even less convincing is Joe’s heterosexuality, but then again, perhaps the sensitive gay boy with shiny face and poofy hair is the next wave in omni-sex.

However you might read Joe’s social role, his narrative one couldn’t be plainer. He and David bond at a “Flesh Fair,” a Thunderdome meets the WWF-ish extravaganza where humans (also known as “orgas”) thrill to the grisly dismemberment and demolition of mechas. The emcee (Brendan Gleeson) helpfully announces that they are “only destroying artificiality,” making an ethical crusade out of rabble-rousing entertainment. This scene and those immediately preceding it (when David and his fellow robots are chased by chopper-like crafts, complete with searchlights, nets, and high-tech weapons) form the film’s references to its most palpable theme. While most viewers have cited A.I.‘s explicit similarities to E.T. and Close Encounters, the film also recalls Amistad‘s memorably awkward argument against institutionalized racism—the poor mechas cannot formulate arguments in their own defense, not only because they lack the necessary language, but because they have been designed to lack such language, as well as the will to fight back. Ironically, if you believe Dr. Hobby’s self-justifications, it’s David’s desire to be loved and valued that throws a wrench into this design system.

David’s palpable terror at the Flesh Fair—surrounded by screaming spectators, laced to a rack where he’s about to be doused with acid—only cements his resolve to find the Fairy who will make him “real” enough to earn Monica’s love. He convinces the exceptionally amiable Joe to help him toward that end, and so, the hapless duo escapes to Rouge City, a haven favored by Joe and his fellow love-mechas and prostitutes (cutely, one of the sites of ill repute is called “Strangelove’s”). As bizarre as the very idea of this place is in a Spielberg movie, A.I. doesn’t pause to contemplate its harsh mechanics of sex or the social and political brutalities that it represents, for the film’s interests are becoming exponentially Spielbergian, that is to say, sentimental and soggy.

As if to underline this point, when David finally does find a version of the Blue Fairy, she is located at the End of the World (that would be Manhattan), now underwater due to some post-global-warming ice cap melting. This Fairy, actually a conveniently “real” statue at some Pinocchio theme park, looks like a combination Virgin Mary and Supermom (and she resembles Monica in ways that are not a little creepy—again). While this awesome discovery does not actually end the film (a coda set “2000 years later” makes David’s search for the Fairy/Mom even more excruciating to watch), it does clarify a few things. In particular, it reveals that the film’s thematic disjointedness and narrative meandering has come to an uncomfortable, reductively Oedipal point. The nuclear family has never looked so perverse.

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