A.I. Artificial Intelligence
directed by Steven Spielberg
(Warner Brothers, 2001)

A.I., famed director Steven Spielberg's eagerly-anticipated completion of his even more renowned friend Stanley Kubrick's final project, uses the imagery and tropes of science fiction to make a moving and powerful latter-day retelling of the story of Pinocchio, examining what it means to be really human.

The movie opens with some necessary exposition (by Ben Kingsley), establishing a post-greenhouse-effect world of drowned coasts and widespread famine in some areas while others (like New Jersey, locale of the movie) remain prosperous thanks to strict family planning. Technology has advanced to the point where outwardly lifelike robots called mechas can be ubiquitously found performing various services among their human counterparts. A scientist, Allen Hobby (William Hurt), desires to build a better humanoid construct to represent a qualitative advance beyond those who were made previously. He produces David (Haley Joel Osment), programmed with the ability to love and to develop an "inner life of metaphor and dreams."

A.I.'s tripartite structure's first third introduces David into the affluent, suburban household of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor), whose only son Martin (Jake Thomas), waits in a frozen and comatose state for a cure for a deadly disease. Initially, Monica feels repelled by her surrogate child, with his ingratiating smile suggesting the uncanny creepiness of a living doll. The film reminds us of the fear that humans' replicas of themselves will come to life and supersede us, casting A.I.'s spell of wonder at David's astonishing realistic wide-eyed appeal with a tinge of dread. This sense of unease increases when Monica activates David's imprinting function that will make him love her unconditionally and forever in a steadfast adoration both heart-rending and chilling -- and demanding reciprocation. When the defrosted Martin suddenly returns to his now shockingly expanded family, the ensuing sibling rivalry and emotional malfunctions include his introducing David to the Carlo Collodi story of Pinocchio, about a wooden puppet who turns into a real boy. This tale becomes an obsession for David and a rich fountain of images and allusions for A.I. That David, (programmed to be perfect) proves preferable to his quasi-brother illuminates the movie's challenging themes concerning the true meaning of humanity: if we like David better and subsequently side with his mechanical compatriots against their human oppressors, does this affirm our humanity or irrevocably alienate us from it?

The vindictiveness of Martin towards David precipitates a crisis that forces Monica (in a harrowing scene) to abandon the robot child along with his cybernetic teddy bear, Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), in a dark forest.

Fulfilling his creator's desires, David, with exemplary childlike reasoning, conflates his own story with Pinocchio's and convinces himself that if he can find the Blue Fairy, she will transform him into a real boy so that Mommy Monica will love him. In this second part of A.I., the questing David soon finds an unlikely partner, a sex-slave mecha called Gigolo Joe, played with deliciously, slickly campy charm by Jude Law. Now exiled from the Swinton's bourgeois sanctuary of a house, David quickly discovers the dystopian nature of this disconcertingly familiar future. He and Joe become captives of bounty hunters who herd them into cages at Lord Johnson-Johnson's (Brendan Gleeson) Flesh Fair, a twisted carnival-like combination of revival meeting and demolition derby where people express their hatred of mechas by destroying them with explosives or acid. This sequence further provokes questions on the nature of humanity and the moral scandal of dehumanization.

After a narrow escape, Joe takes David to his haunt, the decadent Rouge City (a cross between Vegas and the old Times Square). There, with the help of a Robin Williams-voiced hologram called Dr. Know and a verse of William Butler Yeats's poetry, the protagonists acquire the knowledge to journey to the end of the earth in order to find the Blue Fairy in a place called Manhattan.

In the largely submerged city, against their wills, David and Joe are poignantly parted, leaving David alone to to discover the appalling escalation of the human plans to exploit mechas. This third part of A.I. pushes the plot of the movie into strange and bizarre territory (including an ironic resolution of the Blue Fairy quest), ultimately leaving the human world entirely to all practical purposes. What seems like a contrived deus ex machina ending actually proves to be a provocative creative risk that Spielberg takes to examine the cathartic comforts of infantile wish-fulfillment. Can the dream of restoring that first perfect love -- whose loss we experience as the fall from grace -- ever be attained?

A.I. ends by forcing the audience to confront the underlying moral of all our fairy tales: in order to be real, one must be able to love, to dream, and to be mortal.

Spielberg's A.I. masterfully uses a fairy-tale and pop culture to create movie magic in a dazzling blockbuster film that offers thoughtful entertainment with depth that may not be perceived by the average viewer. Superb production design (especially the subtle use of blue tones in the art director's palette), cinematography, costumes, make-up, astonishing special effects (that bring broken-down mechas to sputtering life) and wonderful performances on the part of Osment and Law make A.I. well worth seeing. Spielberg, in this homage to Kubrick, effectively blends that director's chilly, analytical style with his own warmer, emotionally charged sensibility. Perfectly complemented by John Williams' brilliant, restrained, modernist score, A.I., with its slowly, carefully unfolding story, its layered subtexts, eerie atmosphere and haunting scenarios alternating with moments of brash energy, proves to be a gripping, mesmerizing film with nothing artificial about its intelligence.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 14 July 2001

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