Welcome to the new millennium. It’s a place where rising sea levels have reduced the world’s population. It’s a place of new technological wonders. And it’s a place where … robots can love. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at one of the most eclectic, and most fascinating works of the director’s career: the 2001 science fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s a film that is notoriously difficult to pin down, and if you won’t absolutely love it, you’re sure to be intrigued by it.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
The film’s origins stem from a short story by science fiction author Brian Aldiss. Titled Supertoys Last All Summer Long, the narrative was first published in the UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar in December 1969. Aldiss described a not-too-distant future hampered by overpopulation, causing childbearing to be restricted by the government. The story also described a family with a boy named David, an artificial life form intended to replace having a real son. In the end, the family becomes selected to have a real child, which leaves chilling implications for David’s fate.
Renowned filmmaker Stanley Kubrick attempted for a number of years to develop a film based on Aldiss’s story. Kubrick didn’t believe any child actor could realistically portray David, so he sought to rely on visual effects, failing to find a medium that satisfied him. At one point, he asked Spielberg to direct the film, but Spielberg moved on to other projects. After Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg resolved to honor the late filmmaker by making his dream a reality; writing the screenplay himself, and believing he had found the right child actor in Haley Joel Osment.
The finished film A.I. loosely relies on Aldiss’s short story in the first act, and progresses to flesh out his ideas even further as it goes along. In this iteration, climate change has caused coastal cities to become submerged. “Mechas” are a major part of daily life, though until now no mecha has ever been capable of human emotion. That all changes with the creation of David (Haley Joes Osment): a synthetic young boy designed to experience love for his parents. With their only son left in a coma, the Swintons become the first family to bring home a prototype of David.
Monica (Frances O’Connor) activates David’s imprinting protocol, programming him to irreversibly love her forever. However, Martin (Jake Thomas) is unexpectedly cured and comes home. Competition erupts between the two boys, and when Martin jealously goads David into harmful behavior, the Swintons begin to fear that David’s design is dangerously flawed. Refusing to allow him to be destroyed, Monica leaves David in the woods, destining him to a life-long mission to become a “real boy,” which he believes is the only way Monica will return his love.
The concept of artificial intelligence is one of the most potent and thought-provoking themes in science fiction, as it elicits ponderings on what it means to be human, and even makes us question the very essence of humanity itself. What would happen if we were to able to create a machine with intelligence capable of our own? What would happen if we created a machine with intelligence that superseded our own? Would it be able to feel emotion? Could it love? As a character in the film puts it, “Isn’t the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?”
Some of cinema’s best works of science fiction, including Blade Runner and Ex Machina in addition to this film, have mulled this topic to frightening and interesting results. But what sets A.I. apart is its exploration of the concept of a robot’s ability to love. A.I. very much feels like a Kubrick film, as its conceptual ambition and its nihilistic bleakness reflect works like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, but its elements of warmth and sentiment as experienced by a machine, are the perfect realm for Spielberg, suggesting the passing of the torch here was meant to happen.
The proposition of an artificial life form capable of love and emotion as depicted in this film is dooming a being to a long, perhaps immortal life of anguish and unmet gratification. David ultimately proves he isn’t capable of cognition quite comparable to a human’s, so his family just can’t love him the way he needs. However, he is clearly capable physical and emotional pain. The question as to whether this should be enough to afford him some form of rights is up for debate, but the filmmakers clearly believe he should be, as we join David in his dismal, dreary course.
Humans are portrayed here as selfish, arrogant and irresponsible, creating beings capable of self-awareness and pain for their own benefit, and condemning them to lives of second-class servitude and abuse. In one scene, David’s otherness is demonstrated by one of Martin’s friends as he explains “us, orga. You, mecha.” David is eventually abandoned, where he links up with a synthetic male sex worker played by Jude Law, and he experiences the full spectrum of humanity’s savagery toward mechas when they are used for a gladiatorial-like “flesh fair.”
On another level, the film functions in an impressive meta/allegorical sense for the story Pinocchio, which Monica reads to David early in the film. The Blue Fairy becomes David’s fixation when he believes it to be the only thing that can make him a “real boy” worthy of his mother’s love, and he goes to the “end of the world” in a haunting visualization of a submerged New York City. Here, he meets his maker (William Hurt), sees other models like him, and experiences a crisis of identity, evoking powerful ideas of existentialism, individuality and uniqueness.
In a steep escalation of the fantastical, David discovers an underwater Coney Island statue of the Blue Fairy while piloting an “amphibicopter.” He becomes trapped under the Wonder Wheel and then an ice age lasting thousands of years, doing nothing but still longing to be turned into a real boy so his mother will return his love. It’s a stinging, aching picture of loneliness, one that is ultimately rewarded when David his finally excavated by the “Specialists,” a highly-evolved form of mechas that outlived humans, and is given the heartfelt gift of one final day with his mommy.
Haley Joel Osment, shortly after his newfound fame found in The Sixth Sense, is the absolute best David there could be here, and his casting is perfection. He properly demands sympathy in his raw expressions of affection and unrequited love, and yet through his mannerisms and movements he is undoubtedly not quite human. Spielberg’s writing and direction are on point: though not his conception, this is the most philosophically and artistically ambitious he has ever been. And the special effects, if sometimes outdated, are always wisely and sparingly used.
The film’s twenty-minute ending consisting of sentiment-filled wish-fulfillment has often been accused of a Spielbergian intrusion in an overall Kubrick-esque nihilistic fable, but this reportedly was a faithful commitment to Kubrick’s intentions. Either way, it’s no matter. It’s a fitting conclusion to a melancholy, painfully beautiful, and thought-inducing exploration of a.i. and the pitfalls of humanity. There are some aspects here I would still question (can love be imprinted?) but overall this is a gut-wrenching, incredible film, and more people should see it.
Next week, we’ll be revisiting another great Spielberg science fiction film, 2002’s Minority Report. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray; it’s also available for streaming on Sling, Hulu and Amazon Prime, and for rental through digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.