A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Reviewed in June 2001
Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Frances O'Connor, Jude Law, Sam Robards, William Hurt, Jake Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Scott, April Grace, Haley King, voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Clara Bellar, Chris Rock. Screenplay: Steven Spielberg (based on a screen story by Ian Watson, adapted from the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss).

Photo © 2001 Warner Bros. Pictures/DreamWorks SKG
Why is it that I am forever fated to like the Spielberg movies that no one else wants to be caught dead with? Granted, it is seldom that Spielberg has made a truly bad movie (Hook is likely his sole outright disaster), but I've never shaken the feeling that The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and even Schindler's List are always, ultimately, less faithful to their subject matter and less trustful in their audience than they should be. I'm not sure Spielberg will ever again hit the highs of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor should any filmmaker reasonably be expected to. If we grant what he's been trying to assert for the last two decades since Raiders—that behind all the commercial sensibility, he's a Noble and Important artist—I'm most willing to supply such benefit of the doubt based on Empire of the Sun, his dark, kid's-eye-view of World War II brutalities in China, and now A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a movie that even Spielberg's fans seem only half willing to acknowledge as his own. Perhaps because so many of them hate it so much.

The ancestry of A.I. as the late, great Stanley Kubrick's pet project has been so widely reported that I doubt I need to reiterate it here. The hybrid character of the piece as a Spielbergian fable of childhood encoded within a Kubrickian allegory of global systems gone mad has also been widely observed. What few people seem to acknowledge, though, is that however much Kubrick conceived of this project, Spielberg had to actually make the damn thing, and therefore all of the film's technical achievements really must be credited to him. That the film is more a technical success than a narrative one is partly disappointing, especially because the first hour of A.I., had it been left at that (and it could have been, with no want of resolution), is one of the best short films I've ever seen. As the film continues, it grows indisputably baggier, more diffuse, and more chaotic. In the cases of most films, the scale of these problems would prove lethal, and A.I. certainly suffers for them.

Spielberg, however, who has never satisfyingly ended a picture, presents a unique case in this regard. We shouldn't forget that as a director, he usually errs by trying too hard to wrap up and sanitize the material—hence the mawkish scenes of Oskar Schindler's tearful collapse and conjugal reunion, or the unbearable and grammatically awkward coda to Private Ryan. Read against that pattern, A.I. represents a strangely welcome sort of progress: rather than flattened by knee-jerk optimism, A.I. is beguilingly enervated by a terror of its own darkness, a frenzied chase down too many separate rabbit holes in an attempt to escape its troubling implications. Spielberg has finally had the bravery to put the mess of his imagination on the screen, instead of the safer, more laundered revisions. He allows himself to be caught in the act of his own nightmares, from which perspective even the film's sunnier passages betray themselves as illusory. A.I. can be cryptic, overreaching, and occasionally boring, and because these are sins that Spielberg of all people seldom commits, the negatives combine into a singularly unshakeable positive.

But let's back up. A.I. is about David (Haley Joel Osment), the pet prototype of a "mecha-organics" entrepreneur named Professor Hobby (William Hurt), who wishes all the synthetic people he engineered knew how to love. In the prologue, a research associate, fleetingly embodied by Magnolia's April Grace, presses the good doctor as to whether, even if a robot could love, people would love it. After all, the entire context for assembling these robotic humanoids is a constricted, post-glacial society where the flooded globe cannot support any organic humans that would require feeding, warmth, and comfort. Customers buy "mecha" children because they can't relinquish their food or their energy. Why would they relinquish their adoration?

The question haunts the remainder of the picture, especially in its stunning first hour, when David is misguidedly given as a gift by Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), an employee of Hobby's firm, to his wife, Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose grief for the couple's comatose son Martin (Jake Thomas) has been deemed dangerously excessive by everyone around her. Henry supplies David as a sort of emotional prosthesis, a vessel for Monica's maternal impulses in the absence of their rightful beneficiary. Monica is understandably infuriated and terrified, not just by the spookily doting David, who dogs her around corners and tails her into the bathroom, but by her husband's notion of love and maternity as threatening forces to be drawn off, like a pulmonary fluid, before they suffocate her. Monica is far more particular about the object of her love than her husband is, and she avoids, grimaces at, even locks up her new "son" for several weeks before she finally accustoms herself to his presence. That she does eventually come around, and largely because she has all but coached herself to forget David's actual constitution, only adds to A.I.'s stylishly repressive and insidiously macabre atmosphere.

In her early scenes as Monica, the Australian actress Frances O'Connor, who's popped up in everything from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park to Brendan Fraser's Bedazzled, summons some invigorating neurosis. She inhabits the part more and more successfully the more she is given to play, and she is at her best in the terrifically tense sequences when the comatose Martin miraculously awakens, only to discover a new "brother" at home who has intruded on his spotlight. The fierce rivalries within the family, not just between David and Martin but between Monica and her husband, are all the more affecting because, we realize, Spielberg has so seldom in his canon turned his camera toward a domestic sphere, much less a narrative centered around a woman. Take away E.T., The Color Purple, and the first half of Close Encounters and it's hard to find a living room or a marriage bed in any of his films; subtract also the Goldie Hawn road-drama Sugarland Express, and you get a Spielbergian gallery of women who mostly gape at the monsters and the men (sometimes the same thing) in their midst. O'Connor's character, not despite her conflicts and weaknesses but because of them, presents a real leap forward in Spielberg's ability to imagine the lives of people neither lionized by history nor chased by velociraptors.

The showdown in the Swinton household reaches a level of crisis to which Monica can hardly be blamed for feeling inadequate, though her consequent choice of action briefly elevates A.I. into a moral zone of dark gray that Ray Bradbury or Doris Lessing would have been proud to conjure. From this point in the narrative, A.I. embarks on a second act related to David's attempt to find his way back home. As ferocious and impossible as life with the Swintons had become, David has been literally programmed to think family life better than any alternative. Ironically, it is not just his hardwiring but the childhood fables he has heard (Pinocchio and others) that have instilled this belief, if not doomed him to it. Imagine! We now have a Spielberg movie on our hands where the drives toward family and toward magical fictions are sinister and sad rather than liberating. Our sense of opening possibilities continues to bloom.

Unfortunately, A.I. itself grows a bit doomed, because nothing in the picture's remaining hour and a half is as focused or weirdly ingratiating as the opening events. After a whizz-bang nocturnal chase scene through a forest, Spielberg lowers the bar for a protracted sequence at an arena show where anti-mecha "fundamentalists" derive pleasure from watching the robot beings get pulverized. The ferocity of this crowd and their parallels with all manner of real-life zealots are too overstated, especially compared to the more subtle insinuations of the first hour. This scene also marks David's introduction to Gigolo Joe, a cybernetic male prostitute played by Jude Law with too much swagger and, in the actor's partial defense, too little script-time. Joe accompanies David on his quest to find whatever forces can make him "real" and thereby win back the love of his adoptive family. Clearly, though, the stakes of the quest are so disproportionally on David's side that when Joe is eventually extracted—under circumstances too trite to articulate—we never miss him for an instant. David's walking, talking teddy bear is more interesting, and more wise.

As I have implied, though I withhold the details, David's journey becomes complicated and extended in ways no one could foresee. A.I. more and more takes shape as one of those scenically conceptualized projects held together less by narrative coherence than by its creators' desperate pursuit of images they couldn't keep locked away in their brains: an enormous casino in the shape of a recumbent nude woman; a laboratory room full of partial replicas of David's self; a funereal vision of Manhattan and Coney Island under leagues of water. Beyond taking a new shape, though, A.I. takes multiple new shapes, schizophrenically trying on possible endings and anxiously unable to find one that suits it. The extremes to which the film ventures to find itself are truly mind-boggling. We're talking about a movie that will flash forward thousands of years, resurrect the dead, even invent a new species of organism in its final minutes out of a fervent desire to reach some sort of conclusion. I would argue that the sheer, futile hankering for conclusion is itself the most interesting tone the movie could have found to go out on. To see Spielberg, a.k.a. Mr. Narrative, so utterly decomposed is like watching Catherine Deneuve shattered with grief at the end of Dancer in the Dark: distressing proof that even our most self-contained, invulnerable entertainers have their breaking points.

Forever associated with the brain's unconscious, the oceanic aspect of the movie's finale is not dramatically satisfying but offers an appropriate visual analog to what seems to be going in with Spielberg, sifting madly through all sorts of primordial storytelling impulses (and, to whatever extent possible, through those of Kubrick as well). My favorite shot in A.I. finds David only inches away, literally, from becoming the "real boy" he thirsts to be, until an enormous underwater Ferris wheel pinions him, motionless, onto the ocean floor. So much mystery both precedes and follows this image that I'm not worried about revealing anything by describing it. What interests me about the shot is its remarkably acute metaphor for Spielberg's own self-perceived status at this juncture in his career: within inches of receiving credit as a "real" artist, but imprisoned forever by the enormous, entrapping machinery of mass entertainment.

A.I.'s length, breadth, and circuitous structure seem to have infected my own review of it, which probably indicates the movie's strange, agitating spirit. Despite the precision of so many shots and of Osment's central performance, A.I. seeps unarrestably outside of its own margins; any reading of the film seems bound for its own sort of restlessness. I wouldn't defend this film to my dying day, and it's possible that successive viewings will turn its beguiling ellipticism into a more banally frustrating hollowness. Indeed, many American viewers seem already to have experienced this reaction, as reflected by A.I.'s sharply plummeting box-office after an enthusiastic opening weekend. Still, I infinitely prefer Spielberg the Unsettled to Spielberg the Sentimentalist, and I admire the film as a sort of sci-fi sibling to Fellini's 8?, one of the great filmic examples of bottomless creativity suddenly confronted with the terrors of bottomlessness. There's a wholly unartificial intelligence, if not a courage, in learning to show the world the limits of your imagination, instead of just unwittingly revealing them. A–

(in June 2001: B+)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Visual Effects

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Supporting Actor: Jude Law
Best Original Score: John Williams

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