What’s the one thing that distinguishes you from the computer sitting at your desk? Your skin? Your emotions? Your soul?
Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, befitting a creation of one of our most inventive filmmakers, suggests it’s our ability to imagine. At once dark and inspiring, this futuristic fairy tale about a robot boy who learns to dream beyond his programmed purpose is stunning even when it stumbles. You could argue it stumbles a lot, especially during the complicated coda that serves as its finale, but even the film’s faults are fascinating. After all, we could use more big summer movies that suffer from too much grandeur, ambition, and imagination.
A.I. has a lofty pedigree, considering it’s a collaboration of sorts between Spielberg and the late director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut). Kubrick, who had long planned to adapt the 1969 Brian Aldiss short story on which the film is based, had been faxing script pages to Spielberg right up until his death in 1999, hoping he would produce the film with Spielberg as director.
The final product is written and directed by Spielberg, but Kubrick’s influence can be felt in nearly every frame; the latter’s austere, precise style seems to have reigned in the former’s sentimental tendencies. The result is Spielberg’s usual world of wonder, but one that feels more mature. There are no remnants here of the adventurous antics of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the flighty fun of Hook. A.I. is a fable for adults.
Set in a future where melted polar ice caps have swamped coastal cities across the globe, the movie follows a robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) who is adopted by a family, programmed to love and then – when the family’s real son suddenly recovers from a terminal illness – is cast aside. Obsessed with the tale of Pinocchio, which his adoptive mother (Frances O’Connor) read to him each night, David embarks on a journey in search of that story’s blue fairy, hoping she will have the power to make him a “real live boy” so he can regain his family’s love.
Sentiment could have reined supreme here, but Spielberg – perhaps envisioning Kubrick peering over his shoulder – keeps mawkishness that has marred even his best films at bay. He infuses the early scenes – when David tells his new parents he doesn’t sleep but is more than happy to “stay still for hours without making a peep” – with a sense of dread that runs as deep as anything you’ll find in Jaws or Jurassic Park. Although Daivd is the movie’s nominal hero, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the creepiness of having a robot serve as a surrogate son, especially when he films David through corrugated glass, warping his image to create an unsettling visual reminder that this isn’t a human child.
Not that Osment, the wunderkind from The Sixth Sense, needs much help with his performance. As David, his face has a blankness, but it’s not the benign blank look of an innocent kid. When David looks straight ahead, with a detached stare and a slightly parted mouth, Osment’s frighteningly dull expression makes you believe there’s nothing behind those eyes but circuits and wires.
That eventually changes because David soon considers himself to be more like his recuperated, flesh-and-blood “brother” and less like the talking teddy bear toy the two kids play with in their room. The more real David becomes, even to the point where he competes with his brother for their mom’s attention, the more uncertain his parents are of his place in their family’s life. His drawings – unique creations that express imagination – send both tenderness and terror through his mother’s heart. And so after David is abandoned by her (in an unconving scene that is one of the film’s weakest points), A.I. nearly turns into a tragedy, a tale of unrequited familial love.
Lightening things up in a welcome manner is Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, a giddy robot “escort” who’s been programmed to please women (when he jerks his neck, mood music comes out of hidden speakers). As Joe accompanies David on his journey – kicking his heels and dancing about like a replica of Fred Astaire – he’s at once comic relief and a pitiable counterpoint; Joe’s servile life is exactly what David is trying to evolve beyond.
A paean to imagination, A.I. displays an eye-popping creativity of its own, from the mesmerizing robots, whose crisp clothes and shiny faces suggest runway models who have been spritzed with a protective coating of plastic, to the neon-infused cityscapes that David and Joe wander through (one such town, with its glowing, garish towers, could be the hologram version of Las Vegas). Yet for all its visual virtuosity, A.I. never uses special effects arbitrarily or outside of the confines of the story, as was the case with early summer spectacles such as The Mummy Returns and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
However, there is still that troublesome finale, which takes a sudden leap even further into the future seemingly in search of a happy ending. This final turn of events – all I’ll say is that it takes place amid the flooded skyscrapers of New York City, where the flame of the Statue of Liberty juts out of the water like an ancient island – may be jarring, but seen in light of the film’s main focus, it makes its own sort of sense.
As the final scene unfolds, a narrator tells us “for the first time in (David’s) life, he went to that place where dreams were born.” That’s not something that happens to computers, but to people like you and me.