There’s one moment early in A.I., Steven Spielberg’s lavish, long-awaited fantasy, that promises a far more complex experience than we end up getting. David (Haley Joel Osment), a “mecha” (robot) designed to act as a child, is having dinner with his adoptive “parents” (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards). Actually, David is only pretending to have dinner, since he can’t eat. Anyway, Monica, the mother, has a long strand of food dangling from her mouth — the sort of thing a kid would laugh at — so David lets out a raucous simulation of a laugh, scaring the hell out of both “parents.” Then they laugh uneasily at him. Then he laughs some more. Then they all laugh some more. Then, finally, they just stare at each other.
This brief, wordless sequence, with its barely repressed hysteria popping out like a switchblade, sends a ripple of equally uneasy laughter through the audience; it says, very economically, pretty much everything A.I. has to say. The rest of the movie, even before the disastrous triple non-ending, features some of the most elaborate bumbling I’ve ever seen from a great filmmaker. And Spielberg is great, or, rather, he once was. No longer content to be an ingenious entertainer, he now wants to improve us; his movies have become the equivalents of the latest Oprah Book Club selection — each story is picked according to its potential for uplift.
What Spielberg doesn’t, or can’t, recognize is that this story has no such potential. A.I. began life as a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss. For years, the late Stanley Kubrick wanted to turn the story into a movie; he consulted Spielberg on the visual effects he wanted to use for it, and even suggested Spielberg direct it and he himself produce it. After Kubrick’s death, his estate offered the project to Spielberg, who takes sole screenplay credit, working from a “screen story” by Ian Watson. To put it mildly, what Spielberg has done with the material is not what Kubrick might have done with it, though the fact remains that Kubrick spent years trying to find a cinematic way into the story and couldn’t. What made Spielberg think he could? He can’t, either.
William Hurt appears at the beginning, as a robot-engineering guru named Professor Hobby (very subtle). We’re in the future; the ice caps have melted, submerging the coastal cities and drowning millions, and mechas have been created to take care of some of the tasks humans used to do. Apparently, they’re only available to the elite who can afford them; the movie doesn’t get much into the middle-class or working-class response to the mechas, or their resentment at being replaced by them — though this is alluded to in a dark-carnival scene of violence, set at the “Flesh Fair,” where malfunctioning robots are shot out of cannons or drenched with acid for the amusement of hooting mobs of lowbrows.
So, is artificial intelligence good or bad? Kubrick would have concluded that any robotic intelligence designed and controlled by fallible humans is bound to break down eventually (see HAL 9000). Spielberg, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know or care. But back to Professor Hobby, who speaks about the need to build a mecha capable of love. Such a creation, he reasons, will be perfect for couples who cannot have (or have lost) a real child. Someone brings up the question of what happens when a loving mecha is thrown in with people who cannot love it in return; Professor Hobby is stuck for an answer, and so is the movie, which in any case doesn’t linger very long on the question.
When David is brought home to his human “parents” — whose genetic son is cryogenically frozen until doctors can find a cure for whatever’s wrong with him — we’re meant to find David a bit creepy (an overused word in reviews of A.I., but it fits). We identify with the bafflement and, eventually, the horror felt by the parents as they watch this simulacrum interact with their real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been cured and brought home. Martin is sportive and sadistic towards David; sometimes he seems to think it’s cool to have a mecha for an adopted brother, other times he seems to find the very idea of David — and of being replaced by him, even if only temporarily — offensive.
In any event, most of this is forgotten once Monica, frightened by one mishap too many, takes David to a remote, woodsy area and abandons him. This, I think, is where the movie first seriously goes astray: Spielberg abandons a cool, contemplative premise in favor of masochistic longing — he leaves his own movie out in an emotional nowhere to fend for itself, and it’s not a pretty sight. In a cruelly overextended scene, David weeps and begs his cherished mother to take him back. If done differently, the moment could resonate across many fields of experience in the audience, but Spielberg oversells it, just as he goes on to oversell everything else in the movie.
A viewer might assume that the stage is being set for a fable in the tradition of A Clockwork Orange, which thirty years ago was already parodying this sort of woe-is-me trauma (in the scenes wherein Malcolm McDowell, post-Ludivico, returns home and is rejected, beaten and nearly killed). Spielberg has something different in mind, though: a series of disjointed adventures that smack dangerously of the frantic exertions in his Hook. David meets up with a sex robot named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who has been framed for the murder of one of his female clients. Joe’s backstory seems pointless except to explain why he’s on the lam and to provide yet another instance of human mistreatment of mechas. We’re meant to feel, helplessly, that this just isn’t fair. To paraphrase John Lennon, mechas are the niggers of the world, used up and then torn apart. This sounds like Kubrick in rare form, but Spielberg’s tone is way off. The tenor of the movie is oddly resentful: these worthless, compassionless humans don’t deserve the service of the very beings they’ve built. Humans are seen as crude, incompetent gods sending their creations into squalor. Kubrick might have chuckled icily at the hubris of man playing God; Spielberg stamps his foot and says it just isn’t right.
Together, David and Joe narrowly escape the Flesh Fair (a disturbing sequence until Spielberg apparently decides he’s gone far enough and makes the screaming crowd have a sudden change of heart towards David) and wander around Rouge City, a sort of Ralph Bakshi carnal wonderland complete with open female mouths swallowing the highways that lead into the city. Spielberg blows a chance to show how Joe might thrive in a place like this; Jude Law, bounding into the movie with a phallic energy that recalls McDowell’s in Clockwork, is mostly thrown away for his troubles (Spielberg treats him like a mecha). Joe doesn’t really belong to this story as Spielberg is telling it, anyway; he’s being imposed onto the material — he can be yanked out at any time without harming the narrative. After some dawdling, the two wind up in a sort of informational kiosk, speaking with a digital guru named Dr. Know, with the voice of Robin Williams. Like an earlier vocal cameo by Chris Rock as a minstrelly-looking mecha who gets shot through a propeller at the Flesh Fair, Williams’ Einstein shtick takes you out of the movie — you start wondering if Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg will turn up as well.
Brian Aldiss’ original story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” reissued in a collection of the same name along with two follow-up stories Aldiss wrote 30 years later, is much more haunting; anything chilling in A.I. — other than film-specific inventions like the Flesh Fair — derives pretty much from Aldiss. The two sequel stories, particularly the middle one “Supertoys When Winter Comes,” take the premise of David and his fuzzy-bear robot friend Teddy into even darker territory: for instance, in the middle tale, David flips out and dissects Teddy to prove that he and Teddy are real, and goes on a rampage that results in the death of his mother figure. If A.I. had given us a David who desperately, futilely seeks the love of his mommy — who can’t return his love because she’s dead — some of the metaphysical gassing in the final half hour might have had more of a point.
As it is, David is just a sweet little “boy” who’s hardwired to love his mother (once she has “imprinted” him with a few random words); when he encounters the tale of Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy who could turn the puppet into a real boy, he adds that to his pull-down menu of obsessions, and the movie becomes about how he yearns to become “real” so that his mother will love him. Spielberg seems as obsessed with Pinocchio as his little hero is. To be fair, Kubrick was the one who insisted on keeping the Blue Fairy stuff in the movie, much to the bemusement of Aldiss, who notes in his foreword to his collection that “I tried to persuade Stanley that he should create a great modern myth to rival Dr. Strangelove and 2001, and to avoid fairy tale.” Kubrick didn’t take this perfectly sound advice, and neither did Spielberg.
David winds up in Professor Hobby’s headquarters, where he confronts irrefutable proof that he really is a robot, though you’d think he would’ve figured that out by now. In Aldiss’ stories, David is in denial about his mecha nature throughout; in the movie, things happen to him that obviously separate him from humans, such as malfunctioning when he tries to eat spinach. (Is this Spielberg’s joke on kids who won’t eat their spinach? Or a free-floating Popeye reference?) But when David encounters another David, he flies into a rage and bashes the other David’s head clean off — Kubrick popping up again, maybe: even a perfect little mecha can be made bestial and violent by human passions. Spielberg, though, films this atrocity — we’ve seen that David can feel pain, so we assume this other David can, too — entirely neutrally, as if it were a necessary step on the hero’s mythic path. Are we not supposed to care about the second David’s destruction because he’s just a robot? If so, why were we prompted to care about the robots at the Flesh Fair? Or, for that matter, about the David we’ve been watching?
At this point, we’re hovering around the two-hour mark, but Spielberg isn’t anywhere near finished with us yet. Joe goes out of the picture rather abruptly and absurdly, leaving behind a gnomic announcement: “I am. I was.” (Between this and Tom Hanks’ “Earn this,” Spielberg seems to have cornered the market on quasi-profound catchphrases. Djimon Hounsou’s “Give us free” also would not be out of place here.) David goes underwater — we’re in Manhattan now, where the Statue of Liberty is submerged up to its torch — and ends up at Coney Island, where he parks himself in front of an old plaster Blue Fairy and waits. And waits.
“Two thousand years passed,” narrator Ben Kingsley informs us — what? — and now we’re into a post-humanity Ice Age, where super-advanced mechas who look like shimmering Giacometti sculptures are trying to recreate the human race by digging around in the ice for human DNA. David awakes, reasserts his desire to be loved by his mother, and is given his mother, revived for only one day so that he can finally hear her say that she loves him. (Is this Spielberg delivering a message to the parents in the audience — “Tell your kids you love them before it’s too late”?) This may be the first solipsistic epic since 2001, but it has none of that film’s wonder or mystery — Spielberg collapses into spasms of exposition, suffocating the uncanny with verbiage, and one’s boredom and exasperation may turn into anger. It’s as if Spielberg were trying to ape the Kubrick of Eyes Wide Shut, who allowed Sydney Pollack to drone on and on about what the past half hour’s events didn’t mean (in retrospect, the Pollack speech is pretty funny, though — it tweaks our desire to see the mystery cleared up).
This is probably Spielberg’s worst film since Hook, perhaps even worse than that other misguided fairy-tale revamp, since this one had the potential to be so much more. Haley Joel Osment tries very hard to be everything that this difficult role requires, but, unavoidably, his performance becomes more conventional and dull when David is on his own, with no one except other mechas to play off of; everything else in the movie dulls out, too. Spielberg appears to have latched onto the Pinocchio material, and all the rowdy adventures it made possible, as an escape hatch from the deeply uncomfortable scenes of David and his uncomprehending human family. Brian Aldiss knew what Spielberg, and Kubrick before him, didn’t: that the story of Pinocchio is a too-easy parallel with this material, and that it throws out everything that might have made this film complex, specific, original. The movie goes outward when its nature — its wiring as programmed by Aldiss — demands that it turn inward. (Eventually it does turn inward, but in an extremely literalized, disappearing-up-its-own-ass way.) If Spielberg had stayed home with the mecha and his family, and explored the implications of an inhuman boy showing more humanity than his human parents and sibling, he might’ve had a classic. What he has delivered is the scattered wreckage of a good idea — a mechanical thing clogged with emotional spinach.