He Is Real. His Love Is Not.

Reviews of the latest films.
June 29 2001 8:30 PM

He Is Real. His Love Is Not.

A.I. reveals Steven Spielberg's contempt for humanity.

A.I.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Warner Bros.

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The new Steven Spielberg fantasy A.I. begins on a note of plangent yearning for a dying world and grows progressively more forlorn: It's an epic of heartache, a sci-fi jeremiad. In the Socratic overture, Professor Hobby (William Hurt) recounts for his disciples at New Jersey's "Cybertronics" lab the environmental catastrophes that left major cities underwater and the planet with scarce resources, then goes on to assess his company's robots, which can convincingly reproduce human behavior (they make resourceful sex toys) but are devoid of emotion. In a society that limits procreation, Hobby seeks to build a child with the ability to "imprint" on its parents and love them forever. When a young African-American woman expresses concern that such a creature might be vulnerable, Hobby/Frankenstein glibly entertains her reservations—but says, in effect, that the moral questions should follow the scientific ones. Twenty months later, Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) comes home with a gift for his wife, Monica (Frances O'Connor), who has yet to recover emotionally from an accident that left their son, Martin, in an apparently irreversible coma. The gift is David (Haley Joel Osment), the prototype of the robot-boy-with-feelings—but with his "love" still in need of "activation" by parents. Horrified and ambivalent, Monica watches this artificial child with his rote compliments and fatuous smile, and, slowly, over time, something in her stirs. One day, she opens the manual and recites the words that bring David's emotions to life. Instantly, his dumb smile disappears and he throws his arms around his "mommy." Among his first "real" thoughts are those of losing her: Will she die? How could he ever live without her?

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How, indeed. There is nothing like the sound of a small child crying "Mommy!" in the night to remind you—with a single stab—of your origins, your species' origins, your species' future. And that's why it's hard to be stoic in response to A.I., which mingles despair for the direction of human society with the plaintive, unanswered, broken-record call of "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"

The movie's first third—it's basically in three acts—has an entrancing strangeness. The usually Romantic symphonist John Williams begins with the near-chromaticism of Bartok before drifting off into the sort of electronic blips and primordial (pre-melodic) choirs of the radical Greek composer Xenakis. But the tone of futuristic detachment only heightens our intimacy with the figure at the center. Introduced through ridged glass that refracts and elongates his image, he seems less a material than a spiritual entity. Decades of exposure to science fiction's more soulful robots—among them the sentient androids of various Star Trek series—have prepared us to project onto David the better side of our nature, to see him as truer, steadier, less governed by transient and petty impulses than the humans who shallowly dismiss him as a machine or a "toy." Even when he's laughing inappropriately or asking if Monica's attempts to get him out of her way are "a game," he's so much less artificial than the Swintons' sterile apartment, with its distorting glass and lamps that look like spiders or doughnuts, its pale-blue tinge. In this space that can't be warmed, David and his teddy bear, Teddy (an extraordinarily detailed robot with the soothingly avuncular voice of Jack Angel), seem the only beings lit from within. 

A.I. has pathos enough for a hundred movies; the problem is that it scarcely has drama enough for a short subject. It comes as little surprise when the screenplay (written by Spielberg, from a story by Brian Aldiss) contrives to have David expelled from his Eden—and thus, given his programming, from the love that is his sole reason for existing. What's a shock is the crudeness with which Spielberg fills the scenario in—how he neuters his protagonist and short-circuits the inner workings of his human characters. The father, Henry, is abruptly threatened and callous and the amiable Robards transformed into a sneering Bill Maher. (We're never privy to his decision not to have David "imprint" on him—didn't he want to be part of this family, too?) And when the couple's biological son (Jake Thomas) wakes up on cue, he's a shallow creep who relentlessly manipulates his "toy" brother into acts of self-destruction and violence. If David had been justifiably shaken by the Swintons' deeper love for their "real" offspring and so frightened of losing his mother that he acted out on his own, we might sympathize with Monica's struggle over whether or not to keep him—instead of hoping, as in a rickety 19th-century melodrama, for her to learn the truth from the all-seeing teddy bear. (Countless families have been compelled to give up beloved foster children who became a threat to siblings.) Did Spielberg think we wouldn't cry for David if he weren't such a goody-goody? He must think that the human brain is incapable of processing conflicting emotions. No wonder he prefers machines.

We've all known children who've "imprinted" on their parents and been rejected in one way or another, and the interesting human angle is how they cope (or fail to cope) with the absence of self-esteem. They marry people who remind them of Mom or Dad and project things onto them—or, with more devastating consequences, onto their own kids. They write novels or plays or movies blaming Mom or Dad. But little robot David has no adaptive resources and only primitive defense mechanisms. Once we realize that there's no way through this for him—no way he can possibly evolve to compensate for his loss fromwithin—the movie becomes a dirge for the eternally bereft child in us all. Monica has read him Pinocchio, so the remainder of A.I. (a long 90 minutes) features David wandering from place to place in search of the "blue fairy" he's convinced can make him human—and therefore worthy of his mother's love. Spielberg's contempt for humanity makes it virtually impossible for David to find balm in this world, especially through the deluded and narcissistic daddy/creator, Professor Hobby—the parent who can't see that all children, even artificial ones, want more than anything to feel "special" and "unique." Salvation comes not through the evolution of man but the intervention of enlightened machines—the true messiahs. 

Fans of A.I. embrace its "fairy-tale" simplicity—a shrewd way to rationalize the lack of an internal dynamic. But I'm not sure what fairy tale is being invoked here—certainly not Pinocchio, which, in both its original Italian and Disney incarnations, is a morality play that aims to scare kids into believing that they'll never be "real" unless they obey their parents, don't play hooky, and learn a trade. Pinocchio is the quintessential fairy-tale-as-conservative-scare-tactic, but at least it has a protagonist who's capable of something more than lyrical yearning. The most pertinent comparison to A.I. is Frankenstein—except that this is told from the monster's point of view, and, of course, the monster isn't a monster but a sweetheart who's impossible not to love. One look at the poetically young/old Haley Joel Osment, with his watery eyes and clenched brow and care-wizened visage, and only a machine wouldn't want to take him home for a cuddle. Oops, make that only a human.

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The last two acts of A.I. could have been compressed, especially the hellish "Flesh Fair" sequence, in which Spielberg doesn't know how to bring out the ironic resonance of a terrific idea. The conceit is that mobs of people, in the name of asserting their "humanity," flock to stadiums to cheer the spectacular destruction of old robots—and in the process seem less human than the machines. (The robots go out looking fuddled or beatific.) We don't register the point of the Flesh Fair until it's nearly over, though, and the staging and design are excruciating—stabbing lights and roaring engines and Goth rock. (There's also a primitive melodramatic cliffhanger: terrified little David on the brink of being melted and dismembered.) The only pleasure in the middle hour comes from Jude Law as a robot gigolo called Joe: He can instantly alter his hair color or accent to suit his client, and he moves with the jaunty swagger of Gene Kelly to sundry '30s love ballads that issue from a tinny, built-in speaker. It's too bad that Spielberg didn't write Joe and David any memorable exchanges. The boy is supposed to transform this callow seducer into a caring, empathetic robot, but their interaction has no snap, and nice Joe is so boring compared to capering, self-intoxicated Joe.

A.I. carries a producer credit for Stanley Kubrick, who'd planned the project for himself before passing it on to Spielberg before he died. Because the work of these two often-great directors is so wildly different in tone, I'd never before considered their similarity—their shared longing for machines that will deliver humanity from unhappiness. (It's amusing to imagine these super-directors' reportedly "intimate" collaboration, which happened not in person but via a "private" fax line.) Kubrick is obviously more clinical in his gaze, while Spielberg can barely contain his passion for the extraterrestrial intelligence that can supply the kind of love that Mom and Dad weren't capable of mustering. The one inarguable triumph of A.I. is its special effects, which demonstrate a reverence for artifice that goes way, way beyond Spielberg's token regard for storytelling. Seemingly human faces open to reveal cogs and chips and miles of wire, and the final act features golden, stringy, translucent beings (reminiscent of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977]) that are like heavenly music made corporeal. I cried when a nanny robot is finished off in the Flesh Fair sequence, calling out to David that she loves him while her face is melting away. If only Spielberg's faith in movie magic weren't linked—biochemically, it now seems—to a lack of faith in the potential of humankind.

A lot of people at the screening I attended were weeping, and I can't imagine that A.I. won't turn a lot of people into puddles of mush. After it was over, though, I felt a need to pick up one of my favorite fringey science books, Ed Regis' hilarious Great MamboChicken and the Transhuman Condition. The chapter called "Postbiological Man" offers the perfect wry perspective on A.I. in its account of the visionary Hans Moravec, who is obsessed with being transformed from man into machine. The chapter ends:

Human as he was, Hans Moravec was as happy a person as you'd ever want to meet. And why shouldn't he be? He understood the human condition for what it was … and he could see a way out of it.

All we have to do is get rid of these bodies and these brains.

"I have faith in these computers,"HansMoravecsaid. "This is not some way of tricking you into being less than you are; you're going to be more than you are. You're going to be more intelligent, you'll be able to do much more, understand much more, go more places, not die—all those things.

"It really is a sort of a Christian fantasy: this is how to become pure spirit."

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