Is A.I. a brilliant work of art, the film of year? Absolutely, positively, indubitably, maybe. I hate to cop out on this one, but it's safe to say that there's too much to the movie to fully absorb and digest after one viewing. What one viewing will leave you with is a combination of intellectual buzz and emotional richness that the most prized darlings of the art-house cinema seldom provide. A.I. has sound and fury, signifying … signifying ….
Well, that's just it. Is this Steven Spielberg's most coherent and thought-provoking artistic statement to date, or a shambles masquerading as highbrow cinema? For those of you who, like me, have seen it and aren't sure what to make of it, let's broach some of the questions it presents — not about the moral responsibilities associated with the possibility of artificial intelligence, but about the merits and the plain narrative rightness of the story that Spielberg lays out.
In case all that wasn't clear enough: Don't read any further unless you've seen the movie. Really.
The history of the project is much spoken of, and may help us in answering some questions. Stanley Kubrick had been interested in making a film version of Brian Aldiss's short story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long" since it was published in 1969. Eventually, Kubrick decided to collaborate with Spielberg on it — the common version of this tale is that Kubrick would produce and Spielberg would direct, but it's hard to say just what shape their partnership would have taken had Kubrick not died in 1999. Spielberg soldiered on, setting aside the screen story written for Kubrick by Ian Watson and authoring his own screenplay. Kubrick's influence is undoubtedly there, however — in frame compositions, editing, and … well, more on this as we go.
At the onset of A.I., Professor Hobby (William Hurt) is giving a lecture that's basically one big chunk of exposition to explain the future Spielberg's created. It's the kind of scene-setting that Spielberg used to motor through with aplomb, but there's certainly no motoring going on here. The scene is contemplatively paced and filled with generic clichés — for instance, when Hobby suggests that it's time the robots they build progress from possessing a simulacrum of intelligence to a simulacrum of love, a student — who else? — asks — what else? — if the ethical and moral consequences of such a development have been fully reckoned with.
Is it lazy, stereotypical storytelling, or, in Kubrickian fashion, is the scene subtly charged with irony? The ironic component here — and, if it can be asserted to exist, it's a major one — would be just how dull this scene, and these characters, are. While the human characters throughout the film are well-acted and well-rendered, they're vanilla to the extreme, excepting only Jake Thomas as the purest sibling rival and the role briefly inhabited by Brendan Gleeson. Meanwhile, none of the robots are boring in the least, and in fact most of the robots we meet over the course of the movie are outcasts and freaks — they have that spark that filmmakers often impart to characters to make them instantly recognizable as flamboyant, eccentric, human. Are the makers so dissociated from what they've made that they can't recognize the humanity with which the robots have already been imbued?
That tenuous duality — clumsy moviemaking or sublime cleverness? — comes up in A.I. time and again. It's a valid question to ask; I don't think that Spielberg is untarnished as an artist in anyone's eyes, and yet a generous reading of A.I. would ascribe to him a very high level of artistry indeed.
Consider also the first act, in which Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O'Conner) decide whether to bring Hobby's prototype love-bot David (Haley Joel Osment) into their home in an attempt to salve the hurt of having their only son, Martin (Thomas), stricken and comatose/cryogenically frozen. They let David kick around their home for a few days, debating whether to activate his love capabilities — an irreversible process, meaning if they ever change their minds about keeping him, David will have to be destroyed. And they do decide to fully enable David, but rather than imprinting both of them, they instead set David up to only love Monica.
This, obviously, is the king of bad ideas, trumping even walking upstairs to see what that noise was when you know Michael Myers has escaped from the asylum. So what is our appropriate response as an audience? To throw our hands up in the air, say credulity is out the window and head for the exits? Or to acknowledge that perhaps the movie isn't necessarily operating in a vérité context, that it isn't supposed to be a keen-eyed character study so much as it is a fable using the pure, idealized action of myth, and that its psychological merit is not in its text but its subtext?
It's a key question, because there are lots of logic wrinkles throughout the film, and strictly interpreting A.I.'s reality will leave you dissatisfied. But if the movie requires you to step back from its detail to see the big picture, well, that would certainly be a Kubrickian approach — the negative reviews of A.I. are most reminiscent of the dismissal of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's last film, which was derided for its unrealism … even though the title of its source novella is best translated as "Dream Story." The meanings of that film were difficult to resolve after just one viewing and a few days' reflection; it has to be seen more than once for its themes to really come alive. Can we extend that same courtesy to A.I., or is it fair to say its failure to craft realistic character motivations is tantamount to complete failure?
Let's jump ahead to the last 30 minutes of the film, where this issue comes to a head. David's pursuit of the Blue Fairy (hey, if you don't get it, I told you that you should watch the movie before reading this) leaves him trapped in a watertight, undersea tomb, only to be excavated millennia later not by aliens (as some have said) but by highly evolved robots that have survived the ice age and whose memory of humans is scant at best. They tell David that his memories are their best-ever link to the age in which they were created, that he's anthropologically invaluable.
This is what the movie has been leading up to the whole time in, obviously, a very literal sense, but in a very figurative sense as well. Many have said they wished the movie would have ended with David on the ocean floor, eternally wishing, and that bringing in these spindly archeologists is straight-up schmaltz. This argument holds a lot of weight if you're taking the film as pure drama — a live burial would be a pathos-filled ending that would suit the dystopia.
Spielberg doesn't opt for this route, and it's easy to reflexively say it's because he's a touchy-feely sentimentalist. But it's important to pause to acknowledge that A.I. is a sci-fi movie of the purest fashion — whereas most "sci-fi" movies are horror movies that have traded monsters for aliens and haunted houses for spaceships, a true entry in the genre is almost always prepossessed with the nature of humanity: creation, evolution, spirituality, eternity, what have you. (The granddaddy of these is, of course, Kubrick's 2001.) The ocean-floor ending doesn't wrap up this aspect of the film satisfactorily. And so we get the "2000 years later" finale, which is ripe — and, perhaps, overripe — with allegorical significance.
Recognizing the potential appropriateness of this ending is only half the story, however — the half that can be gleaned from the first viewing. What remains is the real question: How to read it?
Here's my best shot: David is the apex of human achievement. Credited by Hobby as being the first aspirational robot, David's wants go deeper than survival/pain avoidance — he wants to find the Blue Fairy, to earn his mother's love back. So humanity is God, and David is humanity; humanity's best legacy, the thing that characterizes it as unique in the universe, is the capacity for unconditional love. And because humanity fits in on both the creator and created sides of the equations, that means not only is unconditional love our best quality, but also the best thing we can teach, experience, leave behind.
And here are the holes in that theory: David's love is a monomaniacal kind of love. Free will doesn't enter into the equation — he doesn't have a capacity not to love once he's started loving. In a sense, that's even more flattering of humanity, but it's not true. And while David's love is absolutely unconditional — he's desperate to regain the love of the mother that abandoned him and that he must know is long dead — it's not sacrificial. The lack of sacrifice ties back to the free will question; David longs for his mother because it's the only thing he knows to do, and so while the completion of his quest requires an unflagging devotion, there's nothing to counterpoint that devotion, no other less difficult path that he could choose. David's singlemindedness sours any comparison to the rest of us. The potential to cave under pressure is what informs all our tragedy, and also what ennobles it — it is the essence of fallible humanity, and David lacks it.
And so the question resurfaces: Is it just that Spielberg failed to tell the story right, or is the story more complex than can be grasped so readily? I don't know yet, but I want to find out. Even if its answers aren't spelled out, A.I. asks the right questions, and in the process, makes you feel, and feel deeply. Osment and O'Conner are magnificent, and the very humanity of their interaction does for the movie everything David wants the Blue Fairy to do for him: to cause it to truly come alive, to be real. And if the movie can't be neatly packed away in a pre-conceived box when it's over, well, that only makes it more human — and, it must be said, so very Kubrick.