A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, 2001. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Francis O'Connor, William Hurt, Sam Robards, Brendan Gleeson.

Synopsis:  In the future, the world has been ravaged by global warming. In the United States, a relatively high standard of living has been maintained throught the use of android "mechas" and the strict licensing of child birth. Professor Hobby, who designs mechas notices that there is a need in the world for surrogate children to take the place of the children that society can no longer afford to bear.  He proposes to build an android child who is capable of love. And build it, he does. The result is David, who is given to a couple whose own child is in cryogenic freeze, awaiting a cure to the illness that will surely kill him. Monica, David's "mother" is creeped out at first by her new android child. It doesn't love her yet--it needs its emotion circuits to be specifically activated. Eventually, she activates his "love"--more from a desperate attempt to make him seem more normal than out of love for the robot child. In doing so, she hardwires his love irrevocably in David's circuits.  She even gives David her own son's favorite toy, Teddy, a walking, talking stuffed bear.  Teddy acts as David's guide through family interpersonal dynamics. Monica and Henry's natural son, Martin, is eventually cured and returned home.  Once there, he becomes his robot "brother's" rival for Monica's affection. Martin. He is cruel to his brother. He manipulates David so that he appears as a threat to the family. After David almost drowns Martin, Monica realizes that David has to go. Rather than have him dissassmbled, she takes him out into the woods and leaves him there, telling him that he can return to her when he becomes a real boy.  With nowhere else to turn, David sets out on a quest to find The Blue Fairy, who turned Pinocchio into a real boy. He meets up with Gigolo Joe, a mecha sex toy, who is on the run for his own reasons. Gigolo Joe and David are captured by a "Flesh Fair," where androids are mangled and destroyed as demolishion derby-style amusement, then escape and travel to Rouge City, where sexual fantasy is the main industry, and finally to a drowned New York, where Professor Hobby awaits David's return.  Here, David comes face to face with his true nature. David rejects this and finds his destiny in the Pinocchio area of the submerged Coney Island. He prays urgently to the Blue Fairy he finds there . . . for two thousand years. He is found there after the ocean has frozen by the decendents of the Mecha's of his own time. Mankind has long since become extinct, leaving his artifical progeny to sort through the ruins to understand their makers. To this end, they recreate David's home and mommy, and David at last has his apotheosis in his mother's love . . . .

Legacy:  This film was originally developed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was unable to resolve the material to his own satisfaction and gave it to Spielberg. Would this have been better if Kubrick had directed it? Is the film an act of colossal hubris on Spielberg's part? I'm not even going to indulge these questions. I'm not qualified to say, actually, since Kubrick didn't make a film that I liked during the entirety of the last thirty years of his life. Spielberg took it upon himself to write the screenplay for this film, too--his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind--so even if the film derived from Kubrick, the film is entirely Spielberg's now. At least, insofar as Spielberg is his own artist with is own sensibility: He pays homage to Kubrick throughout the film. The result is somewhat different than any of Spielberg's other films, with the possible exception of The Empire of the Sun.

Visionary Wonders:  Make no mistake. In purely formal terms, A.I. is a stunner. The first act--the domestic part--is directed with a fascinating clinical dispassion that is new to Spielberg. It's not quite like Kubrick's clinical dispassion. Spielberg is too much of a humanist to work in that mode. The result is still kinda creepy though, particularly Haley Joel Osment's evocation of the robot child.  His David is a strange combination of the pod people from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The second act is dazzling, adding Jude Law's jaunty robot gigolo (which adds a perverse level of humanity to the film) and visions of the world after the fall. The scenes in Rouge City are lewder than anything in Spielberg's output--a garish sexual candyland evoked in multicolored neon. This contrasts nicely with the flooded New York, with its toppled skyscrapers jutting out of the water like coral reefs.  These scenes have a creepy stillness that become even creepier once David goes beneath the waves.  The special effects in these sequences are stunning--among the first computer generated effects that I've seen that don't call attention to themselves as CGI. The performances at the center of the movie by Osment and Law are brilliant. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is at the top of his form, too. The film is endlessly watchable.  I look forward to revisiting the film for the sheer joy of looking at it.  It's really a crying shame that Spielberg the writer isn't up to standard of Spielberg the director.

Legacy, Pt. II:  Some years ago, shortly after the release of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, I saw an interview with science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin in which the she was asked about the films of Spielberg and George Lucas. She resented them, she said. They set science fiction back forty years.  It is a curious accident of fate that the same can be said of Spielberg today, but instead of regressing to the gee-whiz sci-fi of the the thirties, Spielberg is returning to science fiction's "New Wave." In A.I., Spielberg adapts Brian Aldiss's short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," and is obsessed with the kinds of big questions that The New Wave writers asked about man's place in the universe, and the place of his technology. (Interestingly enough, Spielberg's NEXT movie, Minority Report, is drawn from The New Wave's patron saint: Philip K. Dick.) There is a key difference, though. Spielberg may be the best ever director of whizz bang entertainments. He doesn't have the intellect for The New Wave's big questions, though.  The film makes two crucial errors.

First: It leaves unstated, and never deals with, a central question about artificial intelligence.  Are androids sentient? Is David self-aware? Or is he a smart toaster?  As depicted through most of the film, he tends toward the latter. If he ISN'T sentient, then his hard-wired love is grotesque. Interestingly, Jude Law's Gigolo Joe articulates this very thought at one point in the movie. David is something of a monster, actually.  If David isn't sentient, then what is the point of the story?  A. I. fails to deal with this issue, even though it is central to the dramatic integrity of the story.

Second (and even more problematic):  The film is twenty minutes too long.  The entire third act, the one that takes place 2000 years in the future, could profitably be lopped off the movie entire. Had the film ended with David eternally praying to The Blue Fairy, A.I. would have ended on a dark note of grace. It would have had something of the power of Hans Christian Andersen's darker fairy tales, like the little mermaid gazing back at the sea or the dancer who lops off her feet to stop the red shoes from dancing.  Not all fairy tales have happy endings. Not all of them need them.