Most of the time, reviewing is easy. Most of the time, how well a film works, what is being said, and how the execution unfolds is quite clear. This doesn’t mean most movies can’t keep presenting new meaning or ideas, even once one’s thoughts are crystallized, but few films have much to say or reveal new curiosities or layers after long. Sometimes, though, a film will be seem totally comprehensible in their goals, but continues to flow and overwhelm, to keep giving and giving.
So, perhaps I am writing about A.I. Artificial Intelligence prematurely. Perhaps I will find my thoughts on Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi fairy tale as I type. Perhaps I’ll keep writing, or, worse, finish this piece and later feel that I ought to have waited just a little longer to try to explain my feelings on this intricate epic. Because there are so many angles to approach this story of a robot trying to find his way back home and the roads that he takes. Yet, the joy of A.I. is that I can’t imagine anyone perfectly or totally encapsulating the scope of such a tremendous feat of filmmaking and storytelling.
Though A.I. spans thousands of years, the story begins in a future where climate change has caught up with man. Ice caps have melted and flooded major coastal cities, leaving millions displaced, and forcing governments to heavily restrict human birth rights. To fill the human need for human companionship, androids are developed to pacify prospective parents who may never have children of their own . After Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Connor) are forced to keep their ill son Martin (Jake Thomas) in suspended animation, Henry convinces a deeply distraught Monica to order a mecha (slang for robot, to the humans’ orga) that will act as a substitute for their kid, who will likely succumb to his ailments.
Enter David (Haley Joel Osment). David is the latest creation of Prof. Allen Hobby (William Hurt), and is designed to love unconditionally. Once David is imprinted upon, he may only love whomever has selected him. So, Monica reluctantly keeps David around, who is doting and affectionate, and who eventually grows on Monica. She imprints on him, and even passes along an old supertoy Teddy–a mecha stuffed bear. And while Monica and David have a lovely life with each other, Martin eventually recovers. A dynamic of bitterness and eventual hostility looms over the two, until David, in an attempt to defend himself from Martin’s friends, almost accidentally drowns Martin. When Henry urges Monica to send David to be destroyed. Instead, Monica, unable to dispose with David, abandons him in the woods with Teddy. Monica’s and David’s relationship is entirely felt up to this point, so their separation–played loudly and chaotically–is gut-wrenching.
A.I. suggests many ideas in this first leg, including whether or not Monica does or could love David, largely because David is a mecha, which David cites as the reason why Monica will not keep him. Though he is a robot, the film does not question whether David loves Monica. Inspired by Pinocchio, which Monica would read to him and Martin, David sets out to find a Blue Fairy, who will turn him into a human child. To point out the Pinocchio parallels is not constructive. Even Martin recognizes David’s resemblance to the famed marionette. David has a Jiminy Cricket in Teddy, a Geppetto in Dr. Hobby, a Stromboli in Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), and even a Lampwick in Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). He meets the latter two shortly after being abandoned, and after escaping the Flesh Fair–a mechaphobic snuff show MC’ed by Lord Johnson-Johnson where expired robots are thrown to their fiery deaths–David travels with the Astaire/Kelly-imbued Joe high and low, and eventually across time, in search of a fay to grant a single wish, in the hopes that Monica will love and keep him.
A.I. is maybe not the most subtextual film. Many of the film’s questions and ideas are often read aloud. What makes the film so smart is not in how Spielberg takes one stand or another on the nature of love, or desire, or reality, because he doesn’t. He knows these ideas are too huge for anyone to understand. And when pressed with matters of the heart, Spielberg knows that these are too significant to ever overcome. From love, David learns anger, fear, doubt, envy, and loneliness. David worries that he is not special, that he will never be special, that his love and wants and being may be too inconsequential. And yet, David can never shake that one thing he’d chase to the end of the world–an actual location in the story–and through a soul-crushing finale that flows tears as heavy and ugly as they come.
In the end, if A.I. is about anything, the film is largely about belonging. A common enough theme for Spielberg, who is given sole credit for both writing and directing. Of course, this erases one of the more well-known production stories. Though A.I. is labeled as a Spielberg movie–and by all accounts is–Spielberg is working off of decades of collaborative work between Stanley Kubrick, Ian Watson, and Brian Aldiss, adapting Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” And really, Kubrick’s contributions may be the most vital. The first and third acts–the strongest portions of the film–are Kubrick’s story. Kubrick is the one who pushed the Pinocchio angle that drives the film. Kubrick always planned to write and produced, and Kubrick tapped Spielberg to direct in the late 70s before finally handing the film off to Spielberg. And as much trouble as one has imagining Kubrick veering into such an emotionally raw direction, Spielberg renders a film that is every bit as heartfelt as is thoughtful. Following years of fits and starts, of concerns that technology just wasn’t far along enough to properly tell this story, and even after Kubrick’s death, time eventually caught up to Spielberg and Kubrick’s vision–the way time catches up to David.
After years of development, the wait really has paid off. Nearly two decades later, A.I. looks and sounds like little else. Visually, Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter draw from Gattica for the domestic moments, a healthy dose of Blade Runner–particularly in the second act–and a splash of The Abyss-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey in the last leg. Spielberg mainstays Janusz Kaminski and Michael Khan do some big and some subtle work, moving the look of the picture in a progressively darker, and desaturated direction, as David becomes gradually hardened in his journey. This, to say nothing of the visual effects, which, in the age of big-budget digital spectacles, still feel revolutionary. Pretty standard for Spielberg, really. And as lavish as the look of A.I. is–elements of which Spielberg carries on through to Minority Report–one would be remiss not to mention John Williams’ quietly soulful work; perhaps his compositions here are not as rousing as his most famous, but maybe his most powerful.
A.I. is a behemoth of a picture. A massive undertaking with a troubled history that should not have worked, and that remains divisive. And yet, the film is so realized, so curious, so lavish, so intimate, so cerebral, and so human that A.I. may very well be the best work of anyone involved. For Spielberg, for Kubrick, for Williams, for O’Connor, for Law, and so on. Osment’s turn as David may be one of, if not the finest on-screen performance of the century so far. A.I. is such an emotionally and intellectually absorbing film, one that lingers for days. To find a film that so deeply impresses upon the mind or heart is rare. To find one that remains so starkly is not only rare, but is an honest-to-goodness gift.