A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a strange mess, less a film than eight or nine of them. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a poetic elaboration of Darwinian theory, began with the Dawn of Man and terminated with an existential quandary, the next phase in life’s continuum mysteriously encrypted in the eyes of the Star Child. Spielberg’s film, which is haunting and wondrously imagined but feels muddled by a certain artificial design, would appear to pick up where 2001: A Space Odyssey left off, with Haley Joel Osment’s robot boy, David, on an evolutionary journey of sorts. Unique because he is the first robot of his kind to be programmed with the ability to love, David is rejected by his adopted mother and subsequently tries to reconcile his abandonment issues by searching for physical and emotional actualization amid landscapes overrun by similarly discarded mechas.
The film begins with an evocative shot of waves crashing, a voiceover introducing us to a world where polar ice caps have melted and robots and humans live side-by-side. Then, a cut to an executive’s chamber, where Professor Hobby (William Hurt) discusses the need to take the future to the next level and introduce the love quotient into robot technology. It’s a banal and transparent scene, not because the Geppetto-like Hobby isn’t seen or heard from for another hour, but because it seems to exist for no other reason than to make clear that Spielberg is presenting us with a futuristic vision of the Pinocchio story. Off we go, then, to the home of Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (O’Connor), whose son Martin (Jake Thomas) has been cryogenically frozen due to an undisclosed illness (presumed by the Swintons to be terminal in nature). Monica doth protest too much when Henry brings David home, but aside from her initial outburst, the grieving mother begins to accept the robot as her own flesh-and-blood child. So, where’s Monstro?
The Swinton home is a warehouse of minimalist décor, evocative of Kubrick’s grandiose sets, and while the visual connection may be distracting, Spielberg works fascinatingly with spatial dynamics. Just as attention grabbing is the relationship between Monica and the obnoxious David, which brings to mind a Small Wonder episode, and while their scenes are not nearly as idiotic, their collisions make it entirely too easy for the spectator to sympathize with her rejection of the robot boy—but, then again, what can be expected from such an unconventional family setup? The film’s domestic scenes are more disturbing for their sense of how David struggles to understand human interaction and act human himself, whether it is experiencing pain (to the shock of his “brother” Martin’s friends) or desperately eating spinach despite his lack of a digestive system. (In the single most haunting scene from the film, he tries to swim and is left alone at the bottom of a pool—a disturbing evocation of his isolation and rejection.)
Now a round of applause for Teddy, the film’s answer to Jiminy Cricket—a huggable Ewok/Gremlin hybrid so cute he gives an awkward kind of comedic displacement to many of the film’s domestic scenarios. Teddy exists for David in much the same way a plush animal would for a real child, and if David is as much a surrogate for Martin, so too is Teddy a substitute for Monica—a repository of the love David wants his human mother to unconditionally receive. Sweet, but the super toy’s function as a loyal compatriot feels redundant once Gigolo Joe appears, and by film’s end Teddy seems to exist only to advance the plot along with a piece of Monica’s hair.
David meets Joe (Jude Law) in the outskirts of Flesh City, a futuristic Mad Max-inspired arena where Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brandon Gleeson) kills robots for public entertainment. After a narrow escape from destruction, the duo heads to Rogue City (essentially a Gilliamesque vision of Tokyo) where Joe and David attempt to discover the whereabouts of the Blue Fairy, a creature that may morph David into a real boy. Then it’s off to the flooded city of Manhattan, where Professor Hobby returns and David’s journey for self-actualization comes to an end. Joe enters and leaves A.I. without much purpose beyond expressing the complexity of robot feeling (in this case their sexual aggressiveness) before David ends up cryogenically frozen in time after finding the Blue Fairy within the confines of what was once Coney Island.
If only A.I. culminated here, evoking as it does the haunting, open-ended wonder and mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Spielberg piles on coda after coda, giving his journeyman a sense of closure that’s really just a form of sappy wish-fulfillment. Spielberg’s compositions and obsession with mirrors and multiple reflections evoke a kind of fractured perception, but if a fascinating moral dilemma is posed, its answer seems lost amid the gobbledygook of an alien visit and a final domestic scene that brings to mind an Oedipalized Folgers Crystal commercial. There are moments here so emotional and powerful it’s a shame the film’s visual vernacular is so distancing at times—perhaps Spielberg’s greatest (intentional perhaps?) nod to Kubrick—but in spite of its excess baggage, the film lingers in the mind, not unlike a blanket or toy from one’s youth.