Steven Spielberg makes all kinds of fairy tales: melodramatic (The Terminal, The Color Purple), horrific (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List), and adventurous (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark). For most of Spielberg’s career, he’s been consistently criticized, sometimes rightfully so, for molding dynamic histories and emotions into workable, easily digestible fables that sugarcoat deeply complex themes with sentimentality. Good and evil are clearly discernable for Spielberg, and conservative moral lessons culminate in nicely wrapped denouements. But underneath the cloying visual tactics and obvious metaphors, there’s always a deep humanity plucking the artificial heartstrings, a specific form of magic that can’t be denied. Spielberg understands the power of wonder like no other American director, and his films express a joyousness that is often mistaken for calibrated tenderness.
Then there’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, alien in so many ways to Spielberg’s canon of moral certainty, a haunting black sheep among a glistening and preening flock. Ironically, this sinister and incomplete vision might be Spielberg’s purist fairy tale, striking in tone and mood but never honeyed with earnestness. A.I.’s deceptive darkness stems from its treatment of childhood trauma, the fear of abandonment, and panic over losing one’s identity. It envisions a futuristic world on the verge of collage, a landscape of blinding hues and smooth textures obsessed with both momentary rejuvenation and collective destruction. However, unlike Minority Report or War of the Worlds, Spielberg never overreaches with A.I., staying close to his main characters in gripping interior sequences that threaten to strangle the life right out of them.
Ben Kinglsey’s calm voiceover narration opens the film, explaining how the ice caps have melted, coastal cities are flooded because of global warming, and people must acquire permits to have children. Newly developed and highly trained Mecha robots service humans in all aspects of life, including sex and entertainment, among other duties. Spielberg seamlessly incorporates this exposition through the engrossingly complex speech by Mecha creator Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), who talks passionately about the development of an emotionally dynamic android child marketed for grieving parents. At this point, it’s clear A.I. will pose difficult moral questions about consciousness and humanity rather than answer them. Orating in front of his staff and disciples, Hobby is proud to announce his latest consumer product, only to have a number of moral concerns raised. One troublesome query stands above the rest: While the Mecha would dutifully love its human parents, what responsibility would the parents have to the robot?
Through the eyes of the first Mecha “super toy,” a meek, kind boy named David (Haley Joel Osment), we see the very tragic answers to this question. Adopted by Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards) to fill the emotional void left by their mortally ill son, Martin (Jake Thomas), David is initiated to be the perfect son. Monica immediately has reservations about the situation, but clings to David much like a child would a favorite doll. After Martin is suddenly cured, his presence at home with David upends any chance of happiness and contentment. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, and finally parental ignorance lead Monica to abandon David in a sharply lit forest green, one of A.I.’s most disturbing scenes. As Monica drives away, her rearview mirror catches David’s terrified eyes quickly disappearing from view. Accompanied by Teddy, a talking robot bear, David vows to find the famed Blue Fairy from Pinocchio in order to become a real boy and regain his mother’s love, a suicide mission with tragic implications.
First developed by Stanley Kubrick in the 1980s before the project ended up in Spielberg’s hands at Kubrick’s request, A.I. follows David’s rousing and haunting adventure. Immediately rounded up by the Flesh Fair, a diabolical traveling torture chamber where stray Mechas are rounded up and destroyed for mass entertainment, David and Teddy seems destined for the scrap heap. Here, David meets another Mecha, named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who inevitably helps David escape and further his quest to find the Blue Fairy. Along the way, the pair visits Rouge City, an infamous simulacrum of Las Vegas, then escapes to the watery grave of Manhattan during the film’s titanic and controversial ending involving a flash-forward some 2000 years in the future.
Spielberg avoids traditional plot points throughout his meandering narrative, focusing on David’s perception of the hyper-realized world around him. Sharp hues flood the frame, often shrouding David and Joe in blinding beams of light and cavernous deep shadow. A.I. is all about texture, specifically the contrasting surfaces of a technologically advanced world losing its need for emotional connection. Spielberg’s tight compositions reveal characters seemingly trapped by their own reflections, destined to whither under the pressure of artificial happiness. Janusz Kamiński’s fluid camera pins David and Joe behind obstacles of all kind: the Flesh Fair bars, between Rouge City’s numbing rows of signs, and finally frozen in time under water at Coney Island, mere inches away from the fabled Blue Fairy. Like every essential moment in A.I., the walls are closing in on David, and Spielberg’s hypnotic templates of neon light and shading add up to a stunningly personal nightmare about the way innocence unmasks the hidden doubt in others.
Within such kinetic spaces of warring emotions, the dichotomy between artificial surfaces and repressed emotion becomes essential. David and Joe, at one point described by someone as “100 miles of fiber,” are given veins of humanity, while Monica and Dr. Hobby seem programmed from the start. Spielberg’s weaknesses as a writer (some of the dialogue is awful) only amplify the child-like whimsy of these moments, allowing the Mechas a silent beauty when traversing such menacing spaces. In the final sequence where David brings Monica back from the dead for one day (thanks to extraterrestrials), their previous roles are completely reversed: David’s pure humanity calibrates Monica’s artificial responses. This happiness, however constructed and fleeting, is Spielberg’s most sublime realization of parent and child. Side by side, David and Monica close their eyes forever, connected by the shared experience of a temporary fairy tale mired in ambiguity, where the difference between “the first of a kind” and “one of kind” doesn’t seem that alien after all.
A.I. looks rightfully gorgeous on 1080p Blu-ray, especially when David ventures out into the world and witnesses the many faces of human evil and vice. Rouge City is rightfully stunning, but the gigantic, white moon rising up over the hill illuminating the Mechas running for their lives is something truly special. Some of the skin tones are a bit soft, but that might have something to do with Janusz Kamiński’s lighting schemes. The real star of the disc is the pulverizing sound design, specifically during the action scene through the shantytown and later in the confines of the Flesh Fair. The roar of the crowd, the screams of the engines ripping apart the Mechas, devastatingly imprints the decline of civilization as much as any other dramatic moment in the film.
Ten short features about everything from the film’s inception and acting to its lighting and special effects give the home viewer a nice collection of information about A.I. All of them are cropped in 4:3, and are obviously dated. Still, the part about Spielberg and Kubrick’s friendship is especially interesting from a historical point of view. Expectedly, there’s no audio commentary or lengthy interview with Spielberg, whose voice is notoriously absent from his film’s DVDs.
A.I.’s Blu-ray debut should remind audiences why this fascinating fairy tale remains Steven Spielberg’s most audacious, ambiguous, and menacing film.