A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Those words, from The Stolen Child, by William Butler Yeats, get to the heart of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the 2001 film written and directed by Steven Spielberg, based on a story treatment by Ian Watson, itself based on a short story, Super Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss, later developed by Stanley Kubrick. The odyssey of A.I. from Kubrick's development in the seventies through Spielberg's completed film in 2001 was a long one, but one that ended in the fusing of two filmmaker's styles, sometimes at odds, many times not, with each one complementing the other.
The verse from Yeats is first seen when David (Haley Joel Osment) asks an animated professor about the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. David is a mechanical boy and wants to find the Blue Fairy so that he may become real. But David already is real, just not human.
A.I. tells the story of a couple, whose son is in a coma, that take on David, a "mecha" (mechanical robot), as a surrogate child while their own child exists in the in-between world of hibernation, lost in a void from which neither parent nor doctor is sure he can recover. David, too, exists in an in-between world, seemingly alive and human but really just a collection of very cleverly contrived wires and circuits and microchips. Nonetheless, Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor), the mother of the comatose boy, develops a relationship with her mecha "son" and eventually hard-wires him to love her. Almost as soon as she does, her own son, Martin (Jake Thomas), miraculously recovers and returns home.
Once home, Martin gets the attention that David once got and David is quickly relegated to the edges. David sits on the floor, across the room, while Monica reads bedtime stories to Martin in his bed, a bed that just weeks earlier David laid in while Monica read to him. He longs to connect to her again and performs risky missions, like cutting off a lock of her hair while she sleeps, because Martin told him that will make her love him again. But did she ever love him to begin with or was there simply a need, a desperate need, to keep the illusion of a son going when all seemed lost?
Later, as an abandoned David wanders an unfamiliar landscape, searching for a non-existent blue fairy that will make him human, he finds a world that is, indeed, full of weeping that he cannot understand. He finds a guide in Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mecha designed for pleasure fulfillment that tries to get David to the blue fairy that will make him real. But the world Gigolo Joe inhabits is fraught with peril and as he and David make their way, death and suffering surround them. Mechas and orgas (humans) share a world in which orgas resent mechas, the very things they created. As Joe says, "They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us." Perhaps he's right but not how he intends. If the mechas are all that's left, will humanity be lost or simply live on in the mechanical form of their creation?
A.I. is as ambitious a project as Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg ever worked on in either of their careers. Kubrick kept pushing it back, year after year, feeling technology hadn't caught up with the way he wanted to make the film. Originally, he even thought a robot could be constructed to play the boy and when that proved unfeasible, he held out hope that one day computer animation could conquer the task. By the mid-nineties, he asked Steven Spielberg to take over as director but Spielberg insisted Kubrick direct it and Spielberg produce. After Kubrick's death in 1999, there was no choice left: Spielberg would direct and write the screenplay from the treatment by Ian Watson.
Spielberg decided on Haley Joel Osment to play David after seeing his excellent performance in The Sixth Sense (1999). Osment did a superb job, making David both alien and deeply relatable all at once. Jude Law gives his best performance as Gigolo Joe, mixing dance steps with a very focused, direct way of walking and talking that signals the artificiality of his character but somehow possessing of a childlike naiveté underneath. When he's framed for murder early on in the film, his fear and panic seem real but in the sense of a robot mimicking those emotions without truly feeling them. It's a fine line to walk as an actor but Law pulls it off.
As for the styles of Spielberg and Kubrick, both are evident in the film even if Spielberg's style is obviously predominant as the writer and director. It's thematically that Kubrick makes himself known by choosing this story in the first place. The short story, which deals only with the married couple, childless and raising David as their own son, centers around the nature of artificial children. In many ways, it covers the same territory as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the HAL9000 computer seems real, seems human and when he "dies," as his brain circuits are removed, seems truly afraid. As his "life" winds down, there is genuine sympathy for this computer, as the audience watches him beg for his life, knowing his sentience is coming to an end. David, too, is helpless against the whims of the human world. He knows he is lost and unloved unless he can become human, something simply impossible for him to achieve.
Science fiction often deals with questions of the humanity of machines. How real are they? What emotions do they have? Can they ever truly feel the same way we do? A.I. does a better job than most at answering those questions by having David view the horrors of the world while the viewer views David. His confusion and fear trigger in us the same emotions and compel us towards sympathy. What Kubrick began, Spielberg finished. By the end of the film, questions of humanity still linger and the emotions still tremble below the surface. Steven Spielberg can be proud of what he achieved with this decades long project. And Kubrick would have been pleased.
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Bonnie Curtis
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg (screenplay), Ian Watson (story)
Music: John Williams
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Michael Kahn
Art Direction: Richard Johnson, William James Teegarden
Cast: Haley Joel Osment (David), Frances O'Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), William Hurt (Prof. Hobby), Ken Leung (Syatyoo-Sama), Jack Angel (Teddy voice), Robin Williams (Dr. Know voice), Ben Kingsley (Specialist voice), Meryl Streep (Blue Mecha voice), Chris Rock (Comedian voice).
By Greg Ferrara