Looking Back: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

The brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is how it steadily provides a study of contrasts, from the opening frame to the closing image. The first thing we see are the words “An Amblin/ Stanley Kubrick Production,” an odd blend if there ever was one (akin to “A Disney/Bernardo Bertolucci Production”). Waves are seen crashing together, further cementing the film’s theme of ideas and opposing visions swirling into each other.

Ben Kingsley’s literate, hushed narration informs us that the polar ice caps have melted, flooding much of planet Earth. Those who have survived are living in a world in which robots, called “Mecha,” are living alongside the humans. We meet Professor Allen Hobby, played as a Steve Jobs-like innovator and sage by William Hurt. Immediately, a visually chilly atmosphere suggests a Kubrickian world, as does the cold way in which a presentation is given where we see a robot experience pain. Hobby’s lecture on the possibilities of manufactured feeling in Mechas builds to his announcement to create a robot child who can love. In this thrilling first scene, Spielberg’s handling of Kubrick’s vision is never less than captivating.

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Like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this is a three-act work, in which seemingly disconnected narratives merge into a cinematic master’s thesis on the topic of being human and a robot’s reflection of us. Spielberg has given audiences a twisted vision of childhood, with only just wonder (his specialty) but cruelty.

When the robot child, David (played by Haley Joel Osment) is introduced to a grieving family, the film maintains a grip on its audience and always suggests deeper, darker meanings to every scene. A key moment, both in terms of the ongoing theme of contrasting ideas and the film’s notion of a distorted family unit: the father’s first words to his wife upon bringing David home: “I love you…don’t kill me.”

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment, 2001

Osment gives one of the most astonishing child performances I’ve ever seen, far outdistancing his stunning turn in “The Sixth Sense.” David is initially eerie but gains our sympathy. It’s to Osment’s credit that he is so capable at evoking the mechanical mimicry of human behavior, as David becomes more human over the course of the story. He makes us sometimes forget that, in terms of what he’s made of, David is basically a toaster…with feelings.

The scenes at the dinner table, in which David’s parents (played beautifully by Frances O’Conner and Sam Robards) struggle to accept David as “normal,” are reminders of the great moments from Spielberg’s “Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” only with a strange twist: we’re not seeing a family moment but the equivalent of play acting. David’s parents want him to provide a service and give them feelings they lack. A recurring element in the story is how the human beings lack sympathy as much as (if not more so) than the robots. There is an unspoken quality to David’s family: they’re rich, have a lavish home and are, when you think about it, snobbish and unpleasant. David idolizes them the way most children adore their parents at a young age.

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David is creepy and works hard to replicate human behavior but his “brother,” Martin, is a petulant monster. Yet, a telling detail- David brings out the worst in nearly every human being he encounters. Over the course of the film, the way humans treat the Mechas is revealed to be increasingly despicable…and there I go again, sticking up for the soulless machines.

An uncomfortable question is raised regarding the feeling of love: “she loves what you do for her…she does not love you.” Is love a feeling that can be replicated into a machine, or is it too complex for a robot to genuinely experience? Is love so vastly human a feeling that it couldn’t possibly be broken into computer code or is it something that is obtainable for a man made machine to inhabit?

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A peculiar touch is how the story of “Pinocchio” invades the narrative; it’s an appropriate, of odd interjection. Far more jarring, and daring, is how the story switches from David (in arguably the film’s most harrowing scene) to Gigolo Joe (played by Jude Law). It feels like we’re in a different movie, though all the story threads do merge.

Law’s work is simply awesome, as his amazing physicality impresses as much as his chilling rendering of a charismatic “pleasure Mecha.” The other key figure is Teddy, an endearing Jiminy Cricket-type who is cute but acts as David’s stern, true-father figure. John Williams’ versatile, emotionally rich score matches the tonal flexibility of the film.

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Late in “A.I.,” David finds an opportunity to a “flat fact with a fairy tale,” which is what the film has been doing from the very beginning. I won’t fully address the wild second act or the astonishing concluding sequences. No, there are no extraterrestrials in “A.I.” (as the ending has been widely misread) but a third act that is brave enough to go as far as this story possibly could. The meshing of Spielberg and Kubrick resulted in something as unpredictable, grand and thought provoking as one would hope.

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