It takes a special kind of movie to begin with a dry five-minute monologue outlining the plot of the story ahead. It takes an even more special sort of film to fill this monologue with wide-eyed, awe-filled pontification on topics that have long since become hackneyed or otherwise thoroughly mined-out in the course of 50 years of modern science fiction.
A.I. is one such movie.
But perhaps the laughable self-seriousness of the opening sequence can be forgiven when one considers that its purveyor is a scientist who quite obviously has no sense of reality. It’s hardly surprising that he would be out of touch with the copious volumes of sci-fi canon penned through the years when he’s the sort of person who watches with delight as the robot he created to serve as a loving household companion goes on a murderous rampage. I’m pretty sure John Crapper wouldn’t have been ecstatic if the first flush commode had taken a huge bite out of someone’s butt, nor would Eli Whitney have glowed with effusive joy at seeing his cotton gin prototype slaughter farmers indiscriminately. So the fact that this guy finds his automaton’s latent killer instinct to be a charming addition to any nuclear family gives a pretty good clue to the state of his mental competence.
So here’s the premise of the movie, full of spoilers because the story is all told in the first five minutes by a raving lunatic anyway: despite centuries of cautionary tales regarding the dangers of giving man-made creations the ability to think and feel, a functionally-insane inventor presents to his colleagues the idea of doing exactly that, taking full credit for the notion and giving none to more deserving people, such as Mary Shelley. Two years later, his prototype invention — a robotic version of the kid from The Sixth Sense — is slowly and without any apparent reason integrated into a family as a sort of replacement for their comatose son. When the real son magically returns from the brink of death, the robot is cast out into a completely different movie which takes place on leftover soundstages from The Running Man and Total Recall. Because the robot boy has only one programmed purpose in life – to be a loving son – he enlists the aid of a robot pimp and a demon-possessed Teddy Ruxpin doll to help him pursue a tenuous thread of logic to that end. Finally he reaches his goal, only to be thrust at the last minute into a remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then the theatre is shaken violently by the force of Stanley Kubrick spinning in his grave at full speed.
Actually, Kubrick most likely isn’t spinning, unless he was buried in a washing machine. In fact, he’s probably posthumously proud that Spielberg managed to create such a dry, tedious film betrayed by its own awkwardly-fitting ending – just like Stanley made ’em. I just felt I had to mention Kubrick’s name, because it appears that every review of A.I. is obligated by law to expound on how this film was originally a Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration, except that Kubrick died before the film was completed. Luckily for reviewers, Spielberg completed the film alone – which means that all the mean things people wanted to say about Eyes Wide Shut but felt they couldn’t due to the necessary period of mournful respect for the recently-departed Kubrick can now be inflicted on Spielberg, with interest!
The story’s protagonist, such as he is, is the aforementioned prototypical robotic lad named David. Despite all the negative things I have to say about this movie, the manner in which David’s mechanical nature was handled is definitely the most impressive depiction of artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen. At no time does the viewer feel like David is a real boy – he is always a robot, incapable of thinking or feeling like a real person, and driven by a single disturbingly oedipal imperative: Love mommy.
No matter how many soliloquies on the brilliance of David’s design and the blurring of the boundaries between man and machine are thrown at us over the course of the film, the kid is always more bot than boy. In fact, despite the fact that David was intended to mimic human emotions and foibles with more sophistication than any robot before him, it’s the plasticky sex machine (and I mean that literally) Gigolo Joe and wise talking teddy bear (known cleverly as “Teddy”) who seem nearly human. David constantly goes through the motions of being a little boy but in “acting naturally” embodies the contradiction inherent to the term. Which is a great step forward in depicting a realistic artificial intelligence device in cinema but unfortunately makes for a really lousy protagonist.
David is essentially a cuddly version of the Terminator; but rather than being programmed to hunt down and destroy Sarah Connor, he’s single-mindedly determined to hunt down and win the affection of his “mother.” It’s sort of hard to get emotionally involved with a Tamagotchi, and for all his occasional pre-programmed bursts of childish petulence and fear, that’s ultimately what David is. Personally, I’d rather A.I. have been a road movie featuring a Cuisinart whose overriding obsession is finding the bananas necessary to mix a nice daquiri. In either case the story boils down to a machine trying to fulfill its basic function, but with a blender there are fewer opportunities for a manipulative director to tug the heartstrings. Not that Spielberg would ever stoop to doing something so low, of course.
I suspect a given person’s opinion of this movie will undoubtedly boil down to their feelings regarding Steven Spielberg. Those who see him as a genius whose brilliance resonates with the human condition will probably go through a box of Kleenex as David stalks his mecha-mom. Those who prefer “real” film to Spielberg’s cinematic pulp will probably decide that the word “ass” is now spelled “a.i.” As for me, I find it hard to hate the man who gave us The Goonies and starred in the exciting climax to The Blues Brothers, but if I really want to experience the travails of a highly determined household appliance again, I’ll watch The Brave Little Toaster. It’s a lot more charming than A.I., and more importantly, it’s only half as long but still manages to tell a more complete story.
But that’s not to say A.I. is completely without value – in fact, young David is a marvelous metaphor for many of Spielberg’s works: They go through the motions to make you love them, but usually don’t have much else happening beneath the surface. In the end, A.I. mainly filled me with an urge to go back and reread Asimov’s robot novels. Half a century later, he’s still one of the few who got it right the first time.