The National Catholic Review
Richard A. Blake
A. I.

A. I. Artificial Intelligence leaves no doubt that it wants its audiences to enter a realm of pure fantasy when it identifies one of the last remaining islands of civilization as New Jersey. As the voice-over narrator (Ben Kingsley) explains (pace George W.), global warming has melted the polar ice caps, raised the levels of the oceans and flooded the earth’s great cities. Despite its evident prosperity, New Jersey is scarcely Utopia. The people may live in a chrome-and-plastic high-tech world that resembles the backdrop of a video game, but the relentlessly dark colors and heavy shadows on the screen provide a sinister look to every frame. Don’t believe ads showing the boy and his teddy bear; this is a dark, dark film.

Survival of the race in these microchip gulags in New Jersey, and presumably in a few other places, depends on ruthless resource and reproduction management. Even with effective policies in place, the ultimate outcome remains in doubt. With less dependence on the environment, robots may outlast humans in this crumbling brave new world.

Recycling the theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the film’s writer and director, Steven Spielberg, astutely reconstructs her Romantic premise. The poets of the Shelley-Byron circle were furious at a God who created the human person as a being with infinite aspirations but no way to fulfill them. God, they felt, set the pinnacle of creation loose on a hostile planet and then abandoned it. Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s God-surrogate, looks upon the ugliness of his creation and turns away in disgust. Alone and rejected, bereft of the love he craves but realizing he can never attain it because of the circumstances of his birth, the Monster curses his own creator. His strategy of revenge leads inevitably to his own destruction.

Spielberg’s romanticism has a decidedly 1960’s cast to it. His latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), does not want to create a robot in his own image and likeness as an expression of his loving nature; he wants to beat the competition and make a handsome profit for Cybertronics. He reasons that with reproductive management as the law of the land, many couples (oddly, the nuclear family seems to have survived the flood) want children, or more accurately, the experience of parenthood. Lifelike robotsmechas or mechanicals, as opposed to orgas or organicscan fill a ready market niche. Spielberg, like the rest of us aging hippie retreads, sees Big Business as quite nicely filling the role of a malevolent God. (The script is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, originally published in, you guessed it, 1969.)

Hobby’s plan will need work from his R & D people. The current models can think, react and even innovate, but their emotional capacities are limited. Professor Hobby plans to construct a little boy who can be programmed to love his adoptive orga parents and thus fill the void in the lives of childless couples. At the skull session, a fellow scientist asks if the parents, in turn, have any obligations to the mecha. Like a reincarnated version of Mary Shelley, she repeats her question, adding that it is a moral issue. More clearly than Hobby, she recognizes that science has blurred the borders between the manufactured and the human. Predictably, Hobby fudges his answer.

Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) are the ideal couple for test-marketing. Their own son, Martin (Jake Thomas), has been cryogenically frozen to await a miracle cure for his fatal but unspecified disease. The doctors offer little hope. Ever self-centered, in keeping with relentless pop-op critiques of today’s yuppies and aging boomers, they want a replacement for him to satisfy their need for fulfillment. They seem the ideal couple to test Hobby’s new product line. Don’t be misled by his name: dealing in human families is not a hobby for him; it’s a business.

When David (Haley Joel Osment) emerges from the assembly line, he perfectly fulfills every expectation of both Hobby and the Swintons. Too perfectly, perhaps. At first annoyed by the presence of this lifelike thing in her home, Monica gradually grows fond of David and decides to keep him. In a touching scene, this mother-god completes the work of creation by programming David to love her unconditionally, and like Adam receiving the touch of life, he looks gratefully upon the face of his creator. For the first time, David calls her Mommy. She learns to love him as though he were a person, not a free-standing computer.

The perfect little boy keeps the audience off balance as well. As a result, the moral questions maintain their complexity, and facile answers never appear. How often can we say that about a contemporary blockbuster film? Several scenes, some of them quite funny, remind us that David is a machine. At the same time, the images of this handsome, loving little boy insist that he is human, more human in fact than the orgas who become first his family and then his adversaries. When Martin miraculously recovers his health and returns home, his manipulative skills and nasty personality traits stand out in sharp contrast to the prelapsarian innocence of his mecha stepbrother. When their rivalry grows out of control, Monica reluctantly elects the obvious solution. She, the birth mother of one antagonist and the co-programmer of the other, chooses the real human over the idealized concept of a human.

Spielberg continues to explore this discrepancy between actuality and ideal, and his tactics keep us off balance. The film enters a dystopic universe worthy of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) when Monica abandons David in a dark wooded area. Alone and frightened, he stumbles into a dumping ground for other discarded mechas. After a truck spills its load of rejects, a previously hidden mecha herd emerges from the forest and swarms over the dump like scavenging birds, looking for usable replacement parts for their own broken, defective bodies. David, the machine that has been programmed to love, has been condemned to a junkyard hell by the one he loves, and, worse, he cannot understand why.

In one of their tender moments together, Monica reads him the story of Pinocchio. Mixing story and reality, David believes that if he finds the Blue Fairy he can ask her to make him a real boy. As a true human, he can return to his beloved Mommy. David’s naïveté in dealing with fantasy mirrors our own confusion in trying to discover what constitutes humanity: biology, rationality or the capacity to imagine or, in Spielberg’s language, the ability to dream.

The question receives its sharpest expression in the Flesh Fair scene. David and several of the scavenger mechas have been hunted down in the woods, caged and brought to an arena for an event that is part rock concert, part political rally, part revival meeting, part rave and part demolition derby. For the entertainment of the shrieking orgas, the prisoners will be fed into ingenious machines, where they will be burned, smashed or dissolved in acid. The innocent victims facing extermination for what they are, huddle together in the holding pens and try to offer solace to one another, while the ringmaster, Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) whips the crowd into frenzy with his promise to make the world secure for orgas.

The allusion to Nazis and the Holocaust by the director of Schindler’s List is unmistakable, yet in this case, the bigot speaks the truth. The victims are machines, not demonized humans. With his inflammatory language and grotesque methods, he reasserts the primacy of the truly human over the growing dominance of machines in the culture. Again, the question is unnerving. The argument is irrefutable, but what is the truly human? If the crowd in the arena is representative of humanity, then most of us would cast our lot with the machines.

David continues his adventures in the company of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a very funny mecha designed to do exactly what his name suggests. They travel together to Rouge City, a wide-open red-light district where Joe has many contacts, and then to an eerie replica of a partially submerged Manhattan, where the tips of skyscrapers puncture the surface of the ocean like monster reeds in a pond. Perhaps David has too many adventures. Appearing unsure of what to conclude from all of this, Spielberg keeps adding climactic scenes one after the other, each one putting new twists on his earlier reflections.

A.I. is pure Spielberg. It’s too sentimental, too long and too captivated by its own special effects. At the same time, it is beautifully crafted with magnificent, moody cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and an evocative score by John Williams. It also continues the director’s artistic journey toward films of progressively more challenging ideas. The philosophical and even theological reflections in which he engages do justice to the complexity of the questions, but at times the very ambiguity strikes me as a cover for indecision or simple muddle-mindedness. It’s the kind of film that teachers and religion educators will be using for years to spur discussions on topics the director never dreamed of. A.I. will continue to pay dividends for repeated viewings, but one-time entertainment seekers will probably be more exhausted and confused than enlightened.

I’ve become more enthusiastic about A. I. the more I think about it. We can carp about its failingsthat’s what reviewers are paid to dobut we can also be grateful that it attempts so much and succeeds as often as it does.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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