A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Release Date: June 29th, 2001 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt, Ken Leung, Ashley Scott, Brendan Gleeson, Haley King, Kathryn Morris, Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, Chris Rock
n the distant future – after the ice caps melted, causing sea levels to rise, all sorts of geological disasters to occur, and the displacement of millions – natural resources become too valuable to ignore. Soon, legal sanctions restrict pregnancies and robots quickly facilitate the acquisition of many human needs – as well as the very need for human beings to exist. Automatons are everywhere, nearly indistinguishable from average people, and they don’t consume anything.
When Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) proposes that a child android (here, called “mechas”) should be constructed, with the ability to demonstrate genuine love for its owner, one of his students questions the responsibility of real humans to love robot children in return. Some twenty months later, that moral quandary is put to the test. Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) are the first parents to acquire a Cybertronics child mecha, named David (Haley Joel Osment), to replace their own lost son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who is currently comatose. Although Monica is initially distraught at the idea, she can’t help but acknowledge just how lifelike – and utterly human – little David is. And after an irreversible imprinting protocol, David is programmed to permanently love his purchasers as if they were his real parents.
Realistically, the boy is initially quite creepy. He observes a bit too much, appears suddenly at unexpected moments, and mimics human activities with an unfamiliarity that is both comical and unnerving. With this level of advanced cybernetics, David isn’t so much a clunky machine as he is an alien lifeform. When he becomes disquietingly inquisitive (“Mommy, will you die?”), the movie could have taken a turn toward pure horror. But its primary goal is to pose ethical questions about artificial intelligence, and the point at which the technology becomes inhuman, since nothing can force humans to treat them with equality (people can’t, in fact, even treat other humans fairly).
To complicate the scenario, Martin awakes from his coma, pressuring Monica to prioritize her real son over the artificial intelligence. Martin isn’t too keen on sharing his mother’s attention and affection, either, obliging him to coerce David into troublesome activities – one of which almost severely injures Monica. It’s proven early on that other children will never accept the mecha as a companion, and Henry begins to wonder if David has the ability to learn to hate, which would be the normal response for his continued ill treatment.
One of the major problems here is that David functions on a program, with specific behaviors that are supposed to mimic a child. But this doesn’t make much sense, especially when it’s evident that his intentional carelessness – or purposeful immaturity – could cause harm or even death. It’s improbable that with such advanced technologies, the scientists wouldn’t have planned for the dangers of youthful ignorance (such as the hazards of sharp objects or deep water). After Monica unbelievably decides to abandon David (with just his trusty supertoy, Teddy, at his side), the Pinocchio motifs come into full force, with David embarking on an epic odyssey to become a real boy.
Meanwhile, to pander to typical A.I. movie material, the script includes Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure mecha, along with a seedy underworld of robot prostitutes, murderers, the cannibalization of discarded robot parts, and “Mad Max” type hunters who violently chase down fleeing androids for use in the “Flesh Fair” (essentially, a Thunderdome of robot torture and destruction). It’s difficult to make a case for humanity when it’s entirely believable that people will resort so quickly and easily to cruelty; even when Flesh Fair fans protest at pouring acid on David for entertainment, they do so by pelting the announcer (Brendan Gleeson) and swarming the stage as an angry mob. Human nature, it seems, is incorrigible.
But aside from the conflicting ideas on artificiality and humankind and love (and the ill-defined boundaries of David’s capabilities), the visuals are spectacular. As if blending the salacious elements from “A Clockwork Orange” with the futuristic neon metropolis of “Blade Runner,” this Steven Spielberg-helmed production offers a somewhat incongruous presentation. Playful curiosities (including Robin Williams’ recognizable voice) emerge amidst the dark and hazardous battlegrounds of mechanisms versus organisms, where sexuality is confronted just as frequently as the sense of childish belonging. Even when the tone is off, the individual elements unpolished (the comprehension of identity/individuality and imagination through self-motivation is amusing but abstract and less graspable than comparable themes from “Toy Story” and “Small Soldiers”), and the storyline sporadic in structuring and reasoning, the look of the movie is sharp and detailed. Spielberg is no stranger to science-fiction, and here he masters visual styling, even when it shifts between strong, researched concepts and haphazard, flimsy ones. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is a mess of sci-fi staples (and a couple of wilder moments of creativity in existentialism), but it’s good looking (and intermittently poignant) even at its most confused, discordant, and inexplicable.
– Mike Massie