In some ways this movie is the cinematic equivalent of artificial insemination using a dead man’s swimmers. A.I. had been on Stanley Kubrick’s back, front, and middle burners at various times since the early seventies. For a while, it looked like it wouldn’t see the light of day until development hell froze over and, when Kubrick kicked it after completing Eyes Wide Shut, it seemed inevitable that A.I. would forever remain as Kubrick’s great “lost” project.
Even before he died, however, the reclusive director wondered if the project wouldn’t be better suited to the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg. Starting in the mid-nineties, the two filmmakers were kicking the project back and forth, never able to find a script they liked or a big enough hole in their respective schedules. It was only after Kubrick passed away in 1999, and Spielberg found time before making Minority Report, that this project actually gained traction.
Based loosely on a Brian Aldiss short story, the film postulates a future where climate change has rendered much of the planet’s coastal areas uninhabitable. Population pressures due to shortages of living space have made the very act of procreation a carefully regulated luxury. Meanwhile, much of the manual labor is done by robots called “mechas,” a state of affairs not entirely popular with those who would otherwise being doing said labor.
One particular scientist, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), has an idea for a mecha to fulfill the role of a child for parents who aren’t allowed to have a real one. This mecha would actually be able to “love” its “parents,” or at least appear to do so in a sufficiently convincing manner. Hobby gives the first prototype, David (Haley Joel Osment), to one of his employees, Henry Swinton (Sam Robards). The Swinton’s real son, Martin, is gravely ill and in suspended animation until a cure can be found. Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) is horrified at first at the very idea, but eventually gives in and allows David to “imprint” on her. For a while Monica and David are the very model of mother and son, but when a cure is found for Martin (Jake Thomas) and the real son comes home, a “sibling” rivalry develops that appears to turn dangerous to the family. Henry decides to return David to his employer, where the mecha will be destroyed. To protect him, Monica abandons David on the road instead.
Programmed only to love Monica, David latches on to the story of Pinocchio, which his “mother” had read to him, and how the “Blue Fairy” turned the puppet into a real boy. Believing the story to be real, David thinks that once the Blue Fairy turns him into a real boy, Monica will love him again and take him back.
David connects with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male prostitute mecha who has been framed for murder. Outside his chosen field, Joe isn’t sophisticated enough to differentiate between reality and the boy’s fantasy, and agrees to help him on the quest.
A.I. is an uneasy blending of two vastly different filmmaking styles and for all its visual style, imagination, and technical accomplishment, it never quite comes to life. Many blame Spielberg for putting too much of his own imprint on the film, but the director insists that most of the more controversial and sentimental elements were present in Kubrick’s original concepts.
Personally, I think the issues are more basic. Kubrick labored for more than a quarter-century on this project and never solved the basic problems to his satisfaction. I don’t think that Spielberg, in the year or so that he had control over the film, made much more headway than his predecessor.
Spielberg shows that he knows how a Kubrick film is structured, in three or four very distinct, almost separate parts, very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket. He also knows what it should look like, especially the stark, sterile master shot when the Swintons visit Martin while he is still in suspended animation. The worlds of A.I. look gorgeous, but it never feels like the various parts, no matter how beautifully imagined, ever add up to a cohesive whole.
And while the story raises some interesting issues, I never felt like it really drilled down to the pertinent questions. We’re asked to wonder whether a machine can actually love a person or just simulate the outward signs of love, but the film glosses over another question. David is only programmed for “love,” but when he is left on the side of the road, he lacks the “software” to fully process abandonment and betrayal. In other words, how real can his love be without the capacity for the full range of emotion?
Because it’s a Spielberg film, and as the final fruition of a decades-long project, A.I. is worth a look, but its inherent problems make it more of a curiosity than anything else.