AI at 20: Spielberg’s misunderstood epic remains his darkest movie yet

“I thought this would be hard for you to understand. You were created to be so young.”

This heartbreaking line arrives toward the end of AI: Artificial Intelligence, many centuries after David, an uncommonly sophisticated mechanical child (or “Mecha”), has embarked on a quest to become “a real boy”, like Pinocchio, and reunite with the human mother he’s been programmed to love. The years have not aged him, of course. He is eternally young, incapable of acquiring the wisdom and perspective that come with age. He can’t comprehend the passage of time, much less the absurd and quixotic nature of his mission. He just wants his mommy.

The purity of that feeling is something Steven Spielberg has been chasing for much of his career, how the innocence of a child is expressed through wonder on one end and intense vulnerability on the other. The magic of Spielberg’s ET the Extra Terrestrial is that it extracts tears at both ends of the spectrum, whether young Eliot is lifting off on his bicycle or connecting with his alien friend as he falls under the cold scrutiny of grown-ups. AI is much more about vulnerability than wonder, and it may be Spielberg’s darkest film, darker than Schindler’s List, which seeks out a sliver of redemption from an overwhelming historical horror. There’s a redemption arc in AI, too, but it’s as synthetic (and as real) as the android at the center of it.

Though it’s been 20 years since AI polarized audiences, the genesis of the film extends another 30 years before that, when Stanley Kubrick picked up the rights to the 1969 Brian Aldiss short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long and began the slow development process that didn’t always result in an actual film. (See also: Napoleon, Aryan Papers and scores of others unrealized projects.) When the title “An Amblin/Stanley Kubrick production” comes on screen, you can anticipate the cognitive dissonance between the two film-makers: Kubrick the cold clinician, taking inventories of man’s hypocrisies and destructive nature; Spielberg the slick entertainer, a brand name in Hollywood storytelling. How could those sensibilities possibly be reconciled?

That’s a rhetorical question to those who consider AI a failure, but for the others who admire it, like me, the tension between Kubrick and Spielberg results in a one-of-a-kind experience, a bleak film about human nature disguised as a sentimental science fiction fairytale. Through Spielberg’s lens, David becomes a real boy the moment Monica (Frances O’Connor) finishes the formal “imprinting” process that ends with the android calling her his mother. Kubrick reportedly never believed a child actor could play the role of David convincingly, but the way Haley Joel Osment, as David, softens his expression after that last command lays that concern to rest. He is a robot who has been programmed to love his parent and Spielberg and Osment make it impossible to think about David’s love as inauthentic, even though we’re aware that he’s just a piece of next-gen technology, the first in a line of super-toys ready for shipping.

The Gepetto in this Pinocchio story is Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), who designs David to a fill the needs of a society in collapse. In the 22nd century, climate change has led to a rise in sea levels that has wiped out coastal cities, drastically reduced global population, and led to legal sanctions on pregnancies, since human children would tax the world’s limited resources. Monica and her husband, Henry, are chosen as the “perfect” family for David, because their son Martin has contracted a rare disease and is being kept in “suspended animation”, without much hope of recovery. The idea of replacing Martin with a like-aged robot son initially repulses Monica, but she warms to this uncanny being over time and goes through with the imprinting.

The ethical question a colleague asks of Professor Hobby when he talks about his new creation hovers over the entire film: “If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold to that Mecha in return?” Humankind is used to the answer being “none at all”, as we learn later when outdated robots are rounded up at Flesh Fairs, which are like monster truck rallies where people cheer at the destruction of technologies that have clearly made their lives worse. But the time between when Monica does the imprinting and when she tearfully leaves David in the woods is the most important and powerful stretch of the film. Monica is playing pretend with David, taking comfort in the maternal rituals that Martin’s absence has denied her. But pretend for long enough and maybe it doesn’t feel like pretend any more.

That’s how the movies work, too, right? That’s how we ache for David when Monica and Henry’s real son returns and a hoped-for sibling relationship goes sour, culminating at a birthday party when David nearly drowns Martin in a swimming accident. Spielberg doesn’t even have to hide David’s synthetic qualities all that much – the meals that he fake eats, his weird laughing outbursts, his blank does-not-compute expression whenever he’s confused – because we accept the premise that he loves his mother. As consumers of fiction, we get emotionally invested in unreal characters all the time, and they don’t have to be human beings when they’re creatures as sincere and pitiable as David.

The middle section of AI follows David (and his adorable Teddy Ruxpin-like toy companion) in his quest to find “Blue Fairy” that will turn him into a real boy, which leads him to cross paths with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a Mecha prostitute on the run from a murder setup. If this is a Pinocchio story, then the entire second act has the nightmarish quality of Pleasure Island, that lawless place in the 1940 Disney film where boys smoke cigars, engage in various vices, and eventually turn into braying donkeys. We realize that Monica and Henry are among the privileged few and that society-at-large has become a Pleasure Island of cheap pleasures meant to salve deep wounds and resentments. This is no place for a boy like David. It’s no place for anyone. And it may be what the future holds for us.

The end of AI is the most misunderstood part of the film, perhaps because it seems like Spielberg is engineering a happy ending when it’s really much more on the bitter side of bittersweet. The last third is a mirror reflection of the first third, a day-in-the-life ritual of a mother-son relationship, only this time the mother is the more synthetic being of the two. Neither of them have a future, together or apart. Both were consigned to obsolescence long ago, along with the entire human race and planet at large.

But they can fake it so real. And, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, one of the great movie fantasists, we can pretend along with them.

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