When it came out in 2001 I remember commenting that A.I. was alternately stunning and frustratingly bewildering at the same time. Since then I’ve seen the movie twice and my opinion hasn’t changed, except that this time I’m even more baffled by it (that’s a polite way of saying that I have no plans to return for a fourth viewing). Here is a movie with breathtaking visual fire, of visionary production design that I think will rank with some of the greatest in history, but it is glued to a story that I find baffling, exhausting and ultimately joyless and sad.
A.I., of course, was the last script left behind by Stanley Kubrick who based it on a short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by British science fiction author Brian Aldiss. When he began working on the script in the early 70s he hired Aldiss to collaborate with him, but the two eventually parted over creative differences. The story went through a series of writers over the years and even when he felt that it had reached the end of the writing portion, Kubrick felt that he couldn’t turn it into a film because the technology wasn’t quite ready.
Then came Jurassic Park and Kubrick was convinced that not only had the technology caught up, but he wanted Spielberg to direct it. While the film was on hold during the year-long production of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick passed away, and Spielberg decided that A.I. would be his next project.
The result is a movie that I never could get close to on any level. Yes, it’s a visionary production, but the story is agonizing to sit through. It takes place in a woebegone future in which robotic technology has allowed robots to become part of the normal human mainstream. They are as much a part of our lives as the microwave or the television. Yet, there is a reasonable resistance to robots because while they look like human beings, they lack human emotions.
Enter David, the first robot programmed to give love. That’s a noble gesture but it’s also a false and impractical one. The central focus falls on Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Francis O’Conner) whose son lies in a state of cryogenic freeze that is slowing the progress of a terminal illness. Her husband Henry, an employee of Cybernetics of New Jersey, brings home an android named David (Haley Joel Osment) to act as a sort-of surrogate child.
Right there is where the movie loses me.
Yes, David can display and give love, but as an audience member I sit there always aware that David has no love to give. He’s a machine, he’s plastic and wires and metal. Whatever he displays on the outside is manufactured but isn’t genuine. His emotions are not coming from a place inside of him; they’re coming from a mandate designed by his programming. At that, I always felt a distance from him because I could never develop any level of empathy.
In the movie’s most agonizing scene, Monica decides to leave him in the woods rather than take him back to the laboratory because, after all, he will never go hungry. It is a scene so sad, so disturbing and so heart-rending that I almost could not continue with the rest of the film. No movie should ever make me feel like that.
This development leaves David out in the world to fend for himself. Having read Pinocchio, he decides that he needs to find The Blue Fairy so she can make him real. That thread goes through the rest of the movie so I’m still at odds with David because I know he’ll never find her. His adventure in the world is dark and gloomy and sad. That’s exactly how I felt because I knew that David’s goal was not going to have an ending that would make anybody happy.
There is no way to know Kubrick might have made the movie any better. I believe that Spielberg did the best job that he could with this material, but in the three times that I’ve seen it, I always come away feeling like the movie never really took me along. I felt that I was on the sidelines with key questions that the movie refused to answer.