Films

VIRTUAL EMOTION

With A.I.’s adult fairy tale about a toy boy, and a boy toy, Spielberg taps into the legacy of E.T.

Brian D. Johnson July 1 2001
Films

VIRTUAL EMOTION

With A.I.’s adult fairy tale about a toy boy, and a boy toy, Spielberg taps into the legacy of E.T.

Brian D. Johnson July 1 2001

VIRTUAL EMOTION

Films

With A.I.’s adult fairy tale about a toy boy, and a boy toy, Spielberg taps into the legacy of E.T.

Brian D. Johnson

Of all the summer blockbusters—the demolition derby of bombs, tombs, aliens and animals—this is the the picture with a higher purpose. A.I. Artificial Intelligence has a formidable pedigree. The title echoes E. T., 7he Extra-Terrestrial, and so does the concept. Steven Spielberg swore he would never tarnish E. T by making a sequel, but A.L is the next best thing: a quasi-Christian fable about mortality featuring a gentle non-human being who drops into our cruel world, suffers rejection, then tries to find a way home.

The tale of a robot boy capable of unconditional love, A.L is a cross between E T. and Pinocchio, with flashes of Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange, and winks at The Wizard of Oz. It’s hugely impressive. The performances are captivating, the effects eye-popping, the story ingenious. But unlike ET, A.L lacks the simplicity and grace that magic requires. Ifs a more ambitious, more complicated . . . more adult picture. Yet perhaps not adult enough. A.L is about a toy boy who wants to be a real boy. And Spielberg, the mogul in the moon, is at

a similar crossroads: he has made a synthetic movie that desperately wants to be real.

A.L has a tangled paternity, it is the orphan child of the late Stanley Kubrick, who spent almost two decades trying to make the film after buying the rights to a 1969 short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, by British sciencefiction author Brian Aldiss. Spielberg became

close friends with the reclusive Kubrick, who drew him into collaborating on A. I. through a series of marathon phone calls and faxes from his home in England. At one point, Kubrick even offered to produce the film and let Spielberg direct. Then, after Kubricks death in 1999, Spielberg adopted the project, the first movie he has both written and directed since 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

So, essentially, A.I. is the mongrel offspring of antithetical masterminds: Kubrick, the unsentimental cynic, an American who spent his career in selfimposed exile from Hollywood, and Spielberg, the sentimental optimist, Hollywood’s ultimate dream merchant. It’s as if Paul McCartney has recorded a song based on a sketch by John Lennon. The foundations are inspired, but the story’s fuzzy resolution, cushioned with too many false endings, makes us long for Kubrick’s cold-eyed precision.

A. I. is set in a future where global warming has melted the ice caps, and the Earth’s coastal cities are underwater. Lifelike robots are as commonplace as cars, and as instandy obsolete. There are models to perform services of all kinds, including sex. But a robo-boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) is the first one programmed to feel love. Immaculately conceived, he is “a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame,” boasts his maker, a scientist in an unfuturistic sweater vest (William Hurt). But as the scientist points out, ominously telegraphing the movie’s central issue, the real question is not whether a robot can love humans, but whether humans can love him back.

David is adopted by a couple (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) whose only child lies cryogenically frozen, the victim of an incurable disease. Of course, no sooner has robo-boy settled in than their “real” son makes a miraculous recovery and is back home, scrambling his toy brother’s vulnerable circuits with jealous assaults of sibling rivalry. David hasn’t been programmed to compete for love, and when he starts behaving strangely, mom and dad ditch him like a rabid dog.

David finds himself on the run with outlaw bands of discarded robots, a zombie horde of homeless mechanicals. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, one that suggests images of Third World squalor, we see them scavenging at night through a junkyard of cyborg body parts, trying on spare limbs—only to be hunted down

by an airship that looks like the moon, manned by thugs who capture stray “mechas” and sacrifice them in a heavymetal circus called Flesh Fair.

Along the way, David finds comfort in a Toto-like mascot, a walking, talking teddy bear with an avuncular manner. And he finds a big brother in a dancing boy toy named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law)—who has a convincing mouth and eyes, but a coiffure by Mattel. As this robo rent boy drags our young hero to Rouge City, a red-light theme park, we sense that Spielberg is venturing into uncharacteristically dark terrain, as if Kubrick is directing from the grave. But then Spielberg turns away and never looks back—leaving Gigolo Joe, his most intriguing character, all tricked out with nowhere to go.

In the final act, as David embarks on a Pinocchio quest to find the Blue Fairy in the drowned city of Manhattan, Spielberg makes the movie inexorably his own. He even draws on a clan of E. 77-like aliens for a deus-ex-machina cameo. But he doesn’t just lay down the sentiment, he advertises it. We are told his hero knows how to love,

but must learn how to dream. The script keeps going on about “the place where dreams come from.” And where would that be? DreamWorks, the Spielberg studio that has adopted the moon as its logo? By the end of A. I, you get the sense that Spielberg is trying to brand the imagination, and trademark the moon. But preaching the importance of dreams is like shouting out the virtues of silence.

Spielberg is a brilliant puppet-master who can suspend just about everything but disbelief In A. I. the actors, and the effects, are almost convincing enough to make up for it. O’Connor (.Mansfield Park) creates a slyly shaded portrait of a conflicted mother. Law brings a cavalier charm to his role as a silicon gigolo, though there isn’t enough of him. And as the blank slate that learns to be human, Osment negotiates an extraordinary arc—a prodigy playing a prodigy.

By all means, s ee AZ For all its talk of love and emotion, you may, like me, be left unmoved—except by the notion of Spielberg, the eternal Tin Man, looking for a heart in the heart of the Dream Factory. But there are ample grounds for amazement. G3