The first time I saw A.I. Artificial Intelligence, I was just a kid. (In fact, I believe I was around the same age as David – the little robot boy of the film). Looking back, I’m sure I marvelled at how Haley Joel Osment never blinked, and how Meryl Streep had mastered another accent (yes, android counts). As the credits began rolling though, my feelings toward the film, like so many others at the time, were best summed up with this single word: meh. Flash forward to a week or so ago: A.I. is playing on the television, and, for the life of me, I can’t seem to tear myself away. I decide to linger a little longer, and then just a little longer after that. Next thing I know, the film has ended, and I have been reduced to a puddle of blubbery. I don’t think I have ever seen a film so wonderfully weird, so singularly depressing as A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
A.I. begins in a bleak and not-so-distant future: we are told by an unseen narrator that after the ice caps melted, homelessness, starvation and poverty became the norm. Nevertheless, small pockets of prosperity were able to survive the devastation. We discover that robots, who are never hungry and who never consume resources beyond those of their first manufacture, have become an integral part of life in the 22nd century. However, Professor Allen Hobby, chief of Cybertronics, envisions something far beyond what science has thus far accomplished. He designs David, a mechanical (“mecha”) boy capable of the most human of all abilities: the capacity for love. Entrusted to test out this robot prototype are Henry and Monica Swinton – a couple whose son has been cryogenically frozen due to serious illness. Although reluctant at first, Monica eventually takes to David to the extent that she activates his imprinting capability, thus initialising in the child an eternal and overwhelming love for his human mother. However, when their “real son” – in every sense of the word – recovers, the family abandons David. In his wish to become a real boy, David decides to wander the world in search of the Blue Fairy, never doubting her existence, and never doubting that, once his wish is granted, he will regain the love of his mother.
Up to this point, most viewers and critics find A.I. to be an enjoyable and absorbing movie experience. From this point onwards, however, opinions seem to diverge quite spectacularly. The popular view is to chalk up the film’s apparent failures to the very discrepancy within its creative history: A.I. was the pet project of Stanley Kubrick for many years, but it was Stephen Spielberg who later took the helm and saw it through to the big screen. At first, the visions of the two auteurs sit comfortably together, but as the film goes on, some argue that these key differences ultimately cripple the unity of the film. Furthermore, Mick LaSalle rather savagely suggests that
By the end… A.I. exhibits all its creators’ bad traits and none of the good. So we end up with the structureless, meandering, slow-motion endlessness of Kubrick combined with the fuzzy, cuddly mindlessness of Spielberg.
Damning stuff indeed. And to be perfectly honest, there is some truth to LaSalle’s assertion. For example, the scenes of the Flesh Fair (a demolition derby-esque carnival in which unlicensed mecha are ripped to shreds) whistles a rather Kubrickian tune: it’s a harrowing comment on the nature of sentience, but it doesn’t really further the story of David. As for David’s adventures in his search for the Blue Fairy, it is arguable that Spielberg not only stretches the Pinocchio metaphor a little too thin but also treads on the toes of another well-worn classic: The Wizard of Oz. Is it just me, or do Gigolo Joe, Dr. Know, and Rouge City ring faintly of the Scarecrow, the Wizard, and Emerald City respectively?
However, to dismiss the ending of A.I. as “mindless” and structureless” is, frankly, absurd. The prevalent opinion of Spielberg’s ending as “tacked-on” is easily refuted when one notices a subtle clue left to us by the filmmaker: Ben Kingsley is the voice of not only the wise mecha at the end of the film but also the narrator who described the great catastrophes that had befallen mankind at the very beginning of the film. In a way, the ultimate arc A.I. can be interpreted as an allegory for man’s relationship (or perhaps his desire for a relationship) with his creator. In A.I., the advanced mecha essentially see the human being, who has long been extinct from the earth, as their god and creator. The death of Professor Hobby’s son brought about the birth of David – the first in a line from which the species of advanced mecha are directly descended. In the appropriately named David, therefore, the mecha see their most precious link to their creators, as well as a lasting testament to the love and greatness of human beings.
The ring composition element of A.I. doesn’t just end there though. The final scenes of the film in which David is granted a last day with Monica are actually the reverse of the opening scenes of the film. At the beginning, it is David who is created to fulfil the needs of his human family; at the end, it is Monica who is created to fulfil the needs of David. At the beginning, David is frequently ignored, and looks wistfully at the photographs of his family – a family which he can fundamentally never be a part of. At the end, David paints pictures of his adventures and shows them to his mother. She offers him her undivided attention, and her unconditional love. Yet this is far from the fuzzy, warm conclusion that most proclaim it to be: the Monica whom the mecha have created for David is nothing but a pale and artificial imitation of the real woman. She is not real, and neither is the love she so readily offers to David. But David loves her deeply still. After spending one last day with her, David – impossibly – falls asleep by his mother’s side and never awakens.
Although A.I. is the story of a robotic boy, it is, as many science fiction films are, a commentary on the human condition. To love, to live in unbreakable hope, to survive through illusion, and, ultimately, to die – all of these things are what make us human. And all of these things David comes to accept without resistance. In doing so, he becomes that most elusive of things he had always desired: a real boy.