We bring this up from the archives because it relates well to the current Ex Machina and even to the new Avengers film.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 26 min.
Our content rating (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”
Put Steven Spielberg together with Stanley Kubrick, and you would expect something very good and unusual to emerge. It does, A.I. being head and shoulders above the summer mall movies now plaguing the land. By now you probably have read that the late English director had a longtime interest in Brian Aldiss’ story about a boy robot, and that he shared his film idea with his younger American colleague, eventually suggesting that Spielberg direct and he produce it. Kubrick’s widow and his brother-in-law finally entrusted the entire project to Spielberg. There is definitely a Kubrick feel to the film (a few chilling reminders of Clockwork Orange!), with a lot of the American’s sentiment, especially in regard to children. Spielberg chose what is probably the best American child actor in the profession today–Haley Joel Osmont–to portray the innovative android who/that can feel and return love.
Set in a future when robots do all the manual and dangerous work and have been given a life-like look, David is produced by the pioneering lab at Cybertronics as the prototype of the ultimate android. There have been robots to cater to people’s desires, even gigolo robots, but none until David that can respond to the parental love of adults unable to have children, either because of physical problems or because they cannot secure from the government the license for birthing.
Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) is a Cybertronics employee who brings David home as a possible replacement for their terminally ill son Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found. His wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) is not sure about this at first, but soon gives in to David’s charms. Once the Swintons sign the agreement to take David into their family, they cannot return him because of his emotions built into his system. If they do, he will have to be terminated.
David proves to be the perfect child, fully returning the love which Monica showers on him. All is well–until their “real” son is cured and returns home from the hospital. He and his friends do not take too well to what they regard as a subhuman interloper. As they torment him, David becomes a threat to Martin, and Henry decides that David will have to go. Monica is torn by this decision. She knows that David is an android, but his love is so genuine that she cannot bear to think that he will be destroyed. On the way back to the Cybertronics laboratory, she stops in a woods and sets David loose, urging him to stay away from humans.
The second half of the film then becomes a quest story, with David setting forth to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into a human. Monica has read him the story of Pinocchio almost every night, a story which, because it so parallels his own, David takes literally. Thus there are elements of Pinocchio mixed in with other archetype legends, stories like those from the Brothers Grimm that involve children being deposited or lost in a woods and needing to fend for themselves in a hostile world. And it is a hostile world, David soon discovers. There are runaway androids hiding in the woods in a vain attempt to escape the police, sent out to capture and destroy them.
Jude Law plays Gigolo Joe, the pleasure-giving android living outside the law and thus targeted for termination. David’s other companion during his quest is Teddy, a talking super toy, whose relationship to David is similar to that of Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio,” that of guide and the voice of reason. Still another reference to Pinocchio is the decadent “Flesh Fair,” a huge amusement park filled with rides and shows. The main show is presided over by a sadistic entrepreneur who, believing that they pose a threat to human workers, hates androids. He has them captured and penned up until, like Christians in the Roman arenas, they are spectacularly destroyed for the amusement of the crowds.
At this point the film seems reminiscent of Spielberg’s earlier Schindler’s List in which society’s outsiders are cruelly treated and exterminated. David and Gigolo Joe seem about to suffer this fate–and by now we have come to accept them as sentient beings that we cringe at the fate of those captive androids that precede them. Following this segment, the third part of the film resembles the Star Child sequence of 2001: Space Odyssey, with a bittersweet fate in the far future awaiting David.
A.I. raises the same questions that scientists and ethicists are currently discussing in regard to the growing sophistication of computers and robots. Will we reach a point where the line between machine and human disappears? What is a human being? What if a machine is able to have feelings and respond in kind to humans at this level? We humans have often anthropomorphized our cars, and even our guns, by giving them names. What will we do when they can not only talk back to us, but also argue with us, and even “love” us? I put quotation marks around love, because this gets into the question of what is love. The feeling that countless songs and poetry call love, or can it ever, in a machine, be like agape love?
Robots are programmed; therefore can they ever develop the free will that chooses between selfishness and self-sacrifice, called for in the Apostle Paul’s famous description of agape? According to Isaac Asimov’s famous “Laws of Robotics,” a robot must never do anything to harm a human being. Thus, can David’s love ever become anything like that which forms the heart of the Christian ethic? Can any of the words of Paul in the 7th chapter of his Letter to the Romans ever apply to David and his kind? (See 7:14-21.)
Will we, in the near future, be engaging in the kind of debates that the church held during the 17th and 18th centuries as to whether or not African slaves had souls, and thus whether or not the gospel should be preached to them? David’s quest for the Blue Fairy is like Pinocchio’s in that he thinks she can make him “a real boy,” but it is even more basically the quest for love. David is traumatized by the rejection of Monica. He needs to be loved, as well as to love, so the film suggests that this is at the heart of being human, that we live in relationships, and without them, we are not fully human. In this respect, the film reminds me of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the story of a man desperately seeking power and love because of what he saw as his rejection by his mother when she sent him away when he was young. Both films seem to posit a Godless universe, so neither character can find solace in such basic beliefs as declared by the writer of the First Letter of John, “We love because he first loved us.” (4:19) What do audiences make of the ending, one that closer to Kubrick’s dark vision than to Spielberg’s usual sunny outlook? Lots to think about in this rare film!
From the August 2001 Visual Parables.