April 2003

A.I.

A film by Stephen Spielberg, based on a screen story by Ian Watson, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss.
Starring: Harley Osment, Sam Robards, Frances O'Connor, Jude Law, and John Hurt.

Running time 2 hours and 25 minutes

Here in the technical vastness of the future I can't even get a network connection, but already humanoid robots are available for sale. They have become sufficiently common that they are part of advertising campaigns. One recently rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. We're assured by filmmakers that eventually such robots will be all but indistinguishable from real human beings. I hadn't given this idea much thought before, but after seeing A.I., I have begun to believe that this might not be a good idea. And I speak as one who has written the occasional robot story.

A.I. was originally conceived by Stanley Kubric and completed after his passing by Steven Spielberg. In many ways it is a remarkable movie, but whether positively or negatively remarkable remains a matter of personal preference. The first hour is particularly wrenching and thought-provoking, and is, for my money, the best part of the film. A.I. begins with the story of Monica and Henry Swinton, a couple whose young son is in cryogenic suspension due to an unexplained accident. The boy is not expected to live. To help his wife cope with her almost unbearable grief, Henry, who is a roboticist, agrees to take in an experimental prototype: a robot in the form of a young boy named David. This "mecha," as robots are inexplicably called, is capable of love when its emotional circuitry is activated by a series of keywords. This has all come about as a result of the efforts of David's creator, Dr. Hobby.

At first Monica wants nothing to do with David, but after a time her bruised heart begins to respond to his simple innocence. She has been warned not to activate the robot's neural circuitry unless she is able to commit to a lifetime with David, but with her own son lost to her she truly feels ready. So Monica speaks the code words and the robot instantly bonds to her, beginning to call her "mommy" instead of Monica. For a while, despite the robot's awkwardness, things seem to get better. He lavishes love on her.

Then a completely unexpected event occurs, and the Swinton's son is returned to them. He's not all that nice a kid, to my way of thinking, but he's human. Through no fault of his own, David becomes something of a threat to the resuscitated child. Incapable of jealousy, only love, David cannot understand why he has been displaced by the "mommy" he loves. Ultimately there is no room for him in the rejuvenated Swinton family. The upshot is Monica is compelled to return David to the company from which he came. But before they arrive back at the plant, she relents to the extent that she sets him free in a forest and tells him to avoid people at all costs. Cut loose with no one but his super-toy Teddy, a teddy-bear robot, for company, David eventually falls in with Joe, a gigolo mecha. All that David really wants is for Mommy to love him, and he sets off on a hopeless quest to become a real boy.

Much of the film is simply beautiful to look at. The aliens in the final third are graceful and lovely. (And they have a very cool cube-shaped vehicles that splits up into planes when it has arrived at its destination.) Still, the movie treads rather uncomfortably on a line somewhere between the two very different screenwriting and directorial styles of Stanley Kubrik and Steven Spielberg.

The film raises some very interesting questions that it never really gets around to answering because it becomes too involved in special effects and the Pinocchio motif, Blue Fairy and all. (It's unclear if Spielberg is more to blame for this than Kubrik; he allegedly followed Kubrik's outline in writing the screenplay.) David is a machine - property. No matter what sort of feelings his appearance and mannerisms elicit from Monica, he can never grow or develop past his programming. He is a creature in stasis, as unable as are most real people to rise above his essential nature. Assuming we can impel a device like David to love us unconditionally (and this is a fascinating question), what responsibility will we then have to that device? It can't grow old and die - but we can. How selfish would we have to be to have an ever-youthful child around the house as we age into our eighties, nineties, and beyond? After we pass, what is to become of the robot? A.I. supplies us with an answer, but not, I regret to say, a particularly satisfying one.

Nevertheless, this movie has many good moments. It also boasts some interesting performances. Two are excellent: that of Frances O'Connor and that of Harley Osment, who is truly outstanding in the role of David. Watch him closely: he never blinks while he is on camera. One other performance is very good: Jude Law's portrayal of the mecha gigolo. (I did catch him blinking once or twice, but Osment sets the standard here.) Plus there is a lot of eye candy for the less discerning viewer.

I will probably want to see A.I. again, but in all honesty Minority Report, Spielberg's other recent SF effort (aside from Taken), for all its glitzy action and slightly gory FX, is probably a better movie because its theme is more seamlessly integrated into the story.



Recent Raves:

MAUS
Writer/Artist: Art Spiegelman
Price $28.00
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0679748407

Sometimes called "the 'Citizen Kane' of comics," MAUS is widely regarded as a pinnacle of US comic creation. Well, maybe so. It certainly is moving, and all the more so since it is actually a true tale. No matter that the Jews are represented as mice and the Nazis as cats, and so on - MAUS is the story or Art Spiegelman's father, Vladek, in first person, as he recounts his life before and just after World War II. Thirteen years in the making, MAUS is, needless to say, not like other comic books. Spiegelman didn't always get along very well with his father, and he unflinchingly reports their conflicts as well as his obvious empathy for what the elder Spiegelman endured. Despite the difficulty of reading comics on a computer screen, you may wish to check out the CD ROM version with added video and audio material including some of the original interviews with Vladek. Listening to Vladek speaking the original inspiration for a page of comic art helps connect the mice to the people they represent. The central metaphor of the books becomes inescapable. MAUS adds nothing new to our understanding of the Shoah, but as a personal document it is unique. It also underscores Art Spiegelman's continued refusal to be satisfied with the form as it is understood by most Americans. MAUS is now taught in some college English courses, in fact.