Normally, my “Movie of the Month” is reserved for a film I find genuinely great. But originally, the series was meant just for me to highlight any movie I saw in a given month that I wanted to talk about. So for the first time since October of 2011, I will be reviewing a film more out of interest in discussion than the movie’s exceptional quality. The subject is A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a science-fiction film from Steven Spielberg. Since its initial release in 2001, the film has been met with mixed reactions from viewers and it’s easy to see why; the film is all over the place.
The actual history of the film is quite something. The starting point is a 1960s short story called “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”. Stanley Kubrick had interest in adapting the story and in the 1970s commissioned the original story’s author, Brian Aldiss to help with a film treatment, however the film would sit in development hell for years. In 1985, Kubrick brought in Steven Spielberg to produce the film, along with producer Jan Harlan. The next major development came in 1989 when Kubrick fired Aldiss due to creative differences and brought on writer Ian Watson instead. Watson’s treatment, in addition to being an adaption of “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, now took influence from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” and the Philip K. Dick short story “Second Variety”. Kubrick temporarily abandon the project as he felt visual effects were not up to the standards he needed them to be, but returned after Jurassic Park was released. Work began again with conceptual designs being done. In September of 1995, Kubrick tried to convince Spielberg that A.I. was closer to his sensibilities and that Steven should direct the film while Stanley produced. Spielberg was shocked, but opted to work on other projects instead. He convinced Kubrick to remain as director but at this point Kubrick was committed to directing Eyes Wide Shut. As fate would have it, Eyes Wide Shut would be the last film Stanley Kubrick would ever make. The great filmmaker passed away in March of 1999. Spielberg was once again asked to direct and this time he accepted as a tribute to Stanley. So you have a film with a production spanning decades, inspired by multiple science-fiction writers, and worked on by two directors with very different aesthetics. Makes it pretty easy to see why the final product would come out such a mess.
A.I. takes place in the future, though how far in the future is never revealed. In this future, global warming has caused massive floods reducing world resources and the human population. This has led to the government making a law that states parents are only allowed to have one child. This is unsettling for Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor) since their young son Martin (Jake Thomas) has a rare disease which has left him in a coma. It’s unlikely that Martin will awake. So the Swintons decide to get a robotic child named David (Haley Joel Osment). But David is not like other machines. He has been programmed to truly love, which causes tension when Martin is cured and returns home.
On one hand, A.I. is a great film full of amazing visuals and special effects, a unique setting, interesting ideas, and good performances. Simultaneously, it’s a film plagued with poor writing, contrived plot points, and straight up bad science fiction. It makes for a fascinating watch but a hard film to really discuss. As a result, this review will essentially be divided into two parts, where the first is dedicated to the pros and the second is divided to the cons. The second part will be filled with spoilers so the uninitiated my want to avoid parts of the review. I will indicate what parts will have spoilers.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the film is the tone. The film contains both Spielberg’s sentimentality and Kubrick’s surreal darkness. The end result is a tone which is extremely creepy. I don’t know if this was intended, but I like it all the same. The dark tone is made even more prominent in the second act when David comes across some darker settings and threatening circumstances. The sequence at the Flesh Farm (a circus where robots are destroyed for audience amusement) is especially frightening. The visuals in the film are also incredible, both because the effects are very good and because the designs are creative. There are a lot of cool robots and I really like the designs of the city as well, particularly the provocatively shaped buildings and tunnels. The visuals are somewhat reminiscent of other films including Blade Runner, but it never feels like it’s ripping off other films.
There are also some great performances. Hayley Joel Osment is very strong as the lead robot David. He starts out very awkward and robotic, which is obviously appropriate, but becomes more and more human as the film goes on. Osment also sells some very emotional scenes and proves that his work in The Sixth Sense was not a fluke. Even better is Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, who is a sexbot. Sean Penn once described Jude Law as, “…one of our finest actors,” and watching A.I. it’s easy to see why. Law has the robotic characteristics required, but he also has a lot of charisma and personality. Both Law and the character Gigolo Joe use Fred Astaire has a model and it’s insanely fun to watch. Some of the other performances are good too, but no one even comes close to Hayley Joel Osment and Jude Law. I also applaud the film for its ambition and all of the creative ideas running through the film, even if the execution is very flawed.
So the next section is going to be full of spoilers. I’m basically going to go through the entire film’s story and identify all of the major problems in the script. So if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want things spoiled for you, skip to the last paragraph.
A.I. is film plagued by holes and things that don’t make sense right down to a conceptual level. In the opening scene, we’re told that massive flooding is drastically reduced the human population and the amount of resources left. This has caused the government to limit the amount of children a family can have. Makes sense so far. The movie then gets nonsensical when it says robot children are preferred to regular ones since they don’t use any resources. I realize that robots wouldn’t need for or water, but wouldn’t they need some form of sustenance to survive. Especially when these aren’t robots that live for x amount of years before becoming non-functional, these things are immortal. You’re telling me these robots can live to the end of time and never need a recharge of sorts. That’s pretty hard to swallow, and even if one can, one still needs to take into account the likely massive amounts of resources required to make a start of the art robot in the first place. Why don’t more parents just adopt. I imagine in this world where massive flooding has devastated the planet there are likely a few kids running around without parents. Also, these robots are immortal and don’t age, so any robotic child will be a child forever. So now matter what parents do with their robotic child, they can never raise it. They will always be a child. Once again, why don’t these parents just adopt?
Additionally, during the first scene the main robot creator Professor Hobby (William Hurt) is speaking about the developments they’ve made in robotics. All of the other scientists seem impressed, but Hobby isn’t satisfied. His goal is to make a robot that can love. Cut to 22 months later and such a robot has been created. Once again, I have a few questions. First off, I can understand why Hobby is interested in making a robot who can love. He’s a scientist and I understand his desire to push science forward. It is also revealed in the third act that Hobby’s son passed away and David is modeled on and named after his child. I don’t question Hobby’s motivation, but why did the rest of his company support the initiative? Designing a robot who can love has no obvious financial gain but would cost a fortune at the same time. I can’t see the financial backers of the company supporting the initiative, especially since Hobby is clearly modeling the robot after his dead son. It would be one thing if David was a one of a kind experimental model, but in the third act it is implied that the company is making hundreds of these things for public consumption, which in itself doesn’t make sense but I’ll get to that later.
But that’s mostly background stuff that sets up the film, now let’s get to the story itself. So the Swintons’ son Martin has been in a coma for five years. The father Henry seems to have accepted he may never see his son again and his already mourned. His wife Monica on the other hand still won’t let go to the possibility her son may return. Henry and the doctors fear for their health. Henry also works for Hobby’s company that makes the robots. The company decides that this family is the perfect one to test their little boy robot who can love. So far things seem sound enough, but how Henry presents David to Monica is pretty stupid. He knows his wife is mentally strained because of her son, but instead of discussing the matter of a robot child with her first, Henry just comes home one night and surprises her with David. Predictably, Monica freaks out. However instead of making her husband take David back, Monica decides to give him a chance because he looks like a real kid, even though he does not act like one at all. The next day, Henry goes to work and while Monica does basic housework, David continues showing up in the creepiest of ways. He pops up unexpectedly with a vacant smile, obstructs her path, and at one point walks in on her in the bathroom and continues to stare and smile. Later at dinner, which David sits in one despite not being able to eat, Monica has some spaghetti hanging from her mouth which causes David to laugh like a deranged lunatic. Henry and Monica laugh as well, but after a bit David stops laughing and stares at the pair with a look of bewilderment. For some reason this moment is presented as a scene of family bonding even though it’s insanely creepy.
So at this point, David has done nothing but be creepy and awkward. But instead of taking him back, Monica decides to do the exact opposite. You see, when Henry first arrives him, he tells Monica that if they use a specific set of words in a specific order, it will act as a code that will cause David to love whoever says the words. This is called imprinting. However it is not something done lightly since it is irreversible, meaning that if the parents get bored with David, he can’t be resold since he will still love whoever previously used the code. In fact, if they do decide they don’t want David anymore, they are supposed to return him to the company to be destroyed. So again I must reiterate this is not something done lightly. Yet despite the fact that she’s known David for less than 48 hours and he’s been intensely creepy, Monica decides to imprint on David. She not only does this irrationally based on how David has acted, but she doesn’t discuss it with her husband at all. Does this couple communicate at all? These parents are so inept it’s probably for the best their real son is in a coma.
After the imprint, David immediately loves Monica and starts referring to her as “mommy”. He also acts a lot less creepy now. Months or years (it is never specified) pass by and David and Monica actually have a pretty good relationship. She genuinely seems to have grown attached to him. Henry is far less fond of David and for the rest of the film is role is to basically object to David’s presence and wonder if they should keep him. He brings up some good points as the film goes on, but it’s real hard to sympathize with him when it was his stupidity that caused David to come into their lives in the first place. But, like I said in my plot synopsis, the family dynamic is shaken up even further when Martin awakens from his coma and returns home. What follows is essentially a competition between the two for Monica’s affection, with Martin being the more aggressive of the two. Now the idea here makes sense and Monica even says at one point that it’s natural for boys to compete. But the way it’s executed makes Martin come off like villainous asshole. He tricks David into cutting Monica’s hair when she’s asleep, promising Monica will love David more if he does. He also encourages Monica to read Pinocchio to the boys as a way of secretly mocking David for not being real. It doesn’t help that actor Jake Thomas recites his lines as if he’s trying to sound villainous and conniving. It may sound like I’m being too critical, but there’s a big reason this bugs me. After an incident where David almost inadvertently drowns Martin, the parents decide they cannot keep David anymore and decide to return him to be destroyed. The moment could have felt more tragic and emotional if Martin hadn’t been painted as such an unlikable character. Instead it comes off as one dimensional.
Monica takes David to be destroyed, but eventually decides she does not want to kill him and instead releases him in the wild to give him a chance at survival. David begs Monica to keep him but she refuses, leaving him alone with his robotic teddy bear. David is convinced that if he was a real boy he could return him. So he sets out to find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio to turn him into a real boy. It is during this time that he and the audience are introduced to Jude Law’s awesome Gigolo Joe, as well as Flesh Farms and the creative futuristic settings. These are in fact the film’s highest points and for a while the film has found its footing and is actually pretty good. There are a lot less holes, the film is much darker, the settings are all great, and there is lots of content with Gigolo Joe. Unfortunately the film takes a nose dive when it hits the third act.
On their journey to find the Blue Fairy, David and Joe end up in Manhattan which is mostly flooded. I should say right now that I love the visuals of a flooded Manhattan. Anyway, it turns out that what they thought would lead them to the Blue Fairy has instead brought David and Joe to the headquarters of the corporation that build David. This was due to a small piece of evidence planted by the company to lead them there, but more on that later. Anyway, upon arriving, David finds another robot that is the same model he is. He finds another David, only one that hasn’t been imprinted. David and Joe are both shocked by this, but the other David does not mind. David then begins being jealous and intimidated by his counter-part. Worried the other David will take Monica way from him, David brutally murders his counter-part by decapitating him, causing Gigolo Joe to run out in a panic. The scene itself is interesting; my problem is no one ever addresses it again. This is especially problematic when the film has made the point having the audience feel sympathy for the robots. We cared about the robots that were being killed in the Flesh Farm, we cared about Gigolo Joe when he was framed for murder, and we cared for David through his struggle to return to his family. Yet after David kills a robot, it is immediately abandoned. What’s more is that being the same model as David, it is reasonable to assume he is capable of loving just as strong as David.
Things fall apart even further when Professor Hobby runs into the room and meets David. He reveals that David was a prototype not only made to see if a robot could love, but also if a robot could pursue their dreams. In this case, David chased his dream of finding the Blue Fairy to be human. Hobby also says that he did not interfere at all apart from planting the clue that led them to Manhattan. Now, here’s my problem: if Hobby’s experiment was to see if David would pursue his dreams, why would he put David in an environment he has no control over. After being imprinted, David loves Monica. His only purpose is to love his mother. So what if Martin never woke from his coma and David lived with Monica comfortably until her death? Or what if Martin did wake from his coma but wasn’t an evil prick, and he David, Henry, and Monica lived happily as a family? Or what if while going on a family drive, David was in a car accident which killed him? What if after Monica released David in the wild, he was killed in the Flesh Farm? Hell, let’s dial it back; what if when Henry came home with David, Monica freaked out and forced Henry to return him? All of these possibilities would have presented David from pursuing his dreams. But let’s just disregard all of that for a second. Just for a minute, we’re going to accept that, just like in the film, Monica imprints on David, Martin comes home, family friction is caused, and the parents decide they have to get rid of David. But unlike the film, what if Monica had taken David in for destruction like she was TOLD TO DO BY HOBBY’S COMPANY in the event that she no longer wants him? How was he going to “pursue his dreams” then? My point is that it makes no sense for this multi-million dollar company to risk a fortune on a situation where there are too many variables they have no control over.
If their plan was to make a robotic boy love his mom and then see if he would chase a goal once abandoned by her, why not construct a scenario with actors and actresses who know of the company’s intention? One of the actors could imprint on David and after some time had passed release him into the wild. That way you guarantee David is imprinted, that he isn’t destroyed, and that he is pushed out and given a shot of pursuing a goal. There is still some risk once he’s released, but at least you can control most of the variables. Or if they can’t find actors to play the parts they need, because they don’t want to commit the time, try it with other robots programmed to never reveal they are robots. It’s more than likely David won’t notice. And if that doesn’t work, just program David to love a figure from an implanted memory and then release him into the world. All of that to say there were a lot of better ways to handle the situation of making David pursue his dreams was the original intention. I believe all the different creative forces involved had a different idea what the movie should be, hence the jarring shift that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
After explaining this to David, Hobby leaves the room to get some of the other scientists to meet David. David then explores the room and discovers several other David models, packaged looking like they’re ready to be sold. It’s a pretty atmospheric scene but it doesn’t make any sense. What about their experiment with David has convinced these scientists that these robots are ready to be owned by the public? Was it the part where David almost killed himself by eating spinach? Or how about when David almost drowned another little boy? Maybe they were just isolated incidents? Well David violently murdering another robot out of unreasonable jealousy proves that wrong. Bottom line, there is nothing about David that would even somewhat suggest his model is ready for public consumption.
David leaves and then discovers what he thinks is the Blue Fairy, which is a statue underwater at what used to be Coney Island. David then says his goodbyes to Gigolo Joe, who is then taken away by the authorities for the murder he was framed for. David and his Teddy take a transport underwater and visit the statue. The vehicle is also crushed by some debris forcing David and Teddy to be stuck under water. David continues to plead the Blue Fairy statue to grant his wish and make him a real boy. David and Teddy sit there for 2000 years, at one point being frozen in ice, before being discovered by advanced machines. Before we get to the segment in the distant future, I have to ask why it took 2000 years for David to be found. Wouldn’t Professor Hobby and his science team be looking for him? They seemed to place tremendous importance on him before and David didn’t travel far from where they’re building is located. In fact, why did Professor Hobby leave David alone in a room full of other David robots? He said he was getting some of the other scientists, but why wouldn’t he take David to them? At any rate, this hole is nothing compared to what’s coming up.
So 2000 years in the future, David and Teddy are found and woke up by advanced machines. In this future, human beings have gone extinct and all that remains are these machines. Admittedly, I love the idea of a world where humans are extinct and machines run the world. A lot of films talk about the possibility, but this is the only film I know of that shows said future. I also love the design of the machines. Unfortunately, it’s in this section where the movie’s problems increase exponentially. Things get really problematic here so instead of explaining my problems, I will instead describe what happens and then talk about my issues. So the machines read David’s mind and know his entire history. They tell David they want to make him happy since he represents the last sentient link to mankind. David asks them to bring back his mother, who naturally is long deceased. The machines say they’d like to, but they need some physical evidence to bring his mother back. Thankfully, Teddy has stored the hair that David cut from Monica’s head. The machines use this strand of hair to bring Monica back. However there are certain conditions to bringing a human being back. The way it works is that these Machines have discovered that any physical remains of a human (including hair, bones, and skin) contains their complete memories. However, the catch is those resurrected can only survive for one day. As soon as they go to sleep, they will never be able to wake up, and they can never be revived again. What this means is that while David can see his mother again, they only get one day together. David decides one more day is worth it and the two share a perfect day. The Machines reconstruct their old house exactly the way it was, and together David and Monica play together, laugh, share stories and drawings, bake David a birthday cake for the birthday he never had. Most cathartically, Monica tells David she loves him, the claim he was always waiting for. After their perfect day, Monica feels asleep and David knows she will never wake up. David too, for the first time in his life, goes to sleep and it is implied at the end that he too is dead.
There is so much wrong with the ending it’s staggering. Alright, so at first I was under the impression The Machines could clone humans if they had enough genetic material. Luckily enough, the bear has kept it stored with him the whole time. Isn’t it convenient that Martin’s cruel test for David involved taking a piece of Monica’s hair thus allowing her to be revived? And I say revived because it is later clarified that The Machines are not creating clones, but are in fact bringing a person back to life just the way they were. I could maybe accept this if they had the original body or even the brain, but all that from just a hair sample? That’s a lot harder to buy. It also makes no sense that a simple hair sample could contain all of Monica’s memories, but that’s an issue I’ll get to in a minute. No explanation is given as to why the revived humans can only live for a day; it’s just that way to serve the story. Another big issue here is Monica’s memory after being revived. The Machine says that any physical evidence of a human contains all the memories of who they were. The long and short of it is that all life still exists, but on a different plan of existence. This is a ridiculous idea, but it’s also inconsistent with Monica’s memories. Based on what The Machines have said, wouldn’t Monica return exactly as she was when she died? It’s fair to assume she died of natural causes at an older age, but when revived she still looks young. Even if she died the same day she got rid of David, she should still remember getting rid of David. Why is she not the least bit concerned that he’s back? So are we to assume the hair is the key to reviving Monica the way she was right as the hair was cut from her head? If so, why is she not concerned that her husband and real son are nowhere to be found? Plus if we’re going by the logic that her memory cut off is right before she noticed David cutting off her hair, in her mind the next morning would be Martin’s birthday party. Why would she spend her son’s birthday playing with a robotic child while not interacting with anyone else? It makes no logical sense for Monica to act the way she does during this final sequence. I will say I like the idea of David accepting death once he has received the fulfilment of hearing his mother loves him. But that’s way too little way too late.
End of spoilers.
So as you can see, this ending (and most of the film) is full of problems. These bother me for three main reasons. One, they’re examples of poor and rushed writing which was not fully thought out. Two, most of these decisions were made at to serve the plot but abandon logical choices. Third, and this is a point exclusive to the ending, the movie abandons the “science” in science fiction and just becomes straight up fantasy. It’s fine that a science fiction film contains elements of the fantastical, but they need to be based in some form of reality. Instead, the ending of A.I. completely abandons any sense of reality based science. I’m not against fantasy as a genre either, but I don’t like that the film betrays what it was.
Given that you may have just read 14 extremely long paragraphs about why the story is a confusing mess which flounders on a number of levels, you probably think I hate this film, but I don’t. It’s tremendously, flawed so much so that it’s baffling. But even at its worst moments, I still found A.I. interesting. I also think the film has some very well-done elements, such as the visuals, Jude Law’s performance, and the sheer ambition it took to bring this to the screen. Yes, the film is a mess, but rarely is a film a mess in such a spectacular fashion. Overall, the filmmaking is too good to dismiss the film, and yet too poor to embrace it. It works out to being a middle of the road film. If you see it, you’re in for an interesting and unforgettable film, but necessarily a good one.