My robot research led to a revisiting of A.I., the first time I’d seen the film since its summer 2001 theatrical release. Back then the press was so very heavily focused on the “Spielberg does Kubrick” angle that anything short of 2001 meets CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was going to be viewed as a disappointment, and indeed critics and audiences – myself included – greeted the film with a collective “meh”. You had the love/hate extremists, but overall – “meh.”
(By the way, the rest of this presumes you have seen the movie.)
Many years have passed, however – the future Manhattan of A.I. has the Twin Towers standing, for goodness’ sake – and viewing the movie with more mature eyes was an interesting, much more positive experience. It still, in my opinion, has a few fundamental flaws, mostly in the setup. For one thing I simply don’t understand the bizarre decision to give David to parents who already have a critically injured son, a personal tragedy which his makers somehow felt made the couple more qualified than others to test David out. It seems a couple who, due to law or science, is unable to have children would have been a much better choice, as they’d be more likely to forgive David his programming flaws. Speaking of which, while David looks exactly like a “real boy,” his pre-imprint personality is so very, very creepy – the personality version of the POLAR EXPRESS mocap uncanny valley deadites – that the mother’s decision to go forward with the irreversible imprinting is not at all credible, no matter the sense of loss she’d been feeling. The pre-imprint David is still clearly a programmed “thing”, and the insane, forced laugh that illogically bonds him and his (let’s say) foster parents at the dinner table one night would have caused most of us to run screaming from the house. And really – a child that never grows up, never matures, never leaves, and is always exactly the same in every way until the day you die? Is there anything less natural than that?
Once David is abandoned in the woods, however, the movie corrects course and stays pretty much on track as we meet Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe and continue on through the Flesh Fair, Rouge City, and ultimately Manhattan. There are minor quibbles throughout – for one thing, while each individual location is fully realized, they don’t really seem like part of same universe – but nothing to get too upset about. Video forgives the films methodic pacing, and certainly allows the ending to play out in a less frustrating fashion.
At the time there was much criticism of the patented “Spielberg Happy Ending,” complete with Blue Fairy. But it seems like the logical ending now, the only possible ending, and one that is much more sad than happy – my wife was bawling for 15 minutes afterwards. David lives buried underwater in a small vehicle for 2000 friggin’ years, desperately wishing over and over to be made a real boy, a wish that is never, ever granted. This is not a happy ending, folks. Oh sure, he gets his one day of love with his mom – without this, the film would simply be, as my wife put it, “like watching an animal get tortured for two hours.” (Wanna guess what she thought of KING KONG?) And yes, David becomes the unique creature he always wanted to be, but not in the way he wanted it to happen. Assuming he wakes up from his end-of-movie nap, he will be loved by highly advanced mecha who view him as a kind of museum piece, and not the humans with whom he’s programmed to identify. There’s no promise that this is an adjustment he’ll be able to handle.
Must we discuss the film’s philosophy, it’s greater reason for being (if there is a reason superior to entertainment)? The central question posed in the first scene – “If a Mecha could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that Mecha in return?” is one that has been posed before, if not in this exact form. The answer is basically “A lot!” and there it is. The humans who don’t see Mecha as valid, living creatures are clearly the villians of the piece, and those who do – well, there aren’t really any who do, not even David’s creator, who states that David is the “First of a kind” rather than unique. Only the Mecha love the Mecha.
Generally speaking the humanoid robot sub-genre seems less valid now than it did in the BLADE RUNNER days, as we all have a more realistic grasp on the pace of technology – which clearly is many decades (at the very least) away from anything remotely like BICENTENNIAL MAN’s Andrew (version 1) much less David. Often the best sci-fi confronts the moral issues of the day and immediate future, not that of the quite distant. The “What is human?” question is purely a mind game that won’t have a chance to be tested in the real world for ages. You could walk to the narrow tip of a very weak branch and say, “Well, it’s not just about robots, we don’t always even treat other humans like humans, etc.” but really that branch will break and down will come baby, overreaching argument and all. Compare this with say MINORITY REPORT’s privacy issues; we don’t have pre-cog thought police just yet, but nevertheless the “lessons” of the film have much more immediate importance. (Not that anyone is looking to a Tom Cruise action film for moral guidance.)
Ah… yeah, I think that’s it. Grade: B. I seem to be giving out a lot of B grades, which to me means “Good – not great, not mediocre.” So um yeah, the usual meaning for B I suppose.