Back to the womb in A.I., Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg probes affections that get callused over with age, forgetfulness and cultural habit. It's the most profound treatment of a child's life since Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes. More than Spielberg's other films, it dares viewers to remember and accept the part of themselves that is capable of feeling?a real risk these days. A.I. goes so openly and deeply into beneficent emotions it is bound to scare off pseudo-sophisticates?people who think it's progress to forget they were ever children. That's usually just a way of denying pure, uncomplicated emotion. A.I. proves it's small-minded to think that art should only be about conflicted feelings. It's equally foolish to assume Spielberg views childhood without complication.
David (Haley Joel Osment) is a mechanical child built to provide succor for a young couple, Monica and Henry (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), grieving over the impending death of their biological child. Exceeding its manufacturer's design, the robot starts to long for genuine feeling. The scientist (William Hurt) who wired him for the useful affectation of sentiment professed a personal stake in how children of the media-saturated era have had their instincts dulled, programmed, desensitized. This makes David an ideal representative of an over-mechanized age.
Though set in a plausibly projected future (after an ice-cap meltdown has submerged the coastal U.S. cities), David's story moves through scenes?adventures?that marvelously represent youth's stages of awakening. He experiences cultural confusion, seeks the solace of true feeling but is bemused by the mystery of private emotion?the very things coarsened and derided by today's pop culture, especially the movies. Advancing through ever-bewildering situations, David is abandoned to homelessness, joins other flailing, fugitive robots?including Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mechanical sex hustler?and suffers privation and abuse. Each narrative step is credibly dramatized, yet those scenes where David enters his adopted home are spectral, quintessential Spielberg. Rendered as pre-K fantasy, these sequences are primal?the paradise of family, of first education and instinctively formed attachments. The glowing, futuristic domicile somehow suggests one's own past distilled, and this is the core of A.I.'s miracle: Spielberg accepts and understands how human interaction, beginning in childhood, fetishized through toys and storybooks, is common to the middle-class American (if not universal) tradition of child-rearing and acculturation. He recalls that period so warmly it's startling; he reveals childhood's secret soul.
To describe A.I.'s reverie as nostalgic would be inaccurate. Spielberg modernizes childhood experience that's usually coddled?distanced?as fable. He investigates bedtime-story codes (even the ineffable affection toward teddy bears!) because these things first stir human perception. David's inquiry into parental love (the bond he forms with Monica) and adult trust (holding onto Gigolo Joe during a forest raid) perceives those connections freshly. ("I'm sorry I never told you about the world," Monica apologizes.) He's preternaturally aware of the significance of everything he goes through but incapable of controlling his fate. Like most of us, David's self-consciousness?his emotional intelligence?makes him poignant, a potentially tragic, restless figure. Even when he competes with his human sibling Martin (Jake Thomas) in a dinner table spinach-eating contest, the motivations for rivalry are no less unsettling for being absolutely clear.
I'm aware that A.I., in a way, presents a story of privilege; and those with unhappy childhoods may not share Spielberg's agape. But don't reject the film on specious political grounds as either "too white" or "too bourgeois." In fact, I would not bet against folks from unfortunate, abused childhoods still identifying with David's quest for love and experiencing his longing just as powerfully. The blessing of childhood sweetness is what's reified in A.I. Before one can become suspicious of that phenomenon, Spielberg dares you to consider that it has nothing to do with class, and even transcends gender. It is, above all, personal. A spiritual view of human need, if you will. And that's A.I.'s claim to global relevance.
Pop entertainers are often demagogues, angling to make masses of people feel the same shallow thing. But a true pop artist is a rare and different matter: Spielberg works to make his deepest feelings understood. In David's only encounter with other children, he learns about the prospect of behavioral analogues?the difference between Mechas and Orgas (mechanical or organic entities) who demonstrate false or sincere conduct. These sci-fi suggestions of mysterious dread (Is David malevolent? Are his designer or adopted parents selfish monsters?) are not the heart of the movie?despite one irresistible trope of Buñuel-mocking menace. Spielberg's art?moments of indescribable goodness?rejects the usual pessimistic sci-fi banality. He achieves Dreyerlike depth, Bressonian loftiness simply by contemplating irreducible Love. Don't short-change the toy-filled premise. Spielberg heightens human need into pure feeling, and that Mecha/Orga dichotomy keeps it rigorous.
Everyone's estimation of A.I. will depend on their interest in childhood mythology. Will they accept that Spielberg?from The Sugarland Express to The Color Purple, from Hook to Amistad?is the one filmmaker to sustain the link between fantasy and moral reckoning? Start with the film's audacious ad copy ("His love is real. But he is not"). It sets A.I. apart from Hollywood's mostly antipathetic films. Rather than indulging religiosity, as Spielberg's antireligious detractors charge, the movie phases into and through religious parallels toward a spiritual essence. Every image (whether a deceptive heavenly orb or Gigolo Joe's facial planes resembling David Bowie's trompe l'oeil makeup in the Blue Jean video) forces us to question the authenticity of things and feelings. Each part of David's journey through carnal and sexual universes into the final eschatological devastation becomes as profoundly philosophical and contemplative as anything by cinema's most thoughtful, speculative artists?Borzage, Ozu, Demy, Tarkovsky. So what if the project came via Kubrick? That's both a red herring and good fortune. Moments that Kubrick would have made cold and ugly are surpassed by Spielberg's richer truth?and that's as it should be. (Besides, A.I.'s not a Kubrick-only concept; Robin Williams' Bicentennial Man and M. Night Shyamalan's odious Unbreakable fumbled strikingly similar ideas.) It's Spielberg's distinct sensibility that makes the difference. Rejecting the cynical trickery some people prefer in drama, his A.I. is equal to Kubrick's finest work.
Here's a more apt analogy: imagine D.W. Griffith (master of popular spectacle and emotional affect) remaking Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (a rare semiotic exercise that was also a mainstream reverie). Spielberg's uses of enchantment (pace Bruno Bettelheim) elucidate age-old affective responses to tales like Pinocchio, Hansel & Gretel, The Snow Queen, Night of the Hunter. The story is as sophisticated as the erotic deconstruction in The Company of Wolves but, conveying Spielberg's personal expressiveness, it searches beyond academic rationale.
Think of A.I. as a way of reinterpreting?and transforming?Pinocchio. The plot follows childhood's agitated state of grace (like Jim's in Empire of the Sun). But the "resilience" of children (as Truffaut specified it in Small Change) gets desentimentalized here. It's a state-of-being unrelated to age: innocence. As David flies through the red-light wonderland of Rouge City or is enslaved at the Flesh Fair (a public destruction orgy cruelly testing the Mecha/Orga opposition while surprisingly encapsulating the decadent pathology of Cronenberg's Crash), his tabula rasa consciousness survives all turmoil. He's Pinocchio as "Nature Boy" (his wish to be real essentially a desire to be loved); a state-of-being?and song?crudely misunderstood in Angel Eyes and Moulin Rouge, recent movies that only pretended grownup sensitivity.
Through David, A.I. pursues the inner world of metaphor, intuition and dream. (Note David's symbiotic relation to Teddy, his Jiminy Cricket companion. It's too mechanical to be "magic," yet too dear to be trite.) Spielberg reaches back to his own pop-mythological obsessions. Disney's "Once Upon a Dream" is heard in Martin's hospital; David wanders through an enchanted woods evoking Hawthorne, the Brothers Grimm, even E.T. (and an astonishing moonlight sequence rivals the imminence of Close Encounter's mothership). Few instances of humanist filmmaking have been so immersed in pop mythology, or conveyed dreaming so intensely.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski helps by suggesting the inexplicable twinkling of light into color, while John Williams' best score since The Fury modulates delicate emotional changes. And Haley Joel Osment provides exactly what is needed. Casting Osment (creepy in The Sixth Sense and unbearably precocious in Pay It Forward) was ingenious. He achieves amazing transparency in A.I. This looks like the most artless screen performance I have ever seen; David's naive conviction matches Tim Holt's pathos in The Magnificent Ambersons. Contrived to detach us from sentimentality, Osment's performance does what the past two decades of teen movies could not?it cleanses our self-recognition of any immodesty.
There's been nothing in modern movies more grownup or sensitive than David's fascination with his sexy young mother. It's as if Spielberg took that key image from Bergman's Persona (of the small boy reaching up to the huge opaque image of Woman) and interpreted it from the inside out. Suspended in fascination, Spielberg introduces Monica applying her makeup?a vanity gesture shared with a female robot. Yet, where another filmmaker would stop at obvious irony, Spielberg dissolves/resolves ironies in love. This view nearly shuts out the father?Freud is both acknowledged and crushed by Spielberg's awe at that first relationship, the most powerful and baffling in everyone's life. A.I. analyzes how one loves by fathoming the need for love. "Are those happy tears?" David asks his distraught mother. In such moments, A.I.'s unprecedented combination of curiosity and intimacy is breathtaking.