Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor
Director: Steven Spielberg
IN every respect AI is this year’s most ambitious film with good acting, a stylish look, dazzling special effects, intelligent direction and a very multi-layered screenplay.
Its moral scope is ambitious too, for there is not a small ethical issue to be found in this story. Unfortunately by the end of this long film, director Steven Spielberg cannot make all these elements come together in a wholly satisfying way.
Set in the near future, couples need permits to have children. They are only allowed one each. Families also have robots, but the makers have not yet been able to get them to ape human feelings.
Professor Hobby (William Hurt) develops David, brilliantly played by Joel Osment, a robotic boy who “is able to love”. Hobby’s question is, ‘Will human beings love him back?’
Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica’s (Frances O’Connor) only son is in danger of death. They are selected as David’s first foster parents. They grow to love him until their son recovers and comes home.
David is then abandoned and teams up with fellow robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) to avoid being violently dismantled at the local version of the Colosseum. David yearns to be reunited with Monica, the only person he has learned to love.
On the surface of it, AI is one of the most Freudian films we could ever wish to see. David’s whole life is about being reunited with his mother.
Spielberg’s screenplay has David call Monica ‘Mommy’ but his foster father ‘Henry’. To see his mother again, David becomes convinced he needs the intercession of the Blue Fairy, who looks like a kitsch statue of Mary, the Mother of God, and is invested with similar attributes.
David’s journey to fill the lack in him by trying to reclaim a primal unity with his mother could see AI become mandatory viewing for all Freudian psychotherapists!
Psychology, however, is not AI’s main concern, ethics is. What constitutes a unique human person? What are the differences between spirit and matter? Can a created being, robot or otherwise, learn to hate as well as love? Just because science can achieve a breakthrough should it always do so?
This film might be set in the future, but it is a commentary on present debates about stem cells, DNA and cloning. In these regards AI can get a bit preachy.
Spielberg is clearly worried about some of the directions science is taking. The scientists in this film have mixed motivations – personal gain, testing the limits of their knowledge, the desire to create a ‘new human order’, and personal grief.
David is modelled on Professor Hobby’s dead son of the same name. David is sent to ‘replace’ a dying son too.
Spielberg is arguing that cloning will never replace the loss of a loved one. Why? It’s not because David cannot look and act like a human being. Henry and Monica come to love David. It is because David has no memory.
For Spielberg memory is ensoulment. It makes us who we are. It gives us our spirit, our human compass.
AI portrays David as a modern Pinocchio. AI, however, is much more a futuristic Frankenstein. It has a very grizzly scene where robots are executed because ‘they are an assault on our human dignity. They are meant to replace our children’. And so in retaliation the crowd hunts them down like animals and destroys them using fire, boiling oil, decapitation, quartering and firing squads.
They may be machines, but the point is made – as it is when we see Gigolo Joe in action, where sex with a robot is ‘the best a human can get’. Spielberg is asking moral questions of everything.
The reason the film does not work is that for us to address all these questions and issues, we need to be located in the centre of the drama. Setting the story initially in the near future, and then 2000 years after that, makes it hard for us to project ourselves into it, to locate our stance on the questions it raises.
We end up admiring nearly everything about it, but it is so ‘out there’ that this is where it stays. Given the important challenges it poses, however, Steven Spielberg may be as disappointed with this response as I am.