DISCLAIMER: The following contains major spoilers for A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
He is perched on the very edge of a skyscraper; his feet hanging some hundred feet above the ground, long submerged by vast waters that have swallowed the buildings below. He may as well be the only remaining shred of life around. He utters the name of his only love before letting himself plummet. Another observes this from above the sky. Behind a reflection of glass, he sees him fall like a teardrop from his own eye, until sinking into the ocean below. He cannot drown, and can only afford to be carried through the lonely, raging current. His body is carried away by a school of fish, soaring through endless blue. He then floats still, and his eyes widen at the sight he gazes upon. His hands reach out, as if within the vicinity of his most precious desire, until he is forced away by something unknown and retracting. But he’s seen it. He knows where his search ends.
When Stanley Kubrick acquired the film rights to Bryan Aldiss’ short story, ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ in the late 1970’s, he knew that what he required of the project was far out of reach. From the budget required to explore such an existentialist concept as an android child programmed to unconditionally love–to say nothing of the idea of portraying the lead child actor via an actual artificial entity–Kubrick would spend two decades consistently returning to the project, until it would wind up in the hands of someone else. Four years before his death in 1999, Kubrick approached Steven Spielberg regarding the taking of his role as director, who then officially took helm after his death. It was here that the project would cement its own status as one with a far more heightened sense of passion than a fair share of both their filmographies, with Spielberg opting to embrace Stanley’s approach by keeping his original crew and a majority of the concept retained in his script; his second lone screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that the only other time Kubrick and Spielberg’s names would be put together was on the song ‘Lost’ by Danny Brown.
I believe that we are all inherently passionate. The older we get, the more we allow to help us learn more about our own selves and where our best interests lie. Passion is what forms our drive, what gets us out of bed, and perhaps above all, what makes us love. But what exactly is passion good for if we have no drive, or can’t get out of that bed, or if the love you felt has become past-tense? Would we ask ourselves what the point of being passionate is if we merely end up lost in an abyss-like pit of memories that once brought warmth but now only provide its opposite? After all, it’s only so that the longer you engage in something, the more it’ll hurt when that something is erased without your consent. The feeling of being truly on your own can be staggering, especially if we’re raised with the notion that to truly live is to have one beside you. But what if that notion is the only trait hopelessly ingrained within us? What if we’re told that love is something that stays, even if those who say it to us leave? What if that notion was the only thing keeping us on our feet, hoping that one day, they’ll take us back to the only one who we know will make us feel wanted? If you watch 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, you will gradually realize that the only way to answer these questions is in the most monolithic way possible.
But what in particular makes A.I. the very best film that Spielberg has ever directed? To be particular is to still let in a multitude of reasons. You could easily start with the endlessly beautiful and unique approach to its depiction of a distant future – contributed by production designer Rick Carter and some of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s finest work, or you could acknowledge Haley Joel Osment giving the best child performance of the 2000’s with a character so layered and defined that it may as well have come from actors far older than him at the time. Even calling it a child actor performance feels like a step down, as his character of David is what makes the story of A.I. far more rich with universality and humanity than possibly any science-fiction film from the twenty years since its release. Spielberg’s approach in tone is familiar, yet his craft is honed within such a web of complexity that it manages to feel new all over again. It is an unrequited love story. It is an apocalyptic fairy tale. It is the loneliest bedtime story ever told. And between perhaps the two most prominent names in mainstream film, it’s a fond farewell to a friend.
It is within this point in the film in which David’s definitive component is activated by his “mommy”, Monica – played by Frances O’ Connor. These nine words allow an activation that cannot be undone, and it is followed by David embracing her in a way that only the most innocent and loving of children can. David is the prototype of a company named Cybertronics Corp; tapping into the potential of producing Mecha who can emulate emotions as deep as love. He is taken into the care of Monica and her husband Henry, while their biological son Martin is in cryogenic sleep due to a blood condition. But eventually, Martin returns, and it causes a domino effect of repercussions; from sibling rivalry, to Martin taking advantage of David’s protective systems by having him cut Monica’s hair while she sleeps. It winds up culminating in Henry forcing Monica to return David – who was initially a gift from Henry, back to Cybertronics for immediate destruction. But Monica, unable to do it, pulls over halfway through and abandons David in a remote forest, with his only companion being Teddy – a super-toy in the form of a teddy-bear, with the seasoned voice of Jack Angel.
Monica’s inability to succeed in returning David is only so because of the realness he had shown to her prior. She had read bedtime stories to him and laughed with him, but also took him to bed when he could not sleep, and cooked meals for him that he could not eat. Perhaps her decision stems from some semblance of love for him, but at the same time, a recognition of David’s limits as merely a simulation of that shared love. But David remembers a story Monica had read to him and Martin – the tale of Pinocchio and his search for the Blue Fairy, who he believes can turn him into a real boy. It is this memory, as real as the others in his head, that puts him and Teddy on the same path, so that maybe one day, he will return to Monica and be loved by her in the truest of ways. But soon, his path crosses with Gigolo Joe – a Mecha played by a plastic-faced Jude Law, who channels the tap-dancing spirit of Fred Astaire, at least whenever he isn’t selling himself for sexual encounters. After one of these encounters ends with a murder framed on him, Joe winds up on the run and just as isolated as David, and it is here in which these two artificial entities, each programmed to provide love in very different ways, set off into a place far bigger than the both of them. A place that may not even be, but perhaps could be.
“My brain is falling out.”
Joe and David encounter various other Mecha in their quest; the majority of them being sent to their demise at the hands of anti-Mecha crowds from demolition derby-like Flesh Fairs. Joe concludes later in the film that they are hated by those crowds because of the fear that those like him and David will have no choice but to outlive them. They have been designed to emulate something too real, enough to where they could hate themselves for their own limitations. But what David is limited to is the sheer will and belief in his uniqueness; that he will see through to his wish with success. But even that determination is but a mere surrender to his own programming, as his creator Professor Hobby (played by William Hurt), deems David as being not necessarily one-of-a-kind, but rather the first of his kind to realize his own limitations and provide himself a drive to change; only if it means earning the validation of the only person who can possibly give him the love he wants. But David’s world is opened with the realization that there are many more just like him to be delivered to loving families, and that his uniqueness is anything but; leading to his plummeting into hopeless waters that have submerged what remains of a Manhattan ravaged by climate change. But with the discovery beneath the watery remains of Coney Island, that sense of will returns, and both David and Teddy are taken underwater by Joe, in the midst of his capturing by authorities, to see for themselves the Blue Fairy – in the form of a glass statue, lying perfectly still and shrouded in seaweed. To David, she glows just enough to be real.
There is a ferris wheel that towers far above the Amphibicopter containing him and Teddy. As David guides it close enough to the Blue Fairy to where he is face-to-face with her, the rusted foundation of the wheel causes it to collapse above them both, trapping them firmly in place; mere feet away from the Blue Fairy. Teddy notes this, but David sees this as an opportunity to send her his wishes for as long as it takes. And then, he begins to plead. “Please, please, please, make me into a real, live boy”, David says. As he repeats this wish, the reflection of her face matches perfectly with David’s own. A simulation embraced by another. Spielberg’s camera begins to slowly pull away. He doesn’t blink. He knows there is nothing else to do but to repeat. In the aftermath of his abuse and abandonment, David’s determination hasn’t lessened, and despite not saying it, we know and feel that he will go as far as time will go before his wish is granted. Ultimately striving for something to make sense of the heartbreak he feels; that longing for something in which he, like any real child, could never possibly comprehend why it left him behind. His being at the bottom of the ocean because he only wants to be loved. He still hasn’t stopped. They have now disappeared beneath the wheel. Minutes become days, and days become weeks, until we crossfade, and pass 2,000 years onward.
It is perhaps the single most hauntingly mournful sequence from any film of this scale from the last two decades. We glide through what remains of the world; an endless landscape of white; layers of frost barely obscuring the remains of frozen buildings. Everyone that David has known, suddenly and completely erased by time and death. The only entities occupying this space of extinction being a group of Mecha after centuries of evolution; traversing through a ship rendered in abstract, geometric textures. They soar beneath the frost, through a pathway seemingly carved for themselves, until they find the Amphibicopter – still containing a frozen David and Teddy, and facing the Blue Fairy, still intact. They awaken David, and he immediately approaches her. His wish still to be granted. He puts one hand on a portion of her prone to shattering, and then the rest of her does; collapsing into shards in front of David, finally hopeless, and now surrounded. He doesn’t know it, but he has gone to the very end of the world for his love. But these beings have come to take him elsewhere. Their hands conjoin as one scans David’s memories, projecting onto their own faces. The memories end with a mother smiling.
“Teddy, we’re home.”
David’s eyes open into a tapestry of his own memory, enriched in oversaturated light and color. He and Teddy have suddenly returned to the house Monica raised him in, but it is now a space empty and still, and she nor anyone else can’t be found. Taking their place is the faint echoes of David’s name, calling and inviting him from afar. David walks into a dark corner, until emitting a gentle light is The Blue Fairy – restored and eloquent with life. In this moment, David finally sends his wish with confidence, but not only is it revealed to be impossible, but he is told that Monica has long perished and can never come home. The cruelty of David’s trek has reached its peak, and he can only process this in tears. Until the Blue Fairy – revealed as a surrogate for the observing Mecha, tells of their abilities in reviving the perished through a strand of their DNA. Teddy unveils a lock of Monica’s hair, and David holds it up to her, ever so driven. His wish is granted, and as he waits, a Mecha comes to him and explains how in their testing of this revival process, the humans weren’t able to sustain more than one day of life, and that if Monica is brought back now, David will never be able to see her again after the day passes.
“You are so important to us, David.”
He is ultimately left to choose – whether to continue and wait out the process until it allows for a longer lifespan, or have just one day with her. The time he has spent and traversed to get back to his mother can no longer be calculable. David has reached the end point of his world’s lifespan and can now only exist within memories that are now as fabricated as he is. As the Mecha comfortingly assures him that they only want for his happiness, David responds that if this is so, then they know what they have to do. After all this time, his programming is the only thing he can willingly return to. He can never be beyond a product made to service an owner who no longer exists. Unable to let go, he begins a new day. The sun rises and golden light flashes through the windowpane. He walks into a bedroom and finds her sound asleep, waking her with silent tears. David has the happiest day of his life, doing everything he can with her in one day and ending it with her affirming love for him. A love that has always been. She falls asleep, and he does too, and then light dimmers to nothing.
But it isn’t Monica. Her abandoning of David is the last we truly see of her. What the Mecha have created is an idealization of his every desire. A simulation of satisfaction. The day is spent by two artificial beings created solely for the gratification of the other, and the day ends with David comforted by an illusion covering up the fact that he had, and will never know the true embrace of the person he had waited 2,000 years for. It is an ending that leaves something as unbearably cold and bleak as the snow-laden apocalypse the world will inevitably become. But the brilliance of this ending lies within Spielberg’s decision to have it experienced through David’s eyes. Throughout his journey is an ingrained innocence; one that allows his determination to become real, or his volatility in destroying another copy of him, or the inherent selfishness in his wish, to be cemented within it. He is merely designed to strive and long for his mother, and once he has her, it is all he could ever want. David is allowed a catharsis, and yet the false foundation of it isn’t lost once given thought afterwards. It is all within a delicate, yet fully layered balance of tones that convey a masterful synthesis of the lingering existential dread of Kubrick and Spielberg’s poetic warmth. The lie is known, but the sincerity – in both David’s arc and Osment’s performance, allows it to coexist as something achingly real.
Professor Hobby modeled David after his deceased son. In the film’s opening, when Hobby is asked whether a parent could reciprocate a love towards a Mecha child, he responds, “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love Him?”. The seeds of love and passion run all throughout A.I.’s thematic veins, and they sprout from the reasoning for David’s creation. How far someone will go to keep their loved ones alive, if not the love itself. Hobby extending his son’s image into something artificial. The reflections of faces, and faces within faces. The soft light glowing on the eyes of David and the Blue Fairy. It is a work elemental and monumental; somehow occupying that lonely, liminal space between Philip K. Dick and the fairy tale you would make your mother read to you every night because you couldn’t explain the tangible depression it would leave you with in the morning. A melancholy you somehow want to return to. No other film of this budget and from this century so far has contained such vast multitudes of feeling. And yet, for how it can manage to segue from tender heartache into the explosive depiction of Mecha destruction, it all manages to operate in the background of David’s journey; in which he simply wants to go back home. We observe the moralistic fears and devastating bleakness of an Earth on the verge of implosion; all in the sharpest possible contrast from the innocence of a child who will forever be stuck as one. But his hope and certainty remain more real than they could ever be, and by the time we take it in that David’s trek would always be one of fierce, unending darkness, we would be hard-pressed to not also share his eternal endurance. Against every odd, we believe in the falsity while acknowledging the truth beneath. And within that notion is a work among the most beautiful there has ever been.