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Roy M. Anker

Artificial Creation: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Ending a three-year hiatus with a much-hyped new sci-fi film, Steven Spielberg is back, and better still, he is back in familiar territory. After years of "stretching" to heavy-duty subject matter—the Holocaust, slave ships, and Normandy Beach—seemingly to prove he has grown up after all, Spielberg is telling another "lost boy" story.

Given the high profile of his recent films, it's easy to forget that Spielberg's fame and considerable fortune were built in the first instance on tales of boys in danger, boys threatened with the loss of innocence, family, and joy. So enamored of the notion of lost boyhood was Spielberg that in very successful mid-career he actually went so far as to make Hook, a frenetic, overstuffed sprawl about Peter Pan that starred, appropriately, the eternal pubescent cut up Robin Williams. But that misfire came after a string of momentous, inventive films, most of them completed before he turned forty: Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (featuring men who would like to be kids again), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the much neglected Empire of the Sun—not to mention the three ultimate boy-adventure movies featuring the exploits of archaeologist Indiana Jones.

With A.I., we run again into a "young" Spielberg, though now in his mid-50s. While it is good to see that he still has his youth about him, it is also clear from A.I. that the young fellow is now a good deal wiser, braver, and darker. And Spielberg knows it, freely admitting that he would not have made such a film 20 years ago. Even in comparison to Schindler's List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), where he set out to grapple with darkness, A.I. is grim. Gone, or at least greatly modulated, is Spielberg's bent for what one prominent critic recently called "ruthless sentimentality."

Special effects don't overwhelm the story; more important, the cinematography is muted, Spielberg containing his penchant for the visual pyrotechnics that make so many of his climactic scenes look like the Transfiguration of Jesus. Tempered, too, is his haste to deflect uncomfortable emotion with a joke, as was his wont in his early days; he's now far more willing to let characters' fear or sorrow have their way with viewers. In A.I., in fact, there is remarkably little humor of any kind, and that little is mostly darkly satiric. Finally, and most notably, A.I. simply lacks heroes and a clearly happy ending.

In this imagined future, the human prospect has turned bleak, global warming having melted the ice caps, submerged coastal cities, and caused catastrophic climate change worldwide. What remains of America now prospers because of strict population control and the use of very smart robots. In most ways these "mechas" (future slang derived from mechanical) are indistinguishable from people, setting about their narrowly designated tasks with pleasantness and efficiency, whether as nurse, nanny, or gigolo. They don't fret about their own fate—whether they "live" or expire—nor about the fortunes of others. In short, what they lack is "feelings," a big part of that mysterious innerness that makes people people.

The rub comes when the leader of Cybertronics, Inc., Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), decides to create a mecha that can feel and love. Since there's a large potential market among childless couples, he starts with a child-bot. Twenty months later, the prototype, named David (Haley Joel Osment), is ready for testing.

He's placed with an upscale family, the Swintons, whose ten-year-old son, Martin (Jake Thomas), has died, sort of. For five years, Martin has lain cryogenically preserved, waiting for a cure. His mother, Monica (Frances O'Connor), hopes still, going daily to read to her frozen son, until one day husband Henry (Sam Robards) shows up with David in tow.

In time, Monica's initial aversion to the child-bot erodes, and eventually she decides to "imprint" the boy's circuitry: thus she becomes definitively his "mom-my," for whom he lives and, after a fashion, breathes. For his part, David soon adapts to the modes and mores of people.

All goes well until doctors cure Martin, who proves both jealous and nasty. Subsequent misadventures prompt the parents to "return" David, even though Cybertronics will destroy him (once imprinted, he cannot transfer his affections). But at the last moment, the tearful Monica, rather than consigning her surrogate son to certain destruction, instead abandons him in the woods.

Sorrowful and alone, he encounters a host of fellow fugitives who congregate at a "mecha dump" where they scrounge for spare body parts. And so begins David's long quest to find his mother again, the one who is supposed to care for him as much as he cares for her. The "child" can't help caring, wired as he is for this bond, despite the fickleness of her affections.

Here the question of who's truly "human," the robot or the mom, gets dicey and stays that way. The predicament and the stakes are vintage Spielberg; the dark conclusions come from Hawthorne or, in movie terms, Stanley Kubrick, the late writer-director of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and other masterpieces, with whom Spielberg collaborated on A.I.

At their best, Spielberg's dramas display the deepest human longings for love—meaning trust, care, and delight—for and from others and God, all that we pour into the notion of "home," both personal and cosmic. These longings animate Close Encounters of the Third Kind, still an impressive film, and E.T., replete with the "phone home" mantra and two abandoned creatures.

This is the immemorial turf of fairy tales, everyone's initiation into the terrors and dreams of humankind, at least until Disney began to take possession of the genre. In A.I., the master stories are Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, and, at the very center, the tale of Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy so everyone will love him. Like it or not, and sophisticates of various sorts usually don't, this is the stuff of which we are made, deep down and forever, and it is this very craving for mutuality or "at-homeness" that is the image of God "imprinted" within the human psyche. When done well, as Spielberg usually manages, this drama of psyche and soul recalls everyone's deep thirst to find the haven of home, the ever-elusive realm of complete and unconditional love.

David's hope is the promise of the Blue Fairy, remembered from bedtime readings of Pinocchio. The child-bot takes this fairy-tale dream dead literally: he sets out to find the magical being who will make him a real boy, so he can win back his mother. And here Spielberg, who wrote A.I. as well as directing it, stumbles.

No, the conclusions of his earlier films were never quite as happy as critics have portrayed them. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary has to leave this world to maybe find happiness with those not-so-nice aliens, and in E.T. young Elliott is left behind, alone and still fatherless, after the ascension of ET. But the close of A.I. is less hopeful still—a day with mommy, and then what, an "everlasting moment," benign sleep, or a fall (or rise) into humanness?

What leaps out most clearly from this ambiguous ending is Spielberg's somber comment on the potent forces within that seek love and, amid all that, what humankind—selfish, deceitful, and mean—does to mess it all up. In A.I. those strange creatures that follow humankind, whoever they are, do better, although probably not enough—as if anyone could.

A.I. is striking, enchanting, moving, haunting, challenging, and vexing, a rueful meditation on what's best and worst about being human and the huge bother of expecting very much out of life. That's a grim homily, however lovingly dreamed and etched it is in A.I. Nonetheless, Spielberg's accomplishment recalls what movies can do, and what Hollywood rarely even so much as thinks about attempting anymore, enamored as it is of rank profit. So it is nice to have young Steve back to remind everyone of the splendor of film—and to marvel at the wants and ways of heart of the human creature.

Roy M. Anker is professor of English at Calvin College and co-editor of Perspectives.

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