Despite its title, A.I. Artificial Intelligence delves deeply into what it means to be human. Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film, populated as it is with a number of androids increasingly designed to mimic their creators down to the very last detail, clearly deals in the millennia-old philosophical conundrum of free will versus predetermination. After all, these androids are pre-programmed, even if the newer models exercise increasing degrees of simulated consciousness and agency. But A.I. does not primarily hinge on the notion of free will alone, as Spielberg’s Minority Report would do a year later.

Unlike that subsequent Spielberg film, A.I. doesn’t ripple with the same level of paranoia, a staple of Minority Report’s source material, Philip K. Dick. Instead of a Dickian anxiety about predestination, simulated reality or whether humans might unknowingly be androids—the latter of which can, of course, be found in Blade Runner, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?A.I. is far more concerned about what makes us human in the first place. Is it the organic reproduction of the meat bags we shamble around in, or is it some intangible mix of consciousness, emotion and an ability to dream? A.I. argues—quite literally in an opening scenes of Professor Hobby (William Hurt) pontificating to a packed boardroom—that what makes us human is our capacity to love. Of course, creating a child-substitute that never ages and craves affection above all else does also imply dooming it, as Haley Joel Osment’s David nearly is here, to a virtual eternity of unfulfilled desire and suffering.

Though ultimately proven to be a mass-produced product and certainly not “one of a kind,” David is the “first of a kind”—the prototype of a hyper-realistic, child-shaped android, or “Mecha,” capable of love. He’s given for in-home testing to Mecha development worker Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife, Monica (Frances O’Connor), largely because their biological son is deathly ill and kept in suspended animation. Though initially creeped out by this mechanical replacement for her son, Monica eventually chooses to initiate the “imprint” protocol that will switch the lifelike but emotionless robot into full-on adoring son mode. David is consumed by his love for Monica, which becomes a problem when Monica’s biological son, Martin (Jake Thomas), is miraculously cured and returns home. This initiates a chain of misunderstandings and malice that ultimately lead to Monica releasing David into the woods instead of returning him to the factory to be destroyed. Enchanted as he is (for obvious reasons) by the story of Pinocchio, David sets off with his Mecha teddy bear, Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), on a naïve quest to find that story’s “Blue Fairy,” whom David hopes will turn him into a real boy.

Though David’s insides may be filled with “a hundred miles of fiber” instead of the usual organic viscera, A.I. goes to great lengths to demonstrate the boy’s heart—to the extent that such love is adjacent to obsession. David’s childlike innocence is the crux of the film, but that doesn’t stop others from seeing him as a threat because “if he was programmed to love, it’s possible he knows how to hate.” Of course, the development of a unique inner world, capable of independent thought which could very well embody both extremes, is what Dr. Hobby was after in the first place. But the ethical (and, indeed, moral) dilemma is articulated directly within the film’s first 10 minutes: the question isn’t whether it’s possible to create a robot that can love, but rather to what extent a person can love it back.

A.I. injects some incisive sociocultural commentary into its Flesh Fair scene, in which rogue Mecha have been rounded up to be elaborately and spectacularly destroyed in front of bleachers packed with hooting rubes. The fear of the Other is rife within these scenes, and the animus against the Mecha serves as an imperfect parallel to the tendency to view outsiders as threatening and less than human. At the raucous Flesh Fair, David encounters and incidentally flees with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a love bot on the lam. For all the pizazz that this jaunty gigolo—Law studied film performances of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in preparing for the role—brings to the proceedings, he also throws a bit of a wrench into the philosophy, as he’s not built with the capacity for emotion or platonic love, yet nevertheless demonstrates loyalty to David and many other qualities we’d likely identify as distinctly human.

Ultimately, though, the film’s at-times inconsistent tone can perhaps be pinned on its origins. Based on Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” the film rights were initially procured by Stanley Kubrick in the late ‘70s and the project bounced around development limbo for ages. Spielberg helming the 2001 film was not merely a result of Kubrick’s 1999 death; Kubrick had tapped Spielberg to direct as early as 1985 and again when development was revived in the ‘90s, believing the film fit better with Spielberg’s sentimental sensibilities. One of the chief criticisms of the film is this sentimentality, especially on display in the coda.

After all, A.I. already had its perfectly bleak ending in place, with David trapped underwater, surrounded by the ruins of human society and transfixed by an amusement park statue of the Blue Fairy. A robot incessantly begging in vain for this cold, unfeeling statue to make him a real boy. A meditation on the human condition rendered hopeless and perfect. Instead, the film’s final 20 minutes involve the deus ex machina of highly evolved Mecha (easily mistaken for aliens) retrieving David from the abyss. After bringing him up to speed on the last 2,000 years, during which time humans have gone extinct, these beings are able to resurrect Monica from DNA for a single day, allowing David one last waltz through the paradise of his erstwhile home with the mother he adores above all else. So contented is David, that at this immaculate day’s conclusion, he actually falls asleep and begins to dream—in doing so achieving his long-sought-after desire to be no different than any other boy.

Surprisingly, this relatively criticized, tacked-on ending was not a Spielbergian contrivance; according to the director, “the whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s.” Nevertheless, despite some of the tonal inconsistencies, A.I. does offer a unique amalgam of the cold detachment of Kubrick with the warm heart of Spielberg, no matter who conceived of which elements. It’s a mix that visually and thematically seems to evoke the spirit of the question Dr. Hobby asks David directly in the film’s third act: is wishing for things that don’t exist a tragic human flaw or our greatest gift? Does it doom us to a lifetime of unfulfilled desire or propel us to “chase down our dreams”? With its seemingly bleak ending eventually yielding to one vivid burst of unbridled sentimentality, A.I. does perhaps try to have it both ways. It doesn’t get much more human than that.

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