Spielberg questions the meaning of love in A.I.

by Jean Simeon | 7/9/01 5:00am

Ever since his film "Jaws" in 1975, Steven Spielberg has been a quirky figure in the world of cinema. From "The Color Purple" to his 1993 masterpiece, "Schindler's List," he has shown both his technical virtuosity and his ability to craft characters that relate to his audience.

At the same time, he has drawn more than his fair share of ire from critics for his penchant for sentimentality. Critics, using the teary ending of "Saving Private Ryan" as an example, argue that Spielberg does not as much tell stories but tells his audience how they should feel.

"A.I." might be the film to win back these detractors. Combining both Spielberg's passionate stances against dehumanizing practices and his love for adventures, Mr. Spielberg creates an engrossing fairy tale lacking his trademark pathos but brimming with his awe toward technology and his passionate political feelings. It may not be his best film, but it's darn close.

A joint project between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, "A.I." employs both the Pinocchio story and the ideas of Philip K. Dick and Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" to imagine a world filled with sentient machines. But it isn't a movie about whether machines can be as emotionally developed as humans, but whether humans are emotionally developed enough to love machines.

Science fiction novels, such as Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," on which the movie "Blade Runner" is based, envision a future where robots and androids (human replicants in Dick's novel) are the scapegoats of the future. Spielberg brings to these texts the simplicity of a young child in a world that does not want him.

Haley Osment stars as David, a robot child who both resembles a boy and believes that he is a boy. In one of the savviest parts of the film, Spielberg begins the movie, which is essentially about a child's love for his mother, with the maternal symbol of the ocean while Ben Kingsley's voice tells us that much of the planet's surface has been flooded due to the melting of glaciers, creating massive famines. As a result, restrictions have been placed on childbearing, spiking the entrepreneurial instincts of Professor Hobby (William Hurt), David's inventor, to design robot children who "will genuinely love." Monica (Frances O'Connor) and Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) are the first parents of such a child. With the now famous refrain "cirrus, Socrates, particle," Monica unleashes David's everlasting love. Haley Osment, who gained well-deserved praise for his performance in the 1999 film "The Sixth Sense," adroitly skirts the line between the cuteness of children and the frigidity of robots, creating a character that you don't know whether to cuddle or to flee from.

In the second part of the film's triptych, David meanders through a futuristic dystopia where humans use robots for anything from housecleaning to sex and then toss them out to be destroyed. David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot designed to provide humans sexual pleasure, who is now on the loose. Mr. Law proves once again his determination that if he is going to play the same character in every one of his films, he'll play that character well.

Understandably due to collaborative nature of the film, it will elicit some banal conversations on whom should be given most of the credit for this work. The iciness of the film will be startling to those accustomed to Spielberg's warmer tones. The ending, which many seem to find fault in, manages to display a level of misanthropy uncanny even in the works of Kubrick. Spielberg, possibly toying with religious beliefs, has his hero reach eternal bliss only after the complete annihilation of the human race. Yet despite the novelties of "A.I.," it's undeniably Spielbergian. Roy Neary, Jim, Elliot, Oskar Schindler, Sinqu and now David are all part of a breed of dreamy individuals seeking to find their way through the brutal insanity that is humanity. "A.I." might just be the one Speilberg film that comments honestly on that trajectory.