Cross “2001” with “ET” and “Blade Runner” and throw in some “Pinocchio,” some “Wizard of Oz,” some “Velveteen Rabbit” and a touch of “Our Town,” and you might have some sense of what to expect from “A.I.” It is an ambitious, complex, provocative movie that is likely to lead to more late night college dorm debates than anything since the ones about “2001’s” monolith and the ape throwing the bone.
The movie is about David, who looks like a 12-year-old boy but is really a “mecha,” a highly developed robot. It is set in the world of the future, when the polar ice caps have melted and cities have been flooded. Population is strictly controlled, and robots that look and act like humans perform almost every service. Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) decides to take robots a step further and develop the first robot that can feel love. One of his employees, Henry (Sam Robards) is chosen to be the beta tester. Henry and his wife, Monica (Frances O’Connor), have a son, Martin, who is critically ill. At first, Monica is horrified by the idea of “adopting” a mechanical boy, but her need for love is so overpowering that she initiates the sequence that will bind David irrevocably to her forever. He immediately changes from a pleasant if emotionless toy into a child whose mother is his whole world. He loves, which means that he is needy, jealous, and He thinks like a three-year-old, calling for his mommy and wanting her all to himself.
Martin gets better and returns home. He and David are jealous of one another, and when Monica believes that David may be a threat to Martin, she sets him lose in the woods. David is determined to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into a real boy, as she did with Pinocchio, because he thinks that will make it possible for Monica to love him. In the woods, David meets up with other abandoned mechas, including a robot gigolo named Joe (Jude Law). As he searches for the Blue Fairy, he sees disturbing sights: a gladiator-style demolition derby where people pay to see the destruction of mecha, a decadent city reminiscent of the place where Pinocchio turned into a donkey, and a flooded metropolis where David meets someone from his past. Wherever he goes, he tries to become real, so he can return to his mother as someone she can love.
Developed by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg, this is a two-part invention of a movie that owes both its strengths and its weaknesses to the collaboration between two men of such prodigious talents and such different, even opposing sensibilities. Kubrick is the master of the cool image; Spielberg the master of the warm feeling. The juxtaposition of their influence is particularly apt for this story of the struggle between heart and brain, not just on the part of the mecha, but on the part of the orga (humans) as well.
Parents should know that the movie is rated PG-13 for some sexual references (Joe is a robot created to have sex with women, a crude joke about the equivalent for men) and some violence (mecha are destroyed, critically ill child, characters in peril). Children may also find the theme and some of the situations disturbing and may also be unsettled by the open-ended nature of the story, which leaves many questions unanswered. It will be most suitable for teens, who may enjoy debating some of the issues of love, vulnerability, the nature of humanity, the future of the human race, and even the meaning of life.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether what David feels is love, and Dr. Hobby’s real reason for creating him. Is there any way to make a robot “real?” If the movie is about making a machine that can feel, why is the title “Artificial Intelligence?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Blade Runner (for older teens and adults, due to violence and dark themes). They might like to read the Karel Kapek play, “R.U.R.,” which coined the term “robot” and raises some of the same issues. They might like to take a look at this site about the famous Turing Test developed by computer pioneer Alan Turing to determine whether a machine could think. Turing said that a machine could be considered intelligent if it could fool a person into thinking that he or she was communicating with another person.