We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Greatness and miscalculation fight for screen space in Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," a movie both wonderful and maddening. Here is one of the most ambitious films of recent years, filled with wondrous sights and provocative ideas, but it miscalculates in asking us to invest our emotions in a character that is, after all, a machine.
"What responsibility does a human have to a robot that genuinely loves?" the film asks, and the answer is: none. Because the robot does not genuinely love. It genuinely only seems to love. We are expert at projecting human emotions into non-human subjects, from animals to clouds to computer games, but the emotions reside only in our minds. "A.I." evades its responsibility to deal rigorously with this trait and goes for an ending that wants us to cry, but had me asking questions just when I should have been finding answers.
At the center of the movie is an idea from Brian Aldiss' 1969 short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," about an advanced cybernetic pet that is abandoned in the woods. When real household animals are abandoned, there is the sense that humans have broken their compact with them. But when a manufactured pet is thrown away, is that really any different from junking a computer? (I hope Buzz Lightyear is not reading these words.) From a coldly logical point of view, should we think of David, the cute young hero of "A.I.," as more than a very advanced gigapet? Do our human feelings for him make him human? Stanley Kubrick worked on this material for 15 years, before passing it on to Spielberg, who has not solved it, either. It involves man's relationship to those tools that so closely mirror our own desires that we confuse them with flesh and blood; consider that Charles Lindbergh's autobiography We is about himself and an airplane. When we lose a toy, the pain is ours, not the toy's, and by following an abandoned robot boy rather than the parents who threw him away, Spielberg misses the real story.
The film opens with cerebral creepiness, as Professor Hobby (William Hurt) presides at a meeting of a company that makes humanoid robots (or "mechas"). We are in the future; global warming has drowned the world's coastlines, but the American economy has survived, thanks to its exploitation of mechas. "I propose that we build a robot that can love," Hobby says.