It’s a shame to think of a legendary director as a soulless till-ringer, but ever since 2005 Steven Spielberg’s films have been nothing but disappointing moneyspinners. Throughout his entire career there have been peaks and troughs, but he’s never been quite this consistently poor. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was flaccid and empty and his executive producer credit on the Transformers films is near unforgivable.
It has been almost 10 years since Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) was released in UK cinemas, and I’ve recently re-watched it for the first time in a couple of years. The first time I saw the film (aged 11), I was heartbroken and made it my favourite film of all time. In the years since, during which I’ve seen endless reviews complaining about its parentage (often seen as the lovechild of the late Kubrick and director Spielberg), critics have decried Spielberg’s attempts to fuse Kubrickian intellectual coldness and emotional distantiation with his trademark sentimentalism, most commonly citing the final half hour sequence as a pretentious and willfully obtuse conclusion tacked onto an overhyped fairytale.
I’ll admit that on my most recent viewing, the ending did feel strange, but by no means would I argue that it spoiled the film, nor would I suggest avoiding seeing it. A.I. marks one of Spielberg’s best films, most prominently because for the most part it shies from feeding the audience simple answers. The first segment, in which loving child-cyborg David (Haley Joel Osment) is presented to the Swinton family (having previously lost their own human child) is charming and sweet, yet there is a powerful undercurrent of darkness, stemming from the child’s fear of rejection at the hands of his adoptive brother and parents. Much like Terrence Malick’s recently released The Tree of Life (2011), A.I. has an acute sense of a child’s mind, in all its love and pain.
As David is abandoned and thrown into an adolescence fraught with intolerance and intentional ignorance on the part of adults, he learns a self-confidence every child must, and his steadfast determination to find his mother and make her love him never seems crazy, despite the dreadful circumstances he finds himself in. Credit must go to Haley Joel Osment, whose performance is balanced just on the right side of otherwordly – he appears unreal and yet totally honest.
Jude Law offers solid support, although it is often difficult to understand the usefulness of his character. Frances O’Connor and William Hurt offer the best supporting roles as David’s ‘mother’ and creator. As Monica, O’Connor moves heartbreakingly from utter emotional confusion to serene object of her child’s love, and Hurt is ever-so-subtle and calming as David’s one-time father. The moments in which we realise his investment in David’s plight are strikingly powerful.
Ultimately the film reaches a point of exhaustion, as David’s search for transformation into a ‘real live boy’, and thus his mother’s love reaches its rightful climax, after which the film continues towards its narrative end. The open, unexpectedness of the denouement only helps generate the flotation-tank sensation of placidity the film keeps until its close, one which I now find a little lacking, because of its sentimentality. But once again, even as it gives us something of a comforting close, there remains a leap of faith we as an audience must take to allow ourselves the catharsis.
There’s so much to pull out of A.I., and if this Blu-ray rerelease does nothing more than remind people to give it another try, it’s been worthwhile.