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Spielberg’s ‘A.I.’ Divided Critics, but It’s the Ultimate Coming-of-Age Story 20 Years Later

Movies don't change, we do. And where you are in life may affect how you receive the heartbreaking vision of this film.

Spielberg's 'A.I.' Divided Critics, but It's the Ultimate Coming-of-Age Story 20 Years Later

“A.I.”

I was already 16 years old when “A.I.” hit theaters on the last weekend of June 2001, but Steven Spielberg’s unnerving techno-fable has always felt like the last film that I ever saw as a child.

To a certain extent, of course, everything that happened before the end of that summer would soon be recast in a soft new light. Spielberg had imagined the World Trade Center would serve as a lasting memorial for our entire species more than 2,000 years in the future, poking through the ice floor of a frozen New York City like two ancient footstones in a half-forgotten graveyard; when the Twin Towers collapsed less than three months later, the adults on TV commemorated the carnage as a generational “loss of innocence,” and I remembered Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) apologizing to the young android that she abandoned in the woods: “I’m sorry for not telling you about the world.”

But through all the personal tumult that followed — going to college, flailing around, finding a job, going to grad school, dropping out of grad school, flailing again — rewatching “A.I.” made it seem like no time had passed. Whenever I found the film on cable it felt like I had stumbled upon some immaculately preserved artifact from a lost civilization, as strange to find on HBO as “Mare of Easttown” would be to see on display at the Museum of Natural History. It seemed at once both ancient and incapable of aging, frozen in ice (or the thick caramel of Spielbergian amber) from the moment it was first made.

And I was frozen with it. People change, movies don’t. That’s what makes them worth seeing again. If cinema can sometimes be thought of as a fixed point on the horizon — a flickering lighthouse that measures your perspective from it — it’s more than a little disorienting to see a movie from the exact same distance over the course of 10 or 15 years. For all of the time that had passed, rewatching “A.I.” would leave me feeling as if I were still lost in the dark of the three-screen Connecticut theater where I first saw it on opening night. I was still that unblinking David, forever young and shipwrecked in a world where nothing felt as real or inalienable as a mother’s love.

If I had gotten older, why did the film’s fairy tale ending — widely misdiagnosed as a symptom of Spielberg’s multiplex sentimentality, even though few aspects of the finished product more clearly reflect Stanley Kubrick’s work on it than a coda that echoes the post-human domesticity of Bowman’s deathbed in “2001” — still hit me like a 10-ton battering ram of unalloyed sadness? If mecha David could find comfort in the shade of his long-lost mother, why did I remain inconsolable at the idea of only having one perfect day to spend with a parent before they faded away forever? If he got to become “a real boy,” why didn’t I believe in that transformation?

“A.I.” wasn’t the last film I saw as a child because I was on the cusp of adulthood, it was the last film I saw as a child because I was never able to watch it any other way. At least not until I had a child of my own.

“A.I.”

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From the moment it starts, “A.I.” positions time and love in an irreconcilable pas de deux — the two forces braid around each other in desperate search of a knot. First comes time: It’s the 22nd century, the oceans have risen, and humanity is doing everything it can not to drown. Then comes love: If the undying androids we’ve created were able to feel affection for us, and even spark that same affection in return (the next evolution of the Turing Test), could they become the life raft our species needs?

For Professor Hobby (William Hurt), they already have. He loses his son because time does not yield to love, and he eventually creates David in his son’s image because love does not yield to time. David is adopted/alpha-tested by a pair of grieving parents because he can never get sick, but the cutting-edge robot child fails to replace their son, for all purposes “dead” because of being placed into an induced coma that seems permanent, for much the same reason. David’s profoundly uncertain foster mommy (Frances O’Connor) can’t get close to him without plunging into the uncanny valley.

It begins, as most parenthood does, like a horror movie. David arrives at the glassy Swinton household in an invasive smear of broken light, and his docile overeagerness proves immediately disconcerting. Unnatural. He looks like a child, but he personifies the absence of one. (Haley Joel Osment is astounding even by the standards of a young actor in a Spielberg movie, his asymptotic portrayal of an android so perfectly almost-but-not-quite human that it feels like a preview of what CGI and motion-capture have been trying to achieve ever since). Monica is so terrified of having this robot son in the house that she tries to make him real, and the moment when she imprints on David is so bizarre and unambiguous that — as I only recently discovered first-hand — it manages to capture the breathless immensity of becoming a parent better than any other movie that comes to mind. It’s like being re-born into the only body you’ve ever known.

The imprinting process unlocks David’s programmatic sense of love, and it’s telling that death is the first thing on his mind when he looks up to Monica and calls her “mommy.” The love that a child has for a parent feels permanent, in the way that everything seems like it will last forever when you’re a kid. David can’t fathom living without Monica any more than we can imagine how a cutting-edge piece of technology will one day be obsolete. To love something is to be afraid of losing it, and to be human is to hold on for dear life. That’s why David only begins to seem “real” to us in a meaningful way after Monica abandons him in the woods — an act of unbearable mercy on her way to dispose of her stand-in son at the facility where he was made. Monica winces as David begs for her to keep him, and we share both of their pain (the shot of David receding in the side mirror of Monica’s car alone and confused reflects an agony that every parent knows all too well, albeit hopefully from less harried circumstances).

The second act of “A.I.” is held together by a terrible irony: Although condemned to be a child forever, David is granted only the briefest of childhoods before the maternal safety of his white-collar world is undone by a sudden act of betrayal and replaced with a moonlit thunderdome of man-on-machine barbarity. The erratic middle section of the movie speeds David through adolescence in all of its volatility, as the newborn android clings to his childhood desire through a neon carnival of sex and violence that takes him from the woods outside Rouge City to the drowned ruins of old New York (where the Blue Fairy is supposedly waiting to make him into a real boy).

The first stop on that adventure is the Flesh Fair, a sort of Disco Demolition Night for last-gen robots. The variety of these mechas is fantastic, as is the pronounced thingness of their design; I’ve always been struck by how stoic the robots are in the face of public mutilation, as if their acceptance of death (and not their oblong metal bodies or giant screen-faces) were the most glaringly inhuman thing about them. David, on the other hand, is terrified of being dismantled before he can be made “real,” and that fear alone is enough to get him some of the way there. It helps fool the bloodthirsty crowd, who have come together in order to mollify their own fears of obsolescence. But nothing lasts forever, and the hate that’s made by their efforts to stop time burns out so fast that it’s basically an act of self-immolation.

After surviving the Flesh Fair intact, David is escorted to the sunken tomb of Manhattan (a combination of practical and computer-generated effects that stands as one of cinema’s most awe-inspiring lost cities) by Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe, a perfect foil for the the young robot boy because he’s been intimate with every woman in Rouge City and remains so clearly incapable of love. Joe’s final words as he’s pulled away from David and condemned to certain doom are delivered with the matter-of-factness of a computer file being dragged to the trash: “I am… I was.” And then he is no more. The only future he has is the one that he’s given David.

“A.I.”

I remember sitting in the backseat of an Uber on the way home from the hospital with my newborn son in November 2019 and staring over the FDR drive as a newscaster on the radio delivered a report about how rising sea levels could threaten to put New York at least partially underwater by 2050. I remember looking down at the littlest boy, asleep in his carseat and oblivious to everything but his dreams, and thinking: “Sorry about that, kid. Better luck next time.” I even remember thinking about “A.I.,” and the world that he’d be inheriting one day. On such an accelerated timeline, how much of the movie’s doomed vision of humanity would he live to see first-hand? That moment naturally came to mind as I recently rewatched the final passages of Spielberg’s epic, and it was strange to realize that the last film I saw as a child was the first film I thought about after having one of my own. In hindsight, Professor Hobby offered the perfect words to swaddle my self-absorption: “Didn’t God create Adam to love Him?”

To become a parent is to become unstuck in time. It’s a fourth-dimensional experience. On the one hand, you’re locked into the present moment by an utterly helpless creature and the all-consuming urgency of keeping it alive; your view of the world doesn’t extend any further than the next feeding or (potential) nap. On the other hand, the reality of what’s happening is too surreal for your mind to make sense of it head-on, so in a desperate bid for context it diverts your attention deep into your memories of the past and your anxieties for the future.

It’s like being trapped inside of an infinity mirror. You think about how your own parents were once in the same position as you are now, and then — similar to how David worried about when his mommy would die, but from the opposite side of the street — you also start projecting forward to the awful moment when your child won’t need you anymore. You recognize your tiny place in the universe with previously impossible clarity, and understand on a macro level that all the hoopla (Balloons! Registries! Instagram Stories!) of bringing life into this world is meant to distract from the fact that birth is the single most common experience we live to share. The defining moment of your existence leaves the dull aftertaste of tears in the rain; it’s the least special thing you’ll ever do. The act of having a child is nothing if not tacit acknowledgement of the fact that you’re part of the great cosmic churn — a temporary visitor in an impermanent place.

All of these thoughts can hit you on the car ride home if you listen to the wrong radio station. It doesn’t take very long for them to start forming, and time becomes almost completely irrelevant once you realize that you’ll never have enough of it. Love is the only thing that can last — the only thing that never grows obsolete.

And while I still find it all but impossible to appreciate that truth on a day-to-day basis (because I’m a hyper-anxious writer and not a self-actualized monk), I couldn’t even begin to believe it when I saw “A.I.” at 16. I knew that David’s perfect day with Monica — a Tralfamadorian parlor trick concocted by the super-futuristic robots who thaw the boy out from his 2,000-year audience with the Blue Fairy at Coney Island — was supposed to be a happy ending of sorts, but I couldn’t even agree to “bittersweet.” And that some critics, locked into bad-faith assumptions of Spielbergian bathos, argued it was too schmaltzy!? Did we even see the same movie? Because the one I watched had left me in tatters, broken on the shoals of my own too-literal interpretation.

“A.I.”

I couldn’t get past the ocean of sadness that surrounded the whole situation. How could someone enjoy an idyllic day with their mom if they knew it would be the last one they’d ever spend together? How could that one happy memory sustain David for the eternity that awaits him when he wakes up the next morning (if he even wakes up the next morning, as the cryptic final line of Ben Kingsley’s bedtime story narration invokes dreaming in a way that leaves room for death). Monica is gone. Professor Hobby is gone. Even Adrian Grenier is gone. What’s so maudlin about the extinction of mankind, and our abject failure at preventing another ice age? It seemed like a bad trade-off for some prefab nostalgia and a chance for Monica to say the only words that David had ever wanted to hear.

It hurt because I didn’t believe that any of it was true. Love outside the boundaries of time felt like a perverse lie to me. Sitting inches away from the Blue Fairy for 2,000 years and feeling cruelly betrayed by the promise of forever? That seemed more honest. Forever was what I wanted. I couldn’t imagine how a robot being loved by his long-dead mommy — let alone the clone Monica who’s rebuilt for the purposes of David’s fantasy simulation — would make David a real boy. I could only identify with him so far. His willingness to accept her affection in that scenario made it feel all too fake because I knew that losing my own parents would leave me inconsolable no matter how beautiful the end of our time was together. It did once, and it probably will again someday.

But everything else has changed. I suspected that watching “A.I.” for the first time since becoming a father would be a different experience, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be watching it through entirely different eyes. With my son asleep in the next room, and my legs crossed on the couch in the same way that my dad would always sit when he did the crossword puzzle under a plume of white cigar smoke, it was like I was being shown the negative image of a movie that I knew by heart. I was still seeing the story from David’s POV, but I was no longer seeing it from only David’s POV (if this says more about my former myopia than it does my current understanding, then so be it).

I used to be so jealous of his immunity to time, and sad that he was punished for it. I thought that it made David incapable of expressing real love, or receiving it, or of being real himself. But now that my father is more present to me in death than he ever was in life, and the joy I take in my son is so frequently articulated through my imagined fears of what the future might hold for him or turn him into, I can’t pretend that I still have the same grasp over what makes someone “real” in the first place. Time is no longer the impenetrable force that I once believed it to be because I can better appreciate how love moves through it.

That’s less of a novel idea than it is an inevitable one, and it’s been explored in movies before and since, large and small. To quote another uneven sci-fi epic that will probably hit different as a parent: “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” But where Christopher Nolan’s physics-driven approach in “Interstellar” couldn’t help but fray apart when his film went beyond known science, Spielberg’s more fable-like thinking accommodates the soft anxiety of the human imagination.

I still shake my head at Professor Hobby’s folly, but now I’m also moved by how the android he Frankensteins together from the residual love he carries for his comatose son allows them both to cheat death. I’m still wary of how David imprints on Monica after she reads him a string of code words, but now I recognize that human parents hardwire their kids in much the same way. I’m still unsure about the fairy tale logic that allows the super robots to reanimate Monica for a single day, but now I’m struck by the objective fact of how David (and Teddy’s!) affections — regardless if natural or programmed — allows her memory to survive the extinction of our species, and then become the memory of our species.

In his deathless search for love, David becomes the ultimate vessel for it. There may be other androids just like him (it’s unclear if Professor Hobby’s invention ever went to market), and they may have had more accommodating mothers, but David is unique because the love he carries for Monica quite literally allows his mommy to be real again, and in doing so it sees him become the only son humanity has left. The super robots designate him as an original because he actually knew a living person — he’s the realest boy in the whole wide world.

Watching “A.I.” used to leave me with the same disembodying queasiness that sweeps over David when he returns to the lab where he was invented, and his quest to become a real boy is undone by the discovery that he’s been mass-produced. I would feel seasick waves of recognition at the sight of the deathless robot boy sticking his face into the hollowed out husk of his own prototype, the blue of his irises shining through the empty sockets like a ghost haunting its own discarded shell. I used to be pained by the artifice of that final sequence because it’s set 2,000 years after Monica’s death, and I didn’t believe anything could survive that long. But now I find it unbearably genuine for the same reason. Love doesn’t exist in defiance of time — love is the defiance of time. Re-watching “A.I.” now, I feel like I’m finally starting to grow up.

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