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In science fiction, technological progress is often portrayed as bringing humankind ever closer to God in terms of understanding and exploiting the universe. At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” a scientist with the interesting name of Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) expounds before a group of underlings on the need to cross that last frontier of artificial intelligence: love. An employee wonders out loud if programming machines to love isn’t morally objectionable. “Didn’t God create Adam so that he might love Him?” responds Hobby, rhetorically, not realizing that he just answered the employee’s question with a resounding “yes.”

A.I.
Rating: * * * * Director: Steven Spielberg Running time: 146 minutes Language: EnglishShowing at Shibuya Cine Tower and other theaters

Steven Spielberg’s tale of a robot boy programmed to love his “mommy” is a good example of how a movie’s theme can overwhelm its content, but stylistically it’s a considerable achievement.

Spielberg’s conception of an ecologically ruined future where couples are limited to one offspring by law is immediately comprehensible; and the world of the robots, or “mechas” as they’re called here, is rendered with believable dramatic force. David (Haley Joel Osment), the experimental robot child “who will love forever,” is eventually turned out of the home where he has been sent to comfort a woman (Frances O’Connor) whose own son had been dying from a seemingly incurable disease.

Accompanied by his teddy bear adviser and a fugitive “love mecha” named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), David sets out on a journey to find the Blue Fairy (from “Pinocchio”), who he believes will turn him into a real boy that his mommy can love back.

In its finished form, “A.I.” is less of a fairy tale than what the late Stanley Kubrick, who initiated the project, had in mind. Spielberg has turned it into a dark meditation on mortality and obsession, but those who miss Spielberg’s patented sentimentality need only wait until the utterly unbelievable ending to get what they want.

The premise of Spielberg’s script (the first he has taken sole credit for since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) is that love is the core experience of human existence. The direct communication of this unextraordinary theme right at the beginning is so central to Spielberg’s purposes — the director told the New York Times his greatest fear is people “won’t get” the movie — that he risks losing the audience. We are conditioned to suspend disbelief for science fiction, so Hobby’s explanation of artificially derived devotion in a robot seems terribly long-winded. But to Spielberg it is a non-negotiable necessity. He wants us to believe that these robots are within our theoretical grasp.

“A.I.” is based on a project that Stanley Kubrick had been developing prior to his death in 1999. Though the director had been thinking about the movie for more than 20 years, he eventually brought Spielberg in, believing that “A.I.” was more Spielberg’s kind of film. For sure, the basic plot, adapted from a short story by Brian Aldiss, takes up a number of themes that the younger director explored successfully in “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “Empire of the Sun”: the meaning of family, abandonment, social isolation and our place in the cosmos.

As usual, the future is a clean and scary place. The polar ice caps have melted, resources are scarce, and humans depend even more on machines for survival and comfort. Dr. Hobby’s ideas about “machines that can love forever” (as opposed to those that can provide sex, which are already available) is not just academic speculation. He means to introduce the first robot child to a society, where, by law, couples are limited to only one offspring.

Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) are chosen to receive the prototype. Their own son, Martin, has been struck down by an unnamed disease and cryogenically frozen until a cure is found. At first, Monica refuses to take the experimental robot boy. “There is no substitute for your own child,” she screams, but Spielberg patiently shows how her defenses are breached after David (Haley Joel Osment), unblinking, smooth-skinned and utterly obedient, enters her life. “I like your floor,” is the first thing he says, programmed to please with a compliment so banal it transcends irony.

Monica is herself something of a construct: a walking, talking maternal instinct. We learn nothing about her that isn’t related to Martin or David. Kubrick apparently perceived her as a more central, and therefore complicated, character. In Kubrick’s treatment, David’s innocence and, later, his devotion literally drive Monica to drink (uncomprehending of his role in her spiritual malaise, David dutifully mixes those drinks). Spielberg, however, is not as interested in Monica as a person as he is in her role as David’s enabler. You can think of a million reasons why she should not take the final step of “imprinting” David to love her (he will never die or change; he will always crave attention), but Monica is needy for the love of a child, almost irrationally so. The problem is that David’s love for her can never be reversed. If she decides she no longer wants him, she is supposed to return him to Dr. Hobby to be destroyed.

Martin is miraculously cured and returns to the nest. For the first time, the film’s aims become totally dramatic, and, freed from the need to keep his thematic house of cards standing, Spielberg does a good job of elaborating on sibling rivalries and the toll they take on parents. David is not wired to respond to Martin’s sarcasm and competitiveness, and the flesh-and-blood rival, instantly understanding that David’s entire existence revolves abound “Mommy” (the robot boy still calls his adoptive father “Henry”), uses this knowledge to set Monica against him. After a boyish experiment involving Martin’s friends results in David almost killing his “brother,” Monica cuts the apron strings in what one critic has already called the most heart-wrenching scene since Bambi’s mother was shot.

Alone in the world with only his “super toy” teddy bear adviser — a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Mr. Spock — David is befriended by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a “love mecha” who services lonely “orga” women and who is on the run after being framed for murder. David and Joe embark on an odyssey to find the Blue Fairy, who turned Pinocchio into a real boy in a story Monica once read to David. The robot boy thinks that if he finds the Blue Fairy himself, she will turn him into a real boy that Monica can love back.

Kubrick, in fact, said that he was thinking of naming his movie “Pinocchio” (“A.I.” was a working title, but considering Speilberg’s success with initials, it seems a fortuitous one), and Spielberg’s script closely adheres to the plot line of the famous Disneyfied fairy tale, making notable cinematic sidetracks to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mad Max,” “Blade Runner” and “E.T.” “A.I.,” however, is not the first tale of a robot boy who wanted to become human. Osamu Tezuka’s comic and animated robot superhero Tetsuwan Atom (“Astro Boy” in the West) also longed to be a real boy. Spielberg never allows us to forget that David’s “emotions” are programmed, and therefore inviolable. Similarly, Atom’s conception of truth and justice derive from his function as a helper robot who sacrifices himself for the benefit of humans.

Near the end, when Dr. Hobby meets up with David once again, he marvels at how successful his experiment has turned out. David has survived capture by antimecha fanatics and, with the help of Gigolo Joe, has searched out the Blue Fairy through his own resources. His hot-wired capacity for love has morphed into an intellect that supersedes the mere “survival instincts” programmed into other robots. In effect, David’s “desire” to become a real boy represents a technological leap, and along the way love has branched off into other, corollary emotions, such as jealousy, anger and despair. In a truly shocking scene, David comes across another “innocent” robot boy and savagely destroys it.

It is this technological leap that Spielberg wants us to “get.” In a recent interview he made for Japanese TV, Spielberg said that the film shows how humans should be responsible for their creations, which, taken at face value, sounds like a plea for more effective recycling measures. By any human standard David is rendered profoundly miserable by technology, and it’s obvious that we in the audience are expected to identify with his separation complex.

The middle part of the film, which chronicles David and Joe’s odyssey, is exceptional fantasy filmmaking. “A.I.” is the first Spielberg film ever set in the future, and one settles into it quickly and comfortably. The mechas, which represent a wide cross section of services, have been conceived and executed with great care, not only in terms of appearance, but behavior, as well. In the wild Flesh Fair episode, mechas in various states of disrepair await to be blown apart or melted with acid for the entertainment of a snarling, boozing crowd, and while the robots resist their destruction, they do so with a creepy air of detachment.

Except, of course, for David, who is defined by his emotional engagement, thus making him creepy in a completely different way. Once the robot boy appears, Osment is in every scene. It says as much about his actor’s instincts as it does about Spielberg’s direction that David is often difficult to watch. He is a “good boy” in the worst way. When Monica asks David if he sleeps, he replies with a cheerful Dr. Seuss couplet, “I can never sleep, but I can lay quietly and not make a peep.” Osment, who has so far played Jesus Christ and a kid who can talk to dead people, is in danger of becoming Hollywood’s token miracle boy, but his evolution from a conscienceless machine (he “enjoys” sitting at the dinner table pretending to eat) to the orphan at the end of the world is amazingly whole.

David’s potential to suffer forever is a nagging reminder throughout the latter half of the movie of our own mortality. It’s why the ending, which is similar in tone to the famous ending of “2001,” only with Cliff Notes attached, is close to ridiculous. David achieves New Age closure. But by this juncture, anyone with a heart has “gotten” the point. Programmed response and the spiritual need for love have blurred to the point of indistinction when David receives comfort from a lie. In that sense, he is human. Either that or we are all robots.

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