Movie Review - A.I., - Haley Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards - Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2001

Reviewed by Henry Lawton
(Director, Group for the Psychohistorical study of Film)

[ A.I. = Artificial Intelligence ]



"A.l., is a very powerful depiction of the universal fantasy longing
for the lost perfect mother of childhood. A mother who will return love
felt by the child perfectly, simply, truly and forever
without qualification or condition."
-- The author

As I begin to write this, Speilberg's new film A. I. has only been out for a few days. It is too soon to know if he has made another box office blockbuster. Spielberg is responsible for more of the top 10 box office hits in history than any other director, so maybe it does not matter. Anything he does should be of interest to those of us attempting to look at film psychohistorically. A.I. is no exception.

It is a veritable cornucopia of shared fantasies that have haunted films at least since Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Since A.I. is one of those films which requires many viewings before one can begin to fully comprehend its multi-layered complexity, my comments here are a preliminary statement at best.

When I first began hearing about this film I was very excited because I thought it was going to examine questions that have long interested me about the psychohistorical meaning of the computer and man's relation to it. At best this is a minor concern, Speilberg is into far deeper issues.

*    *    * 

The film opens in the distant future. The ice caps have melted due to man's disregard of green-house gases and much of the earth has been flooded. Millions have died. Pockets of prosperity and "enlightenment" remain but much of the world fights for life as usual.

Man has developed the ability to make androids to do a wide variety of service functions (personal, sexual, technical, etc.). As in modern China, there is stringent population control. Couples can only have children if they are licensed by the state. An android maker (unlike Geppetto, he does not want a "real boy" of his own) hits upon a great idea -- for all those childless couples who, for whatever reason, cannot have a child but desperately want one, let's make one who will love perfectly, and without question, forever. Here we are suddenly confronted with a completely new spin on the Frankenstein fantasy. This goes beyond just creating life for the sake of creating life. The android will be part of the human world without being part of it.

The robot boy, David, is given to Monica and Henry, whose natural son, Martin, is in cryogenic suspended animation because of an, as yet, incurable disease. Can they bond to David thereby coming to terms with their loss? Here we see the fantasy that technology can solve any human problem. Man becomes his own GOD, of course, for the most altruistic of motives.

And, of course, the inconceivable happens, Martin is suddenly restored to them as they are making progress in bonding to David. Young Martin is not pleased to have a new brother, especially one who is not real. Sibling rivalry develops and David loses.

Monica, knowing no other way out of an insoluble conflict, takes David to the forest in true fairy tale fashion and, like the good but shallow mother she is, abandons him. It is reminiscent of a failed adoption. Monica cannot throw her natural son away but David, after all, is adopted so it's an easier decision. She is sad but her life will ultimately go back to relative normality.

It is not so simple for little David, his sun rises and sets on his mother. He has been programmed to love her totally and perfectly. Any alternative is unthinkable and not within his ability to imagine. He becomes an eternally innocent spectator/wanderer through a surreal world of futuristic garbage-robot throwaways. He meets Joe the Gigilo an android male prostitute whose sole function is to pleasure women.

They are both adrift in this underworld for reasons they never quite understand. Joe amiably helps David navigate some of the perils of the brave new world of the future. There is an unsettling passivity to little David, he sees/experiences with no real comprehension. He gets it into his head that if only he can find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio story he can be transformed into a real boy and then his mother will love him and all will be as it was. He and Joe go on a quest to achieve humanity, whatever that may be.

Along the way they are almost destroyed in a Flesh Fair -- a kind of ritualistic annihilation of discarded androids by human beings threatened with the proliferation of robots in their society. In an arena-like setting that evokes the Roman coliseum, the Christian-like androids, some with beatific smiles, are dispatched by boiling oil, gladiators (for want of a better term), riding motor cycles and wielding chain saws, etc.

The human crowd screams with maniacal pleasure at each new decimation, which reminds them they are flesh and blood, still in charge and still real. The way the androids are herded about, as they go to their demise, almost seerns reminiscent of the Jews on their way to the ovens of Auschwitz. But the sense of horror is different, the future has given us the perfect out-group (they are, after all, not human) to persecute as bacchanalian spectacle. The holocaust is there for us at will. . .

David and Joe make their way to a distopian city of the future and go to a computerized answer-man to find where the Blue Fairy is so that David can become a real boy that his mommy will love. Their quest leads them back to the robot maker, living in a flooded New York City, who has been observing David's quest the whole time. He is very pleased that David has found his way back to him.

David meets a replication of himself and kills him. It is an unsettling scene because we wonder if he is indeed moving toward humanity. They run away, Joe is caught, and David tries to fly away but crashes into the sea and comes to rest in the sunken remains of Coney Island before, you guessed it, a representation of the Blue Fairy. At last, thinks David, he will become a real boy and mommy will then love him. But he is trapped and remains there. . .

2000 years go by. The earth is frozen in a new ice age. Humans appear to be no more. We see an archeological team of aliens excavating New York. They come across the frozen remains of David and resuscitate him, thinking that perhaps he is human. They have tried to recreate humans from DNA remains but they will only live one day. Thus they know little of those who once ruled earth. David has some of his mother's hair, and the aliens agree to give them one day together. So David is at last reunited with her in perfect love. They spend a quiet, peaceful and ultimately heartbreaking day together.

This will be all there ever will be; there will be nothing more. As his mother drifts off to sleep, a perfectly happy David crawls in bed heside her and sleeps. He has found his peace. The aliens realize that David is unique, the last of his kind; though not real, he is perhaps more human than his creators ever imagined possible. . .

But then the idea of the android who seems more human than man is hardly new. I doubt any of you may remember Creation of the Humanoids (1962), the first example of this fantasy that I can think of. More recently there has been Blade Runner (1982) and Terminator 2 (1991). Implicit in such films is a powerful, not always obvious, fantasy that machines are the salvation of man.

Perhaps most importantly, Al, is a very powerful depiction of the universal fantasy longing for the lost perfect mother of childhood. A mother who will return love felt by the child perfectly, simply, truly and forever without qualification or condition. David searches with perfect zeal for what we all long for to some extent in our heart of hearts; that is, after all, what he was built to do.

He is the ultimate outsider, not unlike Mary Shelly's vision in her novel, but in some ways more human than those who made him. Speilberg is freer here with emotional pain than in any other of his films. David is programmed to do whatever he needs to in order that he might regain the lost love of his mommy. He does not seem aware of the emotional pain he endures in his quest but we, the viewers, are.

Despite its visual dazzle, I found this film very sad and felt on the verge of tears more than once. It is hard to know if Spielberg was groping for something universal, but this film is certainly his richest depiction of his stock fantasy-theme of the lost child found. This may be his most personal film to date. He is at a time in his life where he can allow himself the effort to finally try to work through more fully an important emotional theme in his life than he has been able to do in the past. We should welcome his effort, and perhaps allow ourselves to learn from it.

Does this film communicate fantasies currently shared in the society? What are the shared fantasies of our time? Certainly anxiety of one kind or another has to be pretty high on the list. We seem to be increasingly and more worried about everything -- business and finance, crime, juvenile delinquency, illegal drug use, education, the weather, traffic, mysterious health problems, energy costs, how can our economy still maintain growth, who is responsible if the bubble bursts; everything seems to have a tinge of menace and danger.

We continue to worry about our lack of an external enemy. The search goes on for promising candidates. For the moment, at least, interest seems to be focusing on the Chinese and terrorists. There is the dichotomy between liberal and conservative that seems to be coming more intense over the better part of the last 20 years in its competition for the hearts and minds of the people. There are intermittent fantasies of dangerous, devouring women, who seem to dominate and take charge. We seem to like such fantasy figures, but never want to get too close.

In this sense A.l. appears quite out of step. Monica seems rather shallow but David's intensely idealized fantasies of her make her somehow seem perfect and wonderful which allows us to suspend disbelief. As usual, Spielberg's characters are all fantasy figures -- representations of what seems real.

I doubt A.l. will do well at the box office, even though it is brilliantly done and communicates a fantasy we all feel to some extent. We can almost believe David's peace at the end of the film. It can almost be our peace over finding the ideal mommy of our childhood -- lost forever, or so we thought. But the film has to end, and as we leave the theater to return to the real world, many of us may find it hard to forgive Speilberg for taking away what we have dreamed of for so long. . .

(NOTE: - This was obviously written before the events of 11 September 2001. There are some parallels with what happened in the film but they were not clear when I wrote this.)

Want to read another excellent movie review of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)? See A.I.

Henry Lawton has been an independent scholar for 25 years in psychohistory and a contributing editor of the Journal of Psychohistory since 1977. Founder and Director of the Group for the Psychohistorical Study of Film, from 1989 to the present, he is also the author of The Psychohistorian's Handbook. He has published and lectured on a wide array of psychohistorical subjects in various publications, conferences, and universities all over the world.

Return to the Regression Therapy Book Index

Return to the Primal Psychotherapy Homepage