[Nostalgia Week] Spielberg’s ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001) and the Power of “Mecha” Love

Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence: The Power of “Mecha” Love is a personal essay discussing my own nostalgic attachment to Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), my observations on the film’s portrayal of “mecha” love, and my thoughts on the film’s criticisms.

When I was a tween, I often found my mother watching obscure and dark films late at night (or at least films which, to me at the time, seemed obscure and dark. I don’t think Underworld (2003) would leave 22-year-old me shaking with nightmares). As a child, I would peer around the edge of the living room door left ajar, creeping inch by inch towards the lit screen, pleading with my mum to let me stay.

One evening, I wandered into the living room to find the boy from The Sixth Sense (1999) on the screen, playing a robotic child in a Spielberg sci-fi movie. I plopped down on the sofa and I gazed at the television with wonder and curiosity for the next two hours. I held my mum as we sniffled through the final scene, wiping away salty tears with our sleeves. I’m reminded of those tender moments whenever I watch Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), with every memorable scene expelling waves of nostalgic warmth that crash into me. David’s (Haley Joel Osment) childlike innocence reminds me of my own childhood – a period of life I’m sure many of us wish we could return to.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a Steven Spielberg directed sci-fi drama about David, a robotic boy who yearns to become a human child to recapture the love of his foster mother who abandoned him. He embarks on a mystical journey to make his wish come true. The development of A.I. initially began with Stanley Kubrick after he acquired the rights to Brian Aldiss’ story. Kubrick worked with various writers until the mid-1990s, developing the story over two decades. The film’s production hovered in development for years, as Kubrick felt that no child actor could convincingly portray a robotic child, and he instead wanted to use advanced computer-generated imagery for the role of David. Kubrick handed A.I. to Spielberg in 1995, but it was not until after Kubrick’s death in 1999 that the film gained momentum. A.I. went on to become a commercial success, grossing $235 million with Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score.

Haley Joel Osment gives a mesmerising performance as David, the first robotic child programmed to love. David is adopted by a Cybertronics employee Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose biological son Martin (Jake Thomas) contracted a rare disease and is kept in suspended animation. Monica begins to accept David as her son, but a series of unexpected circumstances force Monica to return David for destruction as is protocol for faulty robotics. Monica abandons David and his ‘supertoy’, Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), in the woods to fend for themselves. David begins a dangerous but fantastical journey to find the Blue Fairy (Meryl Streep) so that he can become a real boy for Monica. Along the way he meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a lover robot, whose assistance brings him to Professor Hobby (William Hurt), the creator of David. The film forms parallels with Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, with Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy inspiring David to wish for the same.

A young child, David, is surrounded by child-like, robotic figures all dressed in white. The one next to him looks very similar to himself.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The film layers nuanced and covert examples of the tensions between the organic humans and the mechanical robots, “orga” and “mecha”, from Martin’s jealousy towards David to the barbaric Flesh Fair band, whose sole purpose is to entertain crowds through the destruction of ‘illegal’ robotics. Gigolo Joe provides insight into this friction: “They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us”. A.I. poses moral questions about the responsibilities owed by “orga”, the creators of “mecha”: if a robot can love someone else, then what does that person owe to the imprinted robot? Can a human being love a robot back? “Didn’t God create Adam to love Him?”, Professor Hobby asks.

David’s travels lead him to an underwater Manhattan, where he comes across a figure resembling the Blue Fairy. Unbeknownst to him, it is a statue from a theme park on Coney Island. Believing the statue to be the Blue Fairy, David asks to be turned into a real boy, repeating his request every day for 2,000 years. Humans are now extinct, and Manhattan is buried under glacial ice, where the “mecha” has evolved into an advanced species known as Specialists. They use David’s memories to recreate his family home and explain that they cannot make him a real boy. However, they use Monica’s genetic material to bring her back for one day. David has the happiest day of his life with Monica, who tells David that she has always loved him. David falls asleep with Monica and goes to that place “where dreams are born”. John William’s poignant score and the poetic narration makes for a profound and emotionally complicated ending to a reimagined fairytale.

The film’s development possesses a gradual realisation of humanity’s wickedness for creating a machine with the ability to love and feel pain, without any sense of accountability for any harm caused to that machine, thus blurring the lines between “orga” and “mecha”. Simply put, all David wanted was to be loved, because that’s what he was programmed to do. We circle back to the beginning of the film, where a colleague asks Professor Hobby about the implications of creating a robot that can love. In the end, it was “mecha” who saved David, and it was “mecha” who made David happy. When A.I. was released, many critics faulted the sentimentality of the film’s ending. Many assumed that this was Spielberg’s doing, when it was actually Kubrick’s contribution. Spielberg introduced the darker elements, including the Flesh Fair scenes. The film’s ending signifies the depth of David’s determination to be accepted by Monica, that he was prepared to wait 2,000 years under frozen ice to make his dream come true. David finally has his wish granted, to be loved. While some might call this overly sentimental, the film provides closure for David’s story. It’s a beautifully written scene; a fairytale dream.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a fascinating hybrid of childlike wonder and cynicism. It’s a warm-hearted comfort film, and one that leaves me with new thoughts and interpretations with every watch. Threaded with outstanding performances, phenomenal visuals, and gentle nudges to Kubrick’s influence, A.I. is a gem that I’ll always hold close to my heart, and one that will always remind me of a treasured and shared experience with my mum.

Header image courtesy of Warner Bros.