Classic Films

A.I. Is the Best Film of the 21st Century

Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. (Warner Bros.)
Spielberg’s prescient epic of faith remains miraculous.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the best film of the 21st century, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which opened June 29, 2001. The title suggests the opposite of mindfulness. It points to soul, the spirit — an unexpected theme for a movie that gestated from Spielberg’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, popularly considered the most cerebral of all filmmakers. Each man exchanges his sentiments and alarms. It’s the toymaker’s and the intellectual’s private joke made public.

No other millennial movie went so deep as A.I. into universal experience — the secret needs of childhood that are forgotten in adulthood. Although based on the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” by Brian Aldiss, it most significantly re-creates the 1883 Carlo Collodi classic Pinocchio. Walt Disney’s 1940 animated version is a touchstone for Spielberg and his special regard for childhood innocence. He updates the story of a puppet who longs to be a real boy into a modern tale about sensitivity-equipped robot David (perfectly acted by The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment), who desires to achieve human fulfillment. It combines dark sci-fi futuristic fantasy with the emotional amplitude of classic fairy tales. Spielberg-Kubrick’s conceit confronts pop nihilism and resolves it, which is why stupid reviewers castigated a film that demands reconsideration today.

Ian Simmons and I, on his Kicking the Seat podcast, recently discussed A.I.’s prophetic aspects — specifically the story’s class divide, according to which rich citizens of the post-diluvian world enjoy the profligate luxuries of technological human simulation (robot David is used as substitute for the ailing child of a wealthy couple, Monica and Henry), while the unrefined working class objects to the upper class’s inhumane domination. (Simmons made a Silicon Valley association that helps reveal A.I.’s sociological prescience.)

Spielberg’s Flesh Fair sequence shows the rowdy class waving American flags and cheering crude heavy-metal music during a Luddite demolition derby against the fiber-optic, cybertronic metallic toys — artifacts of leisure-class decadence. The carnival uncannily resembles the “Save America” rallies that today’s corporate media either mock or ignore.

When A.I. debuted just three months before 9/11, no one imagined that America would become a nation where citizens’ liberties were curtailed by Silicon Valley overlords through methods of artificial intelligence and virtual-reality substitutes for humanity. But this extraordinary sequence predicts the conditions of emotional totalitarianism — the visceral hatred, the lack of love — that amounts to political persecution.

It resonates in two ways: panic among humans, and also among mechanicals (Mechas) such as David and the fugitive adult robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who are fleeing the threat of roundups, witch hunts, and capture. A charred Flesh Fair robot (voiced by comedian Chris Rock) grins at the audience. Symbolizing historical lynchings, this image evokes today’s twisted political rhetoric in which media elites use race victimization to further a bifurcated class culture. Who could have guessed, in 2001, that this powerfully disturbing sequence could be reversed — or that Spielberg and Kubrick knew that “Jim Crow” rhetoric and race exploitation would be revived? A.I.’s speculative fiction shows us the terror that has come true.

When David escapes the Flesh Fair, scenes of his woodland wandering recall the fairy-tale splendor and menace of Bambi and Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, followed by the sexual extremes of Rouge City — from childhood innocence to adult corruption — that David must traverse while seeking transformation. David is the opposite of Hal 9000, the murderous automaton of 2001: A Space Odyssey that was the ultimate product of self-annihilating egotism. David moves toward religiosity through ideation, quizzing Rouge City’s computer guru Dr. Know for the whereabouts of the Blue Fairy. David’s adventure, a search for ineffable love, touches on the sublime.

After the apocalypse, A.I.’s Pinocchio figure uses self-motivated reasoning in pursuit of love and the meaning of creation. Spielberg redeems and transcends Kubrick’s nihilistic sniggerings about human existence and the spiritual void. Kubrick’s brainy sarcasm, admired by adolescents, is also the cynical despair that propels David’s suicide attempt. Depicted as a simulated tear over Gigolo Joe’s mock-human face, David’s leap into the abyss is this century’s single greatest movie image. Its closest match is equally significant: the clear, profound evangelism expressed by the Day of the Dead seekers reaching for salvation in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence surpasses Spielberg’s other entertainments by extrapolating fantasy to reveal the recesses of memory and Mariology like no other movie. David’s faith challenges our despondent present. The conscience that Disney represented as Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket is embodied here by the animatronic toy bear Teddy (a Spielberg motif I discuss in Make Spielberg Great Again), who gives the film’s powerful conclusion a breathtaking grace note. It remains miraculous, especially following 20 years of pop-culture decline.

Since A.I.’s release, only Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Aaross Concrete, Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad, and a few other movies have defied the trend of insisting that moral questions are moot. Most millennial movies substitute the question of existence, and the significance of love and faith, with darkness, disbelief, and trashy formulaic political distraction. A.I. shines out in Hollywood’s Dark Ages.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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