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Wednesday 11 July 2001

A Review of A.I.
by John Shirley

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

Movies about robots are always, actually, about people. It’s not that people are robots (though sometimes they almost are), it’s that robots are substitutes for people. Stories about robots trying to become more feeling, more human, as in Bicentennial Man, are about people trying to feel more, to relate more. To be more fully human.

Though it brings us a new dimension of the parable, A.I. is no exception; it’s a metaphor about human frailty, the human feeling of isolation, the human struggle for faith, and the closing of the circle that is human mortality. Robots are marvelous metaphors; they are our dilemmas in bas relief.

A.I. has been accused of being another movie about an unemotional being craving emotion; about robots wanting to have feelings—which is an utterly obtuse interpretation of this masterfully wrought film. This is a movie about a robot who can already feel emotions—and who feels loneliness. It’s about a robot who wants to be loved regardless of his shortcomings. What human being doesn’t want to be loved unequivocally—however unreasonably—and what human being doesn’t know themselves to fall short of both giving and receiving unequivocal love?

David, the ‘mecha’ simulacrum of a boy, played with deft confidence by Haley Joel Osment, recognizes himself in the Pinocchio story early on. He does indeed want to be a ‘real boy’—not so that he can feel more, but so that his mother, sensitively played by Frances O’Connor, will truly love him. He’s a substitute son for his bereaved “parents”, whose biological son Martin is comatose, until (predictably), Martin is restored to health. Jake Thomas ably portrays the actual child who chillingly manipulates his robot ‘brother’ into falling afoul of his parents. Abandoned by his adoptive mother, David the mecha sets out on an odyssey to find the blue fairy he remembers from the Pinocchio story, who can turn him into a real boy— for David’s been designed with childlike naïveté. Tossed into a feckless human world on his own he falls into the clutches of the Luddite Flesh Fair impresarios who, destroy living robots for avid, white-trash crowds in a kind of automata-da-fe; a futuristic version of ‘the ancient blood rites’, as one of the robots puts it.

Naturally, David escapes the carnage, with his new friend, the male-prostitute robot Gigolo Joe, gorgeously and seamlessly played by Jude Law, to another New Wave science fiction setting, Rouge City. In this neon-brilliant playground of futuristic decadence they ask Dr Know how to find the blue fairy. Dr Know leads them to a Manhattan sunken by global warming…and to satisfying if not entirely surprising plot twists. Here, David comes face to face with his artificiality—the falseness of the ego, in mystical terms—and with despair.

Despair—or surrender?—take him the next step, to a beautifully realized subaquatic tour of the crumbled spires of Manhattan, and a 2000 year wait for the blue fairy. And indeed, he has faith for 2000 years…

Can the figure 2000 years have been chosen accidentally? It was about 2000 years ago, after all, that Christ, symbol of faith, at least, was crucified... And here at last, through the agency of far-future artificial intelligences— exquisitely designed robots that some dullwitted reviewers have mistaken for aliens— David gets as much of what he wants as life and Nature allow; he gets his share of unequivocal love, he gets to feel that he’s quite real enough, and he finds an accommodation with mortality—all of this found on the far side of keeping faith, and following a dream that is more than a dream.

A.I. is partly an homage to Kubrick—the photography and lighting and music are deliberately Kubrickesque—but Spielberg’s larger-than-life sentimentality does come into play, perhaps a little too much. The robot hunting and Flesh Fair scenes are deliciously reminiscent of New Wave era Brian Aldiss, which is apt since all this began with a Brian Aldiss story; and stoking our sense of wonder is the Ian Watson gift for walking the line between fantasy and science fiction. This is no Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration—this is an Aldiss/Watson/Kubrick/Spielberg collaboration.

Most film critics do not understand actual science fiction. The symbols in science fiction’s metaphors are not warm enough for them; the archetypes are not sufficiently relatable, for some viewers. This film is actual science fiction, and if you relate to science fiction, it should work for you.

For me, it works and, despite a little overkill, now and then, makes its point beautifully.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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