This might be a reach, but I’ve come to think of A.I. as Spielberg “getting rid of his toys.” The movie slips in sly visual and thematic references to past Spielberg blockbusters: There’s an E.T. moon hanging in the background of more than one scene, multiple Close Encounters silhouettes, and a Jurassic Park-like debate about the moral responsibilities of scientists. Also, at one point, David listens to Monica read a story to Martin while partially blocking a piece of art so only the words “because I could” are visible—another callback to Jurassic Park, perhaps. Spielberg made several “mature” films before A.I., but this one at times seems almost like a direct indictment of his earlier inclinations toward juvenilia.
A.I. in particular still strikes me as a masterpiece. I thought it might be back in 2001; now I’m certain of it. But it isn’t any easier to watch in 2014 than it was before my first child was born. Like a lot of Spielberg’s films—even the earlier crowd-pleasers—A.I. is a pointed critique of human selfishness, and our tendency to assert our will and make bold, world-changing moves, with only passing regard for the long-term consequences. Spielberg carries this theme of misguided self-absorption to child-rearing, implying that parents program their kids to be cute love machines, unable to cope with the harshness of the real world. He also questions whether humankind is nothing but flesh-based technology, which emerged from the primordial ooze (represented in the opening shot of A.I. by a roiling ocean), and has been trained over millennia to respond to stimuli in socially appropriate ways. A.I. blurs the lines between human and mecha frequently, from an early shot of Monica that makes her look exactly like one of Professor Hobby’s creations, to the way Martin walks, thanks to mechanical legs.
This notion of humans as machines resonates with me because my son is on the autistic spectrum. We had no idea back when we watched A.I.in 2001 that part of our parenting duties would one day involve making our child understand what certain facial expressions mean. Privately, my wife and I call our son “Robot Boy,” referencing both a Guided By Voices song and A.I. But I’m not sure that raising an autistic child makes us any more attuned than most mothers and fathers to how much parenting is like programming—and how inadequate that programming can be. It’s brutal to watch A.I. and see Monica feed fairy tales to David before cutting him loose with a feeble, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” It’s even more painful to know that if David needs a model for what life might be like on his own, he can look to Teddy, who’s self-sufficient, but lonely. The harshest lesson of A.I.—and one Spielberg doesn’t flinch from—is that inevitably, the Davids and Teddys are left to fend for themselves, armed with whatever half-considered advice and parables adults have thrown at them over the years. And that’s the hell of it.