A Tunnel in the Sky

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A. I.

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 15, 2001

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A. I. is one of the best films, SF or otherwise, that I have seen in the last few years, easily better than many other higher profile films released this year. I hope that those who read this review will have already seen the film, but if not, please be aware there are a few minor spoilers within this article. It is extremely difficult to review a film or book and not reveal several key elements of the storyline. Kubrick has long been my favorite director, and I had eagerly awaited this film for several years. It is unfortunate that he was unable to complete this project himself, but I feel Spielberg did a masterful job. No film is perfect, and yet for the truly great it is difficult for me to imagine how they could have been any better. This one is highly recommended.

Steven Spielberg inherited this project from the late Stanley Kubrick, who had been working on the idea off and on for almost twenty years. Originally Kubrick had attempted to work in collaboration with Brian Aldiss on the screenplay, but that effort was not successful. The short story provides just the barest of hints of the full scenario Kubrick developed in the thirty page treatment which outlined his concepts for the film, later elaborated on by Ian Watson.

[Unrelated side note: I have read several short stories and at least one novel (all SF) by an Ian Watson, and there have been several episodes of the series "Farscape" directed by an Ian Watson. I wonder if they are the same person. Probably not, as the Internet Movie Data Base lists no less than eight different individuals of that name working in films in one capacity or another.]

It is difficult to imagine how Kubrick would have presented this story, but at least Spielberg attempted to mimic his cinematographic style in the first half of the film, although he was not totally successful. The lighting, set design, and frame composition was much like what I would have expected of Kubrick, and yet with just a few exceptions his trademark long tracking shots were missing. The restrained and somewhat passive and detached acting styles were also reminiscent of many Kubrick films. However, beginning with the scene after Monica (O'Connor) abandons David (Osment) in the woods, the film is pure Spielbergian flash and sentimentality. That is not necessarily a negative thing, but there is definitely a different feel to the film during this stage than previously.

The basic premise is that in the not too distant future the world has suffered through a global-warming period, with the melting of the polar ice caps causing flooding of coastal cities. Advanced technologies have enabled humanity to cope with the situation, but the strain on natural resources has prompted many restrictions on procreation. Monica and Henry Swinton (O'Connor and Robards) have already had the one child they were allotted, however a catastrophic illness has prompted them to place their son Martin (Jake Thomas) in cryonic stasis in hopes medical science can eventually develop a cure. Henry is employed by the robot manufacturing firm created by Dr. Hobby (William Hurt). In the first scene of the film Hobby speaks of a proposal for an advanced series of robots, ones capable of emotional response. The intention is to create a robot that will love its human master, but the question is posed of whether it is possible for humans to return that love. This question is revisited in the much-maligned final segment of the film, which I will address later in the review. The Swintons are chosen as a test case for this new series of "mecha," or mechanical being as the robots are known, as opposed to the "orgs" (organic living beings).

At first Monica resents David's intrusion on their lives, feeling that her acceptance of him would mean an abandonment of hope for their own son. Ironically, after she has finally relented and reads the words to David which his programming compels him to imprint on her as his beloved mother, Martin makes a miraculous recovery and is brought home. Conflict between the two boys arises quickly, as Martin treats David as if he is no more than another of his mechanical toys. A rivalry develops for the loyalty and affection of Martin's walking and talking teddy bear, voiced by Jack Angel. Following an unfortunate incident in which David inadvertently places Martin's life in jeopardy, Monica's concern for her son's safety causes her to reject David's affections, and she abandons him and Teddy far from their home. David eventually meets up with another mecha, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who is fleeing the police who think he is responsible for the death of one of his human female clients.

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It is at this point the feel and the atmosphere of the film begins to more closely resemble Spielberg's usual fare, with a particular scene conjuring up images from E.T.-The Extraterrestrial. I'm not going to go into much more detail of the storyline, except to point out several things that have been mentioned about this film in other reviews and my reactions to those assessments. First, much has been made of David's fascination with the tale of Pinocchio, which Monica read to him regularly as a bedtime story (even though David never actually sleeps). He knows he is mecha, and yet his programming compels him to love Monica, and it makes sense to me that a machine that is capable of love would be incomplete unless that love is returned. When Monica abandons him, his only hope is to somehow find a way to become a real boy so that his mother will love him too. There is nothing wrong with using a classic fairy tale as a basis of a modern fable. Think of how many films and other tales have used Cinderella as a guide. I do not think this is a sign of a lack of creativity on the filmmakers' part, but rather an ability to draw on our cultural memory to enhance the audience's understanding of the characters. Besides, from what I have read, this was a major element in Kubrick's treatment, and it is obvious from many factors that Spielberg consciously endeavored to honor Kubrick's vision and style.

Later in the film, when David journeys to flooded New York City and finds the offices of the company that created him, he discovers he is just one in a long line of robots created in the image of Dr. Hobby's own deceased son. David strikes out in anger and destroys one of the other robots. Someone wrote that this was a sign that David was defective, since a robot designed to love would not exhibit violent tendencies. But love is very closely tied to other strong emotions. The ones we love are also capable of instilling in us not only anger, but also jealousy and sometimes hate, especially when the fear of rejection is introduced into the relationship. David probably felt there was a danger of some other mecha David stealing his mother's affections away from him.

David finally finds the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio story, in the submerged amusement park of Coney Island. His underwater craft is trapped at the bottom of the sea, and as he monotonously implores her to grant his wish to become a real boy, the camera slowly pulls away. Many reviewers felt this was the logical ending place, but I disagree. Yes, it would have been a tragic and poignant ending, symbolizing the fragility of all our hopes and dreams. But throughout the film we have grown to care about David. We feel his hurt and despair when he is abandoned, we fear for his life when he is captured and threatened by robot-hating humans, and in the end we hope that fairy tales can come true and the Blue Fairy will be able to grant his wish.

What transpires after this segment has been misunderstood by most reviewers. Thousands of years go by. The world is trapped in another ice age. Humanity is extinct. Strange beings in unusual flying craft appear, excavating through the ice like paleontologists searching for ancient fossils. They discover David, still in the submerged craft, his frozen eyes still staring at the Blue Fairy. His rescuers are robots, not aliens as many reviews have labelled them. Sucessive generations of mecha have designed and created other versions of themselves, culminating in an eerily organic looking being that combines the informational capacity of a computer with the emotional and reasoning abilities of a human. At first the mecha think David is the last remnant of the human race, then they hear the tale of his love for his mother and his desire to become real. Utilizing a lock of Monica's hair saved by Teddy they clone her and reunite mother and child. For some reason they claim since the original being is long dead, the clone will only live for one day before the organic matter begins to deteriorate. But that is enough for David, for at the end of the day Monica expresses his love for him. The look on his face tells us his life is now complete, he is satisfied. The earlier question of whether a human could truly come to love a mecha seems to have been answered. But has it? Is it possible Monica is just another mecha created for the purpose of appeasing David's longing for love? It would make sense for the future robots to feel compassion for one of their own kind, and provide the means for him to achieve his goal. This is but one of the many questions I will ponder about this film in years to come. I have no doubt it will be reassessed by many people who will later come to appreciate its complexity.

I wouldn't want to end this article withouth a special note about the perfomances. Even as young as he is, Haley Joel Osment should be familiar to most filmgoers of recent years. He turns in another excellent portrayal here, and I for one hope he is able to survive the typical child actor syndrome and develop his craft for many years to come. Frances O'Connor as Monica also deserves special mention, for a strongly emotional and yet deceptively subtle performance. But the true star of this film is Speilberg. Even though he has many triumphs already behind him, it is my opinion that he is just now reaching the pinnacle of his craft, and I await his future work with much anticipation. In this era of schlock and hype, it is refreshing to view the work of filmmakers who are not afraid to challenge the audience.


Also available: Mark Ebert's Review


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Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg
Ian Watson

June 29, 2001

Haley Joel Osment
Jude Law
Frances O'Connor
Sam Robards
Jake Thomas
William Hurt

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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