A.I. Artificial Intelligence

“The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of colour and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Surprise: ‘Twas not with the magic touch of the Blue Fairy but the reprimanding slap of the Gray Lady that the New York Times reviewed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. So it comes to pass that by the actual 2001 criticism had not evolved beyond the grunts of bone-tossing brutes. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), absorbing in the richness of its imagery yet completely lucid and accessible, a wondrously accomplished, ambitious and moving meditation on love, the perilous journey of faith, and human destiny, is to one big ape just “really, really, really bad. It’s bad in almost every way.” In a peculiar survey of critical reaction, Variety reported that the two most common modifiers used by other members of the fully-opposable thumbs-down tribe were variations on “hypnotic” and “boring,” “fascinating” and “frustrating” – another way of erecting an intellectual posture while acknowledging A.I. wasn’t the easily swallowed formula pap they’d been weaned on. One non-critic but insistent movie kibitzer, as if to ensure his place in history as having penned the most Philistine response, insisted that the work of this master craftsman was all very “cheesy,” compounding an asinine error of judgement with an absurd denial of the movie’s irrefutable admirability as at least well-made.

A.I.‘s naysayers sometimes admitted an almost androidal sangfroid, to the point of saying they just couldn’t feel for David (Haley Joel Osment) because he’s a robot, albeit an advanced model designed to love parents who’ve lost children in a near-future plague. Alas, the critical resistance is real. But they are not. Could they get away with that sort of dull literal-mindedness writing about any other art-form but movies? For starters, seeing David as merely mechanical and finally unworthy of emotional investment denies the basis of representational art and metaphor. This dumbfounding objection offends the essence of storytelling. Should a child detach from Pinocchio’s fate because he is, after all, just wood? Isn’t E.T. at best a believable fantasy, at worst a teardrop-proof rubber puppet? A modest proposal: David’s most obvious meaning is Man. He’s an avatar of human experience, yearning, and will to perfect himself before his Creator. With A.I. Spielberg tells the oldest newest story: Man’s search for meaning.

By far the most common critical obfuscation, to avoid engaging the film on its own terms, involved the pitting of Kubrick against Spielberg, specifically suggesting that their ideas irreconcilably clash. That would be a legitimate approach if only they knew what they were talking about – that is, if A.I. weren’t entirely, unmistakably Spielbergian, if not the summation of his art. Spielberg, the ecumenical, theistic humanist and modestly wise optimist (one humorist found the two perfect words, “elfin and rabbinic”) favours the more “open” cinematic style characteristic of Jean Renoir. That means appreciating such glorious moments as a mother and son looking upon each other with exquisite devotion not for a strictly circumscribed narrative meaning but for a certain, more ineffable beauty and emotion, the way audiences once generously engaged movies with the aesthetic qualities of How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941) – and favorably compared its then old-fashioned tableaux vivants to the contemporary “closed” Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Here Spielberg uses his passion and great gift to syncretise story elements that certainly don’t clash on the screen and only seem dissonant in the abstract – as if one entered with Kubrick’s unmade movie already firmly in one’s mind. It’s not terribly important that the movie explores notions and images which intrigued Kubrick, the agnostic misanthrope who gravitated to the deterministic style of Fritz Lang. Kubrick and Spielberg would have formed completely unique creatures from the same clay. There’s more to the authentic style of real artists than superficial treatment of plot points. Note that Kubrick stayed interested in A.I. for 20 years – but not so interested that he actually made the film. In the end he wanted Spielberg to direct it, too.

With Spielberg’s opening of A.I. we see why. And, in any case, likely Kubrickian elements remain: The tramways fellated by obscenely gaping mouths, for example, could be transporting riders to the milk bar of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1970). In Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) Slim Pickens is practically a movie-length homage to his character in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1963). What of it? Kubrick’s movies are distinctly different from Spielberg’s, works of a brilliant, cynical satirist whose artistic downfall was an unceasing irony. Displaced as animus against Spielberg, the vehement abreaction to A.I. begins the embalming of Kubrick, worshipped by critics who no longer have to sit through the movies they invariably dismissed as too long, too boring, too cerebral, too… Ironic, isn’t it? “In irony man annihilates what he posits within one and the same act,” Sartre wrote on the subject of Bad Faith. “He leads us to believe in order not to be believed.” A Kubrick A.I. may have been above and beyond belief, perhaps ending in the ironic, frigid futility of faith, David frozen dead, like Jack at the end of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), for eternity.

Spielberg sees not an ending but a beginning in that image – the Blue Fairy/Our Lady icon ever smiling and welcoming, David’s eyes open and fixed upon her for 2,000 years, a superhuman act of monk-like devotion, imperfect man’s perfection of a prayer that outlives history. In Spielberg’s intriguing coda, the alien (or unrecognisably evolved robot that provocatively resembles the Giacometti curves of the mecha manufacturer’s logo icon), whom we discover to be narrating the story, says that man’s unique spirit radiated across the universe, interpenetrating and binding all things, leading them to hope that humans were “the key.” So Love is the energy that can be created but not destroyed. And it is certainly not wasted upon David. But a scientist poses a “moral question” early on: What is the responsibility of the creator to love the creation? Even if a robot can love humans, can humans learn to love them back?

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Starting with the image of the Great Flood and the suggestion of the plague that doesn’t Passover children, A.I. works in familiar images as a parable of faith throughout the ages. David, like his anointed Biblical namesake (“a boy of fresh complexion, with fine eyes and pleasant bearing”) is designed to love the creator, “like Adam,” says the Visionary later called Professor Hobby (William Hurt). But David’s benevolent yet mostly unseen “father” is later revealed, like the Wizard of Oz, as all too mortal, scarred by pain of loss – he’s designed David after his own dead son – and hobbled by hubris, the sin of pride. Like the tale of the Prodigal Son after which it is modelled, the parable tells us more about the Father, but in this case he’s a mortal metaphor. “My son was one of a kind,” Hobby explains to David, in an astonishing double-parable of the human father and eternal Father. “You’re the first of a kind.” (For Hobby, too, a mecha is no substitute; for God, Adam is no Jesus. David is born to the human condition after all.) The movie contains no chillier sentiment than Hobby’s suggestion, after David’s arduous journey to post-diluvian Manhattan, that he’s an experiment who’s passed the test and that his design team would really love to meet him. (To, what, discuss stock options?) Meanwhile, David’s adoptive father on earth – Henry, not Daddy – seems alternately remote and passive-aggressively hostile, the technocrat-warped paterfamilias.

The company’s icon, David’s first memory, is a half-crucified, half-alien androgyne rising like an art deco hood ornament out of a Venus de Milo half shell. David remembers it as a bird, but it’s the female imagery that intrigues. As David pursues the Blue Fairy of Pinocchio, Spielberg reanimates one of the story’s original subtexts, recalling a point in Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel . He illustrates how the Italian fairy tale sublimates a distinctly Catholic literary movement born in the counter-Reformation, resurrecting, in thinly veiled images of the Madonna, the Mother Goddess banished by Hebrew monotheism and “Hebraising Protestantism,” as Fiedler put it. Then Spielberg connects that symbolism to the developmental psychology of storytelling as the fertile ground of the imagination’s bloom, to the place “where dreams are born,” then gives it all narrative resonance by having David’s own personal mother-goddess read Pinocchio to her “real” son as the soon-to-be-betrayed exemplar of eternal love looks on from the wings! (The scene echoes the moment when E.T. hides in the closet and overhears mother Mary reading Peter Pan to her daughter. And, later, there are other references to the Mother Goddess: When Gigolo Joe’s on the job, for instance, his foreplay lube-job to his clients includes words they long to hear: “You’re a goddess!”)

So in A.I. the Pieta, a mother’s anguished love, becomes the mortal model of godly love against the banishment decreed by a heartless patriarchy. Surely, David’s been hard-wired to love Monica (Frances O’Connor) by Hobby’s remapping of “neuron paths” but it has soon moved beyond programmed file-serving to a musical call-and-response, a miniaturised version of human-yearning-meets-the-mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). He doesn’t just make mother coffee on request, he clearly wants to make her happy. David’s “imprinting” by his mother is an inspiriting, a breathing in. In the beginning was the Word – or seven vivifying, literal words in place of the creative Logos. The rite of initiation is practically a haiku of humanity in and of itself: Cirrus (pleasant cloud, Latin curl), Decibel (sound, music), Socrates (murdered intellectual martyr by dubious suicide who said virtue is knowledge of one’s true self and that no one knowingly does wrong), Particle (scientific breakthrough replacing wave theory), Dolphin (intelligent design in nature, and unlike Hollywood’s common fish-out-of-water plot, like post-diluvial man: the mammal-out-of-land),

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Tulip (beauty, poetry, Surrealist double entendre), Hurricane (nature’s, God’s, fury). Then, finally – “Monica, David, Monica” – she incants the eternal I/Thou. David’s mother-goddess has become personal. (As theologian O. Thomas wrote on need for the Christ incarnate: “…a personal God can reveal himself adequately and fully only in and through the life of a person and human persons can fully understand only that which is personal.”) A warm gesture accompanies the words, Monica’s fingers pressed against the nape of David’s neck – such a starkly intimate contrast with the button earlier shown by Hobby, a switch under the upper palette, his fingers thrust in a female mecha’s mouth in an image of degrading oral copulation. The charm works: David comes to life and dies in her arms. The scene is breathtaking.

A Cain and Abel parable shows brother Martin’s understandable envy, not, as Kubrick might, a monstrosity – the facile irony of the real boy more heartless than a robot. For how can flesh and blood – smaller, frail, nearly forgotten for dead – compete with perfection for his mother’s love? Tempting David to be displeasingly destructive, Martin tells him that his toys really look much better in pieces. The boyishly real, yet ominous warning admits the animus harbored by adults later demonstrated in macabre spectacle. At the swimming pool (it’s Martin’s birthday, but David’s baptismal font into the cruel world of rejection) the Monica-David-Monica personal unifier becomes a Orga-Mecha-Orga impersonal divider. The rival boys peek down David’s pants, check out his manhood. (That, along with constant chin-chucking of David, has a mystical, messianic parallel, too, particularly in the buried Renaissance art motif – see Leo Steinberg’s seminal study The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion – in which the Madonna proudly displays the Christ-child’s member as if to proclaim the Incarnation as an article of faith: True God and true man.) Will David defend himself, or humbly take up his cross? Is David a boy only a mother could love – and perhaps not even her?

Picturing David, abandoned at the bottom of the pool, arms outstretched, Spielberg connects the original sin for which he will be abandoned – a perfect love, made not begotten, that shames mortal imperfection – to his “death” at civilisation’s end, when a school of fish, a rich Christian symbol (especially as the ikhthus of early Christian persecution and secret society) gathers about his prostrate body.

But that comes after the search, a classic hero’s spiritual journey. The pool incident turns father (dressed in a law-of-the-jungle floral print) against mother (wearing a harlequin shirt that connects her to a section of Pinocchio we hear her read). Again, Spielberg’s humanism prevails over what could easily become the monster mother. David’s abandonment in the forest primeval is also his deliverance from destruction, Moses left in the bulrushes. She warns David: Always avoid humans (poor Osment, once afraid to see dead people, is soon afraid to see live people) and stay away from Flesh Fairs. Then, her final, fateful words: “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” This time the immortal Abel is doomed to wander. And, rather than revisit the family for some sense of juvenile justice, Spielberg finds it sufficient revenge that Cain, again, goes the way of all flesh with the rest of the family of man.

Mother’s warning was prophetic: The Flesh Fair – a phantasmagoria of Grand Guignol, three-ring-circus, demolition derby, neo-Luddite revolt, revival meeting and pagan Burning Man acid-rock eruption – becomes the revised Roman arena of Christian martyrdom. Then its meaning shifts deliriously. It’s a Klan rally (a high tech lynching!) where robot-comic slaves are made cannon fodder and decapitated – a severed, burning, still ghoulishly smiling Black head clangs into cage bars with a fiery propeller-cross behind it. The ringmaster then re-enacts what amounts to putting midwife witches to the stake – “Rites of blood and electricity!” one mecha mourns, in a dramatically stentorian voice. Here, the beatific face of the foreign, nurturing nanny – programmed to comfort, and softly singing “L’enfant, dorm…” to David, the child who cannot sleep, even as she’s being prepared for immolation – melts horribly under buckets of acid, medieval boiling oil. (Earlier the ringmaster, Johnson-Johnson [Brendan Gleeson] calls for unwanted metal as if barking “Bring out your dead.”) David is hauled to the cross with Joe, a trail of money on the ground, leading to a dramatic high point. When does the crowd recognise David’s humanity, find its own soul in this gruesome “celebration of life”? When, unlike the other mechas, David shows fear. Surely, this must be a son of Man.

David is not designed with a fully-formed apprehension of concepts that even far less advanced-model mechas know: He’s intended to grow with love as the engine of his evolution. (The opposite of 2001‘s HAL, the heuristic computer that learns itself into paranoia and murderous impulse.) We witness this as David begins to grasp abstract reasoning. How to extract an answer from Dr. Know, equal parts Einstein and carny hustler? David suggests combining the irrefutable and obvious (Flat Fact) with the mythological and dream-like (Fairy Tale) insofar as Pinocchio, he reasons, is a real story. (Skeptical critics could take a lesson from him.) Simply applying reason, Enlightenment rationalism to a story he’s been told, won’t suffice; imagination (faith) and a hard-swallowed dose of Kierkegaard’s personalism – David’s encounters with people – are necessary. That scene, in which Joe sees David trick an answer out of the machine, is crucial. It’s the means by which David transforms the Blue Fairy from an object of perception (Flat Fact) or an object of imagination (Fairy Tale) into an object of thought, idealised, to be sure, but as useful in the world of real boys as mathematics.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Love becomes innocent desire and child-like grasping. At first sight, David lunges after the hologram of the Blue Fairy. Not surprisingly, it’s Joe – programmed to service flesh by use of movie-seduction lore, cricking his neck to provide a soundtrack to his sweet talk, changing his appearance whimsically, cockily – who knows the difference between mere romantic simulation and harsh reality. The Blue Fairy hologram, he tells David, is merely “an example” of her (a textbook distinction of Catholic apologetics, which also introduced the use of paintings and statuary in the early centuries to instruct an overwhelmingly illiterate populus by a floor-to-floor progression of a story, from the root of history). Thereafter, particularly at the end, David’s praying before the Blue Fairy of the submerged Coney Island exhibition doesn’t represent a lapse into naïve idolatry, but an understanding of a symbolic meaning, that she, too, is an example to contemplate. Only after “dying” (with his suicide) to his belief in what transcends the rational – after all, he can’t see his mother anymore, either – does David surface with a renewed, deeper faith that he’s seen the real Blue Fairy, that, even though she’s not moving but for the “life” of the plant growth clinging to her in the undersea current, that his plea will go beyond her to one unseen, transcend the physical and inanimate. Though he no longer appears to believe that the stature and the Blue Fairy are ontologically identical, after his falling into the sea – his “suicide” – David clearly has an epiphany, a religious, mystical experience that precedes his supernatural contemplative act.

After the Vegas-inspired debauchery of Rouge City, with its chapels alongside bordellos, man trapped in an unending cycle of sin and repentance, desire and regret, David’s shattering despair follows a familar crisis of faith, modern existential alienation. In attacking the mecha made in his image – a violent act he previously seemed incapable of – one might say David has achieved his human destiny: He’s now capable of behaving as those in the Flesh Fair. But here we may sympathise: At the end of his pilgrimage, David finds only himself, not the one who will reunite him with his personal mother-goddess, but the dead end of solipsism. He bears the indignity of seeing his own evolution from the inside (Hobby’s X-ray series of David-mechas) out (a macabre colonnade, variations on David exoskeletons, hung out to dry) and experiences dread, angst. Trapped between his own past and his own future, burdened with freedom, David experiences the Anguish described by Kierkegaard: The fear that relates not to something out there in the world but the anguish only experienced before oneself.

So David sees ‘Davids,’ packaged with companion Darlene dolls, the names trademarked, the motto a Freudian slip of mis-marketing: “At last, a love of your own” – narcissism, love as a mirror-trick, a special effect of vanity. Suddenly David fears that he’s not individual and unique but a replaceable cog in an uncaring, cosmic make-love machine, the cold heart of Sartrian forlornness. Maybe Joe (Jude Law) the often cynical voice of material skepticism, is right: People only love mechas for what they can do for them. (Remember Captain James Hook, Peter Pan’s doppelganger, at his most cunning and cutting, in Lesson One: Why Parents Hate Their Children: “Can’t you understand child? They tell you [bedtime] stories to shut you up!”) Having no ability to love, the other mecha – surely an intentional homonym for Mecca, replacing the birthplace of a faith with the manufacturing of love – cannot despair as David can.

Yet the essence of David’s being suggests he’s worldmaking as he goes along. It is not simply in faith in received word – the Pinocchio story read to him as if sacred text – but in David’s encounters with people, experience, tradition, that he finds the fullness of truth revealed. (Again, a rejoinder to the Reformation’s sola scriptura – Bible only – pretext.) And what David most importantly gathers is not scientific knowledge that changes his view of the world but revelation that changes him. Before he’s imprinted, or initiated, or ensouled – the movie challenges one’s own exegetical imagination – he’s just an angelic gathering machine, viewed by Spielberg from on high through a halo-shaped light fixture hovering overhead. His outburst of laughter at the dinner table is false, mechanical. Without love, he is but a clanging cymbal, or so much titanium and miles of fibre, as Henry enjoys pointing out. David’s impositions on Monica’s privacy, completely innocent, accentuate the difference between how she sees him and he sees her (and echo normal childhood/adult misperceptions). After his rite of passage to childhood, after the imprinting scene echoes Freud’s mirror stage of child development, one sees an accretion of consciousness and subsequent human weakness. It’s the enormous difference between placidly inquiring about whether being left in the closet is a game and pitiably coming undone in the forest at the thought of being left alone, of separation from the object of his love. From here on in, David’s soul is a fragile, impressionable, growing, precious thing, and the measure of his ‘lie’ – searching for an equivalent to Pinocchio’s growing nose – is how increasingly he believes himself a real boy, human.

Religious imagery intermixes with literary myth, and Spielberg never drops the thread that the story, the imaginary, enriches life itself. The crescent moon (and Spielberg signature, from E.T. to the Dreamworks logo) above the bed from which David was deposed by Martin becomes the transfixing full-moon balloon for entrancing then trapping mechas, exploiting their dormant poetic impulse; it brings out the werewolf motorbikes. Later, David asks Joe if it’s a real moon or a simulation. Let’s walk the other way. David, too, comes to distrust the simulacrum of reality – a human trait. In the final scenes, the aliens (or evolved robots, like the star child of 2001 – what The Times assailed as “murky implications of theology” – A.I. is open-ended) reconstitute an ersatz moon over David’s new bed, controlling its rising and setting, as if a reunion with Monica is a story they are telling him, giving him the happy ending to the fairy tale he sought.

Spielberg’s coda supports multiple readings, with either mystical/mystical or practical/mystical possibilities. He offers an earth/robot evolution theory subtly but distinctly. The form of the mecha company icon hints at either a vision (an implantation in Hobby’s mind as vivid and obsessive as those of Devil’s Mountain in Close Encounters) or a design build-out during the era that David’s in deep freeze, and either way the substance of David’s return adds considerable complexity. There are two sides to the conversation David has with next-generation David, clothed angelically in white. The New and Improved David describes his activity simply: “I read” – a far cry from the lovely big-letter notes David needs Teddy’s help to scrawl (one of which suggests an incipient envy with its differentiation between Teddy and himself). If next-gen Davids read, then it is reasonable to suppose they can also tell stories, histories, to themselves if no others. (Of course, the creature, whatever it is, turns out to be our narrator.) They can initiate themselves in the mythopoetic. Love brought David back to the creator – note the pride of the father at the progress his prodigal son made, how he managed to “chase down his dreams” – so the mechas, using the self-repair and survival instinct they’ve all demonstrated, could continue to develop themselves after man’s perishing. (Didn’t Joe predict as much? “When the end comes, all that will be left is us.”) So it is easy to suppose mechas developed David’s drive to chase down their dreams, explored the cosmos and returned to Earth with little knowledge of their origins. Yet, programmed by humans in their ancient times, they’re still searching for their creators. David has become, in a sense, a repository of knowledge, faith, history and tradition: David is the Ark.

With that in mind, consider how Spielberg mounts the creatures’ staging of David’s reunion with his mother. His wish is granted, as in a storybook, night turning instantly to day with a wave of an alien hand, Monica reconstituted without apparent effort or delay. She can remain with him for fairy-tale time – not Biblical time of three, seven, 12 or 40 days, but Cinderella time, until she falls asleep. They’re telling him, or he’s telling himself, a story. He’s even given rules about not taxing Monica’s memory. (This would seem another oblique reminder of yet another existential phenomenologist, Henri Bergson, and his theory of how time and memory act as a weight on consciousness, making impossible the kind of living in the moment we witness in Monica and David’s “day.”) Play is essential to their time together, and Hide and Seek – the adult’s pleasure in the child’s not-knowing it’s not hidden – suddenly a metaphor for man’s relationship with God as good as any Ingmar Bergman conjured.

Spielberg doesn’t overdo it: The boy-who-makes-his-mother’s-coffee-right motif is not smirky Oedipal-sexual, but rather innocently pre-sexual and spiritual (recall that Jews and Christians consider themselves “married” to God by Old and New Covenants). But there’s a more obvious meaning relating to the equinox between dreaming and awakening, too. Mother and son lie together, sepulchral white sheets covering them, rejoined in a kind of death, and David can finally close his eyes and dream. (Jim, effectively orphaned by war, having witnessed the A-bomb, finally in the arms of his mother, closes his eyes: This is the last image of Empire of the Sun [Steven Spielberg, 1988], too.)

Does that interpretation make the final scene the Fairy Tale that disproves the Flat Fact of the transcendent? Hardly. All the imagery is a construction of David’s developed consciousness, the house a labyrinth of his memory, his John Ford homestead, his corridors of Marienbad. (The home of one’s childhood, reconstituted in detail: A glorious afterlife fantasy of innocence regained.) So, too, is that mother and child reunion worthy of Ford in its patient, powerful, quiet study. Even if it’s just a simulation of eternal love, put on by compassionate aliens protective of their museum piece, then the images couldn’t have come from any source but David himself. The image of mother’s love was always there to begin with (like the missing attributes of Dorothy’s companions in Oz), a hidden part of David’s mind, the deep-down knowing that one is loved, then the forgetting, the repression, the dread, and the rediscovery on the deathbed – a perceptible metaphor for the human journey David took. Then, again, it’s equally satisfying (more, really) to simply concede that the divine exists beyond what might be aliens, too, being created creatures, and that David’s heavenly birthday party is simply a bestowal of grace, because David’s love – inhumanly pure love – is pleasing and sufficient unto itself. (Don’t believers wish as much of the divine disposition toward their soulless but beloved pets?) In fact, Spielberg could be espousing what amounts to a heresy in the New Age, that it’s not God, but rather alien intelligence that’s merely the product of our wishful projection.

David, a robot capable of love, the Ark of a future covenant: It that an anti-humanist image or sacrilegious idea? Not if we take the God of Genesis at His Word. In fixing mortality at 120 years Yahweh explains: “My spirit must not for ever be disgraced in man, for he is but flesh.” Is it an unforgivable (and for Spielberg, uncharacteristic) nihilism to picture mankind’s end? According to Revelation you can count on it.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

With love as the engine of human evolution Spielberg challenges the recrudescence of neo-Darwiniam determinism. This shows in how he depicts mecha life. On the trip to the Wasteland, Man-hattan, one sees three generations of human-programmed machines imbued with man’s seemingly unavoidable evolutionary flaws. Approaching the forbidden city, Teddy, the supertoy bear always sewing himself up, can only utter a primal growl, and a plaintive, ursine moan rises for the first time. Gigolo Joe, built to sate animal lust – with a plasticised slick worthy of Bob’s Big Boy and the equipment to match – knows no love, and shows no hesitation about forging ahead. He doesn’t seem angry about being a fall guy modelled schizophrenically after movie macho Bogart (“Say, Joe, whadda ya know?”) in the film noir nightmare, a scapegoat for man’s sin, and the alternate version of manliness in Gene Kelly’s light-footed gestures, an object of female transference and identification. (Joe unavoidably carries a hint of the disconsolate coded homosexual of movie myth, and not just via the gigolo trope, but because his hard-wired disinterest in women doesn’t match the glee he volunteers when dancing. “Why do you do that?” David asks. “That’s just what I do,” Joe says.)

Yet, like all of Frankenstein’s children, gathering in Gothic gloom by the bait of dumped mecha body-parts, Joe has a survival instinct. He can’t override his program and destroy himself, but he can cut out his glowing identification chip. Indeed, the other mechas have better animal instincts than sophisticated David. “What do we do now?” asks David, at the sight of the moon-balloon. “We run,” says Teddy. It would not have occurred to Love to flee Beauty. But, by the end, heuristic Joe has taken Descartes’ logical next step: “I am…I was.” He’s participated in history and knows it. So only the bear with primitive instincts and highly evolved David want to turn back: Only he has everything to lose by confronting the Flat Fact that could disabuse him of Fairy Tale. Later, when he plunges into the Sargasso, calling softly for his mother, his image becomes a reflected tear in the eye of Joe (who is, we might suddenly realise in his grief for David, a Joseph): Spielberg gifts him with the feeling he can’t express. But the gesture, the utterance, is so utterly human, David’s despair represents an evolutionary leap of faith.

Is a deeper, usually spiritual meaning beneath surface not expected of Spielberg’s storytelling by now? The images of Home and Mother in Spielberg’s work hit the road running in Sugarland Express (1974) and never slow down. Even WWII couldn’t stop it: Saving Private Ryan (1998) is rife with those themes, from bawling soldiers holding their guts in to Edward Burns’ tough guy naively recollecting the moment he was first caught seeing breasts as sexually exciting rather than maternally comforting, a dubious recognition of his manhood. The messianic message in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (note the similarity in the full title of A.I.) was easy to vivisect as a version of St Exupery’s Little Prince. E.T., on a mission from beyond, is discovered in a garden-shed “manger,” his arrival prophesied by “Keys.” He spins out a celestial display, heals by touch, offers a view of his heart, communicates mystically, commands: “Be good.” Plants feed off his life force. He dies and emerges resurrected, replete with white shroud, then lifts up his believers. He must reluctantly go home to the heavens, but promises to remain in the mind of the faithful. He even earns a mother’s tearful genuflection, and leaves the sign of the covenant in the sky. In Hook (1991) Spielberg opened up the adult essence of Peter Pan to existential phenomenology, to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Death is but the victory of time over life. Thus the ticking clock inside the crocodile becomes one Jaws-like image of Death arising out of Sex: Peter’s denial of childhood and inability to act was triggered by his sexual awakening (Peter protests to Wendy that he wants a “real kiss” when he’s grown beyond childish symbolic gestures), manhood from which there is no return to innocence, to the Eden of Never-Never Land. Using that great American phallic symbol, a baseball bat, Peter’s son angrily has at the collection in Hook’s timepiece morgue. Peter must rediscover imagination, remember his children as his “happy thought,” progeny as a hopeful proxy for immortality. As the crocodile descends upon him, Hook can only cry, “I want my Mommy!” In Amistad (1997) imprisoned African slaves movingly interpret the Christian notion of God through Bible illustrations, renewing the essemce of the story, almost impossibly; a Catholic judge, chosen to betray his Church for the pragmatic Novus Ordo Seculorum, kneels to say the Confiteor before heading to the bench, then courageously heeds his conscience instead. Inspired by an “example” – a bust – of his own Founding Father, a past President wins the slaves’ freedom and invokes the Africans’ ancestral worship. The beatific face of Agatha in Minority Report (2002) can only be Spielberg’s poignant reminder of Marie Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), persecuted for her visions, for dis-unity in a trinity of temple virgins, served by a priesthood of sin-prevention police. In Catch Me If You Can (2002) Frank Abagnale peels Delta decals from toy planes and presses them to forged checks with a hotel Bible – an evocative image of self-deceit disguised as a righteous crusade – but he passionately tries to save the fallen and, like David, restore his broken family. Having experienced the terror of being cut off even from memory (“I can’t remember what my mother looks like”) Jim, the sobbing “difficult” boy hero of Empire of the Sun pumps the chest of a fallen friend, head bobbing in and out of the light beyond, chanting, “I can bring them back. I can bring them all back.” So, too, can David bring back his mother, because to go on living, to start dreaming, he needs to hear the simple, shattering words from her: “I love you. I have always loved you.” Spielberg’s magic wand and blessing hand sanctifies the story so that David’s wish “Make me a real boy” transforms into a mortal, immemorial prayer: “Make me worthy of eternal love.”

About The Author

Gregory Solman is a film scholar and critic who has written frequently for the Boston Phoenix, Film Comment and for express.com as the pseudonymous Undercover Critic. He's a former editor of the motion-picture trade magazines Millimeter and Variety and resides in Los Angeles.