One summer day back in the mid-1970s, a woman I know was hitchhiking on Cape Cod with two friends. The three, all college students, got picked up by a geeky guy in his late twenties who told them he was on a crew making a movie about a shark attack. Actually, he said, he was the director. They asked him how he was doing the shark attack in the movie.
"We have a machine," he said. "We have a mechanical shark."
They laughed. It sounded so rinky-dink.
From the start, Steven Spielberg has blurred the boundary between machines and animate beings, and the results, as the whole world knows, have been anything but rinky-dink. His first movie, Duel (made at age twenty-four!), a terse road thriller about a motorist terrorized by a truck driver across the highways of the West, turned the eighteen-wheel rig into a shark of the interstate, a terrestrial proto-Jaws. The eerily cute mannequin of E.T. pushed the Spielbergian theme of benign extraterrestrials bearing enlightenment. And Jurassic Park, ostensibly a harrowing cautionary tale of technology run amok, turned into family fun, the medium overwhelming the message, Spielberg’s own technological wizardry pushing filmmaking entertainment to new levels of dazzle, suggesting an irrepressible optimism about the power of technology to fulfill human imagination.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence represents the director’s collaboration with the late Stanley...