I love movies, but because I write short things, I tend to write about a particular moment in a film, as opposed to writing a long essay about the entire thing. With that said, and with the warning that I often give away spoilers with knowing that I do: there is a moment in the film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” that shows how great a child actor Haley Joel Osment was.
It is twelve seconds of acting, and it is so powerful that when I think of that film, I think of this moment.
A bit of a plot refresher, for those who haven’t seen the film in a while (and if you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to turn away, because, as I said, I tend to do the spoiler thing without being aware of it):
In the future, it is possible to put sick people into suspended animation in the hopes that a cure will be found for their illness. There is, of course, the possibility that a cure will never be found. This compels a couple to acquire an android child named David, played by Osment.
David is like a boy in every way, but something about it just seems a bit…off. That’s because the android has a particular set of code words that will unlock its ability to love, and David has not been “activated.” As long as the “parent” doesn’t say those code words, the android will behave like a very intelligent robot; once the “parent” touches the back of the androids neck, looks into its eyes and says the words, however, the “child” will form a bond with the parent.
In his essay on the film, Roger Ebert said that of course, this being isn’t really feeling love. It’s just a computer that’s mimicking, in fine detail, what love really is.
Boy, did I not see it this way.
Instead, I saw it as a story about a synthetic life form that discovers what it is love, and then learn what it is to have that love rejected. For those who haven’t seen the movie and have read this far (and who feel as if I haven’t spoiled anything), I will leave it at this: after this android feels the soaring pleasure of love for a mother, he learns what it is to feel not only rejected, but abandoned.
When I saw this film, this rejection and abandonment made me feel an almost physical agony. For me, this was no computer algorithm; this was a previously synthetic being feeling very human emotions, and it made me rage at the being’s “mother” for activating those powerful emotions, and then rejecting—brutally—this being who was now in possession of them.
And all of these feelings, all of them, were due to those twelve seconds, which appear exactly 23 minutes into the film.
In the moments leading up to those twelve seconds, we see, Monica, David’s “mother (played by Frances O’Connor),” touch the back of David’s neck and say those words designed to unlock that part of David’s programming that are dormant. Up to this point, David calls her Monica.
She goes through the words: Sirrus, Socrates, Particle, Decibel, Hurricane, Dolphin, Tulip. Then, she speaks her name.
And right after that, in what honestly seems like a sort of special effect, Osment’s face just…changes. Before that, he’s been smiling like a cute, obedient robot. Yet now, there’s a transformation; a look of dazed wonder, almost.
“I wonder if I did that right,” she stammers.
We cut back to Osment, and where his voice was crisp, it is now soft.
“What were those words for mommy?” he says.
“What did you call me?” she asks.
“Mommy,” he says.
“Who am I David?” she asks.
“You are my mommy,” he whispers, hugging her.
I am sure this scene made many roll their eyes. And I am sure this scene also caused many, as it did in the case of Ebert, to think “yes, but he’s not really feeling love. That’s just a computer construct.”
Not me. I believed that kid was feeling human emotions. I vividly remember being gobsmacked, and just muttering “boy, can this kid act.”
I just watched it again, and it was every bit as powerful as it was the first time I saw it.
There is something wonderful in a particular moment in which an artist shows just how good they are: a guitar lick in a song; a small detail in a painting; a snappy bit of editing in a film. In this case, fine acting can produce a great moment, and in this scene, that certainly is the case.
Boy, could that kid act.