Saturday, April 2, 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review: The Meeting of Two Worlds

This review was written in July 2001 and is presented here for the first time.

The anticipation surrounding the release of A.I. Artificial Intelligence has been great because it is the melding of two minds: those of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – two of the most influential filmmakers of the last forty years.

Much of the interest is no doubt a result of these two men having such different approaches to filmmaking. Spielberg is the sentimentalist, always drawing the audience in to emotional (and sometimes schmaltzy) scenes, while Kubrick's films are known for their cold detachment and claustrophobia. So we watch with a keen eye as Kubrick's pet project of the last twenty years unfolds in the hands of Spielberg.

The story is of a boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) who is actually a mechanical (or Mecha) substitute for a loving child. He is a unique creation - the very first Mecha designed to love. He is adopted by Henry and Monica (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) whose real son is in cryogenic freeze awaiting a cure for his terminal illness.  Once David is "imprinted" with the code to love Monica, there is no turning back. He can never be deprogrammed – only destroyed.

The first act of the film poses a few fascinating philosophical questions regarding the creation of an artificial being that can feel emotions. If a robot is programmed to love, is it not reasonable to believe that it can also hate? Is the love of a robot real love, or is it simply a machination, a computer program designed to mimic real human emotions? Finally, the most interesting has to do with whether human beings have any responsibility or even the ability to reciprocate love to an artificial life form.

Kubrick (who passed away in March 1999) was right to relinquish directorial control to Spielberg, who also wrote the screenplay from Ian Watson’s screen story based on Brian Aldiss’s short story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.” This is a story which requires a sentimental touch. The cold, calculated approach that Kubrick might have employed would have felt wrong for this tale of a boy who yearns to be real. Take the scene in which Monica abandons David in the woods rather than bring him to the lab for deconstruction. Osment, who does a fantastic job at this role throughout, proves himself a better actor than most adults could ever hope to be as he begs and pleads for his mommy not to leave him all alone.

This leads into the second act of the film, which also happens to be the best section. David meets Gigolo Joe (played with unerring panache by Jude Law), a love Mecha designed to give women sexual pleasure. Together they are kidnapped away to the Flesh Fair, a twisted amalgamation of Mad Max's world and a Kubrick film where humans watch as robots are destroyed in as many grotesque ways as you can think of.

After escaping, David and Joe make their way to Rouge City where David hopes to learn of the whereabouts of the Blue Fairy. Having listened to his mother read the story of Pinocchio, he believes the Blue Fairy can make him into a real boy so that his mother will love him more. The entire look of this section of the film is incredible.  Rouge City is a haven of excessive hedonistic pleasure, and this idea is presented visually through the art direction and set design. It looks like a futuristic Las Vegas transplanted to New Jersey. It is mainly Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography that makes the entire film look fantastic. He uses backlighting and hand-held flashlights perfectly to create a harsh world in which unwanted androids must flee for their lives.

Eventually we are led to the most eerie segment of the film, in which David and Joe travel to Manhattan, which now lies mostly underwater – only the tops of the skyscrapers are visible. Without ruining the ending, I should just say that the movie comes to an absolutely perfect ending at Coney Island on the bottom of the ocean floor. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the movie. It continues for about twenty minutes more in a typical Spielbergian over-sentimentalized sequence which leaves us simply confused and with a very bad taste in our mouths. It is a cheap ending because it doesn't logically follow anything that has preceded it. It does not fit with the overarching themes of the film.

Having said that, it is difficult to pin down the themes of the film, as Spielberg's script fails to really explore and answer those questions it poses in the first act. How can he ask what responsibility human parents have to a machine which appears to love if he is going to abandon their part in the story and follow the machine instead? Inside A.I. there is a great movie dying to get out. If only Spielberg could acquire a sense of irony in his work, he might be able to let down some of the sentimentality and get to the meat of his stories.

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