Artificial Intelligence
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Stanley Kubrick worked for twenty years on A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but he never witnessed that moment when the cameras finally started to roll. Before his death, however, Kubrick had given up on the idea of directing the movie himself.

Kubrick had met Steven Spielberg in 1979 during the on-location filming in England for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they remained friends over the next two decades as Kubrick engaged Spielberg in conversations about A.I. and showed him thousands of storyboards (drawn by renowned comic book illustrator Chris Baker). Ultimately, Kubrick suggested to Spielberg that the movie's title card should read: "a Stanley Kubrick production of a Steven Spielberg film." He confessed that he thought the movie was closer to Spielberg's sensibilities than his own.

Upon Kubrick's death, the project seemed headed for oblivion, but Kubrick's wife Christiane and his long-time executive producer Jan Harlan approached Terry Semel (then the chairman of Warner Bros.) with the idea of reviving A.I. with Steven Spielberg at the helm. And Spielberg readily agreed.

The resulting movie feels like no other Spielberg movie. Occasionally it evokes E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there's little sense of elation. Instead Spielberg gives us an unrelentingly sad movie. A.I. is filled with special effects and computer-generated graphics, but the movie's considerable visual delights are at the service of an overwhelmingly melancholy fable about a boy robot who wants nothing as much as the love of the woman he calls "mommy." This isn't a feel-good story designed to thrill audiences and send them home feeling warm and satisfied. By design, the movie remains emotionally elusive.

In the past, Spielberg might have felt compelled to make everyone in the audience happy, but with the ghost of Kubrick hovering behind his every move and choice, Spielberg allowed the story to drift into darker terrain, to a place where happy endings don't exist, a place where suffering lasts for a millennium, a place where love rarely takes root.

The movie is set in the distant future, after the earth's ice caps have melted and the ocean level has risen by a hundred feet, inundating coastal cities. New York City, for example, now sits several miles out at sea, its tallest skyscrapers rising above the ocean waves, but the rest of the city remains submerged and abandoned.

In the world of A.I., robots have taken over most menial chores. They look and act much like humans, but they only know what they've been programmed to know (with some limited abilities to learn on their own). Robot designer/engineer Professor Hobby (William Hurt) has a vision of a new breed of robots--one capable of experiencing love. Because of legal sanctions placed on pregnancy, a robot as Professor Hobby describes is now economically feasible. Couples without children may find a robot child to be an acceptable replacement for real offspring. So "David" (Haley Joel Osment) is created. He exists to be loved and cared for, and he returns that love. In fact, above everything else, he craves the love of his parents, especially the love of the woman he calls "mommy."

A.I. is primarily concerned with David's efforts to get love. But the road to acceptance proves to be difficult. Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) adopt David because their own son is seriously ill. Cryogenically frozen until a cure is discovered, their son rests in a glass tube at a healthcare facility. Little hope exists that he'll ever resume a normal life. But one day, "The most wonderful thing in the world" (Monica's words) happens: their son recovers. Once he returns home, the Swintons try to continue with two sons but jealousies and misunderstandings follow. And soon the Swintons discover that love for a mechanical contraption that looks human can't compare with love for a real, live, flesh-and-blood son. So David becomes expendable.

Once he's separated from the Swintons, David's every thought revolves around finding his way home again. He remembers the story of Pinocchio, which his mother read to him, and he dreams about becoming a real boy. If only he can find the blue fairy so that she can transform him

Because we always understand the hopelessness of David's journey, A.I. is filled with despair. Spielberg increases the despair quotient even further by emphasizing the rift between humans and robots. With robots taking away jobs and filling many of the roles traditionally held by humans, animosity results. This situation is depicted in no uncertain terms by a demolition exhibition called "Flesh Fair," where humans scream in delight as discarded (but still functioning) robots are crushed, melted, pulled apart, etc. In scenes like these, the despair becomes so overpowering that the movie becomes difficult to watch.

A.I. works like a mechanized version of The Wizard of Oz. There is no Dorothy character, but David is the Tin Man searching not just for a heart but for love itself. His companions on his journeys--Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, in a wonderful performance), a "love mecca" (for "mechanical") designed for pleasuring women; and Teddy, an intelligent roboticized teddy bear--function much like Dorothy's companions. They're part Scarecrow, part Cowardly Lion, and part Toto. Together they seek a distant goal that they hope will transform David. Their journeys take them through a deep forest where they're pursued not by flying monkeys but by cyclists on demonic-looking motor bikes. They reach not the Emerald City but Rouge City where at Gigolo Joe's urging David visits not the Wizard but Doctor Know.

The similarities between the two movies are so strong that it's impossible to seriously consider A.I. without also considering its relationship to Hollywood's classic version of the L. Frank Baum tale. But while Dorothy's journeys take place in a dream, David is not so lucky. The life he leads becomes a real-life nightmare. So while The Wizard of Oz also contains more than a little despair, that despair never completely overpowers the story because the road home does indeed exist, quite literally in the form of the Yellow Brick Road. But there is no similar sign for David's progression for signs like this only exist in fairy tales. Once again the hopelessness of David's quest is reinforced. Furthermore, while all Dorothy need do is wake up in order to return forever to the family she loves, David isn't quite so well off. We are indeed treated to a scene where David wakes from a sleep-like state, but A.I. arrives at this scene in a different fashion altogether and at best it only promises a momentary break from his despair.

As a result, A.I. is a hard movie to embrace. Neither is it particularly profound. Its basic tenet--the responsibility of mankind to the life-like mechanisms that we may create in our own image--is only handled in the most general of terms. When Spielberg aims for specifics--as in the Flesh Fair sequence, where mankind's hatred for the mechanized creations comes boiling to the surface in an ugly cancerous display--the drama becomes mired in improbabilities.

Gigolo Joe is a fascinating creation. He spins and bobs, tap dances and struts, but the movie rushes him into a protector mode for David without considering the basis of their relationship. They're together simply because the story throws them together. And William Hurt's presence as a robot designer who may in fact be filling in the emptiness in his own life by creating life-like robots remains unexamined as well. The movie's most fully-realized dramatic scenes come in its first third when Monica Swinton struggles to deal with a son whose love is the result of his programming, but all the movie's most impressive visual designs come in the second section, when David, Gigolo Joe, and Teddy roam from dark forest to Flesh Fair to Rouge City. Rouge City, in particular, is a marvelous creation. Thanks to production designer Rick Carter, it's a Las Vegas-style oasis of neon lights, audacious billboards, and salacious come-ons. But despite the movie's visual pyrotechnics, A.I. stumbles badly in this second section as it lumbers under the weight of its own obviousness and its accumulated improbabilities. The movie's rather thin trickle of ideas runs dry in this section in favor of a picaresque journey. It's mainly a way of mechanically moving David from point A to point B, while allowing him to endure many horrors in the process.

At its best, A.I. feels like a '40s or '50s era sci-fi allegory, such as Isaac Asimov's Nightfall or Ray Bradbury's Mars is Heaven or Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God or Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. But imagine any of these stories being blown up to gargantuan scale by Hollywood and allowed to run for over two hours and you'll have an idea of how A.I. overstays its welcome and becomes a bit wearisome.

A.I. did indeed evolve from a short story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss, published by Harper's Bazaar in 1969. Kubrick haggled with Aldiss about how to turn the story into a movie, but Aldiss struggled with many of Kubrick's contrivances meant to flesh out the story--such as David's quest for the blue fairy. But after Kubrick died and the reigns were handed to Spielberg, Aldiss was no longer consulted. Spielberg wrote the screenplay on his own (his first solo writing credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977). The resulting movie contains Spielberg's epic vision and affinity for children, mixed with Kubrick's aversion to happy endings and his predilection for examining mankind's darker instincts. But Spielberg has trouble reconciling these visions and he ends up with a Kubrick-lite movie that functions as a joyless spectacle.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: A.I. Artificial Intelligence



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