AI: Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence on Blu-ray

by Jim Bray

A.I. is Steven Spielberg's take on the story of Pinocchio.

It was supposed to be a lot more than that, since it's also a kind of posthumous collaboration between Spielberg and another legendary director/producer, Stanley Kubrick. But it is what it is.

A.I. began life as a Kubrick project, apparently, though he supposedly had been pushing to have Spielberg direct it. This is understandable: the story is sugary sweet and much more suited to Spielberg's lighter touch than Kubrick's brilliant though darker hand.

It would have been fascinating to have seen how Kubrick would have done A.I.. The first two thirds of the film would have suited his style very well, though the final third is Spielberg at his warmest and most fuzzy. And that's the film's fatal flaw: it can't really decide if it's a Kubrick or Spielberg movie and in trying to honor the late director Spielberg has watered down the best of both directors' styles and given us instead a bit of a mishmash.

So while A.I. is an interesting, visually and aurally stunning movie, it's also one that's terribly flawed. It's still well worth a look, though - as is any Spielberg and/or Kubrick film whether you love or hate the directors' work.

The story, based on sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss' short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," follows the "life" of a robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment, who is outstanding in this role) from his first conception (well, proposal) by a robot manufacturer (William Hurt). David is conceived of as the first robot capable of giving real love, a surrogate child for couples who dream of having children but who are barred by legislation from conceiving.

Inconceivable? Not to the Chinese...

The prototype David goes home with one of the company's employees, Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) whose own son has been put into cryogenic hibernation and is to all intents and purposes dead to them. He brings David home to help fill the void in his and his wife Monica's (Frances O'Connor) life. And it looks as if David will work out very well as both parents, especially Monica, fall under his innocent spell.

Monica eventually decides to activate the cybernetic bond between them by performing a programming routine that's analogous to a futuristic version of programming a VCR. This process imprints Monica onto David's neural circuitry, forming a mother/child bond, and is irreversible, so she has been admonished to be sure she's ready to commit to a lifetime with David - and she truly feels she's ready.

And David becomes the perfect surrogate son, calling Monica Mommy and heaping plenty of childlike love on her. It's a wonderful robotic achievement and I could see childless couples lining up for their own Davids if the model ever went on sale.

But then something goes horribly wrong, thanks to unforeseen circumstances. Henry and Monica's real son Martin (Jake Thomas) is restored to them, and through no fault of his own - or really of Martin's - David becomes a real threat to the family. So Monica leaves him off by a roadside much as one might dump an unwanted dog, forcing David into a life on the road where nothing is certain except uncertainty.

There are echoes of Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" here, in the young "boy's" new life and the unlikely partnership he strikes up with an adult figure (in "Sun" it was John Malkovich's character who mentored the boy; here it's Jude Law as pleasure robot Gigolo Joe).

And it's here that the Pinocchio themes really start to surface, getting progressively more heavy handed (or at least less subtle) as the film progresses. Rejected by his family, David thinks if he could only become a real boy like his "brother" Martin, then his mother would love him again and everything would be as it was.

His search takes him to a "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-like" environment called the Flesh Fair, where humans destroy robots for entertainment. Since the movie's being told from the robot David's point of view, and since Spielberg can play his audience like a violin, we feel on the side of the robots as they're humiliated and shattered - yet though the humans' methods may be suspect, their actions may turn out to have been right, because later in the film we find that humanity is extinct and the dominant form of intelligence on Earth appears to be highly robotic.

The movie ends with an excruciatingly warm and fuzzy episode where David's millennia-long search comes to fruition and, other than the outstanding special effects, the movie would have been far superior if it had ended earlier, when David first becomes trapped under the ocean surface in what had been New York City before the oceans rose. It would have been a downbeat ending, a Shakespearean tragedy-type of thing, but a more appropriate and believable ending. Perhaps the final segment could have been done as a quick epilog, and could have worked that way, but Spielberg went whole hog with it and played it up to the story's detriment, so much so that we imagined Stanely Kubrick spinning in his grave...

A.I. isn't as good a retelling of Pinocchio as Spielberg's "Hook" was of Peter Pan. One reason may be Hook's unabashed connection; it was more of a sequel than a retelling, whereas A.I. presents itself as an epic sci-fi adventure and only after you're warming up to its fascinating vision and story do they sneak in the "puppet who dreamed of being a boy" motif - and then they spend the rest of the movie beating you over the head with it.

A.I. is Spielberg at his best, and at his worst. It's a marvelous technical achievement and a mostly heartwarming film, but it's also unforgivably schmaltzy and sentimental and that's its ultimate flaw. And while Spielberg throws in some definitely Kubrik-esque touches and shots, it's really Spielberg's vision of Kubrick and, while that isn't necessarily a bad thing, it succeeds in watering down what would have undoubtedly been a harder edged and probably more interesting Kubrick film.

Maybe part of the problem is that Spielberg wrote the script himself, something he hadn't done since the equally epic and flawed "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He's a better director than he is a writer and all of his most classic films were penned (or is it "word processored"?) by other writers even if the idea were his.

Still, you have to give him credit for trying and for the most part A.I. is entertaining enough to be worth owning - just don't expect either Kubrick's or Spielberg's best. But if you want an intelligent Sci-fi film that asks as many questions as it answers (for example, we're left to wonder what, if any, our obligations are to the intelligent beings that we create), this is a good example.

And watch for the sci-fi teddy bear; what a great toy!

It's an excellent Blu-ray, too, with a marvelous widescreen 1080p picture that's clean and sharp and colorful, and the audio, which is presented in dts-HD Master Audio, is just as compelling. All the audio channels are used well, dialogue is always clear despite explosions and the like, and John Williams' excellent - and quite Kubrick-like in places - comes through well.

Then there are the extras, plenty of them, though they're also relatively superficial. There's over 100 minutes of behind-the-scene footage in all, including interviews and featurettes, and it's interesting stuff. You also get featurettes on the sound effects and beautifully sweeping orchestral score, and more.

It's a good package and a good, Blu-ray that - other than our caveats about the story - is very satisfying to watch. In a way, this is kind of fitting for a good science fiction epic that also could have been much better.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, from Dreamworks Home Video
145 min. 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, William Hurt,
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Bonnie Curtis,
Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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