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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 09/14/01 08:00:28

"Fairytale Grim"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the highly anticipated collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick ("an Amblin/Stanley Kubrick production"), is a dark fairytale about a robot who "dreams" of becoming a human boy.

The starting point for Kubrick, and then Spielberg, was Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-toys Last All Summer Long". Spielberg wrote the screenplay (his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977), based on a screen story by Ian Watson. A.I. also owes a significant debt to Carlo Lorenzini's Italian fable, Adventures of Pinocchio. The complete Pinocchio was first published in 1883, and was darker in tone than the 1940 animated Disney film it inspired. A.I. is bleaker still.

In an unspecified future, robot helpers are commonplace throughout society (robots are "mecha" or mechanical; humans are "orga" or organic). Due to resource shortages, the government has restricted the number of children allowed per family. Professor Hobby (William Hurt) of Cybertronics Manufacturing wants to develop a robot boy with the ability to love a designated parent - a surrogate child. The prototype, David (Haley Joel Osment), is delivered to the middle class home of Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards). Monica still grieves for their son Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been cryogenically frozen in the hope that medicine will someday assist his recovery from an accident.

A.I. begins as a domestic drama as David and Monica (his stay-at-home parent) adjust to each other. The unexpected return home of Martin changes everything. The Swintons, their home and lifestyle, David, his "super-toy" robot teddy bear, David's love for Monica, her ambiguous reciprocation of feelings, the Swintons' biological child - all these establishing elements are from Aldiss. Determined to win Monica's love by becoming human, like Martin, David embarks on a quest to find "the blue fairy" that transformed the puppet Pinocchio into a boy.

David's journey and adventures are sometimes similar to Pinocchio's. Pinocchio falls foul of a sinister sideshow; David is almost publicly executed at the anti-mecha "flesh fair". Geppetto, the carpenter who fashioned the puppet Pinocchio and wished for a son, is akin to Professor Hobby, who seems to regard David as his own child (Hobby's office features photographs of Hobby and David - or perhaps the boy David was based on - eerily recalling the photos of Martin with his parents in the Swinton home). David's "Jiminy Cricket" is charismatic mecha sex-worker Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), not so much David's conscience as the friend who helps him out of trouble.

A.I. shares the same broad structure as Kubrick's last completed film, Eyes Wide Shut. A disturbing event drives the male hero from his comfortable home. His ensuing quest exposes him to lust and violence and ends in a fairytale New York (Eyes Wide Shut's New York was dream-like, partly because it was filmed in London and on a soundstage). The hero returns to the safety of home and the female figure who precipitated his original
departure.

The script and story of A.I. is brimming with imagination and ideas. Old robots are hunted or taken from garbage dumps and sold to the flesh fair, where they are tortured and destroyed before a jeering human audience. These scenes are sadistic and distressing: a robot with missing limbs begs another to switch off its pain receptors. The flesh fair also signifies dramatic class rifts in this future society. The Swintons lead a comfortable life, where robots are accepted. Gigolo Joe tells David that robots were made "too smart, too quick and too many". Are they now analogous to slaves (and the flesh fair a mass lynching)? Have robots taken all the working class jobs? Are the flesh fairs tolerated by the human police as a means of keeping the poorer humans happy, and suppressing their dissent about the prosperous classes?

Pinocchio had an obvious moral - the puppet only became a boy after he learnt to resist temptation and promised to be good. When David makes mistakes, or inadvertently does something wrong, his errors are never made clear to him. Can a robot have a soul, as Hobby intends? David may be programmed to love someone for life; what if that love is not reciprocated? Hobby gives David the ability to dream - to long to be human - but David lacks imagination. He reads about a "blue fairy" in Pinocchio, and stubbornly searches for it because he thinks it is the only means of becoming human. What does it mean for a robot like David to be human anyway - is it the ability to die? Or be a last reminder of the human race?

A.I. is a challenging film for the audience. A lot of questions are left unanswered, and considerable suspension of disbelief is required as the film nears its end. There is wonder and surprise and a cute-beyond-belief teddy bear, but the overall tone is grim. Ultimately, there is a suggestion of relief for David, but A.I. doesn't have an unambiguously happy ending like Pinocchio. A.I. is about a child learning to come to terms with death.

A number of minor things irked me about the story. Aldiss wrote his piece in 1969, when the idea of the bored housewife at home was probably less incongruous. Monica could have been given something more to do than mope, drink coffee and tidy the house. When David eats spinach, it requires a major overhaul of his system. Shouldn't prolonged exposure to water or ice pose at least some problem? Why couldn't an illness be specified for Martin? We're told he has to be frozen until medicine is able to cure him, but he reappears on crutches. And why isn't Hobby perturbed when David exhibits violent tendencies in his office at the end? Would he really wander off and leave David alone at that point?

The world of A.I., with its robot inhabitants, is visually astonishing. Comic artist Fangorn (Chris Baker) completed over a thousand conceptual drawings for Kubrick, which were used by Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter. The sets and environments (created or enhanced by visual effects) - especially the Swinton home, Rouge City (imagine Las Vegas as a mecca of sex, rather than gambling), and the underwater New York - are fantastic. After the flesh fair, there are virtually no humans left in the story. The robots and aliens (courtesy of Stan Winston and Industrial Light & Magic) are brilliantly designed and executed (kudos to costume designer Bob Ringwood and the make-up department). A.I. has Kubrick's visually precise look - the richness of detail requires a second viewing to take it all in. Janusz Kaminski's beautiful images help bring this artificial world to life.

The contributions of Kubrick and Spielberg seem closely intertwined. Spielberg's pacing is a lot less deliberate than Kubrick's (which is probably a relief as the story covers a lot of ground). He elicits generally fine performances from his cast. O'Connor (so good in Mansfield Park and the Australian films Kiss or Kill and Thank God He Met Lizzie) brings the sketchy Monica role to life with her luminous presence. Law has the believably sharp movements of a performing robot, and adds wit and style to Gigolo Joe (you can imagine his clients having a good time with him). Apart from Teddy, he's the first real injection of comedy in the film, and he appears not a moment too soon.

Osment is remarkable in the lead role and carries the whole film (he's in almost every scene). You only have to contrast him with Jake Thomas (playing Martin) to be awed by his maturity as an actor. His transformation from awkward stiffness to more fluid movements as he spends time with Joe and becomes more human, is nicely effected. William Hurt's role is largely expository, and he's not very interesting in the part. Nor is Robards able to make Henry believable: he changes his mind about David very quickly.

It's sometimes enervating watching all these robots walking around, and I was a bit put out by the unexpectedly bleak tone and ending. But I think A.I., like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, will improve on subsequent viewings.

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