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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Reviewed By PyThomas
Posted 08/14/03 12:33:01

"I see mechanical people."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Are Friends Electric?" asked one Gary Numan over twenty years ago. You kinda wonder if he ever read science fiction works such as those of Brian Aldiss. It's Brian's 1969 short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", that A.I. (a.k.a. Artificial Intelligence) is based on.

Two decades in the making, this film was going to be a much-heralded collaboration between eccentric visionary Stanley Kubrick and innovative blockbuster-maker Steven Spielberg. At one point they settled on the duties for each other: Clockwork-guy would produce, and E.T.-dude would direct. While they were busy with their own projects, Steven & Stanley kept in touch about their special project and were planning on finally setting it in motion around the turn of the millennium... until all of a sudden Kubrick died in 1999 in the middle of wrapping up Eyes Wide Shut.

Spielberg pressed on with the project, writing the screenplay and directing the whole thing, and dedicated the finished work to Kubrick. The film premiered in the summer of 2001, but in the wake of Shrek and Legally Blonde, A.I. made only a modest amount of box-office cash. It's easy to see why... the story isn't exactly feel-good family fare, and it gets a bit avant-garde and quite confusing in some places. But aside from a couple of small plot holes, A.I. is quite an interesting, enthralling film to watch, and a fitting tribute to the dearly departed Stanley.

A.I. is unofficially divided into three acts, each with their own distinctive feel to them. The first part kinda rehashes the E.T. storyline of "strange being tries to adapt to suburban family life", as well as sets up the situational environment and the premise of "can we program a machine to love". It's about a century or two into the future, the polar ice caps have completely melted thanks to global warming, and the resulting floods have swallowed up considerable amounts of land, turning coastal cities into underwater ruins and wreaking havoc on the Earth's many inhabitants. Humanoid robots have firmly established themselves in society as able workers and artificial sex counterparts. Population control has been established by strictly licensing pregnancies, leaving millions of couples without a chance to have offspring of their own. Looking to tap into that market is Cybertronics, a robot manufacturer based in what's left of New Jersey. They've set out on a mission to build something never done before: a robot child that can not only mimic the actions of a real child, but have mental circuitry that's advanced enough for it to have real emotions and the ability to actually have real, childlike love for a person, the way real kids love their mommy and daddy.

Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) has based his new creation (Haley Joel Osment) on his dearly departed real-life son David, and has likewise bestowed that name on his robot prototype. The recipients of the first robot child, chosen from Cybertronics' employee database, are Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose son Martin has been for years cryogenically frozen in the hopes that a cure for his life-threatening disease would someday be found. Monica is still quite emotionally attached to her little boy, reading stories to him while he lies comatose and unresponsive. So when Henry one day brings David in as a replacement for their child, Monica is initially freaked out that her husband would do such a thing.

At this point, David is emotionless, totally subservient and a perfect angel. Eventually Monica warms up to David and decides to activate the permanent, irreversible imprinting that will turn on the emotional circuitry. Suddenly, David starts calling her "Mommy", generates an emotional bond to her, and starts getting a little mischevious as well. Not long after Monica brings a long-neglected robotic teddy bear (named, of course, Teddy - voice by Jack Angel) out for David to keep him company, she gets a call from her husband... their real son can be cured and is being brought out of freezing! Now a real live boy, bratty behavior and all, is getting David into all kinds of trouble, at one point having his mom read the story of Pinocchio to both of them. And you know how that story goes - at the end, the artificial boy puppet is turned into a real live boy, which is a subtle dig at David, who could never become fully human in the real world.

A near-drowning incident at the swimming pool and a late-night mishap with scissors shed new light on the parents about how dangerous this emotional robot might become. Monica then decides to throw David out with the rest of the robot trash... but abandoning a robot that's emotionally attached to her is going to be way harder than ditching an unattached, unfeeling mechanoid. A scared, screaming David (with Teddy) disappears into Monica's rear view mirror ... and Part One of the story ends there.

From the family setting we go into an action-packed quest. Here we meet Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a "lover" robot that is suddenly on the lam after being framed for murder. Left to his own devices, David recalls the story of Pinocchio, and reasons that if he was made into a real boy, his "mommy" Monica might love him again and take him back into the household. After escaping a "Flesh Fair" where robots are creatively destroyed to the delight of human audiences, David and Teddy team up with Joe and they set out to find the "Blue Fairy" that can turn David into a real boy. Their journey takes them through Rouge City, basically a futuristic red-light district the size of Manhattan, and all the way to the watery ruins of Manhattan itself, where Cybertronics still operates in one of the waterlogged skyscrapers. David, still pining for Monica and still looking for the Blue Fairy, slips away from Professor Logan's sight and with the help of a police vehicle plunges into the murky depths of the now-submerged Big Apple. You'd think that someone would come looking for him OR the vehicle by now, but no, David finds a Blue Fairy statue in the ruins of Coney Island and gets trapped there for almost an eternity as he pleads to the lifeless fairy statue, until his power runs out, to make him a real boy.

We jump ahead to Part Three (the strangest part of the movie), two thousand years later. Humanity has become extinct, Earth is in another Ice Age, and strange new advanced beings (robotic? alien?) are excavating the remains of the ancient societies and happen upon David, frozen in time but still functional. When they recharge him, he is still wanting the fairy to make him human and he still wants his "mommy" to love him again. Now that Monica and all the other humans are long gone, will the new beings be able to satisfy the emotional yearnings of this peculiar boy-like machine from a bygone era they know very little about?

You can easily point out the places where Spielberg pays homage to Kubrick: stark, sterile-looking environments like the cryogenics ward; a lengthy, continuous walking scene involving Teddy and a Flesh Fair worker; Teddy himself talking to David in a voice and tone that's kinda reminiscient of something else talking to a guy named "Dave"; and an antique mecha-droid that sounds a lot like Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, to name a few. And speaking of "voices", Meryl Streep, Chris Rock and Robin Williams among others, lend their voice talents to cameos in the film. Industrial-thrash-metal band Ministry also makes a brief appearance.

It's pretty obvious that the guy behind Jurassic Park, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan wasn't going to make a film that would be accessible and easy to digest this time around. Few of Stanley's works were made that way, anyway. For all its few faults, A.I. remains a film that, long after it's over, can leave you wondering about the state of humanity, the framework of our mentality, and what could happen to soulless mechanical beings if they were suddenly endowed with complex human emotions.

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