Tuesday, July 24, 2001

A.I. - Artificial Intelligence / ***1/2 (2001)

There aren't many movies that require repeat viewings to gain a full perspective of what's going on, but Steven Spielberg's "A.I. - Artificial Intelligence" falls under that category without a moment's hesitation. The film is immediately an extraordinary visual spectacle, but its story dwells somewhere between brilliant and mediocre, so much so that a second viewing would likely serve as the only way to make a well-mounted response. Needless to say, the result will be different for everyone, but for this particular critic, that answer eventually became an overwhelmingly positive one. That doesn't make it a flawless film, but awfully darn close.

The backhistory of "A.I." is a movie in itself. When the film began production, Speilberg was working with a rough outline scribbled down by the late Stanley Kubrick, who intended to direct the actual film after "Eyes Wide Shut," but died before the opportunity came (a conflicting source, however, says that he simply gave up with the material, but if the truth be known, Kubrick suggested it to Spielberg in 1994, but reclaimed it when his close friend turned down the offer). Insiders have even hinted that Kubrick considered this to be his "dream film," the product that would serve as an oppropriate closure to a career as rich and successful as his. So how is it that Speilberg wound up with it instead? Apparently the "Schindler's List" director knew a great deal about the "A.I." story because he and Kubrick conversed about it on many occasions over the years (most of the time secretly), and after Kubrick died, his family personally appealed to Spielberg because, well, no one else could have provided a clear insight into the scope Stanley sought after.

With "A.I." at his disposal, Spielberg does a little "give and take" as far as vision goes, opting to utilize the best qualities of both his and Stanley's directorial talents. We don't know for sure if Kubrick would have done a better job than Spielberg does, but given the scenario, he would probably be very pleased with what the result stands as: a bold and effective endeavor that is not only absorbing, but also socially significant.

The story is set at the peak of imagination, a future evolved enough to create and manufacture machines that look like human beings, and then give them the opportunity to project realistic emotions. Of course, that's the problem suggested in the movie's promotional line--"What responsibility does a human have to a robot that genuinely loves?"--and in a universe built upon bright colors but harsh behaviors, there really is no possible answer. Why, exactly? Because those who live and breathe have extremely diverse reactions to those that only seem to live and breathe. Some embrace the machines as ordinary humans; others merely tolerate them, while some simply despise their very existence.

In the world we live in, even though it is easy to separate what is real from what is artificial, most of us tend to manipulate ourselves into believing that machines and/or objects of any kind can actually learn to love, or that we can learn to love them back. This is the crucial point for the viewer as he/she is asked to attatch their feelings on to a character who embodies traits that seem real, but are merely fabrications. I hesitated on my intial response, but remembering the fact that I once invested my emotions in a wooden puppet in "Pinnochio," and later reminded myself that movies of all kind feature fabricated characters to begin with, the emotional investment eventually came naturally. For it to happen with other moviegoers, they must remember not the fact that we are demanded to invest interest in a robot here, but the fact that they've probably already done a similar thing somewhere in their pasts.

The movie opens with a scientist (William Hurt) approaching a company specializing in creating "mechas" (machines that look like humans) with an idea to bring their products closer to actual humanity--programming them to learn and feel genuine human emotions. Two years pass, and the product is David (Haley Joel Osment), a little boy robot with charming eyes and a captivating smile that captures the attention of Henry (Sam Robards), a father mourning the loss of his own child. Henry purchases David and takes him home to his emotionally-ailing wife Monica (Frances O'Connor), who is angered at the idea of investing her care into something that is only wires and computer chips on the inside. But as the movie progresses, she and David begin to bond, almost like a mother and child who had just met after being seperated since birth. The involvement becomes too much for the parent, however, and in an act of panic, she leaves him behind and moves on with her life. Not understanding why so few humans are willing to accept him (much less his own "mother"), David goes in search of identity, meeting Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) along the way, a machine equivalent to a male prostitute who, like the young mecha, is programed to love.

The screenplay was inspired by a short story called "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," although the source material was probably spurred itself by the story of "Pinocchio" (especially since the main character, David, identifies with the little wooden puppet on many separate occasions, eventually leading him on a journey to find the "Blue Fairy"). As a narrative, the script is incredibly generous to its viewers, shoveling out hordes of details about characters, situations and conflicts to help heighten the realism not just of the mechas, but of the environment they live in as well. However, there comes a point when our involvement is held back by unfaithful convictions of a few of the film's most important scenes. There is the moment, for instance, when Frances O'Connor's Monica abandons her robot child in the woods, and then when David meets up with Jude Law's Gigolo Joe. Scenes like these could have used extended investigations, but are sadly deserted before the emotional appeal reaches its necessary level. How do the parents feel about leaving behind David? What provokes the correct connection between the young robot and Joe, besides the fact that they are machines programmed to feel? Spielberg assumes we can figure out the remains without those scenes, but the contemplation that comes as a result painfully detracts us from our emotional attatchment to the film as a whole.

Nonetheless, the look of the picture is magnificent, particularly when David enters Rouge City, a vast metropolis that radiates in dazzling fluorescent colors, and uses tall beams of light to focus in on the most important players. All the visual Spielberg traits are apparent (including an obvious homage to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" during the resolution), and yet the essence of the atmosphere--in which the world feels empty despite the prescence of crowded sidewalks and busy streets--is definitely Kubrick-inspired. In the eyes of the late director, "A.I." would probably have been more menacing, more sexual, and definitely more violent than anything Spielberg could have done. But as it stands, this version of the film is already all those things, and much more in the process. Hardly a kids movie and more of a deep psychological investigation, here is the ideal summer motion picture: the one in which style and substance work hand-in-hand to encourage lengthy discussions amongst its viewers. Who honestly expects to get that kind of payoff from something like "Scary Movie 2?"

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Haley Joel Osment:
David
Jude Law:
Gigolo Joe
Frances O'Connor:
Monica Swinton
Sam Robards:
Henry Swinton
Jake Thomas:
Martin Swinton
Brendan Gleeson:
Lord Johnson-Johnson

Produced by Bonnie Curtis, Jan Harlan, Kathleen Kennedy, Walter F. Parkes and Steven Spielberg; Directed by Steven Spielberg; Screenwritten by Ian Watson and Steven Spielberg; based on the short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss; original screen treatment provided by the late Stanley Kubrick

Drama (US); Rated PG-13 for mild sex and violence; Running Time -143 Minutes

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