In the tradition of the late Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg filmed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence under a cloak of mystery and secrecy. The following review contains information that might be considered “spoiler material,” so be warned if you want to see A.I. with all its surprises still under wraps.
On the surface, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a re-telling of Pinocchio, this time with a robot boy looking for real, unconditional love. But this fairy tale has some powerful underlying themes regarding the human condition that only a cold-hearted soul could ignore.
A.I. actually benefits from having two directors, one behind the camera (Steven Spielberg) and one in spirit (Stanley Kubrick). A pet project of Kubrick’s, the legendary director wanted Spielberg to make the film and they swapped notes, visited, and pounded out details. Spielberg felt Kubrick would be better suited to direct, but after Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg returned to the film and made A.I. as a tribute.
Spielberg has grown up, but not old, with his most recent works (most notably with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) and A.I. is actually more akin to those films than his other fantasy masterpieces like E.T. and Close Encounters.
In the name of love
PG-13 for violence, danger
Set in the future, following a worldwide flood due to global warming, A.I. takes place in a world where the limited landscape has created additional population pressures. Now, couples must obtain a license in order to have children. And, with so many people yearning to be parents, the miracles of technology hope to solve that problem by introducing robots that look like human children and can actually offer genuine feelings of love. The concept is awesome: Loving children that throw no temper tantrums and never get older.
The movie takes its time in the beginning, taking care to set the stage and introduce audiences to this world of the future. Adding to the sense of disorientation, the leading characters at the start of the film, Henry and Monica Swinton, are played by relatively unknown actors (Sam Robards, American Beauty, and Frances O’Connor, Bedazzled).
Henry is an employee at Cybertronics, a company that makes “mechas,” or mechanical humans. The couple are in personal distress as their young son, Martin, lies in a coma.
The Swintons are offered the opportunity to adopt David, an 11-year-old boy mecha, (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense) by Professor Hobby, the guru of Cybertronics (William Hurt, Sunshine). As a sort of “beta test,” they could in theory both fill the void in their hearts and provide the company with important information regarding the mecha’s performance and adaptability.
However, Martin (Jake Thomas, The Cell) does return home and through a sequence of events, the parents find themselves incapable of handling the experimental nature of their new addition.
In a moment of panic, Monica abandons David in the woods near Cybertronics, knowing that returning the boy to his maker would be his end. As bizarre as all this might seem, it’s an emotionally traumatic situation that plays out with intensity.
From there, the true magic begins and the film transforms into an incredible odyssey of the mind and heart.
When you wish upon a star
Having been read Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio by Monica, and not being able to discern reality from fantasy, David becomes intent on finding the Blue Fairy that will have the magical power to transform him into a real boy. He knows he could then return to the Swintons and live happily ever after as Martin’s real brother.
Along the way, David enlists the assistance of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley), a “pleasure mecha” that satisfies women’s fondest desires. Joe himself is on the run as a prime suspect in a murder for which he’s been framed.
The two, along with David’s amazing walking, talking teddy bear (Teddy, who amazingly enhances the film and avoids becoming a distracting cutesy element), embark to find the Blue Fairy and in the process take the audience on a long day’s journey into night.
It is fitting that Spielberg went back to the original source material for Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi’s book, instead of the Disney version so idolized in Close Encounters (perhaps this is in part because Spielberg now has his own production company, DreamWorks, to compete with Disney). But, on a bigger scale, in creating his own fairy tale with A.I., Spielberg simply couldn’t afford to pack along the baggage of Disney and its “when you wish upon a star” sentimentality.
Osment and Law turn in terrific performances in difficult roles that require a lot of subtlety to make the characters less than perfect humans. Osment holds center stage for most of the movie and is the kind of child actor that can actually rely on acting skill instead of the cloying, heart-tugging expressions and mannerisms that made Macaulay Culkin a mere flash in the pan.
Law is equally stellar as a cyber-prostitute with the finesse of Fred Astaire.
Eyes wide open
A.I. earned its PG-13 rating and parents should be cautious when bringing smaller children. As with the Brothers Grimm, there are some dark spells in this fairy tale world. This time, though, Spielberg beautifully tempers the hope-inspiring developments of technology with the down-to-earth reality of human frailty.
One of the amazing things about A.I. is how it feels so much like a Kubrick movie. Even though it is the first screenplay written by Spielberg since Poltergeist, and the first one he’s written and directed since Close Encounters, Spielberg has managed to keep Kubrick’s thumbprint on the project. Spielberg’s voice is certainly there to be heard, but he’s kept himself primarily as a backup vocalist to Kubrick’s lead singer.
With Saving Private Ryan three years ago, Spielberg took a major risk and released the stark war epic in the middle of the summer. It paid off. Now, A.I. elegantly marries Spielberg’s earlier blockbuster sensibilities with incredible material developed by Kubrick in hopes of elevating the 2001 summer movie season. It’s almost as if he’s trying to pull audiences out of the doldrums of slam-bang popcorn flicks (a tradition he himself helped to create with the likes of Jaws and the Indiana Jones trilogy) and offer them something more. Much more.
A.I. is one of those cinematic rarities that practically requires a second viewing.