“A.I.” is a chilly fairy tale, a spooky and disturbing film about the nature of innocence, an investigation of personal love in which the nominally most caring, feeling creatures are not really human. If that sounds disconcerting and contradictory but still absorbing, you’ve arrived at the heart of the matter.
A not quite seamless, not completely satisfying but invariably attention-grabbing combination of divergent themes, genres and even story lines, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” comes by its fissures and inconsistencies honestly. Its futuristic story of a new kind of robot, one programmed to love, is a beyond-the-grave partnership of two very different master filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg.
Telephone and fax friends for two decades, Kubrick and Spielberg had talked at length about collaborating on Kubrick’s planned version of Brian Aldiss’ short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.” At one point, the press notes say Kubrick suggested he produce and Spielberg direct because “I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine,” and after Kubrick’s death that idea became a reality.
It’s easy to understand why Kubrick accurately surmised that Spielberg would be attracted to the material, so much so that he ended up writing the screenplay, his first since “Poltergeist” in 1982 (Ian Watson gets a screen story credit). It focuses on such areas as childhood experience, families and the need for acceptance that the director is more than familiar with, but its take on them is extreme. It’s in effect the dark, feral side of “E.T.,” the story of an alien nobody really loved and nobody really wanted.
Kubrick’s frigid aloofness and analytical distance couldn’t be more different from Spielberg’s hard-to-shake passion for cozy sentiment and audience acceptance, and joining the two sensibilities has proved problematical. Fascinating though it is, “A.I.” has not only turned out colder and creepier than even Spielberg may have intended, but it has also made his tendency to be overly earnest when dealing with feelings more apparent--it has in effect underlined how making a true emotional connection is just beyond this film’s reach.
On the other hand, it is heartening to see Spielberg willing to look into stranger variations of his familiar themes, and the filmmaking, as expected, is quite wonderful. Collaborating with his regular team of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and production designer Rick Carter, Spielberg has brought a remarkable fluidity to even the most conventional situations. “A.I.” is shot through with gorgeous, remarkable imagery--a masterful tracking shot of a carnival, a seamless look at what turns out to be the robot interior of a human head--and it is one of the few pieces set in the future that manages to look convincingly futuristic.
When that future is, “A.I.” doesn’t say, but one hopes not any time soon. A voice-over says it’s after the ice caps have melted, submerging seaside metropolises like Venice and New York and killing 100 million in the process. That calamity made artificial beings, which are never hungry and don’t consume resources, “an essential link in the chain mail of society,” of a world now divisible between beings who are orga, for organic, or mecha, for mechanical.
Most robots are little more than sensory toys, but William Hurt’s visionary Professor Hobby wants his company (the irresistibly named Cybertronics of New Jersey) to go further, to “build a robot child who will genuinely love” to cater to the expanding market of people without government permission to have children of their own. Which raises the question, asked by an associate, “Can you get a human to love them back?”
Inquiries into the nature of emotional attachment and the power of belief are the focus of “A.I.” What does permanent affection imply? Would truly absolute attachment be distinguishable from unnerving, stalker-like obsession? What would endless love mean in practical terms?
Questions like these get raised when the Swinton family is selected to get the first of Professor Hobby’s robots. Henry (Sam Robards) works for Cybertronics, and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor of “Love and Other Catastrophes” and “Mansfield Park”) is still dealing with the aftershocks of having a seriously ill son cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found. Into their lives, dressed all in angelic white, comes David (Haley Joel Osment).
Well-behaved, always smiling, looking like “someone’s ordinary kid,” David so smoothly counterfeits reality you’d never guess there were a hundred miles of fiber optics inside him. No, he doesn’t sleep, but he can “lay quiet and never make a peep.” And he comes with an imprinting program, which, if followed, is irreversible. David will love you forever, and if you tire of him, he can’t be exchanged or resold but must be destroyed.
Monica, desperate for a replacement child, follows the procedure and gets David to love her. The mother is so pleased, she even gives David custody of her son’s favorite toy, the high-tech Teddy, a somber, thinking bear whose superior wisdom and calming voice (supplied by the veteran Jack Angel) make him the sanest, most likable character in the entire film.
This happy period has barely begun when the Swintons’ son Martin (Jake Thomas) makes a miracle recovery and rejoins the family. All too predictably, he turns out to be a bit of a manipulative bad seed, with a gift for goading David into doing things that are inevitably misconstrued and misinterpreted by the Swintons. At the same time, David hears Monica reading from “Pinocchio,” and his resulting passion to become a real boy so his mother will return his unconditional love becomes his driving motivation.
(Though one of “A.I.'s” executives claims that “the idea of an artificial being feeling genuine love and a human truly loving an artificial being is quite new territory,” it was in fact done as recently as “Bicentennial Man,” though you’d be forgiven for not recognizing that after director Christopher Columbus got finished tarting up and overproducing Nicholas Kazan’s nuanced script.)
At this pivotal juncture “A.I.” jarringly introduces quite a different robot character and plot line. That would be Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a literal sex machine who has been programmed to tell women they are goddesses and utilize enviable technique to back up his worship.
Joe, as film gigolos have since the dawn of time, gets into trouble, and through him we see the frightful, previously well-hidden underside of this future universe, truly a world, as a character puts it, “more full of weeping than you can understand.”
The entire “A.I.” effects team worked on a disturbing dead-of-night vision of terribly damaged, discarded robots scavenging for parts in the hopes of becoming whole. Visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren and Scott Farrar of ILM, practical effects coordinator Michael Lantieri, robotic and creature effects creator Stan Winston and makeup designer Ve Neill collaborated on this pitiful vision of the aftereffects of a thoughtless culture of disposal.
Spielberg has an undeniable zest for this bleak material, as he does for the futuristic pleasure dome called Rouge City and the savage Flesh Fair in which humans act out their hatred of the mecha world (all created with the help of conceptual artist Christopher Baker, originally hired by Kubrick). But this darker stuff never fits well with David’s plight and the increasingly complex journey he makes.
Though the actors do their best to fully close this gap, the task would be beyond anyone. The exceptionally gifted Osment is remarkable as David, and Law brings an essential energy to Gigolo Joe. But there is a limit, even in this film, as to how involving a robot can be, and something in the nature of the project makes the humans appear colder, hollower and frankly more robotic than we’d like.
Unlike those futuristic robots, and unlike most films, “A.I.” was not created to fill a market need, but in service of a shared personal vision. Yet though the skill involved holds us in our seats, the project’s inability to transcend its built-in limitations keep it from achieving the kind of overarching impact it is after. “A.I.” is a long way from the Tom Sawyer world of the DreamWorks logo that opens the film, but that doesn’t means the film’s darker, more complicated vision is an unqualified success.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual content and violent images. Times guidelines: often creepy and disturbing--the stuff of nightmares for young children.
‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’
Haley Joel Osment: David
Jude Law: Gigolo Joe
Frances O’Connor: Monica Swinton
Brendan Gleeson: Lord Johnson-Johnson
William Hurt: Professor Hobby
Sam Robards: Henry Swinton
Warner Bros. Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures present an Amblin/Stanley Kubrick production, released by Warner Bros. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Bonnie Curtis. Executive producers Jan Harlan, Walter F. Parkes. Screenplay Steven Spielberg, based on a screen story by Ian Watson, based on the short story by Brian Aldiss. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Bob Ringwood. Music John Williams. Production design Rick Carter. Art directors Richard Johnson, Jim Teegarden, Thomas Valentine. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes.