A. I.
Artificial Intelligence

(USA2001)
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images.

Starring:
Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards and William Hurt

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writing credits: Steven Spielberg

Warner Bros. * 145 minutes

Note: This review contains some mild spoilers.

2001 may go down in history as the year the general public became familiar withwhat perhaps would be best kept in the Dreamworks SKG founder psychological profile archives. Yes, this is the year in which we learned that Jeffrey Katzenberg is obsessed with the size (or lack thereof) of Michael Eisner's penis, and in which we learned that Steven Spielberg has some serious maternal abandonment issues.

Both of these are more than I necessarily needed to know.

David Geffen, call your analyst. I'm not interested in YOUR baggage. I'm too busy digesting A.I.

Inside of A.I. is a great film screaming to get out, trying vainly to claw its way free of the trademark Spielberg mawkishness, to escape the Spielbergian hot and cold running emotional sledgehammers. Yet this peculiar work clearly demonstrates its origins as a Stanley Kubrick vehicle. In typical Kubrick fashion, the legendary directory dickered around with Brian Aldiss' 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long for eighteen years before becoming ill-advisedly sidetracked by the misguided EYES WIDE SHUT, the last film completed before his death in 1999. Kubrick understood that this particular story was a natural for Spielberg, and so it was part of the natural order of things that Spielberg would finish the project. In watching A.I., it is painfully apparent how greatly the loss of Kubrick impacted the finished product, and not necessarily for the better. Kubrick was a master of the coldness, detachment, and even cynicism that is part and parcel of the post-apocalyptic vision, whereas Spielberg always goes straight for the emotional jugular vein, usually to the point of being gratuitously manipulative.

As a collaborative project, A.I. could have been a masterpiece in which two great directors each brought his particular forte to the table. Spielberg could have brought warmth to the antiseptic Kubrick, and the cynical Kubrick could have toned down Spielberg's tendency towards mawkish unsubtlety. As it stands, however, A.I. is a typically maddening Spielberg flick -- brilliant cinematic craftsmanship (including some wonderful Kubrickian visuals) marred by overly-emotional sentimentality.

A.I. makes no effort to hide its origin as essentially a retelling of Pinocchio. Built as the first robot who can feel human emotions, a "because we can" project by scientist Professor Hobby (William Hurt), David (Haley Joel Osment) is brought home by Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) in a misguided attempt to help his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor, a Parker Posey lookalike who is making a career out of playing bitchy harpies) accept the hopeless situation of their cryogenically-preserved and critically ill son. Warning her against imprinting David to make him bond with her until and unless she is absolutely sure she wants to keep him, he himself remains detached from the creation.

The problem with the digital "love" that is programmed into David is that it is just the sort of clinging, needy, unconditional love that human beings seem unable to cope with (which explains the rash of bad parenting going on these days). It's clear from the beginning that Monica, for all her story-reading to the pod in which her son is encased, isn't much of a mother, and in all likelihood, not much of a wife. When her own son is somehow cured and returns home, inevitably jealous of his new cyber-sibling (and what child wouldn't be somewhat perturbed to arrive home and find himself replaced by a robot?), she decides that she cannot handle the additional stresses on the family, and in an over-the-top, gut-wrenching primal scene that caused more than one member of the audience in the showing I attended to walk out of the theatre, abandons David in the forest.

A.I. then becomes another film entirely, a more conventional, even derivative post-apocalyptic vision -- a cinematic robot itself, composed of bits and snippets of MAD MAX, LOGAN'S RUN, STRANGE DAYS, THE TERMINATOR, and every other film of this genre, and fraught with Spielberg's inevitable Holocaust analogies. It depicts a world in which man has become emotionally threatened by his own creation because of enforced limitations on man's own ability to procreate. Damaged robots claw through junkyards looking for replacement parts, like Jews in Nazi camps forced to extract gold teeth from the dead bodies of their compatriots. Demolition Derby-type "Flesh Fairs" feature the destruction of robots for the entertainment of humans, who die like Christian martyrs thrown to the lions, beatific smiles upon their faces. Meanwhile, the gentle David and his newfound friend Gigolo Joe, a swaggering, leather-coated "love mecha" portrayed, inevitably, by Jude Law, embark together through a Vegas-like "Rouge City" and ultimately to a submerged Manhattan, on David's quest to find Pinocchio's Blue Fairy, whom David believes can turn him into a real boy, thus making his mommy love him again.

For adults who have spent years in therapists' offices learning that there is no magic bullet that will make Mommy love you and it's not your fault that she doesn't, this is pretty disturbing stuff. There's something primal that taps into all of us in Osment's otherwordly, angelic face, looking up with his enormous baby-blues and asking, "Mommy, are you going to die", or clutching at her and promising he'll do anything if she just won't leave him. And of course, Spielberg milks it for all it's worth. Without going into too many spoilers, Spielberg resolves the film with the ultimate Freudian fantasy, in which David the toy boy finally gets his Mommy all to himself; a conclusion that is almost more disturbing for what it may say about the film's director and screenwriter than for the meaning of the scene itself. It's a less-than-satisfactory resolution.

Yet for all its shortcomings, A.I. is one of those haunting films that will stay with you for days. Visually, it's a gorgeous masterpiece. Spielberg, along with the extraordinary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), do a marvelous job at evoking A.I.'s post-apocalyptic universe. A roomful of Davids, in various stages of completion. The robot junkyard. The spooky woods, from which emerges a moonlike hot air balloon piloted by a malevolent Oz-like authority figure, but this time with no E.T. on a bicycle silhouetted across it. Eerily effective shots such as David's soulful eyes appearing multiple times in textured glass like some sort of high-tech insect -- right before he barges in on Monica sitting on the toilet. Kaminski is obviously well-cognizant of Osment's eyes as a visual tool, and one shot of those eyes on an otherwise white screen is right out of Kubrick's mind.

A.I. is also an unusually self-referential film, in which Spielberg pays tribute not just to Kubrick's earlier works, but also his own. In the sex-soaked Rouge City, we expect A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Alex and his droogies to emerge any second. When we first encounter David, he is shown as merely a shadow, but with the shape of the aliens in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. The toys, especially the talking supertoy teddybear Teddy, could easily be found in Gertie's room in E.T. Indeed, David himself is a logical descendant of the Reese's Pieces-eating alien. Even the collapsing ferris wheel from Spielberg's 1979 mess 1941 is in attendance. What fun there is in A.I. comes from looking for these references...and also from Jude Law's Gigolo Joe.

Joe is now the third role that Jude Law was born to play. After a string of forgettable portrayals, including the gay hustler in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL and the security guard/gamer in eXistenZ, and a few great ones in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and WILDE, Law has finally learned to choose roles that fully utilize the androgynous, smoldering sexual persona he displays on screen. Indeed, his Gigolo Joe both exploits and laughs at this image. Plasticized to a mechanical sheen and unafraid of revealing his shockingly receding hairline, Law's Gigolo Joe is a "love mecha", a high-tech sex toy for women, who says all the right things, and with a quick jerk of his head, plays vintage recordings of corny Depression-era love songs. When Law is on the screen, swaggering and soft-shoe dancing, it's a welcome break from the relentless dourness of the rest of the film. However, this plot-hand for David to hold could have been drawn as any of the X-Men rather than a sex-god, and I suspect that Gigolo Joe was a more-developed character, and had more to do, before the studio censors came in with their scissors to ensure the Holy Grail of current film marketing -- the PG-13 rating. The implications of Joe's role as female fantasy-fulfillment is another film in and of itself, and here he seems largely gratuitous.

A.I. is a film that will take all of your primal emotional issues and shake them loose, and some may resent that the hand reaching into that Louis Vuitton luggage in your brain is that of a 13-year-old kid. Haley Joel Osment doesn't so much seem like an old man in a kid suit as he does some strange all-wise, yet all-innocent creature; not that dissimilar from E.T. His extraordinary face and scrawny kid-shoulders have to carry the entire film, and amazingly enough, they do. Osment isn't merely a child actor, he is a great actor who just happens to be a child. This boy understands nuance better than most adults do, and when Monica utters the seven words that will imprint her on him forever, his waxen, unblinking countenance changes ever-so-slightly, to indicate the change without a word. Spielberg is always capable of coaxing amazingly proficient work out of his young actors, but Osment is truly something special. That he could not save PAY IT FORWARD from being treacly dreck is not his fault; but here he certainly comes very close to saving Spielberg from himself. Now if someone would just once cast him as the bad seed, instead of the string of angel-boys he's been typecast as so far, his acting credentials will be complete.

A.I. is a very good film, a disturbing film that stays with you long after it's over; though it falls short of being the great film it could have been given a steadying hand to moderate Spielberg's infuriating mawkishness. It is far too long at two hours twenty minutes, and character development other than David is nonexistent. A.I. violates the cardinal rule of storytelling: "Show, don't tell." Instead, in a vain attempt to keep the length down, the film relies far too much on Ben Kingsley's narration. Yet despite its maddening flaws, which keep A.I. from being the great classic it could have been, it forces us into thinking about the very nature of what it is to be human. When science has shown that what we perceive as "love at first sight" is merely b-phenylethylamine (PEA) norepinephrine triggering the breakdown of glycogen and triacylglycerols; that "heartbreak" is the withdrawal of PEA and that rushing into rebound relationships is a function of addiction to PEA (source: Harcourt College Publishers), what is emotion other than a chemical reaction? And if all we are is a series of bio-electrical impulses, what DOES differentiate us from the machines we may find ourselves able to create?

- Jill Cozzi

A.I. official site

 

 

 

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