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'A.I. Artificial Intelligence'

In Spielberg's hands, Kubrick-inspired 'A.I.' is incongruous but frequently spellbinding

Friday, June 29, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

IMAGINE MAHATMA GANDHI in command of the Prussian army, or Rachel Carson running a chemical plant. The long-term result might be beneficial, but only if you can survive the fundamental contradiction in mission and method. The flaws in the often spellbinding "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" arise from the same kind of apparent mismatch. The late Stanley Kubrick planned for two decades to make the movie. After his death in 1999, Steven Spielberg took over the project. These two great directors had talked about the film for years, so the change made sense in that regard.


 
 
'A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE'

Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images.

Players: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law.

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Critic's call:

   

 

But while both men shared a fascination with technology and have broken new ground in the use of visual effects in film, the emotional impact of their movies couldn't be more different.

Kubrick made your brain race but turned your blood to ice with his pessimistic, intellectual view of humans becoming as mechanical and unfeeling as the technology on which we depend. Spielberg, in contrast, envelops you in his empathy for anyone who lives with dread in a place where he doesn't belong. Spielberg makes us all feel like kids again, making grown men cry or reawakening our sense of wonder while creating new worlds where his outcasts finally can fit in.

"A.I." blends these two seemingly incompatible perspectives more completely than fans of either director might imagine possible. But it is a bit like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Spielberg's emotionalism running rampant in the Kubrickian permafrost can lead to a desperate yearning that can never be quenched. The movie's ending is certain to leave some viewers unsatisfied and others arguing about its implications, just as we did with "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The story takes place in the near future, after global warming has melted the ice caps and obliterated many seaside cities. With less space on the planet, governments enact population controls that include limits on childbearing. Lifelike, emotionless robots have become commonplace. But a company called Cybertronics has created something different -- a robotic boy who can be programmed to love.

David (Haley Joel Osment) is adopted by Henry (Sam Robards), a Cybertronics employee, and his wife, Monica (Frances O'Connor). Their own terminally ill son has been cryogenically frozen in hopes of finding a cure for his disease, and Monica sees David as a substitute or even a replacement. She activates David's program, bonding him to her.

But events conspire to leave David as the odd boy out -- only he can't turn off his affections the way humans can. Spielberg, who also wrote the screenplay, catapults us out of the uneasy domesticity familiar from many of his previous films into a series of situations, each more unexpected than the last, until the movie concludes in a place designed to be comforting -- and, perhaps for that reason, is all the more unsettling.

The remarkable young Osment holds the film together as David, whose Pinocchio-inspired obsession is to find a way to become "a real boy." Osment makes the journey, from bland presence to a being who loves too much. Can anyone doubt that Osment ranks among the best of all Hollywood child actors?


 
 
A related article

CMU expert: Robots may not be able to feel emotions, but some can show them

   

 

O'Connor is fine as David's "mother," the very picture of emotional ambivalence. Robards is a typical Spielberg father figure, remote and unsympathetic.

The movie features two other male role models for David. Professor Hobby (William Hurt), who is David's creator, knows not what he hath wrought -- draw your own theological conclusions. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is another robot, or "mecha" as they are called in the movie, whose ability to love is purely physical -- his name explains his function. Yet his concern for David as they follow the boy's quest seems more real than those of most humans.

But some people feel very passionately about mechas, as we see at the terrifying Flesh Fair, where rabble-rousers like Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) work the crowd into a blood lust of sorts as they oversee the savage destruction of mechas that have outlived their usefulness and have been abandoned by their human masters.

In the Spielberg filmography, only "The Color Purple" and the historical dramas are less explicitly aimed at young people, even though a child is the main character in "A.I." The Flesh Fair scenes, in particular, are capable of putting a fright into younger children.

The movie displays all of the superb production values we associate with Spielberg -- although some settings, weirdly enough, look like they were borrowed from a Batman movie. But "A.I." lacks the feel-good resolution of most of the director's films -- how could it not, given its origin as a Kubrick project?

The movie becomes so fixated on David's quest that it loses sight of the human component except by inference. But its cold indifference to the flesh-and-blood characters seems to work against Spielberg's own humanity as manifested in his immense sympathy for David in his plight.

Then again, you could take it literally when David arrives at the place where he thinks he must go in order to become human. The first thing he does when he gets there is to destroy another creature and, symbolically, to destroy himself -- just as humankind might finally succeed someday in destroying itself.

Kubrick couldn't have said it any better. It's just hard to believe Spielberg could really mean it.

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