“A.I.” is the child of HAL and E.T. The fruit of the unique spectral artistic convergence of two cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, this deeply thoughtful and thoroughly fascinating film about a mechanical boy who yearns to be real contains strong traces of both directors’ sensibilities: The intimate childhood connection and the gentleness of spirit often associated with the former, the conceptual boldness and scientifically/philosophically oriented probing of the latter. What this synthesis has wrought unquestionably will be debated at length, with reactions sure to be much closer to the incomprehension and uncertainty that normally surrounded Kubrick’s pictures upon initial release than to what Spielberg is accustomed to. In other words, this is not “E.T.,” nor is it a kid’s film nor even necessarily a major mass-audience film, although Spielberg’s name, high public anticipation and the child-oriented campaign will make it perform like one, at least initially.
What is beyond question is that Spielberg is a much more mature filmmaker than he was 20 years ago; the man he was when he made “E.T.” simply would not have been capable of pulling off “A.I.” In an era when many filmmakers make their most impressive films right off the bat and spend the rest of their careers slowly working their way downward, this contrary trajectory is impressive in itself.
For the first 50 minutes, there is no reason to believe the story will ever leave “E.T.”-land, as the action scarcely moves beyond the confines of a comfortable suburban-style house occupied by upscale parents, an adopted cybertronic boy and the latter’s robot Teddy bear. Much of the film’s astonishment, then, resides in the way it almost exponentially grows in impressiveness from one stage to the next. The transitions between acts may not be as jaw-dropping as they were in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but they are similar in the way they vastly increase the work’s scope, stimulation and thematic reach.
Second major section takes place in a gaudy, exploitative nocturnal world of the near-future reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange,” while final section takes a giant, “2001”-like leap forward with the help of elements that draw distinctly upon “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” What all these associations mean in practical terms is that buffs and tradesters will argue endlessly over whether “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” is more Spielberg or Kubrick, what it would have been like if Kubrick had made it himself and whether the resulting picture benefited from the contributions of both men.
What a general audience will confront is an unusually ambitious science fiction film that touches upon such matters as what it means to be a human being, the definition of family and the notion of creation in both scientific and religious terms. Viewers predisposed against highfalutin films that take themselves seriously no doubt will turn off and ask what happened to the old Spielberg. But those gagging on the glut of cinematic junk food should welcome this brilliantly made visionary work that’s bursting with provocative ideas.
Set in an only slightly futuristic world rendered much reduced in land mass and population by melted ice caps, opening scene posits a society in need of artificially created beings to perform necessary functions. A genius professor named Hobby (William Hurt) announces to colleagues his intention to build a child robot that can dream and have a subconscious and an emotional life.
Twenty months later, such a kid has been placed with Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor), a couple whose son Martin has been in deep freeze for five years pending a cure to his crippling disease. The first glimpse of David (Haley Joel Osment) presents the sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy in explicitly angelic terms, draping him in white garb worthy of his immaculate conception.
Once David is “imprinted” with his familial bond, he starts calling Monica “Mommy” and worrying about the fact that she will one day die. In an attempt to further the transferal of her feelings from her “late” son to David, Monica gives him Martin’s Teddy (the “supertoy” of the 1969 Brian Aldiss short story that inspired the film), an intelligent computerized bear that for a while seems like a mobile and more companionable version of HAL in “2001.”
Suddenly, however, a healthy Martin (Jake Thomas) comes home and, after competing for the affections of Teddy, begins to treat David as his own supertoy. For his part, having thoroughly ingested “Pinocchio” at bedtime (although, as a “mecha,” or mechanical being, David neither sleeps nor eats), David begins to hope that he, too, can turn into a real boy. He stuffs spinach down his throat, thoroughly messing up his circuitry, and has an alarming episode with Martin that ends up at the bottom of a swimming pool. Monica is forced to the dreadful decision of dumping David, with Teddy in tow, like an unwanted pet, in the middle of a distant forest.
Disciplined and precise in style, this first section has a claustrophobic, even hermetic feel; the near-absence of exteriors is accentuated by house windows that are frosted or blasted with light from behind, eliminating the sense of a world outside. Spielberg concentrates with intense focus on the gradual accrual of emotions, themes and motifs having to do with the ties that bind and don’t. With no indication of where the story might be headed, a somewhat deliberate pace and method set in, but it all remains intriguing enough to hold the interest and lay the foundation for what shortly becomes a very imposing structure.
Part two shifts to a seedy urban world where a handsome guy named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is literally the cock of the walk. This “lover robot” is a “mecha” designed exclusively for its user’s pleasure. “Once you’ve had a lover robot, you’ll never want a real man again,” Joe charmingly boasts to his latest client before he finds trouble and flees to the countryside, where he, along with David and many other mechas, are rounded up by some terrifying “Biker Hounds” and carted off to a ghastly entertainment arena called Flesh Fair.
A nightmarish stadium where the bloodthirsty crowd is treated to a spectacle combining the most unsavory aspects of gladiatorial combat, the French Revolution, a goth concert and a three-ring circus, Flesh Fair boasts as its main event the execution of mechas by extremely imaginative means.
Gruesome and scary enough to make “A.I.” the source of bad dreams for children, long sequence (shot in the giant Spruce Goose Dome in Long Beach) summons up questions of the definition of humanity, as well as positioning David as potentially representing the opportunity for a fresh start, whatever that might mean for “humanity” in the broadest sense of the term.
Trio of David, Joe and Teddy manages an escape from Flesh Fair to a gaudy metropolis called Rouge City. There, several of the narrative and thematic seeds earlier planted begin to grow. A sort of “Blade Runner” lite in general terms, the urban environment here represents one of the most plausible visions of the urban future ever put onscreen, as it’s neither too fanciful nor too dire, just lacking in soul or good taste. Continuing in the “Pinocchio” vein, a virtual “wizard” called Dr. Know informs the visitors that the Blue Fairy will be found at the End of the World, which for David represents the place where he began life, in the offices of Professor Hobby.
What happens in the final act is best not detailed, but it’s amazingly set in a New York recognizable only by the tops of familiar skyscrapers poking out of an ocean that has otherwise engulfed the city. It also possesses elements that unavoidably stir echoes of “2001” and “Close Encounters” in their expression of highly advanced life forms and the suggestion that human beings could represent just one stage in the evolutionary life cycle, a stage that at a certain point was rendered obsolete.
All this is heady, enormously stimulating stuff, the sort of thing one is no longer accustomed to confronting in mainstream Hollywood entertainment. One can speculate that it took the inspiration of Kubrick’s lofty thematic interests (as well as his ghost peering over his shoulder) to push Spielberg to be this ambitious in a sci-fi format, but this issue is incidental to his having proved himself up to the task of taking on subjects of this magnitude and making them dramatically absorbing.
Working from voluminous notes and a screen story written for Kubrick by Ian Watson based on the Aldiss story, Spielberg takes screenplay credit here for the first time since “Close Encounters.” Serviceable dialogue could have used a little more punch here and there, but the only place the writing falls notably short is in the brief opening and, especially, closing narration, which would have benefited from a more exalted and poetic touch.
Although one develops a real empathy for David and the film becomes moving when it intends to, there is no question that the atmosphere is colder and the approach more analytical than in previous Spielberg pictures. Brakes have been put on what might have been sentimentalized or emotionally milked situations. Stylistically, it is all Spielberg’s, with his characteristic backlighting and quicksilver progressions in evidence courtesy of his ace collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn.
One of the more surprising contributions comes from composer John Williams. There is still perhaps too much music, but its feel — light, playful and serious by turns — is quite unlike any of the scores he’s previously written for Spielberg. Production designer Rick Carter has done a tremendous job creating a wide range of sets, from the Swintons’ warmly inviting home to the visually vulgar future. Special visual effects and animation by Industrial Light & Magic, with credit going most prominently to Michael Lantieri, Dennis Muren and Scott Farrar, as well as Stan Winston’s robot character design and animatronics, are top of the line and, in the case of the submerged Manhattan, hauntingly realized.
Osment again proves himself a superb young actor, not emoting in obvious fashion but strongly holding centerscreen for nearly 2-1/2 hours. Other perfs are serviceably low-key, with Law doing a lively if limited turn as a peacock among robots and O’Connor registering most of the story’s most explicit emotions. Buried deep in the end credits is the fact that some big names — Robin Williams (as Dr. Know), Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep and Chris Rock — contributed the voices for some of the animatronic characters.