This article appeared in Issue 23 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick... you would be hard-pressed to find a pair of directors who could be more diametrically opposed. With the exception of his more serious works such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List", Spielberg is a purveyor of populist fare such as "Jurassic Park" and "E.T.", infusing his films with child-like wonder and spectacle. In contrast, Kubrick's films were often nihilistic reflections of the human condition, executed in the late director's indulgent and esoteric style, such as his swan song "Eyes Wide Shut". Because of such an unlikely pairing of clashing filmmaking styles, there has been much pre-release interest in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence", a 'collaboration' between these two iconic directors, with Spielberg completing a film project that Kubrick had toyed with for 15 years before his death in 1999. And though this re-interpretation of "Pinocchio" is an epic and sometimes thought-provoking science fiction film, blending Spielberg's sense of wonder with Kubrick's cynicism, the film ultimately falls apart in the last act, offering a nebulous and emotionally-comatose resolution.
The story of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" takes place in the future, a time where global warming has melted the ice caps, raising sea levels and submerging coastal cities around the world. With millions of displaced people having moved inland, coupled with overpopulation, laws are passed requiring parents to compete for one of a few licenses that will allow them to bear a child. The head of Cybertronics, Dr. Professor Hobby (William Hurt of "One True Thing") wishes to remedy this by offering childless couples a robotic boy who can truly love. Though his company is a leader in 'mecha' fabrication, particularly 'lover' models that are almost indistinguishable from human beings, creating a truly conscious artificial being that is able to feel emotion has yet to be accomplished. Twenty months later, that dream becomes a reality in the form of David (Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense"), a mecha boy whose advanced artificial intelligence algorithms allow him to feel happiness, fear, and love.
To field test their new creation, David is offered to Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards of "Bounce") and his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor of "Bedazzled"), whose son Martin (Jake Thomas of "The Cell") lies in cryogenic suspension until a cure can be found for his terminal illness. At first, Monica rejects David, thinking that there cannot be any 'substitute' for her absent son and unnerved by David's cold and mechanical demeanor. However, she soon bonds with David and decides to 'imprint' him, hard-wiring David to love only his adopted parents. Unfortunately, a series of unexpected turn of events eventually turn the love of Henry and Monica to fear, and David is abandoned in the woods with his only best 'friend', a mechanical stuffed animal named Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel of "Toy Story 2").
It is here, in the film's second act, where the film really takes off, and the stark pessimism of Kubrick is most apparent. David sets off on the road in search of 'The Blue Fairy', whom he believes can turn him into a 'real' boy, which will allow him to return home and 'live happily ever after' with Monica-- after all, if it worked for "Pinocchio", why can't it work for him? Joining him on this "Wizard of Oz"-like journey is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law of "Enemy at the Gates"), a love mecha who develops a soft spot for David. Together, they navigate through the dark and decrepit underside of human society, such as the Flesh Fair, where Luddite humans cheer as robots are destroyed for their entertainment, and Rouge City, a Las Vegas-like metropolis where mechas will satisfy any carnal desire.
The search eventually takes them to the breathtaking and poignant vista of a partially submerged New York City where only the tallest skyscrapers still see the light of day. This segues the story into the disappointing third act and a murky coda that will likely induce bouts of head scratching in the audience. Though the story does eventually come to a close after a seemingly endless two hours and fifteen minutes, it seems that Spielberg has painted himself into a corner in trying to put a superfluously uplifting spin on an otherwise grim ending. It is here that the Spielberg and Kubrick philosophies are most divergent, with the former trying to place bright, happy colors on the brooding tragedy of the latter.
Special effects-wise, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is stunning, as the world of the distant future is brought to life. No aspect of the production is too small or too large to be realized in the film's extensive use of CGI. The film's smaller yet unforgettable effects include the animation of David's scene-stealing furry friend Teddy, while the larger effects include the ostentatious neon-lit skyline of Rouge City that seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Ridley Scott's cyberpunk Los Angeles in "Blade Runner".
But even more impressive than the film's visuals are its actors. At the film's center is Osment, who has previously proved his acting mettle in "The Sixth Sense" and "Pay It Forward". Though Osment does occasionally lapse into his trademark 'wounded child' mien, he delivers a very effective performance as a blend of humanity and circuitry that finds itself confused by the emergence of true emotions and the seemingly loveless world where mechas have become second-class citizens. As a testament to his thesping abilities, one only needs to watch the subtle change in Osment's facial expression when he is 'imprinted' to see why this child prodigy has a long and memorable acting career ahead of him. Law also deserves Kudos for playing what is probably one of the most compassionate characters that David comes across, an energetic love mecha that becomes a surrogate parent for the lost boy. With respect to supporting characters, Hurt makes the most of his brief scenes as David's creator, while O'Connor is believable as David's conflicted 'mother'. Finally, veteran voice actor Angel is unforgettable in how he evokes HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" in supplying Teddy's voice.
"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" touches on a number of issues, from the nature of existence, the responsibility mankind has to the sentient beings that it creates, and the issues that arise when man's technical reach extends beyond his moral grasp. Unfortunately, these fascinating issues end up being glossed over, squandering the film's premise with promise and leaving the audience with an emotionally false ending-- the only fault for an otherwise technically-polished, visually-stunning, well-acted, and thought-provoking film.