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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: William Hurt, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

We all know how automation--a form of robotics, if you will--can make a difference in our lives. The I.B.M. tech-help phone line tells us that our call is important to them and proves it by playing a half hour of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" while we wait for the attention of a mere mortal. We wheel our S.U.V. into the car wash and watch as large arms reach out to apply soap, water and wax to our vehicle and brush up our advanced transportation without the need for people to do much more than push some buttons. An invisible hand reaches out to pick out the pins in the local bowling alley which we have maliciously knocked down as we pitch strike after strike. Even the very car that we get polished up without the need for the intervention of people is put together by robots. What can we expect robotics to do in the decades that lie ahead in our new century?

In a sci-fi film which marries the detached, epic vision of Stanley Kubrick to the sentimental child-centered themes of Steven Spielberg, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," shows us in an awe-inspiring way how robots can be used to help us emotionally as well as physically. In a world that finds love in short supply, it was only a matter of time before some scientific genius would transcend the current rage of cloning by creating a mechanical child equipped without the strength needed to assemble a car but with the more important vitality of love. As that scientist, Professor Hobby (William Hurt) tells an assemblage of his peers at the corporation of which he is the creative director about the importance of receiving affection: "God made Adam to love Him." In the brief opening moments of this fairly long film, anyone in the audience with the slightest grasp of literature or of sentimental filmmaking will realize that the a child-robot created with the ability to give love will change not only the mother who craves this affection but the boy himself (or itself).

"A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" was the final project conceived by Stanley Kubrick to be screened some time after what became the late, great director's swan song, "Eyes Wide Shut." Kubrick had taken his good friend Steven Spielberg into his confidence to discuss a story about an advanced technology, one which would blend science (the creation of robots to do jobs that human beings would prefer not to do) and humanity (the creation of robots to furnish emotional warmth to those who choose to buy them). After Kubrick's death, Spielberg took over the project which one producer calls an attempt by him to "embrace and pay homage to Stanley." To those in the audience who are familiar with works such as "E.T." and "Jurassic Park"--the latter focusing on the grandchildren of paleontologists who tag along with the scientists to inspect an island amusement park not realizing that anything can go wrong--the picture that now emerges looks mostly like Spielberg's, but not without the insistent entrace of Kubrick's motifs.

A fifty-minute sequence takes place largely within the comfortable suburban home of a young couple, Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor). Since their only son, a fatally ill Martin (Jake Thomas) has been cryogenically frozen pending such time as a cure can be found for his disease, they long for another boy to love. Their dream comes true as Henry surprises his wife by buying an android named David (Haley Joel Osment) from the scientist Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) during a period of declining resources and limited land space causing the government to restrict the growth of human population. Like Pinocchio--which is one among many fables that are called upon to inform the movie's motifs--David decides that in return for the love he is giving, he wants love in return. The only way to get this affection is to become a real boy himself. He will ultimately devote quite a bit of time to this quest.

This initial segment in what is obviously a sci-fi tale is surprisingly the most compelling despite its sappiness, perhaps because after David is introduced to his new owners, and later to a now-recovered "brother" Martin, Mr. Spielberg appears to take a long break, handing the movie over to the Kubrick touch. The middle segment of what is really a trilogy, all centered on David, is cold, detached, unemotional, as we are introduced to two locations that are futuristic but not representing the sort of prospect that most of us would welcome. (Some spoilers follow.) After David is tearfully abandoned by Monica together with a cuddly robotic bear named Teddy (voice of Jack Angel) which steals every scene in which he appears, he is transported to a couple of ticky-tacky locations that only Mad Max could love. He meets with and ultimately saves the life of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot designed to give massages to the ladies and then some, an automaton who tells his customers that after a session with him they will never again want a real man. He does not even need a CD player to help seduce the women. He merely shakes his head to one side and out comes romantic music. When a robot-hating Luddite named Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) emcees a killing field within a stadium that could have been the arena for "Gladiator"--shooting the trapped robots out from cannons into fiery deaths (which could give the kiddies attending the movie nightmares)--David leads Joe to safety and continues his odyssey in search of the Blue Fairy, who like the Wizard of Oz is said to be able to fulfill his dream and turn him into other than he now is.

There are numerous references to fables in addition to The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio, some self-referential, as Spielberg winks at the audience challenging us to catch them. One place is called "Strangelove's" while the mayhem in Lord Johnson- Johnson's emporium reminds us of "A Clockwork Orange." The execution of the obsolete robots calls to mind the termination of people over 30 years old in "Logan's Run," while the general concept often recalls "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" is photographed by Janusz Kaminski for the most realistically, showing a future that aside from the robots is not so much more advanced than our own era and, in fact, given the research and results of cloning experiments is hardly beyond the grasp of audience imagination. The car which Monica uses to take David away, to dump him into the countryside like an unwanted pet but with a warning to avoid corporate employees who are instructed to destroy trashed toys, is a cool vehicle but in no way one that cannot now be designed if the powers-that-be wanted to take a leap forward by a decade of so. Even the scene of New York, now submerged because of melting ice caps, is recognizable by the Chrysler building which majestically keeps its head out of the water defying the elements, and considerable attention has been given to produce a digitalized milieu inhabited by a citizenry alternately brutalized by the spectacle of robots being malicious destroyed while some, like the scientist Dr. Hobby, remain and compassionate.

Haley Joel Osment, twelve years old at the time of the filming, has lost some of the cuteness that made him a compelling figure in "The Sixth Sense," and in fact the movie was put on the fast track to be complete in twenty weeks instead of the full year that was originally planned because this wonderful young man is quickly showing signs of physical maturity. He remains an effective center for the story, showing more depth than even the Australian actress Frances O'Connor in the role of the mother-- whose emotional depth consisted of being either teary-eyed or ambivalent.

By the time we are taken to the final scene, which brings us to a civilization two millennia ahead inhabited by figures looking as though they could be at home on Venus, we may not be blamed for wondering whether this craggy but generally imaginative and visually splendid and mature picture has a single, all-embracing motif. John Williams's music is annoyingly ubiquitous if varied but does not provide a clue to the Kubrick-Spielberg design. Nonetheless "A.I." is not a picture to ignore or pass up. This is sci-fi in the seasoned, deliberately-paced spirit of "Contact" rather than the absurdly childish productions such as the "Alien" series, featuring a varied range of set designs, musical compositions, situations, and moods.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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