THE COMPLEXITY OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
BY CHRIS DUBOIS
What do you get when two of the greatest filmmakers in history work together on a film? You get AI: Artificial Intelligence, a film whose combination of fantastic special effects, brilliant acting, and a rich, if not completely fulfilling, story captures viewers so strongly that they become like the film’s main character, unblinking and completely focused.
Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick are radically different filmmakers. Kubrick is the master of showing the demoralization of the human spirit while Spielberg is known for creating uplifting, extraordinarily sentimental works. So when they worked together to make AI (produced by Kubrick, directed by Spielberg), ideological conflicts were inevitable. The final product of this collaboration blends Kubrick’s ability to frustrate viewers with Spielberg’s ability to uplift them, creating a film that manages to be both inspiring and depressing.
In the film, the polar ice caps have melted and the resulting rise of the ocean waters drowns all the coastal cities of the world. Withdrawn to the interior of the continents, the human race keeps advancing, eventually creating realistic robots (called mechas) to serve it. Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), a scientist at mecha-producer Cybertronics, builds David (Haley Joel Osment), an artificial kid that is the first to have real feelings. He offers the first model to Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), whose child Martin (Jake Thomas) remains in cryo-stasis, stricken by an incurable disease.
At first Monica is apprehensive about David’s arrival. “There's no substitute for your own child!" she tells her husband. But he slowly grows on Monica as his human qualities stand out, and eventually Monica “imprints” herself on him, causing him to love her forever. But when their real son returns home after being cured, David’s life changes dramatically. Eventually he embarks on a journey with a walking talking “supertoy” named Teddy and a lover robot he meets named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) to find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio he heard could turn him into a real boy. “If I am a real boy then I can go back, and she will love me then,” David tells Teddy. This journey takes the three robots from a Flesh Fair, a raucous festival of humans celebrating as mechas are viciously destroyed with “What about us?” as the human rallying cry, to futuristic Rouge City, and finally to a completely submerged Manhattan.
Osment perfectly balances the ability to play a cute kid, demonstrated in The Sixth Sense, with the mannerisms of a non-human, which is a balance a 14-year old should not be able to do. He’s that good. He transforms himself into David so completely he doesn’t even blink during the film (since robots have no need to blink). Vulnerable and mechanical at the same time, his performance never allows you to forget he’s a robot even when he’s acting so much like a real boy.
Law is equally breathtaking. It makes sense for a lover robot to be charismatic and charming, and Law exudes both characteristics. He gracefully dances on sidewalks, glides instead of walks, and sweet talks everyone he meets, male or female, human or mecha. By the end of the film he has created so much depth in a robot designed to be shallow that his exit from the film is heartbreaking.
Another outstanding aspect of the film is the special effects. Spielberg and the folks at Industrial Light and Magic create a lush, detailed world that is both recognizable as our own and yet obviously in the future. Every detail, from the robot at the beginning whose head retracts to Teddy, the walking toy, to the fly-by in the last sequence of the film, is not only technically astounding but does not pull the viewer from the film’s reality as special effects tend to do.
The Rouge City sequence acts as ILM’s and Spielberg’s cinematic centerpiece, showing the technological beauty and moral depravity of a futuristic city. Academy Award- winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) and the effects design team are at their finest here, filling the screen with an overwhelming array of colors and lights, sexual-themed buildings, and fast food joints. Kaminski is able to convey a sense of grandeur and mystery while at the same time never losing emphasis on David and Joe.
For the most part, Spielberg directs a magnificent film. The opening shows him tapping into a successful theme he established in ET—the entrance of a strange visitor disrupts a comfortable, suburban life and is shunned but eventually accepted and loved. However, AI diverges from ET when Martin returns and in turn disrupts David’s “life.” Kubrick's influence on the film is perceptible at the end of this first sequence, ironically illustrating Martin’s ability to dehumanize David by destroying the one emotional connection the robot boy desires: Monica’s love.
David’s entrance is another perfectly executed sequence. Spielberg uses backlighting and a soft focus to create a sense of gentle mystery. John William’s score (one of his best in recent years) adds to the effect through its sparseness, as it does throughout the movie: single notes play intermittently as David walks towards the frame and comes into focus. Spielberg reveals him first by tapping his foot on the ground, demonstrating at first sight his humanlike curiosity and robotic automatism.
The film is not perfect. The Flesh Fair is Spielberg’s first misstep. Overly violent and long, the sequence is dragged down by an unnecessary cameo by Chris Rock as a comedian robot. It’s one of many voice cameos that are meant to add depth but instead seem tacked by Spielberg to show how many famous friends he has. In fact, of cameos by Rock, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, and Robin Williams, only Williams’s voice seems to fit seamlessly (as the holographic Dr. Know in Rouge City).
Spielberg’s other major misstep is the film’s ending. Kubrick’s legacy shows itself right before the end sequence, with Manhattan, the beacon of human success, destroyed by global warming and the melting of the ice caps. Every event that occurs in Manhattan carries with it a sense of foreboding and hopelessness that only Kubrick could have masterminded. Spielberg must have recognized this, because the final thirty minutes of the film show his attempts to regain control, to put his stamp on it and fit it into his canon of work.
Overly sentimental and devoid of logic, the ending not only goes against the reality of David’s situation but also sugarcoats it and disregards any attempt of making sense. Instead of providing a fitting close to David’s long journey, it instead seems like the most convenient thing Spielberg could think of to prevent the film from ending on a depressing note.
A.I. is a film of contradictions. The worst sequences are saved by the magic of special effects. Somehow a robot boy and his loverbot friend manage to seem human. It is both uplifting and depressing. And yet, it all comes together to create a rich, complex world that fully absorbs the viewer. Although the Flesh Fair and the final 30 minutes do detract from the film, the final result is a work that leaves its viewers confused, frustrated, uplifted, and feeling as if the two and a half hours were time well spent.