A.I. Artificial Intelligence: Spielberg Grimmest, Darkest Sci-Fi

Spielberg’s “A.I.” is one of his most ambitious and problematic films, and not only due to its valiant effort to blend two disparate sensibilities. Easily this summer’s most eagerly-awaited movie, “A.I.,” which is always captivating to watch and often emotionally touching, is a media event par excellence. The project began decades ago by the late Stanley Kubrick, who handed the helming to Spielberg, when he realized that the latter may be more suitable for a story about a robot boy who’s anxious to be real and experience the utmost human feeling, love.

As expected, thematically, “A.I.” revisits ideas first seen in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick’s prophetic sci-fi, as well as Spielberg’s blockbusters “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Yet visually, this inventive film charts new, exciting grounds for Spielberg, who continues to evolve as an artist. A brilliant performance by Haley Joel Osment should help broaden the appeal of a film that’s decidedly not a typical children’s movie a la “E.T.,” and whose dark look and contemplative narrative will attract more mature viewers.

Debates have already begun as to what would “A.I.” look like had it been directed by Kubrick, who was intrigued by the idea ever since he read Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Yet a closer look at Kubrick’s oeuvre reveals that there are no children in his narratives, and when there’s a young protagonist, as in “Lolita,” she’s a nymphet!

In contrast, those claiming that “A.I.”‘s visuals and darker tone are due to Kubrick’s inspiration–and drawings he commissioned–are doing Spielberg a disservice. Spielberg’s best work has always expressed the good-evil duality, though not necessarily in films he had directed himself. Hence, “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” which Spielberg co-wrote and co-produced, are good companion pieces. While the former offers a sunny, bright version of suburbia, the latter is a ghost story with unfriendly, destructive spirits.

Moreover, the Oscar-winning Holocaust film, “Schindler’s List,” and the superior WWII drama, “Saving Private Ryan,” also revealed a more mature and savvy director, determined not to repeat the mistakes of “The Color Purple,” which had the neat, clean look of an old MGM production.

In “A.I.,” Spielberg takes solo writing credits for the first time since “Close Encounter,” which may account for part of the textual problems. While the narrative structure is complex but clear, the dialogue is serviceable (but no more), and some of the characterizations, particularly of Jude Law as a gigolo robot and David’s real brother, Martin, are narrowly conceived.

In the brief prologue, a brilliant genetics professor (William Hurt) informs his students and colleagues of his ambition to create a child robot with all the human qualities, one who will be able to feel, dream, fear, and love. An inquisitive student challenges the professor with a question about society’s reaction to the robot. Will he be accepted and loved as one of their own It’s in this aspect that “A.I.” is at its most pensive, introducing intriguing insights that haunt the entire film, specifically: What’s the definition of love Is love symmetrical Is it always based on reciprocal emotions Is family love, by parents and siblings, a biological given or culturally conditioned

Twenty months later, Hobby’s grand plan materializes and a gorgeous boy named David (Osment) is created and placed in the hands of a grieving couple: Henry (Robards), who works at the lab, and his inconsolable wife, Monica (O’Connor), whose son Martin has been in deep freeze for years, waiting for what seems to be an impossible cure to a crippling illness.

The film’s second part, which details David’s life with his adoptive parents, recalls family sequences in “E.T.,” though its more somber and grave tonality might have been influenced by Kubrick’s vision. Spielberg has said that in writing and directing the film, he not only wished to pay homage to Kubrick, but also felt as if the director’s ghost were present on the set.

The well-behaved David immediately takes to his parents, particularly Monica, calling her mommy and bombarding her with questions about her mortality. Gradually, the reluctant mother, who initially locks David in the closet, warms up to the point of investing him with Martin’s super toy, Teddy, which has the ability to talk and react.

Things change radically, when a cure is found for Martin’s disease and he returns home. In one brilliant scene after another, Spielberg demonstrates how the family dynamics changes when it size evolves from a trio to a quartet. It doesn’t take long for David and Martin (Thomas) to become rivals, competing not only for Teddy’s affections, but for those of their mother as well. A mecha (mechanical creature), David is not allowed to eat, but under pressure from Martin, he challenges his body with a huge bowl of spinach, to some disastrous results. Finally, a desperate Monica decides to discard of David, dropping him in a forest in a heartbreaking farewell.

The third, and weakest part, which throws the narrative off balance, switches to a sleazy urban milieu, where the gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is introduced as a sexual machine, a blond robot in black leather coat, whose function is to satisfy women in a way–and with equipment–that will never make them desire another man. Fate brings Joe and David together when, along with other mechas, they are brutally chased by some Biker Hounds, and locked into a scary stadium, Flesh Fair, where the masses are entertained in what’s equivalent to a bloody gladiators’ arena. The extended nocturnal sequences in this seedy circus, where mechas are ruthlessly executed, recall Fellini’s “City of Women” and other rock concert films, representing a new visual terrain for Spielberg.

Fortunately, after this distracting and gruesome part, the story resumes its resonance and chief line, when David, Joe, and Teddy, escape to Rouge City, a garish urban world that in look and ambience bring to mind Fritz Lang’s brilliant silent sci-fi “Metropolis,” as well as “Blade Runner” and other noirish sagas. From here on, the tale assumes the shape of a road-fantasy movie, with the trio searching for the Blue Fairy, who lives at the End of the World. Inspired by MGM’s classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” as well as David Lynch’s deconstructive fairytale “Wild at Heart,” ensuing acts introduce a virtual wizard, Dr. Snow (voiced by Robin Williams).

Coming full circle, the narrative ends at professor Hobby’s lab, when Davis encounters numerous replicas of himself, all angelically dressed in white. This encounter recalls a similar one in “Being John Malkovich,” except that it’s scarier, sadder, and not played for laughs.

Spielberg has often experienced problems with his films’ endings, which are either too sentimental (“Saving Private Ryan”) or too long and repetitive (“Schindler’s List”). While “A.I.” has a coherent and emotionally satisfying finale, it’s also one of the movie’s few manipulative sequences.

Ever since Spielberg began collaborating with the brilliant Polish lenser Janusz Kaminski, his movies have assumed a “messier,” more persuasive look. It’s a tribute to the entire team of designers, costumers, and special effects experts that, despite frequent shifts in tone, which will irritate some viewers, “A.I.” boasts a beguiling, inventive, and compelling look throughout.

The film’s two most impressive ingredients that help unify a deliberately fractured tale are Osment’s performance which holds the entire picture together (almost like Tom Hanks’s in “Cast Away”) and John Williams’s variegated score, whose tonal changes, from the light and sunny to the dark and haunting, evokes the precise mood of each of the film’s chapters.

Despite structural and other deficiencies–deliberate pacing and framing that call attention to themselves”A.I.” is a cinematic event in a way that none of the summer movies has been so far: A thought-provoking sci-fi that encourages viewers to speculate about the fine line between humanity and technology in the near future. In a season dominated by popcorn pictures and box-office records, that’s an achievement of the highest order.

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  1. Moron. What a rubbish film. What went wrong with your judgment, Mr Levy? This movie was waaay to long and went nowhere. A mismatch of Kubrick and Spielberg, with the addition of that Osment child = a trifactor of evil.

  2. Deman devidence says:

    I, too, would like to offer contradiction by criticizing your judgement while offering little in explanation, save to claim that lengthy films that end in places with which I am unfamiliar fail to inspire my satisfaction. I will also follow suit and drop the obligatory names of the two directors in question – Kubrick and Spielberg – that every failing critic must comment on in order to dazzle my audience into belief in my credibility while hiding the fact that I have no legitimate critique. To use further slight of hand, I will downgrade the acting prowess of the child star of the film while not providing any basis for my claim. In short, this movie is so dumb that it's actually dumb…

  3. Timothy Cleaveland says:

    It seems that the opportunity to comment brings out the best and worst in people.

    Mr. Levy has clearly provided us with a thoughtful and balanced review of A.I. This film and reviews such as this one may have elicited unusually hateful criticism because of the starkly different styles and fan bases of Kubrick and Spielberg. And no doubt the contributions of the two filmmakers made it even more difficult to reconcile the concordant elements of the film's story. But the story's themes are as important as they are difficult to treat in a film, and deserve serious consideration.

    These themes involve the distinction between organic and inorganic life, and the relative value of different kinds of life. These themes are important in part because it seems that humanity is moving toward the day when technology will create machines capable of independent thought and volition, or we may possibly mechanize humans (in order to extend life) to the point that mechanized humans may become indistinguishable from inorganic machines. Of course, A.I. is just one of many films and novels to address this issue over the last four decades or so.

    But I believe this theme has also been prominent in the imagination of intellectuals because it is related to the broader question about the relative value of different kinds of life, which is a much older and consequential question. The historic devaluation of the lives of people of 'other' races and ethnic groups has contributed to countless massacres and several genocides. And one of the primary material motivations for this history of violence has been the desire of one group to dominate the labor of another, which is the same motivation for making machines and ultimately robots. For that reason, it should not be surprising that films that have dealt with the human-like travails of robots, often seem like slightly veiled treatments of the issue of slavery. This is most evident in films such as Blade Runner and Bicentennial Man, but there is also an element of this in A.I.

    Of course, the main robot in A.I. is not created for the purpose of labor, which is the primary distinction between this child robot and the earlier generations of 'mechas' that humans casually dispose of in the film. This is the source of A.I.'s sentimentality, which some viewers have strongly rejected. Ironically, a viewer's appreciation of this film mainly depends of whether he or she empathizes with the child robot, which depends in part on the viewer's interpretation of what constitutes a valuable life– just as it did for characters in the film.

    A.I.'s ending may seem disjointed, but it makes an interesting commentary on the earlier debate among human characters in the film about the value of inorganic but intelligent beings. In the last sequence we learn that humans have apparently gone extinct, but that highly advanced machines are lovingly trying to recover vestiges of humanity. This is an interesting take on the future, given the history of representations of evil machines going back to 2001: A Space Odyssey and continuing forward to Star Trek's Borg and beyond.

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