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Spielberg in the Aughts: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Now that we’ve arrived at 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I can finally start calling this series looking back at the recent films of Steven Spielberg by the original title I’d thought up: “Spielberg in the Aughts.”  (My first thought, last month, was that I’d look back at the last decade of Mr. Spielberg’s films, none of which I’d ever revisited after seeing them in theatres — but then I realized there were several of his films from the ’90s that I wanted to revisit, too, while I was at it!  Click here for my review of Jurassic Park, here for my review of The Lost World, and here for my review of Amistad.) 

I hated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when I saw it in theatres.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I thought the first three-fourths of the movie — right up to the point when Haley Joel Osment’s David finds himself trapped underwater staring at the Blue Fairy but unable to reach her — was a solid if somewhat dour sci-fi film.  But then the movie kept going.  I felt those last 25 minutes-or-so were the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg had ever committed to film.  Those 25 minutes were so bad that, for me, they entirely destroyed the film.

So what did I think, a decade later?

Well, after nearly ten years of having the thought in my head that the final 25 minutes of A.I. were the worst 25 minutes of film that Steven Spielberg had ever shot, those 25 minutes had been quite built up in my mind, so not surprisingly they didn’t quite live up to the heights of awfulness that I had remembered.  Also, after having seen the entirety of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I can no longer state with certainty that the end of A.I. represents the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg has ever put on film. 

But I will say that I still thought the ending was entirely awful on almost every level.

The basic plot of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was developed, over many years, by Stanley Kubrick.  As the story goes, Mr. Kubrick worked on the film for years — and often discussed the project with his friend Steven Spielberg — but for a variety of reasons never actually made the movie.  Following his death, Mr. Spielberg got involved with the project in an attempt to realize this unfinished work that Mr. Kubrick had begun.

As a movie-fan back in 2001, I was ecstatic that Steven Spielberg (the man who made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was returning, at long-last, to sci-fi.  I was intrigued to see Mr. Spielberg bring the extraordinary visual expertise and mature storytelling sense that he had developed over the years back to a sci-fi project.  (That’s not to say that Mr. Spielberg wasn’t an extraordinary filmmaker back when he made E.T. or Close Encounters!  Not at all — but I think few would argue that his mroe recent films, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, had demonstrated an enormous step forward in his work.)  I was also tantalized by the idea of the movie that would result from a mixture of the skills and sensibilities of Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Spielberg.

For the first three-fouths of A.I., I was pretty pleased.

A.I. is a cold film — almost every character in the piece is distant and non-human in some way (such as Monica, who has withdrawn into herself following a tragedy, or David who is, of course, a robot), and there really isn’t anyone for the audience to connect to in a strong emotional way.  (One could argue that the audience is supposed to connect with David — but while I certainly felt pity for him, my knowledge that his quest to become human and return to his family was hopeless put up an emotional barrier that made it difficult to really root for him to succeed in what I knew was impossible.)

But, despite that, I thought there was much to enjoy in A.I.  The film is a visual marvel.  The production design of the futuristic world is sleek and gorgeous.  There are some wonderful visual effects sequences — realized by a combination of CGI and practical effects — that bring the world of the film to vivid life.  From Professor Hobby’s demonstration with a mecha that opens the film, to the sequence in the seedy Rouge City, the film looks terrific.  And there are a number of moments when Mr. Spielberg’s skill as a director — particularly when combined with the enormous talents of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — really shine through.  I was particularly taken with the visual device employed throughout the film (particularly in the first 45 minutes or so) of showing characters distorted through glass or reflections.  That visual motif really plays into the film’s over-all themes of what makes someone or something human or non-human, and also sets an appropriately creepy and scary tone for the film.

The actors acquit themselves well.  Haley Joel Osment was well-cast as the robot David, a replacement son for Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards).  At the time (coming off of his breakout role in The Sixth Sense), Mr. Osment had a precocious, etherial qiality about him that suited him well as the not-quite-human David.  Fraces O’Connor and Sam Robards do well as Monica and Henry, accomplishing the difficult task of remaining somewhat sympathetic as characters even though we know that their bringing David into their family (in an attempt to replace the hole in their lives left by their comatose son) isn’t going to go well.  William Hurt brings a gentle, fatherly gravitas to his small role as the cyberneticist Professor Hobby, David’s creator. 

The star of the show is Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, a robot designed to sexually please women, whom David encounters while on his journey.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Mr. Law more.  Though he may be robotic, Gigolo Joe has more life and joie de vivre than any other character in the film.  Mr. Law brings great energy and vibrance to his performance, while also being very careful to maintain (in the way he moves, in the way he walks) a certain robotic, non-human aspect to Joe.  I must also compliment the costume and make-up artists who created the wonderful look of Gigolo Joe — those touches really help make the character.

I also quite loved the character of Teddy (the small robotic teddy-bear toy who befriends David).  I’m not quite sure how this character was achieved (through what balance of computer effects versus animatronics) but I don’t really care — the character felt believably real to me, and that’s all that matters.  (Props to Jack Angel for his voice-work.)

Even before we get to the final 25 minutes, though, I have a number of problems with the plot of the film.  (Beware SPOILERS from here on in, my friends.)  It seems insane to me that the robotics company that created David wouldn’t have far greater oversight over the prototype robot — the first mecha with the ability to love a human being (not physical love, but emotional love) — that they give to the Swinton family.  David represents years of effort on the part of the company (and, one can only imagine, a fortune in resources) — so that they just drop him off with the Swintons and then allow events to unfold seems ludicrous.  (And SURELY once the Swintons’ actual son came out of his coma, you’d think someone from the company might think that could lead to problems, and step in to take some action.)

Then there’s the moment, well into the film, when David finally finds his way to the ruins of Manhattan and encounters his maker, Professor Hobby.  First of all, are we to understand that the head of a huge robotics corporation lives and works in a destroyed, ruined city?  That seems crazy.  (Well, Josh, you might say, maybe Professor Hobby, who tells David he was tracking his movements, just traveled to Manhattan since he knew that’s where David would be.  That sounds great, except that it certainly appears that Hobby’s office in Manhattan is fully functioning, and the location appears identical to what we saw in the film’s prologue which was clearly his primary place of business.)  Second, after having a moment of reunion with David in which the Professor expresses how important David is to him and how relieved he is that they’ve finally been reunited, the Professor leaves David all alone in an unlocked room that apparently connects to where they’ve been keeping scores of other copies of the David robot.  Don’t you think Professor Hobby would want to lock the door to be sure he doesn’t lose his precious robot again?  Don’t you think he’d suspect that David might not respond well to the sight of all the other copies , considering that Professor Hobby JUST SAW DAVID BEAT TO DEATH ANOTHER ROBOTIC COPY OF HIMSELF THAT HE ENCOUNTERED AFTER ENTERING THE BUILDING??? 

So then David jumps off the building, and after a brief sequence of events and a mishap with the futuristic copter that he and Gigolo Joe had used to travel to Manhattan, David winds up trapped underwater, where he apparently remains for a thousand years.  So the huge robotics company which is at the cutting edge of cybernetics and has the technological resources to track David’s movements across the continent wasn’t able to send a ship or divers underwater to recover their invaluable prototype robot?  They just left him there???  I just don’t buy it.

But, OK, the idea of David trapped forever underwater, just in sight of the Blue Fairy (who he believes is real but we know is just a statue), making his wish to be human over and over and over again forever, is a suitably sad but poetic ending for the film.  Had the movie rolled credits at that point, I don’t think I’d have been wildly enthusiastic about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, but I would have considered it a suitably well-made little sci-fi fairy tale.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end there, and what follows is 25 minutes of silliness with futuristic robotic aliens who recover David and are able to use a strand of Monica’s hair that Teddy somehow had secretly kept all this time to recover her psychic essence from the timestream and restore that essence to a cloned artificial body that can only live for one day before dying forever so David can have one last joyous day with his mommy before she dies and he goes to sleep and apparently dies too.

Ho boy.

I really am not sure where to begin and frankly I don’t think this film deserves any more time and attention than I have already given it.  But I will comment that, with this lengthy epilogue, any attempt by Mr. Spielberg and co. to create a scientifcially plausible future world goes out the window in the face of hokey philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  This ending sequence of the film is a shameless attempt to bring the audience to tears by repeatedly bringing David hope only to snatch that hope away.  The alien robots rescue and revive David — BUT he’s all alone in the future, his beloved mommy is long-dead, and there’s no Blue Fairy to make him human.  The alien robots have the technology to clone a human being, so they could recreate Monica — BUT they’d need some of her DNA, which they don’t have.  Teddy has miraculously saved a strand of her hair which the alien robots could use — BUT that DNA doesn’t contain any of her essence or personality.  The alien robots have the amazing ability to capture Monica’s essence or soul from the fabric of the universe to bring her back to life — BUT, if they do so, she can for some reason live only for one day, then she’ll die and the process can never be repeated.  It’s all just such ridiculous nonsense that it makes me crazy.  The music swells, schmaltz is piled on schmaltz, and I’m left wondering what happened to the director Steven Spielberg whose work I used to unabashedly, unquestionably love.

What a disappointment.

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