'A.I.' Dares Audience Intelligence

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With the opening of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" this weekend, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter reviews Steven Spielberg's latest film, destined to be a blockbuster.
"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" represents a strange afterlife collaboration between the late Stanley Kubrick, legendary creator of such cautionary and satirical science fiction tales as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange," and Steven Spielberg, a maker of movie fantasies who in recent years has worked hard to develop a grittier edge for his more realistic explorations of human courage. Their cinematic personalities do not always mesh well; indeed, the wonder is that they mesh at all.

The paradoxical result, in the words of "A.I." producer and longtime Spielberg colleague Kathleen Kennedy, is "a movie that has Steven Spielberg's sensibilities all over it, but the subtext is all Kubrick." This makes for a complex sci-fi piece containing an uneasy hybrid of jarring elements.

The film is never less than fascinating. Certain to open big, "A.I." has plenty for audiences and critics to glom onto - a riveting, awesome performance by child actor Haley Joel Osment; brilliant production design and special effects; and a provocative theme that in these days of synthetic life forms and genetic tampering is worth re-examining.

"A.I." should divide audiences. Kubrick loyalists may decry the attempt to give warm and fuzzy edges to his cool misanthropy. Some Spielberg fans may have the been-there, done-that feeling with more than traces of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - to say nothing of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Pinocchio" - turning up everywhere. Others, though, may see "A.I." as a striking, even terrifying portrait of mankind's future.

Professor Hobby (William Hurt), the guru/head scientist for Cybertronics Manufacturing, is determined to advance robotics and artificial intelligence into the one area previously ignored - the ability to love. His scientific team raises ethical questions, but Hobby plunges ahead.

Twenty months later, the result is David (Osment), a robotic boy programmed to love. David is adopted as a test case by a Cybertronics employee (Sam Robards) and his reluctant wife (Frances O'Connor), whose own terminally ill child has been frozen cryogenically until a cure for his disease is found.

David eventually fits into the family after a rough period of adjustment. But when the couple's son (Jake Thomas) returns to the fold, the cyber boy is the odd boy - robot - out. Seeing the impossibility of his remaining in the household, David's mother forces him to make his own way in the world, accompanied by Teddy, his supertoy.

David believes if he were to become a real boy, like Pinocchio, then his mother will welcome him back and return his undying love. Thus begins David's quest for humanness. This odyssey takes him through a tawdry underworld where robots increasingly serve humans in nsavory ways, and in return, humans love and hate them: He journeys through Rouge City, a city of artificial sin, and the Flesh Fair, a "Mad Max"-like carnival where disused and derelict robots are "killed" in an arena sport.

The more humans come to rely on robots, the more they distrust them. David's guide through this underworld is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a love machine - "Once you've had a robot man, you'll never want a real man again" - on the run for some ill-defined reason.

Eventually, David finds his way to New York, which is now underwater thanks to global warming. Here he believes the Blue Fairy from the Pinocchio story will turn him into a real boy. Instead, he meets not only his own fate but the fate of mankind itself.

The scale of "A.I." is huge as the movie moves from an intimate drama to a road picture to an "Oz"-like fantasia. The effects-magicians have done their work well: We get junkyards of robots with missing limbs and body pieces and the spectacle of gladiator sports that destroy these synthetic life forms.

Working with his usual team - editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, designer Rick Carter and effects heads Stan Winston and Michael Lantieri - Spielberg has created an ugly world where we run head-on into Kubrick's mistrust of technology and cynicism about human behavior. While Spielberg embraces some of this vision, his own view of technology is clearly more benign. This results in an ending that is neither here nor there. While it satisfies the emotional through-line of the movie, it does send a mixed message to the viewer.

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