A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images
Running Time: 146 min.
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Conner, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Ken Leung
Small role: Kathryn Morris, Adrian Lenier, Ben Kingsley (voice), Chris Rock (voice), Clark Gregg, Meryl Streep (voice), Robin Williams (voice)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg (based on the short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", by Brian Aldiss)
Review published July 29, 2001
The late Stanley Kubrick's name graces the intro to A.I: Artificial Intelligence alongside that of director Steven Spielberg's (Saving Private Ryan, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), due to his having cultivated the film for over a decade before it was passed to the man that was best felt who do service with the material. It's only fitting that Kubrick be associated with this film since A.I., like Kubrick's finest works, is one of those films that will received middling reviews upon release only to be considered a classic film by future generations.
A.I. is loosely based upon a short story by Brian Aldiss back in the late 60s called "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", and draws influence from Disney's version of Pinocchio for this tale of an android who wishes to become a real human boy. The movie starts off set in the middle of the 21st century, where huge advances have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence, so much so that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the man-made people (dubbed "Mecha" for mechanical people) from their real-life counterparts. However, one key component is missing: the ability to love.
One of the great designers of artificial beings has undertaken to develop a Mecha that loves in the form of a young boy named David (Osment, Pay It Forward), who is adopted by a young couple grieving over the plight of their real son (Thomas, The Cell) who is comatose. David forms a loving relationship with the family, but once the real son awakens, competition between the two complicates the situation and the family finds it best to send David out into the world to fend for himself, not being able to bear sending him back to the plant for destruction. David then resolves he will do whatever he can to become a real boy and get the love he so desires to have from the family that sent him away.
Much darker in its soul than most people will be accustomed to from Steven Spielberg, A.I. is bound to be considered a disappointment from many people with different expectations. It's not a thrill-a-minute ride like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws, it's not here to instill a sense of wonder like Close Encounters or E.T., and it's not here to tell us important historical lessons like Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. If anything, A.I. would seem the anti-Spielbergian film, where kids are cruel, society is cold, and a happy ending seems eternally out of reach. Spielberg directs with adept knowledge of what people expect, making us think he is going to pull his cinematic magic and set things the way we think they should be. He toys with our expectations, dangling the ever elusive carrot before our hungry eyes and cruelly jerking it away once it is within our reach.
This will no doubt frustrate many a viewer, who will come away disappointed that a director who has spent an entire career instilling thrills, wonder and hope, even among the most serious of films, would make a film as icy cold and dystopic as the world depicted in A.I. Perhaps this is Spielberg's ultimate tribute to Kubrick, a man who has built a career on great masterworks of unsettling and perplexing films that would rather instill doubt to make us think than in making things easy. We are never quite sure where A.I. is going, or even if it's going anywhere at all. The film isn't about entertainment, it goes more to the core on what it is to be human.
Although I am positive a good portion of today's moviegoers will be disappointed with the film, I have a very ambitious prediction to make. Of all of Spielberg's films, many of which are already considered to be classics of their respective genres, A.I. may be the only one that might ever be dubbed with the moniker of "Masterpiece". Like Vertigo for Hitchcock, like Citizen Kane for Welles and like 2001: A Space Odyssey for the aforementioned Kubrick, many filmgoers and critics of their times did not come away liking these films, thinking them too dark and perhaps too ambitious to truly entertain. Yet, as time progressed, these films challenged people to think and rethink, to watch over and again to try to understand why they feel so unsettled, so bleak, so defeated by these films. Of all of Spielberg's films, this is the one that is the most perplexing, the one which is the most unsettling, the one where the true meaning of it all is the most complicated.
Scaling back the hyperbolic talk a bit, I will admit that A.I. has a long road ahead of it if it ever is to be considered one of Spielberg's greatest works. I only mention it because it fits the mold of the films mentioned in the last paragraph. They were all works by great directors that were given mediocre reviews for being too slow and ponderous, too dark and disparaging to enjoy. Yet over the years, as fresh eyes viewed them and old eyes took a retrospective look at these films and tried to understand why they found them so hard to like and why it affected them so. In so doing, they found meaning and deeper understanding of the human condition, even if they felt dispirited by these creations, and in time grew to love them.
For now, A.I. has been greeted with no accolades, middling reviews, and a lack of financial success such that it will is considered a failure. Perhaps, like 99.99% of all movies, it has a greater chance of being forgotten than in being considered a masterpiece by almost anyone. All I can say is that if we were to lay odds now on what will be considered Spielberg's finest hour 30 years in the future, I'd gladly put a dollar down on this one. I suspect the odds are sufficiently against it that big dividends will be coming my way around my retirement age.
Slow, confusing, ugly, sad, brutal, unsettling, unsatisfying...
©2001 Vince Leo