Future shock: A.I. delivers (Movie review)

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

What a novelty: A big-budget movie by the biggest-name director that disturbs, provokes, vexes, subverts and prompts introspection for days afterward.

''A.I. Artificial Intelligence'' -- a joint venture between Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick -- will have many enthusiasts, many detractors and many people uncertain about what they've seen and how they feel.

''A.I.'' is a jolt of ideas and images sorely needed in a year of big-studio films that have been mostly brain-dead on arrival.

Add three tremendous performances by Haley Joel Osment, Frances O'Connor and Jude Law -- along with a dazzling, frightening dose of future shock -- and ''A.I.'' amounts to the most intriguing movie to come out of Hollywood in a long while.

Kubrick had been developing the project since the early 1980s, drawing on the short story published in 1969, ''Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,'' by Brian Aldiss, and talked with Spielberg about collaborating on it.

After Kubrick died in 1999, Spielberg took over, directing from his own screenplay, the first he has written since 1977's ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind.''

Call the result a Spielbrick film.

''A.I.'' tempers Kubrick's harsh sensibilities on humanity and technology with the softer sentiments Spielberg displayed in ''Close Encounters'' and ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.''

Set in a future when global warming has melted the polar ice caps and drowned coastal cities, the world of ''A.I.'' is one where technology has allowed parts of humanity to muddle on in comfort.

With pregnancy strictly limited, ever more humanlike machines are created to round out the work force -- ''mechas'' that serve as nannies, welders, even sex robots.

A robot designer (William Hurt) sets out to create a mecha with true emotions, a machine that can love. His vision is realized in David (Osment), a boy robot placed with Monica and Henry Swinton (O'Connor and Sam Robards) whose real son is in cryonic freeze because of an incurable disease.

The experiment fails, and David is abandoned. Following Pinocchio's trail of sawdust, David sets out on a quest to become a real boy so Monica, his ''Mommy,'' will love him.

Spielberg gives David two companions, an endearing mechanical bear named Teddy and Gigolo Joe (Law), a dapper lady-killer robot who boasts: ''I know women. No two are ever alike, and after me, no two are ever the same.''

''A.I.'' essentially is divided into thirds: David's increasingly tense domestic life with the Swintons; a nightmare journey into a seedy underworld where damaged robots pick through trash for new limbs or eyes and are hunted by hateful humans; and a way-over-the-rainbow, deus ex machina finale reminiscent of Kubrick's cryptic ending to ''2001: A Space Odyssey.''

This last part will prove most troubling to viewers. The ambiguities are pure Kubrick, the underlying sense of hope and closure are pure Spielberg, and the push-and-pull between the two will leave some moviegoers fidgety and unsatisfied.

At its core, David's story is a simple fairy tale, but the complexities and complications Spielberg weaves in give ''A.I.'' remarkable emotional and intellectual breadth.

What other film in recent memory forces viewers to contemplate the nature and need of love? The origin of identity and consciousness? The Frankenstein ethics of the search for intelligent life in our machines? The demise of humanity in spite of -- or because of -- technology? Prejudice against machines, brought on by fear that they may render humanity obsolete?

And above all, as one of Spielberg's robots points out, how the ''ones who made us are always looking for the one who made them''?

This is not Spielberg playing nice-nice with kiddies and aliens, a la ''E.T.'' The interaction between Osment and O'Connor is riveting and gut-wrenching. The destruction of robots at a Flesh Fair akin to a futuristic monster-truck rally is horrifying. The calm, sad acceptance by some of these doomed robots contrasts brilliantly with the flesh-and-blood mob and recalls a Kubrick theme from ''2001'' -- that machines might prove more human than their creators.

Law's exit from the film alone is an indelible image: Under terrifying but absurd conditions, his character utters a simple, jaunty declaration of existence worthy of Descartes.

The design and effects contribute enormously to the visceral impact of ''A.I.'' But answering one of the film's main questions -- technology or humanity? -- human talent overwhelms the artificial, mainly in the brilliance of Osment, O'Connor and Law.

And, of course, the genius of two humans named Kubrick and Spielberg.

''A.I. Artificial Intelligence,'' a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images. Running time: 146 minutes.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.



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