AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

D: Steven Spielberg
S: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law

Stanley Kubrick once remarked that movies are not made from ideas. The long-awaited realisation of his abandoned second sci-fi project, based upon a short story by Brian Aldiss ('Supertoys Last All Summer Long'), is a conceptually interesting meditation upon mortality, morality, reproduction, and childhood which bears the stamp of its eventual director, Steven Spielberg. But this is easily the most clumsy, poorly paced, and downright dull film the latter has ever made. His seemingly infallible ability to coax at least one or two breathtaking action or drama scenes even from movies which don't work on the whole (Hook, 1941, The Lost World) seems to have evaporated. It is an unfocused, repetitive mess which blunders through awkward shifts in tone, setting, and time in what seems a vague attempt to experiment with narrative dynamics rather tell a meaningful story. It is a fable of human technological evolution and has thematic links with 2001: A Space Odyssey on this level, but it has none of that film's art or craft. It is of an altogether different sensibility, which is appropriate given that Kubrick passed it on and Spielberg is a cineaste of an entirely different order. The result is still a sometimes fascinating but frequently tedious think piece which actually doesn't say all that much we haven't heard before, takes its precious time about saying it, and gives the audience little to no reason to care.

The story concerns the adventures of the first robot child, who, in what is an unmistakable religious reference, is named David (Haley Joel Osment). Programmed to feel genuine love for his 'parents', the robot is truly the first step towards a new relationship between mechanical and organic life forms. His adoption and eventual abandonment by a troubled human family (mother Frances O'Connor, father Sam Robards) is the premise upon which speculations on the nature of humanity are constructed. Though initially reluctantly accepted into a bereaved family, he is passed over by his 'mother' when her natural son (Jake Thomas) recovers from an illness and is reawakened from cryo-sleep. Opting not to have him destroyed, she turns him loose. The child then embarks on a literal and spiritual quest to find something like the meaning of life in an attempt to regain her love. As the film never tires of pointing out, this is the Pinnochio story reworked with robots: his hope is that he will find the mystical blue fairy whom he hopes will help him to be 'a real boy'. Among the things the robot boy encounters on the way are god complexes (at the hands of scientist/creator William Hurt), racial and religious prejudice (from people including opportunistic anti-robot zealot Brendan Gleeson), jealousy (from Thomas), and moral, economic, and physical exploitation and abuse (from everyone).

Curiously, while the film is run though with Spielberg's trademark obsessions with childhood, parenthood, and the conflicting and contrasting experiential and perceptual worlds of both adults and children, where it does not resemble any of his previous works in in its style and organisation. While it would be tempting to presume that somehow Spielberg has tried to honour his mentor and latter-day friend by a misplaced homage to his singular approach to filmmaking, this is not true. Spielberg has proved capable of finding new ways to express himself cinematically, seen to best effect in Schindler's List. That film had something of a Kubrick about it at times; a sense of precision and distance which the old master would have appreciated. This film however does not attempt to sustain a clinical, analytical sociopolitical stance typical of Kubrick, nor does it go straight for the heart-strings with lots of teary close-ups and aphoristic 'gee whiz' moments as Spielberg usually does. Artificial Intelligence careens wildly from sequence to sequence with a sense of discontinuity resulting in uncomfortable shifts in tone and pace, gaps in the narrative, and an inability to sustain interest or generate empathy. One would like to hope this is deliberate, but it seems closer to the work of a disorganised amateur than a master craftsman. Fancifully, one might suggest it is an attempt to replicate the final movement of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where spatial and epistemological discontinuity were part of the cinematic conceptualisation of contact with a new level of consciousness. This is grasping at straws. It is simply poor filmmaking.

In spite of this, Artificial Intelligence seems to have been terribly carefully thought out, at least on a theoretical level. It practially groans under the weight of historical, ethical, moral, religious, and scientific reference and speculation. The film is composed of several discreet sequences, each of which takes up a different part of the story and extrapolates upon certain key themes. It begins with amoral egghead William Hurt (Dark City) pontificating about the necessity for this venture to a room full of scientists. He speaks of human need but has obviously failed to consider the 'needs' of the creation he is about to embark on. This is standard Frankenstein stuff and we have seen it before, but it makes its point: man without God (and without woman) seeks to create life to serve selfish needs. Yet even here it has become clear that the movie is in trouble. The dialogue is leaden, the action is largely uninteresting (consisting mostly of speeches), the editing is uneven, and though it is clear how we are supposed to be thinking here, already our minds are cast back to a similar scene in Blade Runner where the same thing was done much more quickly, without so much 'weight', and as part of a narrative already in progress.

The rest of the film is much the same. Each individual sequence more or less makes its point, but it has been staged as if the process of direction and the demands of drama are secondary to the message. It might again be tempting to argue this is some kind of Hollywood Art Film, engaging in visual displeasure and narrative discontinuity by way of making you focus on the issues rather than the dynamics of story, but Spielberg's mainstream mind is never far beneath the surface and the film keeps moving in and out of the action in a way which exemplifies uncertainty rather than wilful ambiguity. Scenes are set up to be spectacular and moving, then turn out to be neither. Every time the film approaches a high point, it backs off hesitantly, as if unsure how to play it. This is unchararacteristic of this director, who usually has instinct enough to plunge right in, even if the outcome is uncertain. There are interesting little moments here and there, but it never seems to come together either as a piece of storytelling or as a work of cinema. It doesn't so much articulate or engage in discourse as it does present bullet points for our consideration, and it just takes too long setting up each one for the awkwardness of it all to pass notice.

Some explanation might be found in the fact that there seems to have been a conscious attempt by co-writers Spielberg and Ian Watson to fame the story as a fable. An occasional voice-over has been stuck in to this end. The voice over is also part of a (failed) attempt to paper over the massive gap in the time-line which brings the movie to its climax. It acts therefore as something of an excuse for its narrative structure. Fairytales and fables are frequently episodic, with characters who appear and disappear with little regard for 'rounded' or purposeful development. Likewise the narrative doesn't need to make total sense once it comes full circle in the end. The writers have attempted to find a way to do this, but they really ought to have looked harder. An extremely uneasy ending takes the action 2000 years into the future of the story and tries to generate a feel-good vibe which rings completely false.

The film aspires to a Wizard of Oz-ish atmosphere at times, although it is more thoroughly dystopian in outlook. The feeling is reinforced by its 'Tin Man' theme and, in particular, Jude Law's (The Talented Mr. Ripley) good but wasted performance as a robot gigolo who speaks in rhyme and tap dances. There's even a would-be 'great and powerful Oz' moment where Law and Osment seek knowledge from a cartoon oracle voiced by Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting). Another is provided by the late return of Hurt's character, a dreadful scene which peters out as if the script has simply lost interest in it and decided to go elsewhere in search of diversion. The constant references to fairytales and mythical quests is, of course, an excuse to lay on the Pinnochio metaphor as thickly as possible, and the audience is more or less beaten to death with it for two hours before being then subjected to the indignity of a final twenty minutes of agonising distension. To top it all, there is no real payoff to it, merely an aspirational ambiguity which explains nothing and leaves the audience neither teary nor chilled.

The film tries to be at once larger than the specifics of the story and yet entirely immersed in them. Like all fables, it hopes to have 'universal' meaning, yet it also has to relate its tale from a particular point of view. Another possible explanation of the tonal shifts and the relative lack of a sense of the future society in which it is set is that events are portrayed from the point of view of the child. As such there is no real sense of social context, and the camera remains firmly on the reactions of young Osment to the wonders and horrors he sees as if they were abstract phenomena. The otherworldly, fabulous quality is therefore a representation of a singular perspective on humankind and its foibles. This particular get-out clause which gives the film some leeway, but not enough to hold it for two and a half hours and most certainly not enough to get away with the final scenes. Here the dialogue becomes unbearable, filled with cloying references to the wonderfulness of humanity (which the film has not been arguing in favour of to that point) and David is likened to a ressurected Christ who exemplifies its best qualities. It is like a new film entirely rather than a synthesis of the ideas which have informed the script throughout: a desperate attempt to come up with a feel good ending which simply doesn't work.

The film is probably most disappointing in terms of its technical qualities. The sets and production designs are curiously unremarkable, faintly suggesting the futuristic visions of early 1970s sci-fi movies. The rooms have a clinical quality and a spatial curvature which also reminds you of (shudder) certain Kubrick films, but they seem ill-used by poor staging and blocking. The much-discussed 'Flesh Fair' sequence (where robots are tortured and destroyed before cheering crowds) have a kind of Mad Max 2 -ish vibe which feels dated and wrongheaded, and neither the neon-hologram brothel that is 'Rouge City' nor the drowned New York city in which subsequent action takes place are particularly evocative settings in spite of what again seems like involved conceptual planning. The photography seems hazy and you would be pushed to recall one really striking visual moment (the image of Osment at the bottom of a swimming pool photographed through shimmering water is about the only one that leaps to mind). The editing is curiously ragged. The film has no real sense of either organic flow or more schematic discipline. It feels haphazard and half-finished. John Williams' score is quite interesting, but unusually low-key for a Spielberg film. Perhaps it needed to be at once more edgy and more strident. Perhaps the composer (and director) thought the film was more subtle than it is, and the score sought to match it. At any rate it is unmemorable. The visual effects are also unexceptional, which might be a positive thing in a science fiction film if it meant that your focus was really on the story, characters, and themes. Here it means you have nothing to do while you wait for Spielberg to get on with things.

The only ray of sunshine in the film comes from the acting. Most of it is pretty bland (Gleeson (The General) looks quite bored during his few scenes), but Law is good and Osment does a great job of capturing the movement, deportment, and subtle but growing range of expression which defines his character. His most obvious role model would be Brent Spiner in TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation (and its big screen spin-offs Star Trek: First Contact, and Star Trek: Insurrection), but the part requires him to stretch beyond simple bio-mechanoid gestures and into strong, almost uncontrolled, emotional outbursts which are still constraint by circuitry and metal limbs coming to terms with unpracticed posture. There are perhaps too many of Spielberg's characteristic wide-eyed reaction shots, but the actor is still a pleasure to watch, which makes them tolerable.

Artificial Intelligence was probably intended to be a significant contribution to millennial science fiction. It does have lots of ideas (none of which we haven't seen before, mind you). It is sincere and well-meaning, and it can be picked over and discussed in some detail. But in the end it fails on the most basic level: it is poor entertainment. Its ideas are neither fresh enough nor stated in a manner which excites the emotions or stimulates the intellect. It has been poorly staged and surprisingly poorly made as a film. Whether or not Kubrick would have done a better job is not the point (he might have made a worse job: he wasn't exactly above reproach). This is a poor film both on its own terms and in relation to the body of work which preceded it and from which it draws (all too much) inspiration. It is a footnote to Blade Runner at best, a weak rehash of elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial at worst, and more comparable with Bicentennial Man than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.