Understanding Artificial Intelligence (Science Made Accessible)

. "AI: Artificial Intelligence"

In "AI", director/writer Steven Spielberg attempts to create a futuristic fairy tale and deploys his prodigious resources in the attempt, including but not limited to, the relationship between son and mother, superbly created other worlds, the quest of a central character for a return "home" and the liveliness and/or charm of supporting characters. In "AI", no expense was spared to bring you these and other visionary concepts.

The advantage of science fiction futurism is that you start with a nearly clean slate or, at least, a partially empty one, which you fill with the visions from your imagination, whether they comport with real science or cultural probability or not. In this, Spielberg gives us an advanced robot as the fiber and chip filled hero, David (Haley Joel Osment) who starts out as the first of a new generation of robotic humanoids, called "mechas".

Created as the first "child" robot who is capable of feeling love for a "parent", his creator, professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) has designed him as a knockoff of his own deceased son guided (perhaps misguided) by his desire to immortalize his offspring. And David, the ill-starred robot, is soon off on a quest to "be" human.

The tale, which actually involves a fairy, comes in several parts. The opening episode, full of the exposition to set David's quest in motion, is slow going as we meet Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), a couple whose flesh and blood son has a disease for which 21st century science hasn't yet found a cure. To help her recover from her grieving, husband Henry buys the new mecha robot for Monica which has the newly invented option to "love" his mother. The possible down side is that once enabled, the option will be irreversible. Despite the finality of the decison, Monica, of course, goes for it.

Which raises a question the film doesn't attempt to answer: why is the programmed "love" only for one parent? And why, if the creator is a man, is the only love the robot capable of so concentrated on the mother to the virtual disregard of the father, who comes off as a likeable, well-meaning chap? And, how does this relate to similar themes in previous Spielberg films, notably in the mother-son relationship central to "E.T."? One wonders why this particular relationship overpowers the author's sensibilities as to bear such repetition and to be depicted with such heavy handed emphasis as to bog the film down in sentiment and artifice.

Not that Haley Joel Osment does anything less than an outstanding job in realizing the author's vision -- but the life of the film is injected primarily by the side characters, which seem to be lifted out of many another adventure yarn.

Best of these is Gigolo Joe, assayed by one of the more remarkable and dependable actors around, Jude Law. Here is an actor who finds the most meaningful and colorful traits of a character and immerses himself into them. The name of the character tells us that he's a comic strip side-kick who is going to provide the element of energetic lust and liveliness, which is precisely what he pulls off as he becomes both the protector and the protectee of David's adventure into the wilds of the outside world. When he comes on the scene, the whole film takes a turn in style and temperament. Gigolo Joe may be the fairy tale equivalent of Han Solo, but he's pretty much worth the price of admission.

Then, of course, what is a Spielberg (ala George Lucas) yarn without the endearing mate (like E.T.)? In "Star Wars" it's R2-D2 as well as C-3PO; here, it's Monica's son Martin's old teddy bear, Teddy, invested with a soft, ever supportive, never threatening manner, designed to charm and pulling it off (voiced by Jack Angel).

Thirdly, there's always the need for a villainous character or two, such as Lord Johnson-Johnson who collects old, beat-up, eviscerated mechas (robots) to destroy in colorful ways in his Rouge City evil spectacle show, Flesh Fair, a derivative of the nasty spectacular of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in which Tina Turner played the part of the impresario, Aunty Entity. Here, the part of the depraved showman is nicely filled with the likes of Brendan Gleeson (John McCloy in "Mission: Impossible II") for which I was thankful. In an earlier day, the casting would likely have gone to a much more contrived and obvious actor in this kind of role, such as Dennis Hopper.

Johnson-Johnson is loathe to lose the opportunity of destroying David in his inimitable public-hanging display, but the audience, once David's specialness is pointed out, is not accepting it. Faced with crowd displeasure, Johnson-Johnson bows to the mass will and David is once again saved, dragging his pal, Gigolo Joe with him to the next step in finding the Blue Fairy.

Confiscating a police helicopter as capable of maneuvering underwater as above, they make their way to the lost city of Manhattan, which is redolent with echoes of "Waterworld" and "Dark City" combined.

Ultimately, David is revived from a 2000 year hibernation underwater from which only a non-human can survive, and we wind up in yet another world of Spielberg's making, the far future, when humans as we know them have disappeared from the planet and androgynous long-limbed aliens with telepathic abilities are the inhabitants. These Spielbergianly courteous and benevolent beings ("E.T.", again) take an intense interest in David because he had actual contact with the long disappeared humans and can provide these creatures, who seem all to be scientifically inquisitive, an understanding of that history. They finally grant him his wish to see the Blue Fairy (voiced by Meryl Streep) who in turns grants him the wish that has been driving him.

Somehow, this is all so consistent with prior Spielberg wish-fulfillment themes, merely manifested differently for a film audience of 2001 by this film giant who has no practical bottom line or superior who can demand further rewrites. My wish would have been for a story line and a central character that were less unsavory in spirit and unlikely in motivation. Which is not to say there isn't a vision here worthy of our support.

William Hurt is typically slow and intense, literate and dedicated as Professor Allen Hobby whose command of the science of Artificial Intelligence doesn't extend into the realm of human understanding, condemning his mecha creation to a destiny of such angst and sadness, bringing him down; bringing us down, bringing down the film. Robin Williams voices the virtual if not virtuous Dr. Know. Chris Rock is the Comedian Mecha.

Lastly, there is Frances O'Conner, the woman we spend most of the time with in the first act. And, you feel that time in this uni-dimensional rendering of what perhaps is a Spielberg ideal of motherhood. He doesn't let go of the central idea about that ideal long enough to let us see if she's got a life outside the realm of her sons, one real (who recovers), one mechanized who becomes problematical beyond expectation or prediction. The poor woman. Poor us for the distended subjection to her pains.

The poster ad claims, "His love is real", but I have a problem with that assertion. In one of Steven Spielberg's first movies, "The Truck," a semi unrelentingly pursues the hero. This formula is applied in a more than similar way as mecha David becomes that truck. He may not be the evil pursuer but there's something awry about his obsession to pursue the impossible. There's something backwards here when we (or at least part of the audience) aren't sympathetic toward the fixation of the intended hero. If only his love were real.

Published in The Los Angeles Times, 7/21/01:
When you bring the unlimited resources to the making of a film as Mr. Spielberg has, and when you use futuristic sci-fi as your setting -- which is as close to a blank slate as you can get -- there's little excuse for failing to breathe life into the resulting product. I'm left to wonder if his own taste for things mechanical and robotic didn't overweigh the scale against human subtleties and sensibilities. That balance eluded him.
                           ~~  Jules Brenner

Estimated cost: $95,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $80,000,000.

Rated D for Darthlike.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
This review was: Well written
Influences me to see this movie

"The beings at the end of the film were, in fact, advanced robots that were trying to find out what humans were like. That's why they unthall David because he's an earlier model. And that's why they can DOWNLOAD from David.....because they're robots. Watch the making of; they'll even say the beings are advanced robots. Just wanted to let ya know in case you hadn't noticed by now. Otherwise, fantastic review. I loved the film because it felt so Kubrickian for I love that style, but felt Spielberg added his own side to the middle and most of the last section."

                                                      ~~ T.R. 
Very well written
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Thoroughly concur with this excellent review. You could almost see where the Kubrick influence ended and the sweetly sentimental tear jerker began. If the human race does die out (95% probability) then its the abuse of ones talents such as SS that will have contributed to it.
                                                      ~~ George S. 
Off base
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review

Site rating: 1
AI is an incredible achievement, allows us to look at our innate habit of projecting love onto objects, and then abandoning them when our protocols change. Jules Brenner and others like Fatboy Ebert cannot get their heads around the fact that this film is transparently, nakedly stating its theses over and over again, while using all the technology of cinema to enable its point.

                                                      ~~ Thomas S. 

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