Article By: Dan Clark
There may not be two directors that are more polar opposites than Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kurbrick. Both have made films that reach the highest echelon of cinema, but their means of getting there are vastly different. Opposites do often attract, so the idea of these two powerhouses teaming up does cause my curiosity to grow. That partnership finally came to pass when Spielberg agreed to direct A.I. Artificial Intelligence after the death of Kurbrick. The production history of A.I. is long and arduous. It is quite the feat that this was ever made. Kubrick began production in the early 1970’s, but due to a number of misfortunate events he never got around to directing the film. While we will never know what his true vision was for this story, one can inference it would not be quite like this.
After Kubrick’s passing Spielberg was again approach to take over. Understanding this film’s history is important as it clues you into what makes the film work—and what makes it fail. Of all of Spielberg’s films it is the hardest one to quantify. There are moments of pure genius that will linger with you long after the movie is over. Then there are moments that make you wonder if it would have been better off not being made. Much of the intrigue that is built up in the first two acts is ruined by an elongated finale that leaves logic at the door. The creative world design, unique concept, and the quality performances make it worth a watch. However, you cannot help but feel overwhelming disappointed by the final product.
The film takes place in a not so distant dystopian future where all the coastal cities have been destroyed due to the polar icecaps melting. The population has grown to such a staggering rate people must apply for a license to have children. An organization called Cybertronics has begun developing a breakthrough in robotic technology. This breakthrough will allow these robots or Mechas to experience true emotion, which means for the first time in history human beings can artificially create a complete representation of life.
Using Science Fiction as a tool to examine large extensional questions is a key staple in Kubrick’s work. The depth of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey is so vast you can quickly get lost in its web of philosophical discovery. Spielberg is not necessarily known for creating films that have a profound theoretical context. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is perhaps his first film that asks such weighty questions. It looks at the responsibility of creation and where true humanity begins and ends. The issue is this exploration never goes beyond surface level. It takes questions that exist in the highest levels of our cognitive domains, and responds with rudimentary analysis.
Our vehicle on this excursion is David (Haley Joel Osment), Cybertronics’s newest Mecha. David is given to a husband and wife couple who are currently dealing with an ailing son. He is stuck in stasis unit until a cure is found for his disease. Though reluctant at first, they eventually grow to love David. Monica (Frances O’Connor) begins to see David as a legitimate son. This love does come at a cost. If they were ever to wish to get rid of David they must return David to Cybertronics to be destroyed.
Metaphorical similarities between David and Pinocchio are abundant and purposely blatant. The idea of ‘being real boy’ is a key component to the character of David. Where artificiality ends and reality begins is an indefinite line that has yet to be determined. This film creates an opportunity for an exploration into making that determination. For all intents and purposes David shares every aspect of human emotion—from the pure bliss of love to the complete anguish of heartbreak. He needs, he wants, he desires, yet he does not eat nor sleep. His flaws are what make him perfect. The creation of David provides the viewer an abundant amount of intriguing observations. Part of what makes his character work so well is the performance of Haley Joel Osment.
Spielberg has a knack for evoking great child performances, and this is more evidence for that fact. Playing a robotic creation is quite a challenge, especially when you are playing the part in a serious dramatic feature. It has the prospect of over acting written all over it. Osment circumvents that challenge by giving a nuanced performance that fits the character perfectly. He maintains humanistic qualities but little touches–like never blinking–provide a reminder of his robotic core.
Problems arise for David when a cure is found for his parent’s real son. A rivalry begins between both children that leads to David being forced to leave. His mother, unable to send David to Cybertronics, sets him off to live on his own. Unable to truly understand his mother’s wishes he goes off seeking the Blue Fairy so she can make him into a real boy just like she did for Pinocchio. Thinking if he was a real boy his mother’s love would return.
The biggest issue with A.I. is the tonal debate that is constantly occurring. It can never figure out if it wants to be a sentimental adventure of a boy’s love, or a cold cerebral analysis of mortality. This tonal rampage is a constant struggle. While a character like David is well handled, a character like Gigolo Joe is inhibited by Spielberg’s sensibilities. He is an “R” character forced into a ‘PG’ world. It feels as if Spielberg is troubled by losing his core audience so he injects moments that bog the film down. There are brilliant moments like the Flesh Flair that get to the heart of this debate. Then there are moments, like David searching for answers through a Disney esc Dr. No character that feel oddly misplaced.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence issues become amplified in an elongated final act. Its unwillingness to end causes the film to go on for far too long. The final conclusion is horrific pandering at its worst. It’s like a family with a sick dog. Even the kids can see in inevitable conclusion, but the parents–not wanting to expose to children to the tragedy of death–tell their children the dog ‘went to live on farm’. Spielberg treats us the same way. He ruins what could have been a fitting ending by telling us the dog went to a farm. Though even with its issues, A.I. is something to see. The special effects alone are an amazing site to behold. Still, one can not help but wonder if it could have been better off in its original creator’s hands.