[box cover]

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

DreamWorks Home Entertainment

Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor,
Sam Robards, William Hurt, and Brendan Gleeson

Written by Steven Spielberg,
from a screen story by Ian Watson for a project by Stanley Kubrick,
and the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss

Directed by Steven Spielberg


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


I. Uma, Oprah; Oprah, Uma

American audiences can be forgiven for making the frequent verbal slip of mixing up A.I.: Artificial Intelligence with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Both have bifurcated titles with internal periods and acronymnal redundancy. Both are about a gentle creature trying to find his way home. Both are about a central naïf hero at large among hostile elements. And both are about strange alien-type creatures who in the end bestow a certain grace on the central character.

But that's about where the similarities end. While E.T. is a warm tearjerker with a cunning plot almost scientifically designed to stir up the emotions of the audience, A.I. is a difficult, complex work born of frustrating origins destined to taint the project. It's a colder, less likable, yet more ambitious film than E.T. The best thing about A.I. is that it harks back to science fiction films that were about something. The worst thing about it is that Spielberg's much heralded storytelling sense seems, finally, to have completely abandoned him.


II. Waxing Nostalgic

Comparing A.I. to E.T. is an efficient method for charting the rather shocking decline of Spielberg's work since, say, The Color Purple. Many people go all the way back to Jaws or Duel to find, rather cruelly, the high points of Spielberg's career. But to those who have been following his films from almost the beginning, his ups and downs take on a puzzling majesty, and the downward drift of his art while his success has escalated is puzzling. It's as if Carol Reed in his last years of terrible films were to enjoy the success of a James Cameron.

Viewers and intense film buffs of a certain age may well remember where they first saw the Jaws. My initial viewing was at an advance screening held out in the sticks a couple of days before its opening (probably Tuesday, June 17th before its June 20th start date). My host for the evening was a now long-lost friend named Jeff Godsil (where are you, Jeff? Please write.) Another avid movie buff, he worked for the movie theater chain that was hosting the advance screening. One night the summer before, for example, we went to three different drive in theaters in the same evening, watching first Death Wish, then Candy Stripe Nurses before finally zipping over to see Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, all admissions on his employer. That's what summer's all about.

On Jawsday, we sat around his apartment waiting. I was moderately interested in the film, because that summer no one could avoid the heavy hype machine that was, for the first time, fully employed in making a movie unavoidable. Godsil had a copy of Time magazine with a cover story about Spielberg and the film, and I read it as we idly waited. Suddenly my interest stirred. Spielberg sounded like a much more serious filmmaker than I had at first taken him to be. He cited all the right Masters: Hitchcock, Ford, Lang, and so on. Suddenly what had been just a thing to do of a summer night became very important mission: see Jaws.

Godsil warned me that the advance screening was going to be a zoo. It was the first advance screening I had attended and he was right. It was a zoo. Thousands of advance screenings later, they are still zoos, mass-marketing events designed to distract the critics from the badness of the films. That night I saw for the first time the local publicists and other guardians of the movie business who were to plague me for the rest of my career. The carnivalesque atmosphere had nothing to do with the movie, but sucked in the animals. At this event, a guy in a scuba outfit parachuted down to an above-ground swimming pool. He may even have made it. Inside, the auditorium was too small for the number of people invited, and we only got two seats because he worked for the company. We were about five rows from the screen.

But from the first few seconds of the movie, we knew we were in the hands of a master. The Herrmannesque music by John Williams, the superb camera work by Bill Butler (and others), the acting, but most of all Spielberg's confident storytelling abilities, showing just enough at the right time to enchant and dominate the audience. I can still feel the collective backward rush of bodies as the head slipped into view in the hull of the boat. Spielberg was a master of the magician's misdirection. But Spielberg also showed an impeccable sense of both camera placement and where to cut, the two key elements to the true ownership of any film, as Stanley Kubrick once said in a Sight and Sound interview.

I became an immediate devotee of Spielberg's work, even defending 1941, which I still mostly like. However, the dedication only lasted 10 years. The loyalty began to dissipate after the narrative incoherence and Oscar-whoring of The Color Purple. Since then I have been alternatingly entranced and angry with Spielberg's work.


III. Waxing DuPontian

But now it's time to tackle the A.I.'s plot, its bad points, and its good points.

The Plot: A.I. is set in the near future, after the polar ice caps have melted and the remaining population has moved inland. Population expansion is strictly limited by the world government, and robots have been incorporated into society to ease the burden on resources. Though they are passive, gentle creatures, they inspire the hatred and jealousy of the people they are there to help. Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) of Cybertronics in New Jersey sets his design team to work on an authentic child to ease the burden of those who are denied kids. The recipient of a prototype is his employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards). Their son Martin is in a coma, and Henry thinks that the providence of a substitute will ease the suffering of his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor, the Australian actress from Bedazzled who looks remarkably like Jessica Harper).

Thus into this tense family David (Haley Joel Osment) is introduced. After some initial resistance, Monica accepts David, imprinting the robot with never-ending love via a string of codes. But at precisely 30 minutes into the movie, in conformity with the formula in Kristin Thompson's great book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, a revived Martin return s home. He proceeds to maliciously divide the house against David, even though he is himself so loathsome a creature that even David's pet bear Teddy, formerly Martin's, recoils from the smug boy. After a series of incidents, Monica decides to return David to Cybertronics for immediate destruction.

Instead, at the last minute, Monica abandons David in the woods, like an unwanted dog. Thus begins the picaresque, Wizard of Oz portion of the film as David gets a dose of the real world, and learns that old robots are subjected to ghastly gladiatorial Flesh Fairs for the amusement of robot-hating human beings. Hitching up with a guide in the form of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot on the run from a false murder accusation, the duo and Teddy barely escape Flesh Fair, and embark on a quest for the Blue Fairy, whom David believes, because of the story "Pinocchio," will make him a real boy. After a stop off at the sex emporium Rouge City, David ends up in the remains of Manhattan (the twin towers still there, the water up to the 75th floor). There he meets his maker, Professor Hobby. Hobby has been busy — there are thousands of Davids in use throughout the land, but we also learn that David is a replica of Hobby's own dead son. Despondent over the fact that he is not unique, David tries to commit a form of suicide, but ends up at the bottom of the ocean inside a amphibious flying machine with Teddy, staring at a Blue Fairy equivalent from the Coney Island fairground.

Two thousand years later, when all human beings are dead, David is discovered by the new race of possibly human-robot hybrids, or perhaps just the height of robot evolution after a form of Terminator-type human-versus-robot war. In any case, these evolved robots are benevolent creatures curious about the human ancestors of earth, and in a gesture of kindness allow David to experience for one day the joy being with his mother again, thanks to a strand of Monica's DNA-providing hair that Teddy was prescient enough to pick up earlier in the movie. The film ends on the poignant note of the robot and doomed clone falling asleep under the watchful eyes of Teddy.

The Film's Bad Points: There's a lot of narrative confusion in A.I.. The movie starts out one thing, becomes another, and ends up a third. This may not be bad in and of itself, but it suggests a creative confusion in the script, credited to Spielberg. There is also some terrible writing in this screenplay, with awful puns that strive to substitute for ideas ("Let he who is without Sim cast the first stone"; "All roads lead to Rouge"). The whole orga versus mecha terminology is ugly and awkward.

There's a false ending, which had viewers at this film's advance screening standing up and putting on their coats, only to learn that there was another 20 minutes to go (many of them left anyway — the film ended up making only $79 million on its reported $90 million budget). The loose adaptation of the story of Pinocchio doesn't really fit, unless the film had been even more of a fantasy. After all, David never really can become a real boy (maybe Peter Pan might have been a better model, with a bunch of robots searching for a Never Land of safety). The science of the piece often doesn't make sense. What is all that gobbledygook at the end about space-time continuums? Why can the robots only clone Monica for one day? As Alexandra DuPont pointed out in a review of the film upon its initial release, if the robots of the future can clone Monica once, they can clone her twice, since DNA is rather, um, small, and Teddy had retrieved a large batch of her hair. But of course, as so often happens in Spielberg's movies, sentimentality derails the science. It is imperative in creating a tear-evoking end to the story that David have only his one little day in paradise with Mom.

But worst or all, this movie is about robots! They are not real. There is something ludicrous about two robots talking to each other, inviting us to anthropomorphize an encounter that in the real world would be two insensate things making noises past each other. A.I. is not a cartoon; David is not C-3PO.

A.I.'s Good Points: The ending of the film is powerful if you are in the spirit of the thing. Teddy is a marvelous creation, thanks to Stan Winston. And there is some complexity in the film new to Spielberg's work. Its source of reference is typically vast, including Singin' in the Rain, Sleeping Beauty, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Teddy saying "David" over and over at the Flesh Fair), Blade Runner, even Waterworld. Spielberg's borrowings from the Masters are subtle. From Welles he taps into the horror of George Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons, but also the interloper into Alex's home in A Clockwork Orange (thematically, Spielberg has always been sensitive to usurpation).

A.I. is an ambitious movie, and it may signal a change in Spielberg. The darkening of the vision is a good thing. Spielberg is now confronting aging, death, and loss in an interesting manner. The film is all of a piece. It's just rather cold, despite all its desire to move us. (Not everyone agrees; former Spielberg-basher Andrew Sarris praised the film in the New York Observer, putting it at the top of his 10 best list.)


IV. What Was He Thinking?

At one point, Monica screams at Henry, "What were you thinking?" We might ask the same of Spielberg. As is well known, Spielberg inherited the A.I. project from Stanley Kubrick, whose next film after Eyes Wide Shut it might have been. Surely, Spielberg knew that Kubrick fans would be scrutinizing the film to see if he carried on the Kubrick aesthetic. But instead of just carrying on with a project initiated by Kubrick, Spielberg seems to have taken the opportunity to re-think his career. In this film he reverses some of the sacred icons of his oeuvre. His beloved scientists are well-meaning buffoons who cause more pain than they heal. His cult of the child turns into a military campaign as the movie presents all kids as monsters, with the only nice creatures in the film robots and toys. Even the moon — the emblem of both DreamWorks and Amblin — here represents evil, the image on a balloon carrying robot hunters. One hesitates to analyze the psychology of directors on the basis of their work, but it's as if Spielberg had sunk into a deep depression and grown to hate his persona, his work, his previous interests, questioning them, recoiling from them.

A.I. is not a remake like Alfonso Arau's The Magnificent Ambersons or Gus Van Sant's Psycho. Instead, A.I. is an original project derived from Kubrick's notes. Kubrick worked on A.I. for 15 years, but never made it, and I think he never would have. He couldn't crack the nut of the story, which is that the audience is invited to sympathize with stars who are actually machines with no real feelings or thoughts. The real story buried in the film is the oddity of having a seemingly human robot in your house and how the human beings react to it, not the other way around. After all, what would happen when Monica is 50 and David is still 11?


V. Possible Reasons for the Decline of Steven Spielberg since 1985

He's gotten older: At this writing (March 2002), Steven Spielberg is almost 60. The playful boy entranced by UFOs and dinosaurs can't last forever. Death lurks. The peak that stays in view for the young is, to quote the poet Philip Larkin, for him rising ground.

He got married: One also can't stay an awkward, girlfriendless nerd forever. Especially if you are worth millions. Spielberg finally got a (second) wife and kids, and the domesticity he wanted. Basically, he got a wife and kids who want him to come home from work by 5 p.m. and spend quality time with them. It's entirely possible that Spielberg's former lively, creative mind has dissipated in the domestic chores that follow the duties of marriage and fatherhood.

He wanted an Oscar: Spielberg had everything else, money, fame, the ability to greenlight projects. But he didn't have the esteem of his colleagues. Apparently, that's important in Hollywood. So he began striving after an Oscar. He made a series of atrocious movies (The Color Purple among them) and one great film (Empire of the Sun) in his hunt for the statuette. He finally got one, but did it make him happy? As Control says in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, what happens to the guy who gets it all? He wants more. Until Spielberg can shake the lust for Oscar, his films may remain compromised by Academy pandering.

Janusz Kaminski: This is the real reason for the decline in Spielberg's films, I think. Spielberg first hired cinematographer Kaminski to shoot Schindler's List. He's more or less been Spielberg's DP since then.

But take another look at the opening scene in A.I., where Professor Hobby talks to a bunch of students, or employees, or reporters (it's not clear who he's talking to — damn it, why can't modern movies be clear about the simplest yet most essential things?) This scene is terribly shot. The image is cold and poorly backlit. The camera is never in the optimum place to convey the narrative clearly; we never have a sense of the size of the room, or where or who the people are. The whole film suffers from an absence of a natural affinity for the cinema. The special effects have some bearing on the film's coldness, too. A lot of the film's effects have the feel of an old geezer's idea of what a WWF event or a Boston Combat Zone might be like. But ultimately the problem comes down to Kaminski. There hasn't been a major motion picture shot this bad since Finding Forester, a film also hypnotized by a cold look and lots of backlighting. But it's not just A.I.. With the advent of Kaminksi, Spielberg's been thrown for a loop. He has lost his knack for the all important camera placement and the cut.

A.I. had the valuable effect of dividing the critics, and inspiring real debate about the value of the film and the direction of Spielberg's career. And his film is not valueless. Compare it to The Stepford Wives or D.A.R.Y.L., or even worse, Bicentennial Man (also with Robin Williams). The film's value may not lie in its story or its technique, but in its suggestion of a new direction in Spielberg's work. For ambition alone, it is a three-star movie, though from scene to scene it fluctuates from one star to two stars. Nevertheless, it is a film that needs to be reckoned with, and all in all, it is one of the most interesting films from 2001, simply because it is so not like a Spielberg film, and because it is not a complete success. Which would you rather think and talk about: A.I. or The Mummy Returns?


VI. The DVD

DreamWorks has done an extensive job with their two-disc A.I. DVD release. Basically, if there is anything you want to know about the making of this film, you will probably find it on this edition.

Disc One offers the movie and a short documentary. The disc offers an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that looks better than the movie did in the theaters. Audio comes in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround. The 12-minute featurette Creating A.I. by Laurent Bouzereau is basically an advertisement for the movie, or a trailer for Disc Two. The animated, musical menu offers 32-chapter scene-selection.

Disc Two is packed, but it is really, per contemporary DVD custom, one big documentary broken down into little pieces. The full-frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered disc comes in Dolby 2.0 Surround with closed captioning and English, Spanish, and French subtitles. The disc includes the following features, most of them averaging about four minutes long:


This portion ends with Closing: Steven Spielberg: "Our Responsibility to Artificial Intelligence."

And there is more, beginning with the A.I. Archives, which includes two trailers, storyboards (Joe's Goodbye, David's Leap, David and the Blue Fairy), conceptual artist Chris Baker's Portfolio (Teddy, Cryogenic, Flesh Fair, Rouge City and Dr. Know, Theme Park Village, Excavation and Robots, David Sees His Mom Again), a Production Design Portfolio (The Swinton's [sic] Home, Cryogenic, Flesh Fair, Rouge City, The Amphibicopter, Cybertronic, Theme Park Village, Ships of the Future, Excavation and Robots), an Industrial Light and Magic Portfolio (Robots, Rouge City, New York, Theme Park Village Drawings, Underwater Sequence, Excavation), a Portrait Gallery: Photographs by David James, plus Steven Spielberg Behind the Scenes: Photographs David James.

But Disc Two isn't done yet. There are also bios for four cast members, and 12 crew bios, plus a 106-screen production notes feature.

In the end, there is something sterile and smug about this second disc. There is something so... mechanical, if you will, about DVD packaging on this level. Clearly, the manufacturers of this movie knew all along that there would be a DVD; and so, during its making, everyone stops their hard work to sit for an interview or two, and to explain what they are doing as they are actually trying to do it. There's a sense of self-consciousness about the whole thing. It's as if they know they are making great cinematic art and they don't care who knows it. DVDs are only a few years old, but one already pines for the days of the quality documentaries that really celebrated a film, rather than opportunistically served as further marketing and advertising.

— D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two



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