A.I. Artificial Intelligence Review
The story behind the production of A.I is one that all film buffs will already be familiar with, so vividly does it capture many peoples’ wish that an apparently doomed act of visionary genius should be brought back to life by another, only marginally less visionary director. The film was set to be made by Stanley Kubrick at several points throughout his life, but he was frustrated by a combination of insufficiently advanced special effects and his own uncertainty that he was the right director for the project, instead proposing that his friend Steven Spielberg should direct, and that he would produce and script the film. Unfortunately, Kubrick’s death in 1999 appeared to put pay to this, until Spielberg abandoned his plans to film Harry Potter and instead announced that he would be working from Kubrick’s original storyboards and script treatment, albeit with some innovations of his own. It is to the film’s great credit that it works well as both a Kubrickian examination of emotional sterility and frustrated ambition and a more conventionally Spielberg tale of a robot’s search for love and a desire to become human, albeit with some alarmingly dark, bizarre detours along the way and an utterly superfluous epilogue.
The plot in outline is supposedly based on a Brian Aldiss short story, although it’s tempting to speculate that Spielberg was less interested in that than in such myriad influences as W.B Yeats’ poem ‘The Lost Child’, the Pinocchio story and 2001, both Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Kubrick’s film. The film is set in a futuristic world after the polar ice caps have melted, where population control has been imposed and where robots have become an everyday part of human life, to the resentment of those who see the so-called ‘mechas’ as potential usurpers of traditionally human functions. Into this environment comes David (Osment), a prototype robot boy who has been created with the ability to love his ‘parents’ (Robards and O’Connor), whose real son is in a coma. Unfortunately, things prove to be less simple than David’s creator Professor Hobby (Hurt) has anticipated, leading to David being abandoned in the woods and forced to flee with ‘love mecha’ Gigolo Joe (Law) in order to find the mythical ‘Blue Fairy’, who he believes will make him, Pinocchio-like, a real boy, and will earn his mother’s love.
There is so much to admire about this film that it becomes difficult to start isolating aspects of it. Obviously heavily introduced by Kubrick stylistically, visually and tonally, Spielberg writes and directs with a flair not seen since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, coincidentally the last film that he took full scripting and directing credit for. Although there is the odd, brief moment that feels misplaced, such as David and Joe’s too action-fantasy oriented escape from the nightmarish Rouge City, most of the film proceeds with confidence, verve and a real sense of the fantastical, a genre long assumed to have been dominated by the likes of Tim Burton and David Lynch rather than Mr Middle America himself. It also says a lot for Spielberg that the potentially saccharine-heavy plot (and the American poster tagline ‘His love is real, but he is not’ did little to dispel these fears) is, for the majority of the film, executed with a clinical coolness that belies his reputation for schmaltzy sentiment. The first 2 hours of this film are about as riveting, challenging and intellectually stimulating as anything made by Kubrick throughout his career, and the film feels like a worthy legacy to the great filmmaker, even down to an apparent ending that satisfies completely, working perfectly as a supremely ironic close to this fairytale.
Unfortunately, what would otherwise be one of the greatest films of our times is then spoilt by an utterly misguided coda. On their own, the final twenty minutes of the film are acceptable enough on a technical level, but are an unfortunate return to Spielberg’s usual themes of a mother’s love being the ultimate source of redemption, rather than the intellectually sophisticated examinations of the film proper. A generous assessment of the sequence is that it is Spielberg’s nod to the Star Child sequence from 2001, but that only excuses its narrative incoherence, not its ultimate redundancy. If you have yet to see the film, do not watch the final scenes at the same time if you wish to experience the film that Kubrick would have made; if you are curious as to their content, watch them separately, as supplementary material to an otherwise great film.
As David, Osment brings the disturbingly precocious quality that he had in The Sixth Sense to the character; Kubrick was said to have despaired of finding a suitable child actor, and had considered using a ‘real’ robot for the part, ultimately rejecting it as impractical. After an onslaught of cutesy child actors throughout the 80s and 90s, it makes a remarkable change to have an actor so young who is able to bring depth and shading to such a part (for comparison’s sake, look at the over-emphatic and flat performances in Harry Potter). Inevitably, the rest of the cast is overshadowed by him, but Law is amusing as Gigolo Joe, although the full, bizarre connotations of sex with robots are not fully explored, perhaps as a result of the PG-13 certificate (which would almost certainly have been an R had Kubrick made the film.) Visual effects are striking throughout, with the depiction of a futuristic world being one of the most convincing and believable since Blade Runner, and, in Rouge City, a neon fantasy land worthy of A Clockwork Orange is brilliantly depicted. John Williams’ score is slightly too intrusive at points, but has some effectively dissonant touches that convey a sense of unease perfectly in keeping with the film.
A comparative flop, at least for the most successful director of all time, the prevailing wisdom after release was that the film was regarded by the public much as Kubrick’s films came to be in his lifetime, with a mix of polite appreciation, loud and disdainful incomprehension and a smaller but no less vocal amount of support. Certainly the most obscure and ‘difficult’ film Spielberg has made since Close Encounters, it will almost certainly be re-evaluated in years to come as a flawed masterpiece, with only the final descent into sentiment spoiling a unique collaboration between two great directors.
Surprisingly for such a recent release, there is some fairly obvious grain throughout the picture, especially in the early scenes, which was not noticeable during the film’s cinema release. It may be the case that this was a deliberate attempt by Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, his cinematographer, to pay homage to Kubrick’s visual style, which often used grainy, soft-focus images, but it is more likely to be a slight dip in Dreamworks’ standards. The print used for the transfer is fine, and colours are alternately strong and muted as appropriate.
The R1 version of the film boasts a DTS track which the R2 is lacking. The improvements are slightly noticeable, especially in the more heavy-duty uses of surround effects, and the dialogue does sound slightly clearer at times. However, the Dolby track is perfectly satisfactory, and both tracks do an excellent job of involving the viewer in the action on screen.
Hopefully, the film’s stature amongst audiences and critics will grow in time to mean that Criterion or Dreamworks will revisit the film in due course on DVD with a far more thorough set of extras than what we have here. It’s not that the series of featurettes, storyboards, trailers and interviews are anything less than interesting, but the film is described almost entirely in terms of ‘how’ and virtually never in terms of ‘why’; obviously it would be too much to hope for a commentary by Spielberg, but the list of potential collaborators who could have been asked to do a commentary is lengthy- Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and executive producer of the film, Brian Aldiss or Ian Watson, writers on whose work the film was based, any of the many technical geniuses recruited by Kubrick and Spielberg to work on the film, and many others. The absence of any deleted scenes is also a disappointment, given that snippets of scenes not in the film can actually be seen on some of the featurettes, and the final omission is, perhaps, some sort of insight into what artificial intelligence actually is capable of.
That said, there’s a fair amount of interesting material here, as compiled by documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. While lacking a sense of distance from the film, there’s still a wide assortment of technical matters covered. The sole extra on the first disc is a 15-minute piece called ‘Creating AI’, which is a too-brief look at the production’s genesis from Kubrick to Spielberg that also functions as an introduction to the rest of the extras found on the second disc. There are a number of featurettes on various topics, ranging from ‘Acting AI’, with a frighteningly precocious Osment sounding like a seasoned pro at the grand old age of 12, ‘Lighting AI’, a short interview with the cinematographer about the film’s visual style, and a number of pieces on such topics as the sound design, visual effects, robot effects and score. All are interesting enough, but they might have done better to be incorporated into a full-length documentary, rather than acting as a rather bitty series of pieces with some inevitable repetition of footage between them. Other extras include the very effective teaser trailers, literally hundreds of storyboards (albeit none of Kubrick’s), some slightly more interesting than usual production stills and a hilariously pompous closing message from Spielberg, which eschews the opportunity to discuss the film by instead concentrating on the possibilities of whether an electric toothbrush might talk to its owner. An interesting enough set of extras, then, but surely, like Se7en or Blade Runner, a subsequent release might address some of the omissions here.
Love it or hate it, there is no denying that, for most of its length, Spielberg’s film is a brilliantly original and intellectually satisfying look at some fascinating issues, taking Kubrick’s ideas and themes and adding to them. However, the weak ending is something of a disappointment, as are the faintly below-par picture quality and slightly lightweight extras on the DVD. One can but hope that both the film and disc will be revisited by the director at some point in the not-too distant future.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:04:11