The Anti-Intellectual

This film will always be remembered as the project left unfinished by Stanley Kubrick, then picked up and finished by Steven Spielberg. The first question this brings up is: how much of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)is Kubrick and how much is Spielberg? Well, even without having read the Brian Aldiss story this is based on – or knowing that Kubrick doesn’t receive a writing credit – the answer is obviously 90% Spielberg.

The basic idea is an update of the Pinocchio story to the robot-infested future. This is an idea done first and best by Osamu Tezuka when he created his Astro Boy comics in the early 1950s, though you won’t see Tezuka credited either. Spielberg is obsessed with Pinocchio, and pounds the analogy into the viewers’ brains repeatedly.

As in Astro Boy, A.I.concerns the creation of a robot boy (Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense) by a scientist (William Hurt of Lost in Space) to replace his own dead child, only to reject him when he turns out to be too inhuman. Instead of keeping the robot himself, it’s first tried out on a young couple whose son is in a coma. The Swintons (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor) are told that if they decide to keep the robot, they are to say a list of magic words to him, at which point he’ll form a permanent bond with them. For a few days, the robot David follows his surrogate mother (well played by O’Connor, who first impressed me years ago in a couple of Australian pictures) around, creeping her out as he learns human behavior. These scenes show are reminiscent of some of Kubrick’s scenes in The Shining and show that Spielberg should try making a horror film again some time. Way too quickly, the grieving mother decides to trigger the parental bonding. We never see Robards repeat the magic words, and David never seems at all concerned with him, so we’ll have to assume that – like in E.T. – fathers aren’t an important part of the family.

Things turn ugly when the real son Martin (Jake Thomas from The Cell) is saved by some medical miracle and returns home.┬áLike any normal boy, he tries to kill his new little brother. David only accidentally nearly kills Martin. This non-human proves unacceptable, so it’s decided David will have to be returned to the factory to be destroyed. However, Mom doesn’t have the heart, and instead drops David (and his robot Teddy Bear) in the middle of a forest.

A.I. resembles 2001 in that it can be divided easily into sections, and section one ends here and introduces one of the film’s best characters: synthetic love-bot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, looking less like an android than usual). Making a business call, Joe is framed for a murder by a psycho and goes on the run. Guess they’ll forget all about forensic science in the future and just blame robots for everything. Captured and sent to his doom at “Flesh Feast” – which a sort of organized version of the time honored hobby of destroying your toys, set at a Ministry concert. But when David is brought into the arena, the crowd – shocked at seeing a boy robot – turns against the pro-human ringleaders and a riot breaks out. Joe and David escape and head for the futuropolis red light district Rouge City, where Joe thinks David will find out some vital info. David has read – and believes – the Pinocchio story, and hopes to hunt down the Blue Fairy so he can become a real boy worthy of his mother’s love.

Every bit of trouble in this story could have been avoided if the 3 Laws of Robotics had been observed – a simple set of rules for A.I. programming invented by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov that are so sensible that it’s difficult to imagine a future society NOT using them. Well, except for future society’s in which rogue robots take over the world.

The underrated Asimov adaptation Bicentennial Man shares the same general theme and plot as A.I. – exceptional robot falls for family member and sets out on quest to become human and win her love – and handled it much more intelligently. Has David been programmed to be stupid just because he’s a child? Perhaps, since the goal in his creation was to provide a child that never grew up. Asimov’s robot (unfortunately portrayed by Robin Williams) uses his talents and resources to achieve his goal, even if it takes him 200 years. Spielberg’s David, like Pinocchio, is cast about by the fates, only reaching his goal by divine intervention. As for Joe – he’s cast aside entirely once his part in the fable is accomplished and we’re left wondering whatever became of him. If Spielberg had left off the last act, his film would have been merely flawed. But everyone should know by now that this guy has a severe allergy to outright tragic endings.

Though Spielberg’s ending has a Kubrick depth and scope to it, his execution couldn’t be further away. Both men proved themselves master storytellers years ago. Spielberg at his worst forgets one of storytelling’s best guidelines: never let the audience get too far ahead of you. The last act of A.I. isn’t so much a bad idea as a poorly executed one. The out-of-left-field ending has the grand scope of 2001, but lacks the sense of anticipation and wonder, over-explaining every concept. Many feel that the re-release “Special Edition” version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind ruined the ending by letting audiences look “inside”. In A.I., Spielberg is like the host that won’t let the guests leave the party. He takes the audience by the hand and forces them to clean up afterward, then wants a big hug before he’ll let them go.

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