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With: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Clark Gregg
Written by: Steven Spielberg, Ian Watson, based on a story by Brian Aldiss
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 some sexual content and violent images
Running Time: 145
Date: 26/06/2001

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing anyone's going to look for in the new film A.I. Artificial Intelligence is; how much of it belongs to Steven Spielberg and how much to Stanley Kubrick. The best way I can put it is that the film is a very minor Kubrick and a major Spielberg. In other words, it doesn't inspire the enthusiasm that, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Eyes Wide Shut did, but it's far more exciting than Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan.

The film contains a few shots that look like Kubrick might have staged them and lit them, and then suddenly left the room, letting Spielberg loose. Kubrick would have found some austere angle and photographed an entire scene from it, but Spielberg moves and tracks and pans and cuts all over the place, more interested in manipulating our responses than Kubrick was. At least Spielberg knows how to move a camera though; A.I. Artificial Intelligence is far clearer and better shot than Gladiator or any of a dozen other, recent "hose-it-down" productions.

In A.I. Artificial Intelligence Haley Joel Osment stars as a young robot boy programmed with the capability to love. He's assigned to a young couple whose son lays in the hospital with little hope of ever returning home. The mother (Frances O'Connor) unleashes the "love" code, and the boy begins trying to please her twenty-four-seven, trying to "earn" her love. Meanwhile, the "real" son experiences a miraculous recovery, comes home and immediately begins competing with the robot for their mother's affections. After a few near-disasters, the mother dumps the robot boy in the woods to fend for himself.

This is where the film turns amazingly good. Jude Law enters, playing a pleasure droid designed to please human women who finds himself in a bit of trouble. Osment manages to rescue him and they go off in search of the Blue Fairy, a character from Pinocchio whom Osment believes will turn him into a real boy. These sequences document the blue light districts of the future, and even Mad Max couldn't dream up something this gorgeous and outrageous. This middle section contains perhaps Spielberg's finest work, ever.

Unfortunately, as he showed in the final minutes of Schindler's List, Spielberg doesn't know when to quit, and the final 20 minutes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence turn sickeningly sweet. Spielberg falls back on his meager searching-for-father themes (as in E.T., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook and many others), only now it's a mother that's captured his attention. What's worse is that the movie has a perfect stopping point. It even begins to feel like an end, the camera tracking backwards, away from the scene, and our narrator (Ben Kingsley) saying a few last words. But, concerned with the reactions of the masses, Spielberg couldn't allow himself such a delicious ending. He had to go for the schmaltz and the big, fluffy payoff.

Osment is the standout in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, manipulating his big eyes for maximum emotional outpouring. During the moment when his "love" feature is activated, watching his wondering face suddenly develop love for his mother is miraculous. A.I. Artificial Intelligence features a few other standouts: Jude Law is fine as the dancing, slap-happy gigolo, the always-great Brendan Gleeson appears as a robot hunter, and William Hurt provides just the right amount of juice as Osment's inventor (who, of course, modeled him after his own dead son -- boo hoo). Robin Williams and Chris Rock lend their voices for a couple of animated cameos.

My favorite Spielbergs are still the Indiana Jones trilogy, for its undiluted imagination and longing for childhood adventures. They represent Spielberg at his most pure. The "soapbox" trilogy, his message movies, Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, show him trying to hide his gifts behind good deeds, admirable, but unsatisfying. A.I. Artificial Intelligence belongs in the middle, completing the trilogy begun with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.; combining elements of searching and longing with elements of goopy, sappy sentimentalism. If I could take just the middle hour of A.I., though, I would swap it for any other Spielberg (except the Indy films). And that's really saying something.

Afterthoughts: I re-watched A.I. Artificial Intelligence at the end of 2009 while working on my best-of-the-decade list, and I found that a second viewing is essential. It emerges as one of Spielberg's most daring, darkest and most accomplished films. I think the main issue is that his fade-to-black after David is left at the bottom of the sea lasts a couple of beats too long, and it signals "end of the movie" to the audience. I have heard this same reaction from most people who saw the film. If Spielberg had simply managed to tighten up that transition, then the film might have been received as the masterpiece it is. Seeing it twice, and knowing about the movie's epilogue in advance, makes a huge difference. As a result, I'm upgrading my rating to the four stars it deserves.

DVD Details: This is another of those films that only grows and gets better in the memory. (It has the distinction of being the only Spielberg film more beloved by critics than by fans.) The double-disc DVD goes a long way in redeeming the film. It comes with spectacular picture and sound, plus scads of interviews, featurettes, trailers, storyboards, etc.

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