I remember sitting in a movie theater at the tender age of 14, watching a little film called D.A.R.Y.L., about a boy with a computer brain trying to cope with modern society and questions of emotion and identity. D.A.R.Y.L. was not some overblown, 2 1/2-hour ordeal. It was 99 breezy minutes of fun fun fun!
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is, too my deep dismay, neither breezy nor particularly fun. The level of anticipation of the film, of course, would be impossible to effectively sate, but A.I. just doesn't cut it. It doesn't even come close.
The mystery-enshrouded story is told obliquely, in fleeting glances of half-explained scenes. Presumably we are meant to absorb the rich, rich atmosphere of the film, and for a long while, this works. But as a result, much of A.I. is cryptic at best, so you'll have to forgive any wandering plot descriptions.
In the future, the icecaps have melted, population controls are rampant, and of course people turn to machines for love. A.I. is the story (based on the sci-fi story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long") of a boy named David (Haley Joel Osment), not a real boy, of course, but an artificially intelligent robot who has been programmed to love -- the first of his kind. "Mecha" robots coexist with "Orga" humans in a crowded dystopia, so when Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) brings the first David model home to his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor), who is grieving over a mysteriously ill son, she freaks out but eventually develops a guarded affection for David. When the son in question returns to them (equally unexplained), things come to a head, and the robot boy finds himself a bit of an outcast, a machine that loves people but is not loved in return.
Without giving away too many plot points, suffice it to say that David ends up on an adventure throughout the greater New Jersey area, encountering such characters as the megalomaniacal Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a "love robot" with all the attendant baggage, and Professor Hobby (William Hurt), David's creator and a scientist with a bad God complex.
As David wanders from the safety of home to the wilds of the big city and eventually, an underwater Manhattan, his journey is inspired by that of the original robot boy, Pinocchio. But Pinocchio is more than an inspiration for the film, it quickly becomes the entire plot, as David searches for the story's "blue fairy" to turn him into a real boy. His robotic teddy bear is a latter-day Jiminy Cricket. He encounters villains and even a theme park, much like our animated hero.
Sadly, this becomes an enormous crutch for Spielberg, as the search for the blue fairy saves him from having to write a real movie. Spielberg earnestly apes Kubrick to a fault, which is both obvious and in poor taste. A Clockwork Orange and, of course, 2001 are strong influences, particularly in set design. Later in the picture, Blade Runner is an obvious reference point. By the end, Spielberg is ripping off his own E.T. and Close Encounters, and the jumble of stolen plots, sets, and characters becomes so daunting the film degenerates into utter nonsense.
The Kubrick connection is worth a little extra ink, because A.I., we should all remember, is Spielberg's resurrection of a film that Kubrick could never get off the ground. Why he didn't make it we'll never know (reportedly he had been unhappy with the state of special effects throughout the years), but if the scraps of story Spielberg has woven together in this movie are any indication of where he was headed, Kubrick was wise to drop the thing. As for Spielberg, the sole writer credited for the film, it is also worth noting that he hasn't even worked on a movie screenplay since collaborating on The Goonies in 1985.
I don't want to knock A.I. down completely. Law is a fantastic supporting player, giving A.I. the levity it needs during Act 2. The effects are groundbreaking and phenomenal, and while the science of A.I. is dubious, its dystopic future is believable and spooky.
But it's the three mini-movies within A.I. that make it so hard to sit through. The first (David at home) is excellent. The second (David in the big city) is fair. The third (David's quest for infinity and beyond) is unwatchable. By the end, the audience is practically being spat upon with nonsensical, 2001-wannabe metaphysics and general weirdness that goes on and on without end. Ultimately, what should have been a pleasant fable becomes an overambitious mess that slips from potential greatness into imminent forgettability. For what it's worth, the entire movie evoked laughter and snickering from the audience, but only the last act brought out the real hecklers.
Mr. Spielberg, your love is real. Your movie, sadly, is not.
DVD UPDATE: Watching the movie again on DVD (a very loud and vibrant experience, I must admit -- and don't forget an entire second disc of making-of extras), I was hoping to see something I missed on first viewing (especially considering all the hate mail my original review generated). But unfortunately, I liked the movie even less, as the intimacy of the small screen made each performance more stilted than the next. Even Osment is grating here. But it's the story that gets under your skin, as experience with seeing the movie once before makes Spielberg's manipulative script all the more obvious. And that Blue Fairy nonsense, on second viewing, is just about the last straw.
My kind of robot.