The title is, perhaps, more ambiguous than it seems. Artificial intelligence refers to computers with the agency to solve problems on their own based on their environment, etc. But the ‘intelligence’ could as easily be applied to humans, with their arrogance and beliefs, and the ‘artificiality’ could apply too. If a robotic child is programmed to love its human ‘mother,’ is that love less valid than its human counterpart? Aren’t we all programmed to love our mothers, by genetics and evolution? Would we expect convincing robots to treat us like Gods, and if so, isn’t that instilling them with an inherently human concept?
The question of the division between human and artificial intelligence – which may extend to ‘artificial’ loyalty, ‘artificial’ morality, ‘artificial’ love – is central to Steven Spielberg’s movie. As is widely known, the story was worked on for years – decades, actually – by Stanley Kubrick, who died before he even came close to making it. It is based on a (very) short story by Brian Aldiss, called “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.”
According to the book’s introduction, Aldiss and Kubrick toyed with the story over several years; Aldiss had various ideas about how to open it up, which Kubrick almost invariably shot down. Aldiss disliked Kubrick’s central idea that the movie had to be a modern fairytale, drawing inspiration from “Pinocchio” (Carlo Collodi’s story rather than the Disney movie). Here, Kubrick suggested, was a story about someone who wants to be ‘a real boy.’
Spielberg, who Kubrick once allegedly said may have always been the right director for the material, inherited it after the great director’s death and made it as he thought Kubrick envisioned it. This doesn’t mean it is not a Spielberg movie; it clearly is. Part of the problem with the way it was received at the time was in the critics being acutely conscious of its history and the two sensibilities at work; they tried to pick out which bits were Kubrick’s, and which Spielberg’s. Aside from the fact they were often wrong (many assumed all the Pinocchio references must have come from Spielberg) the dichotomy is not actually all that useful in discussing the picture; it must be considered on its own feet.
The story concerns a couple whose comatose son leaves a hole in their lives; the father attempts to fill it with David, a new model of android designed to love its adopted parents. After their ‘real’ son wakes up however pressure is put on David, especially since the couple’s real son is clearly jealous, constantly trying to assert his dominance as both their real son and a real boy. He soon finds himself an outcast, lost in a frightening world he has no experience of, with the goal of finding a way to make himself real so his mother will take him back.
Kubrick at one point considered the possibility of using a genuine robotic child in the movie, but Spielberg wisely opted for a real actor: Haley Joel Osment, 12 years old at the time. Osment is well-cast, and does an excellent job of restricting his facial expressions and movement so as to stand out; he’s both convincingly mechanical and convincingly realistic, if that makes sense. The parents in the early chapters work less for me; they’re a little dull, and the mother’s moralistic wrestling is a bit simplistic. Once he has escaped he befriends Gigolo Joe, a robot built to please women (or, I suppose, men) sexually.
Jude Law is perfectly cast in the role, and brings charm to his plucky character. The only other reliable presence in David’s life is Teddy, his robotic teddybear, himself a ‘supertoy.’ Teddy’s loyalty to David reflects David’s for his mother.
The world of this movie is striking, particularly when we move away from the more rural idealism of the house at the beginning and into the urban chaos of the Flesh Fair – a morbid circus where unlicensed robots are tortured and destroyed for entertainment – and Rouge City. Rouge City, taking a leaf out of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, is a sleazy neon cesspool with startling architecture. Visually, the movie is amongst Spielberg’s finest.
The last act of the movie is the most contentious. I am not sure it was a wise move to use a voiceover; at the risk of falling into the dichotomy I have only just warned against, it’s kind of hard to imagine Kubrick putting a voiceover on the ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ sequence in 2001. Similarly, the use of subtitles at a key scene feels too expositional; the last act needed to be worked out as visually as possible. However I do not have such a problem with the actual events of this section of the movie, which are in keeping with the movie’s ideas and tone. Those who find the ending too sentimental are overlooking its inherent sadness.
At a key scene, Joe and David seek advice from a computer programme called Dr Know (voice of Robin Williams but; Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep and Chris Rock also lend vocals at various points). When asked for a category, Joe instructs: ‘Combine Flat Fact with Fairytale.’ Why do we have fairytales, and why do we have an urge to believe in fairies? Are our beliefs any more or less absurd than David’s? Are they what separate us from machines? And how, exactly, do they relate to ‘reality’?
In the original short story, David asks if his parents are ‘real.’ Teddy replies: ‘You ask such silly questions, David. Nobody knows what “real” really means.’ Do we even know what ‘means’ really means? Like all good sci-fi, “A.I.” is less about machines than it is about us, and the line that separates boy and Supertoy.
FILM – 4 stars
Stands up surprisingly well, given how disappointed many people were at the time of its release. While it is imperfect, this may be the most interesting Spielberg movie of the past decade (“Minority Report” is less cerebral, if more entertaining). The central performance from Osment is remarkable, and the central ideas lingering.
VISUALS – 4.5 stars
There is, for my money, pretty much exactly the right amount of grain; while nowadays the movie may well be shot on digital, the 35mm visuals are transferred superbly.
AUDIO – 4 stars
A DTS-HD 6.1 mix that recreates the cinematic experience well without being overly distracting.
EXTRAS – 3 stars
Various fairly interesting featurettes, one concerning the making and history of the project and others about more specific aspects like visual effects and sound. As usual with Spielberg, there are no commentaries. As far as I can tell everything on here was already on the DVD release.
PRESENTATION – 3 stars
A simple, easy-to-navigate metallic menu.
OVERALL – 4 stars
If you are a fan of the movie this Blu-Ray is worth getting just for the improved picture; it looks and sounds great. However it’s not essential, and a deeper examination of the troubled and lengthy history of the project would have been interesting.
Artificial Intelligence is available on Blu-ray now.