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IN SHORT: Good Spielberg is still better than most everything else. A.I. is good, but not great Spielberg. [Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images. 143 minutes]
Yes, we try not to make comparisons but how else are we going to write about the best film creator alive?
When the greenhouse effect melted the ice caps and flooded the globe, the devastation was such that population growth was limited and robot technology stepped in to fill the breach. Serving 'bots. Sex 'bots. Worker 'bots and, as writer/director Steven Spielberg's A.I. begins, the technology of the very near future is about to take its next quantum leap forward. Whether you like his work or not -- we're usually in the former category -- there are few directors of the modern era who have managed to seamlessly integrate fact and fantasy as well as Spielberg has. His new film, A.I. posits a future where man and machine are interdependent. For some segments of the population, this is a good thing. For others, it is terrifying. For the robot boy at the center of these stories -- for A.I. plays out like three different movies stitched together -- it is a journey in which he discovers his true humanity.
For those that missed the blare of publicity, A.I. was the project Stanley Kubrick was fiddling with when he passed away. Actually, he had been fiddling for eighteen years, so it is said, with a great deal of input from Mr. Spielberg. When Kubrick passed, Spielberg took all there was and started writing his first screenplay since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The result is a film that is a beautiful thing to watch, even if twenty years of story development produces three kinds of movies that tell one story. Act One is a family drama. Act Two is heavy duty SF. The third we won't describe, 'cuz we don't spill the "Third Act". All three are held together by a wondrous performance by Haley Joel Osment.
From a New Jersey based company called Cybertronics Manufacturing, led by tech wizard Professor Hobby (William Hurt), comes a robot boy endowed with the ability to feel the emotion of love. Their prototype, called David (Haley Joel Osment), is placed with loyal employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor). The Swinton's only son Martin (Jake Thomas) is critically ill and rests in cryogenic stasis; government restrictions on reproduction mean that the couple cannot produce any more kidlets. This "David" holds the potential to fill an emotional hole in their lives. Unlike any other robot off the rack, a spoken sequence of seven randomly programmed words will throw an emotional switch in the 'bot's programming, establishing an irreversible bond between, in this case, mother and "son". Why father and son don't go through a bonding process isn't explained by Spielberg, and this caused us problems at the end of the "first" movie. Emotionally and dramatically we know what Spielberg is doing -- so will you when you see it. Logcially, it doesn't work. For us.
Consider this: The boy, who looks to be about ten, will never age. He will learn, emotionally, but he will not physically mature. His human parents will. David puts the question as bluntly as a child would: "Are you going to die? When?" Consider how long you, as a parent, could raise a child who cannot be raised; who will always appear to be a child. What is the alternative for you, human? Is this why only one parent is allowed to bond with the prototype? So that one won't have the emotional attachment that would get in the way when it it time to "bring the 'bot back" or in simple words, return him to the factory for termination. Welcome to the future. We've left out one major story twist, a good one. With a little development, what happens in this "first" movie could have stood on its own. But Spielberg isn't making a family drama/tragedy. He's got a different point to make which means that David must be kicked out of the comfortable suburban life of the Swintons and into the post-Meltdown world inhabited by everyone else. How he is booted is the point that caused us problems.
All that David takes with him is the memory of a mommy who loves him, but not as much as she would if he were "real;" a walking, talking, thinking "super-toy" named Teddy. A bear, of course. David also carries the belief that a story called Pinocchio, that mommy read to him every night, was not a piece of fiction. So, if he can be made "real," mommy will love him more and he can come home.
Movie number two is a survival story, and hints at a coming war between robots and humans (as seen in the television commercials). In the First Movie we heard hints of what the future techno society is like, scattered remarks in the dialog or discussions in a Cybertronics marketing meeting. Once David has been forcibly separated from his parents, we see the "real" world. It is a savage place where old robots are slagged and dumped with the rest of the garbage; where discarded but still functional 'bots scavenge for parts and run for cover as the hunters like Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) pursue the "unlicensed" machines every night. Those that are caught are sold to "Flesh FA.I.r," and what happens to them in the pits would be considered sadistic, if robots were considered human. David grabs on to the biggest 'bot in the vicinity, a "sensual friend" nicknamed Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and begs for protection. Joe will also aid David in his search for the one person who can make him "real" -- the identity of whom will have you thinking that A.I. is a high tech remake of Pinocchio, there's still one more "movie" left to go. Only then, with Osment working solo in a 100% CGI World, is it clear what point Spielberg is trying to make.
We got the point. We also know the reason for the confusing jumps in movie styles between Acts. What we needed to see was how the highly integrated technology of this near future world actually works in the every day suburban life. Not the big things, like David and Teddy, the day to day stuff. The calm, deliberate pace of the first act, though we understand the intent, gave us time to note the stuff we were missing. That is also the probable reason why we didn't wind up weeping hysterically like the folk in the row in front of us.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to A.I. Artificial Intelligence, he would have paid . . .
Visually, once Spielberg decides to let the story loose, A.I. explodes. Given the running time, once past the first act, our attention didn't waver. Emotionally, we weren't blown away but we weren't bored.
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