Although such notions most likely existed long before its arrival, the Industrial Revolution is probably what spurred on many humans to contemplate the possibility of a mechanical person. After all, machines had suddenly begun to replace various human tasks - or humans altogether in some instances - so it's not surprising that people began to wonder, fantasize and/or worry about what would later commonly be called robots and androids.
Of course, back then such creations were only flights of fancy, so novelists and then filmmakers started to introduce them in their various works. From 1926's "Metropolis" to "Forbidden Planet," "Westworld" and the early "Alien" films, robots of all shapes, sizes and tendencies have shown up on the silver screen, while a multitude of authors have included such creations in their novels.
Among the latter was sci-fi novelist Brian Aldiss who took the notion of androids one step further in his short story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," first published in Harper's Bizarre in 1969. In it, a robotic child longs to connect with his "mother," and this thought of whether robots could love intrigued legendary director Stanley Kubrick ("A Clockwork Orange," "Eyes Wide Shut") who then bought the rights to the tale.
Over the years he toyed with the idea of turning it into a movie, but for a variety of reasons - finally and most notably his death in 1999 - that never happened. Nonetheless, his longtime, long distance collaborator on the project - some director named Steven Spielberg - has now picked up the dropped ball and released the story as "A.I. - Artificial Intelligence."
Much has been made about this ambitious and gorgeous looking production, with most of that concerning the Spielberg/Kubrick connection. Many critics seem fascinated by the contrasting and clashing styles of the two great filmmakers, and many of their reviews have focused on the meshing of the two, pointing out what part of the film stems from which director, and noting all of the homage paid to their and others' works.
While that's all fine and dandy for diehard movie buffs, trivia games and pretentious critics, many of the latter seem to have ignored or overlooked that such information and details don't necessarily mean that what they're praising and examining is a stellar filmmaking effort.
That's not to imply that this film is excruciatingly bad or the honored director's greatest cinematic misfire, although some parts of it - particularly the completely misguided ending - will make many wonder what in the heck he was thinking.
Working from Aldiss's short story and Ian Watson's screen story, Spielberg wrote and directed this film that marks just the second time he's ever assumed both roles (the first being in the far superior "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). In doing so, he's crafted a story that's hopelessly outdated from the get-go, is never quite as engaging as it should be, and suffers from the conflicting styles of the two directors.
While Aldiss's original story may have been somewhat revolutionary, compelling or just "out there" back in '69, the version that's survived to this point feels antiquated. That's because over the years we've been exposed to about a gazillion films featuring androids and robots of one sort or another, ruined cities of the future, government controlled reproduction and roving gangs of hooligans.
The filmmakers' assertion that this one is different because the android boy wants to be both loved and human isn't entirely true as previous efforts such as "Making Mr. Right" and "Bicentennial Man" have covered similar ground. What could have been a terrific and groundbreaking story years ago feels old and familiar today. As a result, it's likely to induce more yawns accompanied by thoughts of "been there, seen that" than exclamations of wonder, astonishment and excitement.
Part of that problem also stems from the cold and often nightmarish reality of Kubrick's vision clashing with Spielberg's warmhearted, "let's all be happy through a weepy ending" style of storytelling, the latter of which is something I wish he'd finally get out of his system once and for all. Thus, we have a film that not only feels wildly uneven - as it abruptly changes from one style to the next and then back again -- but also never manages to engage the viewers on a true, non-manipulative emotional level.
It certainly doesn't help that it's difficult to care about the robotic boy - no matter Spielberg or astonishing child actor Haley Joel Osment's best intentions or efforts to have us do otherwise - or his quest to find a blue fairy (from Pinocchio) so that she'll turn him into a real boy. While I realize it's the journey and not the accomplishment or failure of his quest that's all-important, that futuristic odyssey just didn't work for me. That particularly true as it culminated in a God-awful ending that I simply can't imagine Kubrick concocting or approving for the final cut.
Not to spoil any surprises - mainly of how stupid, ridiculous and special effects-laden the film becomes as it rambles on for what seemed like twenty or so minutes of superfluous and near ruinous material - but Spielberg clearly missed the golden opportunity of ending he film at the appropriate moment.
While I won't go into details, there's a point where Osment's character has or has not discovered what he's looking for and finds himself stuck - literally and figuratively - in that position. With some of the telltale sings of being a human being the ability to imagine, fantasize or dream, this would have been the perfect place to conclude the picture. It would have allowed the character to think, feel or imagine that he's finally human, all while allowing for an odd, but obviously appropriate ending that could have included Spielberg's happiness and Kubrick's cold starkness all wrapped into one.
Rather than forgoing the special effects and focusing on compelling filmmaking and effective storytelling - as he was reluctantly forced to do while making "Jaws" thanks to mechanical difficulties - Spielberg goes hog wild at the end, spending what had to have been millions on the "Waterworld" meets "Close Encounters" inspired finale.
The result is nothing short of terrific eye candy - thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski ("Saving Private Ryan," "Amistad"), production designer Rick Carter ("Cast Away," "Jurassic Park"), special effects wizard Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park," "Aliens") and the many folks at Industrial Light & Magic - but it's also unfortunately empty, non-satisfying on an emotional or cognitive level and ultimately superfluous. The fact that there's some tacked on, accompanying voice over narration doesn't help matters.
Of course, Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan," "Hook") has a history of mixing the good with the bad in many of his previous efforts. Here, the latter arrives in the form of the ending, along with a horribly out of place sequence featuring Dr. Know, an animated wizard that looks like Albert Einstein and is obviously voiced by Robin Williams. While the scene provides some information the characters need, it sticks out like a sore thumb, completely derailing the film, much like an earlier moment where another android looks like and is voiced by Chris Rock.
Such moments distract the viewer, shredding the veil that separates one from being engrossed by a movie and knowing that one is simply watching one. I had a horrible gut reaction when a walking and talking animatronic teddy bear was introduced into the story, but it surprisingly turns out not to be as bad as most every adult will probably fear upon first setting eyes on it.
Viewers will probably differ in their response to the many similarities - that one can only hope were knowingly purposeful in nature -between various moments in this film and those found in others. From his own work, Spielberg includes material borrowed from "E.T." (a hiding in the closet scene) and "Close Encounters," while there are moments related to Kubrick's work (the smooth talking robotic teddy bear could be a descendent of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey) and that of other films including "The Wizard of Oz," "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," "Planet of the Apes," "Waterworld," etc.
Despite the problems, Spielberg manages to craft some terrific sequences, including that of the Flesh Fair where humans come to cheer on the torturous destruction of androids in a Roman-style arena in what amounts to a terrifically effective and frightening look at human nature. Then there are the early scenes featuring Jude Law as a mechanical gigolo who dances along the sidewalk like Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" and suddenly plays old-fashioned romance tunes with a quick cock of his head.
The best part of the film, however, comes from Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense," "Pay It Forward") who's the Tiger Woods/Pete Sampras of child performers. Beyond making it look all too terribly easy and further distancing himself from any other young - and even many adult, for that matter - actors in the biz today, Osment does a terrific job selling what sort of character he is. The fact that we don't ultimately care for him and his predicament with all of our heart and souls isn't his fault - it's Spielberg's - and he's the one main thing that will keep most viewers interested - to some degree or another - in the proceedings.
As the aforementioned gigolo, Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Gattaca") may be somewhat constrained by his character's innate limitations, but the terrifically talented actor certainly creates a memorable character. Perhaps the sequel - if there is one, God forbid - will focus on him as his is a far more interesting character.
Supporting performances are generally okay. Frances O'Connor ("Bedazzled," "About Adam") gets the meatiest such role as the mother who's torn about her reaction to her rather different sons, but Sam Robards ("American Beauty," "Bounce") might as well have not appeared as her character's husband since he isn't in the film enough to make much of an impression.
Young Jake Thomas ("The Cell") is decent as the human sibling who returns home to find that he has a new brother and William Hurt ("Lost in Space," "The Big Chill") delivers another of his typical performances, but Brendan Gleeson ("The General," "Braveheart") is completely wasted as the lord of the aforementioned Flesh Fair.
In the end, the film comes off as a frustrating but ultimately boring experience that I kept wishing was more exciting and engaging. While it has its share of terrific looking visuals and good individual scenes and sequences, the film can't overcome the fact that the story is rather weak, too familiar and that Spielberg's occasional maudlin tendencies undermine the film that Kubrick may have envisioned making.
With his film pestered by various plot problems, some illogical moments and the fact that many viewers ultimately won't care about the protagonist and his goal, Spielberg comes off much like that character. He has a quest, but seems uncertain of how to accomplish it and once he gets to the end, he isn't sure what to do but seems happy that he's there. It's questionable, however, how many average viewers will share the sentiment. "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" rates as just a 5 out of 10.