The strange, ugly, forgotten future of A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Upon re-watching Steven Spielberg’s robotic Pinnochio-update A.I: Artificial Intelligence, I was struck by just how odd and often jarring a Hollywood blockbuster it is. Conceived by Stanley Kubrick as far back as the 70’s but brought to fruition by Spielberg after Kubrick’s death, the film defies convention at every point. It opens with a lecture by robotics scientist William Hurt (who would play almost the same character in recent Channel 4 drama Humans), spends a long time with a bereaved couple who decide to replace their comatose son with android boy David (Hayley Joel Osment), before sending David off into the wilderness of the bizarre futuristic city with the hilarious Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). That’s just the first hour; I haven’t even touched upon Robin Williams as an animatronic professor, David’s search for the fictional blue fairy, the chilling Flesh Fair, or the climactic ‘alien sequence’ that causes diverse reaction to this day. Welcome to the strange, ugly, forgotten future of A.I: Artificial Intelligence.
It’s almost impossible to tell if A.I. is a good film or not. For every great acting performance, every creative piece of science fiction, every dark twist in an otherwise tame blockbuster, there’s an awful counterpoint. There’s plenty of excellent filmmaking on display (what Spielberg film doesn’t have at least one moment to kidnap your breath?), and yet it’s almost impossible to see these moments because they’re surrounded by overly distracting surroundings. Halfway through the film, at the Flesh Fair (more on that later), Spielberg shoots a stagehand walking away with David’s beloved teddy bear in a long shot lasting well over a minute. It should be a classic set piece, showing the wonders of this huge arena with the audience baying for android blood, but the sequence never registers as epic because the Flesh Fair itself is a hideous set piece, all neon lights and grungy shadows. The film’s future wants to be Blade Runner, so why did Spielberg copy the visual design from Batman and Robin?
A.I: Artificial Intelligence opens with William Hurt delivering a talk to a room full of scientists, discussing the implications of androids designed to act as humanly as possible. A curious intro, the scene is quiet and almost entirely unremarkable, apart from a jaw dropping sequence in which a female robot’s face opens up to reveal the machinery beneath. We are then quickly whisked away to the home of Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (David Robards, creating no lasting memory in his brief screentime) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor, great at portraying just how messed up the film’s scenario is), whose precocious son Martin is in suspended animation due to a rare illness. Henry is chosen to test the new prototype “Mecha”, David; an slightly creepy little boy who never blinks and has to be activated to feel love. After a few days of slightly creepy but heart-warming family bonding (including David giggling incessantly at the dinner table and playing a determined game of hide and seek), Monica activates David, and he soon grows to be the son they’ve missed out on. That is, until Martin (Jake Thomas) is cured of his illness, and a sibling rivalry begins.
Young Jake Thomas really does try, credit to him for that, but he’s stuck with a horribly irritating character. Martin is the ultimate little shit, doing everything possible to get sweet, lovable, slightly creepy David into trouble; encouraging him to malfunction, tricking him into cutting Monica’s hair, antagonising him by the swimming pool until they both nearly drown. After a few days of shenanigans and hijinx, Monica makes the only logical decision; she drives David and Teddy out into the woods and leaves him there forever. To be fair, the scene of David pleading his case to stay and realising nothing can make Monica love him does the necessary heartstring-tugging, and kicks the film’s plot into a much higher gear.
David comes across a disturbing ragtag bunch of misfits and misshapen robots scavenging for parts. A chilling and engrossing little scene, it’s quickly thrown to the side in favour of introducing the audience to the ridiculously entertaining Jude Law, playing robot prostitute Gigolo Joe as a mixture of Roy Batty, David Bowie and Captain Flashheart. Flirting his way around clients in a hotel, this literal fucking machine wiggles his eyebrows and thrusts his hips saucily, until his evening is quickly ruined with the inconvenience of finding a corpse in his bed (this little subplot, with Joe framed for murder and on the run from police, is jarringly unpleasant, and exists only to bring Joe to David). Joe flees for his life, and runs into David, Teddy and the rest of the misfits just as they are kidnapped by the evil Brendan Gleeson, and whisked to the Flesh Fair.
Depending on how strong your stomach is, the Flesh Fair is either the best sequence in the film or an absolute nightmare. A hideous, twisted carnival in which rednecks jeer and leer as rogue robots are set on fire, smashed into pieces, or melted with acid, the fair offers some really quite sinister images, not least the kindly female robot who offers comfort to David right before her face is melted with boiling liquids. After a rousing anti-robot speech from Gleeson (who is terrific in literally everything he’s in), David and Joe prepare to be destroyed. Thankfully, David is so convincing as a little boy, the crowd quickly go mental and tear the place down, letting the odd couple (and Teddy, of course) escape.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence goes so quickly into the confusing and slightly boring from here that I can barely remember any of it (and I watched the film a few days ago). David recalls the story of Pinnochio Monica read to him, and sets out to find the mythical Blue Fairy who can turn him into a real boy. This takes him and Joe into the sleazy, garish city (seriously, how can such a luminous city be so grungy and badly lit?), where they arrange a meeting with Dr. Know, voiced with a surprising lack of energy by Robin Williams. The scene is meant to be humorous, but falls flat. Based on a cryptic clue about the end of the world, David and Joe fly (oh yes, I forgot to mention that little boy David steals a police helicopter. Yep) to underwater Manhattan.
Of all the world building Spielberg does for A.I.’s future Earth, the world being almost totally flooded is perhaps the least convincing. Apart from the ending of the film (which most people dislike anyway), it serves no real function and doesn’t seem remotely connected to the garish, Vegas-style city in the previous scene. Or the Twilight Zone-esque horrors of the Flesh Fair. Or the cosy domesticity of the Swinton household. The best sci-fi films establish a consistent universe and build the world slowly, revealing all the wonders that make it so much more interesting than 21st century Earth. Apart from the odd intriguing moment (entire wreckages of cities floating underwater, a long array of androids hung up like coats), A.I. Artificial Intelligence feels like a mismatch of a bunch of different sci-fi texts and movies, none of which really gel together? Is this a fairytale, an epic update of Pinnochio? Is it a harrowing dystopian view of a world turning against progress? Is it a warning about the effects of global warming on our glorious urban jungles?
Fuck knows. It’s probably none.
After making it to Manhattan, David finds William Hurt and discovers he was just the prototype; hundreds of other Davids, identical to him, line up before his very eyes. There’s a whole explanation about love and how David was destined to come back to Hurt, but it’s a horribly written exposition dump that really is quite difficult to comprehend. Taking after Monica, David does the only logical thing he can think of; he jumps out of the window in an apparent suicide attempt and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Just in case you get too nervous, don’t fear; Gigolo Joe saves him, just before he’s arrested again. I could describe this scene, but just to show you how incomprehensible and random it is, here’s the Wikipedia description:
“Sadly realizing that he is not unique, a disheartened David attempts to commit suicide by falling from a ledge into the ocean, but Joe rescues him with their stolen amphibicopter. David tells Joe he saw the Blue Fairy underwater and wants to go down to her. At that moment, Joe is captured by the authorities with the use of an electromagnet, but he sets the amphibicopter on submerge. David and Teddy take it to the fairy, which turns out to be a statue from a submerged attraction at Coney Island.”
So just like that, Joe is taken away and presumably executed (we don’t even get a farewell from the film’s most entertaining character), whilst David and Teddy are trapped at the bottom of the ocean until the world freezes over and David’s battery drains away, destined to spend eternity wishing to be a real boy.
And then the aliens show up.
Well, I say aliens. According to Wikipedia (thank God I have some help to comprehend this film), these shitty, CGI, vase-shaped creatures are actually super advanced Mechas. On a quest to understand humans, they obviously focus their attention on a robot, and after a hallucinatory sequence with the Blue Fairy, Davis is granted his wish, sort of, and is allowed to spend one final day with Monica. Most assumed this saccharine finale was all Spielberg, but reports would indicate that, surprisingly, chilly ice-hearted Shelley Duvall-torturer Stanley Kubrick came up with the whole thing.
Before I wrote this article/review/rant, I thought I was actually quite fond of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The acting, especially from Osment and Law, is very good, and no Spielberg film is complete without a few astonishing spectacles. From a director who, for most of his career, has made relatively safe films to be enjoyed by the majority, A.I. is surprisingly dark and ‘out there’, squeezing dozens of ideas, tones, and genres, into a mainstream blockbuster. I wish I could say the Spielberg-Kubrick experiment was a success. Sadly, it just doesn’t work for most of its runtime.
No scenes seem to fit together well. The dry opening lecture is followed by cosy parenting-a-robot tomfoolery, followed by irritating sibling rivalry, followed by nightmarish horrors and sexy Blade Runner-lite city dwelling. The film continues in this vain all the way through; the future of A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a Frankenstein’s Monster of sci-fi, with individual scenes making sense but failing to work next to each other.
At its most basic, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a creative, interesting speculative drama about the morals and ethics of creating a robot designed to perfectly the replicate the emotions and language of a little boy. Had Spielberg focused on this angle (and wrote a better character than insufferable little shit Martin), A.I. Artificial Intelligence could have been pretty damn effective. Even if the film had still changed tack and followed David’s survival in this practically apocalyptic world with Gigolo Joe, it could have been an interestingly dark blockbuster. By including global warming, holographic professors, grotesque torture carnivals, Blue Fairies and super advanced cyborgs, Spielberg overstuffed A.I. Artificial Intelligence to the point of collapse. A mildly entertaining, slightly intriguing science fiction film that could have been a bold, dark, original vision of the future.
By Harry J. Ford
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