Nearly ten years after its release, it’s hard to conceive of A.I. Artificial Intelligence as a July 4th tentpole release. As a Steven Spielberg film filled with futuristic spectacle, it makes a certain kind of sense, but as a Stanley Kubrick passion project packed with big ideas about technology and mortality, it boggles the mind. The final result of their union, completed after Kubrick’s passing in 1999, remains an ambitious, ungainly combination of the two filmmakers’ competing sensibilities. On a recent viewing, I’m still not quite sure what I think of the film, but I’m also unsure that it could ever be the film that either visionary would have wanted to make.
Based on Brian Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” and expanded upon by both Ian Curtis and Spielberg himself, A.I. takes place in a future where melting ice caps have eradicated the coastlines as we know them, forcing the government to control reproduction and society to embrace robots as an economical alternative to overpopulation. Prof. Hobby (William Hurt) proposes creating androids with a soul, or something close to it, to serve as surrogate offspring.
Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) are reluctant to replace their ailing son with a facsimile, but Henry believes that David (Haley Joel Osment) will help her move on and, eventually, she comes to love this alien thing as if it were her own son. That is, until her own son begins to recover. When Martin (Jake Thomas) returns home, he is spiteful towards David, and his actions force a distraught Monica to abandon David in the woods. From there, David journeys to find the Blue Fairy, whom he believes can turn him into a real boy (a la Pinocchio) and thus return him to Monica’s good graces.
The first fifty minutes of A.I. are fairly confined, as Monica struggles to find room in her heart for David and as David struggles to find room in the family to belong. When he first appears, his hazy silhouette resembles that of the extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and arguably, the character behaves as if E.T. genuinely believed that he were Eliot instead of a visitor from another world. David is constantly shown in reflections and refractions, rightfully treated by the camera as an unblinking outsider. (The fact that I find myself referring to David by gender-specific pronouns rather than simply “it” speaks well to the case Spielberg makes for this robot’s humanity.)
Monica’s emotional thaw comes a bit quickly, and Martin’s manipulations are aggravatingly transparent, but soon enough, David finds himself abandoned, a pariah partnered with another toy of which Martin grew tired, Teddy (sagely voiced by Jack Angel), and then Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex-bot framed for murder. They run from the law, and from humans resentful towards the creatures that have claimed their jobs, and they head towards the flooded ends of the world in order to find the answers that David so desperately needs.
The effects work by Industrial Light & Magic and Stan Winston’s crew holds up splendidly, although an unfortunate amount of grain in Janusz Kaminski’s notoriously glowy-and-grainy cinematography has been preserved with this transfer. Unfortunately, just as “Mechas” recover from damage by exchanging parts with other models, the screenplay feels similarly assembled out of multiple pieces: for the first hour, it’s a confined domestic drama and considerable morality tale, and after that, it’s alternately a fleeting futuristic noir, a persecution parable and an on-the-nose fairy tale adventure with an admirably bleak ending in its sights. And then, even after that, it keeps going farther and farther into the future, bending over backwards to give a sentimental sheen to a fundamentally gloomy story.
There are some lovely emotional moments in the film’s last minutes, sold well by Osment’s thoroughly remarkable performance -- both he and Law are equally great throughout at conveying their respective modes of companionship -- but those moments only come after much explanation about an unlikely loophole, itself harder to buy than who (or what) it’s coming from. It’s part of a bold vision in a film chock full of them, almost too many to flesh out; to whom they really belonged, we may never know. In a better film, it wouldn’t have mattered, and in 2000 years, it won’t.
All of the original DVD’s supplemental features have been ported over in standard definition, with only two theatrical trailers having been actually upgraded to high-def for this Blu-ray release. The rest of the extras include a nine-part behind-the-scenes featurette -- minimally repetitive so far as these things go, yet clocking in at nearly two hours -- and archives ranging from storyboard galleries to production design sketches and concept art. Given Spielberg’s well-established aversion to recording audio commentaries, these in-depth breakdowns will have to, and likely will, suffice.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is available on Blu-ray now.