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'Artificial Intelligence': Almost Brilliant
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2001

   


    'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' Jude Law, background, and Haley Joel Osment gaze at unfinished robots in "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."
(Warner Bros. and DreamWorks)
I think, ultimately, Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" is one dead Pinocchio robot. But it's alive and beeping before it keels over, mid-movie.

Which makes the reviewing equivalent of an autopsy very compelling.

Let's roll back the sheet, shall we?

There's a lot of history behind this movie, some of which you've probably heard. The whole thing began more than 25 years ago with Stanley Kubrick reading Brian Aldiss's haunting short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," then falling in love with the idea of a movie about artificial intelligence.

Kubrick being Kubrick, the movie was never made. The director, who died in 1999, told Spielberg about the idea in the 1980s, then involved him in the project. Spielberg took the baton willingly.

The result is not too surprising: a movie that's determined to honor the late filmmaker's vision but which is, after all, directed by Steven Spielberg. "A.I." starts with the chilly precision of a Kubrick movie (the better half, actually, which also follows the Aldiss story), then wanders into Spielberg's big-top conceit: a modernized, Philip K. Dick-style version of "Pinocchio."

Its heart is in the right place. But the intelligence behind the rest of the movie is, well, a little too artificial. Intriguing, inspired, flawed, misbegotten and fascinating – all of these qualities apply to the movie, at one point or another.

In the movie, set in the mid-21st century, Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor) seek a substitute for Martin (Jake Thomas), their terminally ill son, who's been cryogenically frozen until a cure is found.

Cybertronics Manufacturing, where Henry works, has just the answer: a brand-new, lifelike robot called David (Haley Joel Osment). David, hot off the Cybertronics production line, is designed to respond as intelligently and sensitively as artificial tissue will allow. He's programmed to need, to love.

But here's the rub: When a willing parent activates his programming, David will become emotionally attached to the parent for life.

This renders the parent morally responsible for David and his needs for affirmation and love. It's the same invisible contract parents sign with human children, except this robot never gets older. He stays young and adorable, and needy, forever. He doesn't need to sleep, but he's good enough to lie there all night until Mom and Dad "wake" him up.

Could David be the perfect child? After many misgivings, Monica agrees to adopt him. After some adjusting, David becomes part of the family, with an automated, similarly sophisticated companion called Teddy at his beck and call.

But David learns the limitations of his family membership when Martin – now cured – returns. When David realizes he needs to be a real boy, you can almost hear the drums roll: It's time for "Pinocchio."

Huh?

Okay, you think, why not go with it? It's a provocative, bold idea. And how often does someone with the stature of Spielberg try something bold? More power to him, right? Besides, up until then, the movie has been working fine, as a sort of science fiction fairy tale.

This is where you decide whether it works or not. But if you do accept what happens, you'll also have to swallow a finale that pushes the envelope even more. We know the "Pinocchio" ending, of course, so there's no surprise there. But it's as though Spielberg feels obligated to blend reality (or perhaps believability) with that fantasy transformation. Good fairies and Kubrick, it seems, don't mix well.

But even if the concept gets knotted up in marionette strings, there are things to appreciate. Osment's performance is astonishing. There's an incredible moment when David, a newcomer at the Swinton dinner table, discovers the power of laughter. His over-the-top guffaw is eerie and shocking, as he experiments with this new emotion. His parents are taken aback at first. But when they see David's innocent desire to share some humor, they break into laughter.

It's a delicate moment, and it speaks to Spielberg's tremendous abilities as a director. And it reminds us how good he can be around the family table, in such movies as "Jaws" and "E.T."

As the mother who goes through a searing, emotional odyssey, O'Connor also gives a lovely performance. But the hidden star, the D'Artagnan, is Jude Law, who appears midway through the movie as Gigolo Joe, a robotic ladies' man whose entire existence is built around a different form of love. His performance as a half-machine half-soul is balletic, precise and memorable.

Of course, this is a movie that lives by its visual effects, too. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has shot six films for Spielberg, including "A.I." and the upcoming "Minority Report," delivers outstandingly crisp but gritty images. And the list of great collaborators is long, including special robotic effects master Stan Winston, Production Designer Rick Carter and so on.

But the ultimate maestro behind this production is Spielberg, whose desire to realize Kubrick's ideas – yet make his own work – eerily mirrors the dedication of David as he tries to be human. It's close, mighty close, but not quite right.

"A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (PG-13, 146 minutes) – Contains some sexual content and violent images. Area theaters.

 

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