A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is infamous for its bad ending. Everyone was ready to head out to their cars, having enjoyed an unfulfilled quest, but the lights came back up and they saw something they could not believe. “I don’t believe it!” They must have cried. This much was all I ever knew about A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and thus it was not for a dozen years after its release did I spend $2.50 in a second-hand electronics store to unearth this most despised of Steven Spielberg movies. People try to absolve Spielberg by putting blame on Stanley Kubrick who had originated the project in the 1970’s but had continually put it off until his death in 1999. Spielberg took a film treatment (the whole story in prose) by Ian Watson and adapted it into his own script with minor changes and directed the movie. It’s Spielberg’s movie and if you haven’t seen it already, then you’re missing a good movie.
Cybertronics is the leading developer of mechanical beings (mechas). The melting of the ice caps created difficult conditions for humans which led to a limitation on allowable births. This led Prof. Hobby (William Hurt), a visionary at Cybertronics, to develop a mecha that would love and be as a child to people that have no children or have lost their children. Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Connor) were devoted parents to a child who was ill and comatose in a cryogenic facility. Henry, who works at Cybertronics, was chosen as a test family to take in the first such mecha, called David (Haley Joel Osment). Things go reasonably well until Martin (Jake Thomas), their natural son, is revived and David becomes an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous presence. Thus, Monica takes David back to Cybertronics to be destroyed. But she can’t go through with it and, instead, leaves David in the woods to go and live with other mechas. This begin’s David’s journey with the help of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) to become a boy, a real boy, that his mother can love.
Pretty heart-breaking stuff, I’ll tell you. I suspect that this has more to do with people’s aversion to A.I. Artificial Intelligence than the fact that—[Spoiler alert: I don’t often go into plot details, but I feel that this is a nettle I need to grasp on your behalf to dissuade you from thinking that it’s stupid]—aliens are involved. I admit, when I saw that floating box, I said, aloud to the room, “Oh God.” But they’re some of the best aliens around, really. This isn’t Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). These aliens have some personality. But they also bring a major bummer on the subject of death wrapped up in some mumbo-jumbo that sounds plausible enough to be depressing. The pre-ending that it had provided before the aliens arrived did feel like a decent ending, closing the story on a melancholy note. No more positive note was possible. So a less positive one was decided.
But that’s all of fifteen minutes. The first hour is about David getting into the family and making himself human in our eyes. The next hour was spent on the journey, the quest. And you know how it ends. It’s good structure. I can’t really imagine how painful it might have been if Kubrick had actually helmed the thing. Osment’s performance was creepy enough for the first twenty minutes and I suspect Kubrick would have kept things that creepy or more for the duration. Instead, we get Osment in the role he was made for; something slightly weird and off-putting, but cute and sympathetic. That’s his natural state. Jude Law, on the other hand, plays about an inch or so out of character as a friendly sexbot, delivering the kind of plot-driving dialogue with theatrical believability. They fit into these roles.
The movie looks and feels very much like Minority Report (2002). That’s a major plus in my estimation. They share the same cinematographer in Janusz Kaminski as well as long-time collaborator on the score with John Williams. This is still in the mostly-great era for John Williams with a distinctive and quality sound. And, much like Minority Report, the movie stands up incredibly well a decade later. When you consider that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) was made the same year as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and you remember how terrible that CGI was, you can thank your lucky stars that Spielberg had the best child actor in the business to play his robot instead of having to resort to an actual robot/puppet/CGI creature. The man knows what he’s doing.
If you’re holding out for Blu-Ray, that’s understandable, but you can get the DVD for peanuts and it’s worth more than that. Still, I’d recommend renting instead of buying. It’s not really something you watch twice.