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In this episode: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Please. Don't point out to me that there's a colon in this title. Please don't. Because then I'd have to wail on your ass for making me have to take up precious space to discuss how stupid it is to not call this just A.I. or Artificial Intelligence.

Thank you.

This is one of those movies that's been shrouded in mystery. The trailers don't tell you much, and the website world that was created as a sort of understory for A.I. are excellent and creative but still don't reveal anything. I had very high hopes for this one because of that mystery and because of the few but striking images in the trailers.

The quick summary is this: It's a strange movie. It's dark and dreamy. Dirty but clean. Sometimes languorously Kubrickian. Stephen Spielberg has never done anything like this before, but it's unmistakably his. And I think he tries to do a little too much. It gets too bizarre and offers little payoff of any kind, even emotional. (Bizarre in a movie can work, as demonstrated by Brazil and Moulin Rouge, but here it's out of place.) A.I. is an ambitious film, and I can tell Stephen had a lot to say and had a very visionary plan for saying it. It doesn't come together, though. The movie goes off on a most contrived tangent at the end. I wanted to go with it, but just couldn't do it without cracking an incredulous smile.

But the effects sure are nice! Top-notch, in fact. Spielberg can command the best in this area.

A.I., as a whole, has a unique look and feel about it. But Stephen borrows a lot from other movies, and these borrowed concepts jump right at your face instead of being blended seamlessly into the film. He steals a lot from his own work, but not exclusively, as you'll see. I'll be giving out some details, so unless you don't mind spoilers, you may want to read this only after you've seen the movie.

From E.T., Stephen borrows the notion of kids having to escape peril. David, the "toy boy" in the movie (Haley Joel Osment), is trying to get home, just like E.T. It's the singular purpose for both of them. Each has to avoid capture by staying hidden both in the wild and in "plain sight"—E.T. in the suburbs and David in the sleazy parts of the big city.

Cross Now... Cross Now... Cross Now...From Blade Runner, there's the whole artificial life thing. When is a fake person a real person? What will fake people do to become accepted as real? And what will us "real" humans do to the fake ones to protect ourselves? All of this is in A.I. as well, but here, instead of Blade Runners to do the killing, there are Flesh Fairs. Same idea. The fake people are treated like slaves. They don't have their own destinies. Since they are not seen as having lives, their destruction is not seen as murder. The sex-themed Rouge City David and his android gigolo sidekick Joe (Jude Law) end up visiting has the same strange, neon feel as Blade Runner's Los Angeles.

From Empire of the Sun is the whole concept of a child being split from his mother. David goes through a similar nightmare world as Jamie, where he needs to learn to survive on his own to get back to his mother. Help from others always seems a bit untrustworthy, but it's there and each kid uses it to his advantage. Both David and Jamie become hardened as they try to not only stay alive, but to find their lost childhoods as well.

From 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's the rebirth thing. Our hero ends up alone, and like Bowman in 2001, David gets "reborn" by the aliens at the end of the movie. This connection is a little more vague, but when you see David wandering around his recreated house (a lone child wandering an empty house is also a huge element in Empire of the Sun), the light harsh and overexposed, you can't help but see 2001's Bowman in his stark white rooms, living out his life as some non-human beings have imagined he wants to.

From Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we get not only the group of "special people" rounded up and kept in confinement (and the few who escape to continue on to find their goal), but also lots of imagery. The moon balloon rising over the horizon just has to be compared to the mother ship in Close Encounters rising over Devils Tower. But maybe that's a stretch. What's not a stretch is the aliens themselves. No, they don't look exactly the same as the ones in Close Encounters, but they still have that typical alien look to them.

And so on.

The problem here is that the things Stephen borrows from these other films are better executed in the originals. There is no doubt that the movie looks great and has some stirring moments. Parts of the Flesh Fair scene are striking, despite other parts of it that are a little over-done. Rouge City is an impressive creation, though its purpose in the movie is a little forced. Seeing New York City underwater is amazing visually, even if David is somehow implausibly carried from Radio City Music Hall to Coney Island by those fishes.

The best moment for me, when the movie really works, is when David sees the offices where he was built and finally brought to life (like HAL?). Stephen takes his time here, letting us discover along with David the copies of himself hanging like dead animals on racks from the ceiling; the boxes these other Davids are packaged in to be sold as a product; and the station where he sees, through the empty eyes of another unfinished David unit, the image that is his first memory. This is the point where the whole movie almost comes together, and where we really do feel for David. Up until now, David has been just a cute but unfortunate robot boy. We like him before this, but his simpleness—his constant going on about the Blue Fairy—sometimes gets in the way. Haley's acting is excellent, but the gritty world David ends up living in looks like a movie set. Too Hollywood. Now, when David's confronted with what/who he really is, he's a truly sympathetic character. You aren't surprised when he plunges himself off the ledge of the building and into the water.

For all the good moments that nearly work, there's an strange number of Tomb Raider moments, something I'm not too happy about, considering Stephen's tendency for securing the logic of his films. All the flying around in the anphibicopter is much too easily accomplished. Finding the hidden Blue Fairy message at the Dr. Know shop was much too conveniently simple. And the whole aliens thing was... Well, like I said, I wanted to buy it, but I couldn't. It was so very far out of left field, I felt like I'd been tricked. This story should have ended simply, maybe even when David is trapped under the sea. But I guess Stephen needed to complicate things to create a warmer ending.

Though Stephen does give us a warm ending, the whole movie is based in tragedy. The warm ending is a melancholy one. This is unusual for Stephen, Saving Private Ryan excepted. David's life is truly a very sad one, filled with abandonment, dashed hope, crippling self-revelations, societal cruelty, and, finally, complete solitude. His reunion with his "mother" is based in artifice. He's being fooled, and fooling himself. But it's the best choice left to him. His life has been made almost useless, so to have one more happy day, even an artificial one, is a dream come true.

As you can see, there is a lot to this movie, and I truly wish Stephen had pulled it off. It could have been an honest-to-God masterpiece. But there's too much that doesn't work.

If you have any interest in the concept of this movie or even in just the visuals, you may want to see it. You can go in armed with the info from this review. There's definitely Haley to appreciate, as well as Jude's excellent work and smaller touches like Teddy and the moon balloon. Latching onto those gloriously strange and creative things may make the movie worthwhile for you. Just be aware of the downfalls.




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©2001 Steven Lekowicz except
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence logo and photo ©2001 Warner Bros.