When clips of A.I. Artificial Intelligence first surfaced in theaters, may speculators were quick to liken it to Bicentennial Man--a calculated attempt at tugging the heartstrings with sappy emotion. On the surface, they even looked the same: both were science fiction dramas about a robot's quest for humanity, a theme that has been explored in the sci-fi genre for decades. But while the Robin Williams movie was an obvious ball of cheese, A.I. is far more insidious: a self-important vision packed to the brim with thoroughly ridiculous plot twists.
With a large number of critics praising it as genius, I can only assume one of two things: they've been paid off far better than I have, or they wouldn't think to cross the combination of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, the team that brought us this steaming pile of sci-fi amalgam. Are all the A.I. fans out there completely unphased by the absolutely ludicrous turns this story takes? No one would have tolerated this trash from a low budget B-movie, so why should we be any more tolerant just because it was created by writers who have several brilliant classics to their credit? As they say in the stock market game, "past results are not an indication of future performance."
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the first robot programmed to experience emotional love. Given to a couple, he quickly bonds with the mother, played by Frances O'Connor. But things go wrong, and when his mother sends him away, he embarks on a quest to become a real, live boy. Haunted by the story of Pinocchio, David believes that he can find a Blue Fairy with the power to transform him into a human. He rationalizes that if he can do that, his mother will take him back and love him.
To be fair, A.I. boasts strong performances from its leads. Haley Joel Osment may not see dead people anymore, but he is convincing as an artificial boy who just wants the love of his mother. He pulls off naivete and innocence, and is effective when David is eventually confounded by an identity crisis. He's also the only chance anyone has to emotionally attach themselves to this movie. Meanwhile, Jude Law is entertaining as a sex-bot programmed to "pleasure tha ladies." These mechanical souls are cast into a dismal future where the earth has become an inhospitable hell-hole. This dark environment, coupled with the boy robot's misguided quest to become human, makes the movie play out like a sci-fi version of the non-Disney Pinocchio--a dark fairy tale. While this combination doesn't particular work, it does prove mildly interesting. Also, it serves to counter sickening sentimentality--graciously, A.I. is not nearly as sappy as it could have been.
But such nuances cannot salvage this movie from utterly insane plot twists, gaps in the story, and bad supporting characters that spread the melodrama thick. David's father, for example, is a hollow puppet lacking any definition whatsoever. When he is introduced, he is a strong advocate of David's, trying desperately to convince his wife to give the robot kid a chance. But when conflict is required, he does a complete 180 and wants to scrap his adoptive boy-bot. Meanwhile, William Hurt, playing David's creator, delivers the nonsense technobabble with all the snobbish charm that he portrayed as Dr. Robinson in Lost in Space. He really makes you not give a damn about the scientific gibberish, which only becomes more alienating when his colleagues speak, preaching about the ethics involved in creating a robot that can love. At least when Sam Neill spouts science fiction in Jurassic Park, Bicentennial Man, and Event Horizon, he doesn't make the audience feel like they're being lectured by a hateful professor.
[Editor's Note: The remainder of this review contains substantial spoilers. Those not wishing to read such things should abandon all hope and turn back now. -MJL]
The foremost condition that constantly plagues A.I. is its inability to tell a coherent story. Many plot developments come out of nowhere, while others are noticeably ignored--all for the sake of convenience. For example, the married couple that receives David has a son of their own, but he is stuck in a hospital, presumably in a coma. But when David becomes part of the family and the movie requires the next level of conflict, the flesh and blood son is suddenly cured of whatever ailment he had, and rejoins the family. What was he afflicted with? How did he get cured suddenly? Why were the mother and father so quick and eager to adopt a replacement child if they knew their real son could come back home? None of this is explained. It's as if the writers are telling you, "You don't need to know that. Sit down, shut up, and accept the fact that the kid came back in time for brotherly conflict."
The brother's arrival heralds a load of trouble of David, who quickly becomes the victim of circumstance. Two incidents turn David into an apparent villain, and his father wants to send him back to the factory for dismantling (note that David conveniently bonds to only the mother, and not the father--a fact that runs contrary to his design of bonding to a couple as explained by Hurt's character). But despite the fact that he is destroying their family, the mother cannot bring herself to deactivate him. Instead, she opts to discard him in hell, kicking and crying in the woods (how is this better for a robot than flipping the switch?). This is the convenient catalyst that ignites David's passion to become human.
Also convenient is the introduction of Jude Law's character, the sex-bot named Gigolo Joe. When he meets David, Joe is running from the police, hunted for a crime he didn't commit. Apparently, robots have no legal recourse from flimsy circumstantial evidence--but I'm just guessing, since that wasn't explored either. He hooks up with David just long enough to help him get out of the city and make it to Manhattan, where he believes David can find the Blue Fairy (for fairly ridiculous reasons, I might add). But once David gets to the ruins of Coney Island, Joe is no longer needed--so he is conveniently captured by the police. There is surprisingly little meaning or substantial consequence for Joe's run-in with the law.
David's other traveling companion is a walking, talking robot bear named Teddy. Strangely enough, Teddy seems more sentient and intelligent than any other bot in the story. Why this child's toy--seemingly capable of love for David--strikes us as more advanced than any of his peers is never explained. There's never even the exploration of David's complexities and Teddy's simplicities resulting in the same emotions. That's quite a shame, considering it would have been an effective demonstration of what certifies emotional love as the real deal. Instead, Teddy is there mostly for the comedy of sight gags, and to save the day in a powerfully ridiculous way (more on this later).
After making his way to New York and hijacking a police helicopter, David crashes at the bottom of the ocean, where he eventually runs out of power. The movie then fast forwards two thousand years, where we discover that mankind is extinct and aliens with a flair for anthropology are combing the earth to learn more about us--yes, fricken ALIENS. This is just far more absurd than anything the audience should be expected to accept. And of course, a major point is completely ignored: how did mankind get extinct? Supporters of A.I. could argue that this is unimportant, but I think this movie is going to great lengths to show the errors of humanity--witness the vicious anti-robot rallies as another Hollywood holocaust metaphor, and the existence of Rouge City as human indulgence at its most obscene since Sodom and Gomorrah. As such, it should explore our downfall. Did we die of ignorance? Stupidity? Hatred? Or the sci-fi favorite: hubris?
Again, the writers are shouting at you, "You don't need to know that. Sit down, shut up, and accept the fact that the whole human race is dead, and aliens are scoping the joint out." This is just insane any way you cut it. But just when you think things can't get more absurd, the aliens bring the most preposterous plot convenience of all to light.
The visitors reactivate David and scan his brain, which is, oddly enough, the only record of humanity left on the whole damned planet. They explain his importance and their desire to make him happy. ("Perhaps we will give you pleasure?") David says that he only wants to be reunited with his mother, but they tell him that she has been dead for thousands of years. Still, though, they want him to be happy, so they recreate his house from his memories. But for some reason, they can't recreate people. Isn't that convenient? These aliens that can read minds with a touch and recreate a simulated world in a heartbeat can't even create a simulation of people. If relatively primitive humans could create a living robot (the premise of the entire film), why couldn't these aliens make him a robo-mom? Their explanation is a flimsy blurb of nonsense that borders on religion: people can't be brought back because their soul occupies a specific point in the space-time continuum, and once that spot is used up, it can't be used again. Whatever.
But David really wants to be back with his mother. So the aliens kick the idea around for a bit, then decide they can do it if they had some of her DNA. Well, Teddy suddenly appears and pulls a lock of the mother's hair out of his bear sack and explains that he had been keeping it for the last 2,000 years. Yet another absurd convenience. So the aliens take the hair and test tube the mother into a living breathing human for David to love. But wait, there's one more thing that needs to be done to add one last bit of conflict. The aliens can resurrect the dead in such a manner, but their zombies are only good for a day. They wake up, live out the day, and disappear into nothingness when they go to sleep.
These idiotic conditions that are fed to us piecemeal thus fabricate the ending required: David gets to reconcile with his mother one last time (even though it's not really his mother), but he must come to grips with mortality since their time together is so short. To deprive him of any last opportunity to see his mother would have soured the movie too much; and to let him live forever with a replica of her would have been too sweet. This, they have decided, is juuuuuuust right.
So this tiresome journey that is A.I. Artificial Intelligence can ultimately be summed up with some disappointing keywords: blue fairies, extinct humans, zombie mother, whore-bots, talking bear, and curious aliens. Talk about "Things That Make You Go Hmmmm..." I think the real lesson to be learned here is that the fantasy of fairy tales and the logical possibilities of science fiction make for disturbingly strange bedfellows.
Rating: 3 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)