Monday, January 21, 2008

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

(Poster from Imp Awards)

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

'Artificial Intelligence: AI' is a film with an interesting history. It started off as a Stanley Kubrick project; he wanted Steven Spielberg to direct it, and Spielberg ultimately ended up writing and directing it a couple of years after Kubrick's death. A lot has been written about how much of the film is Kubrick's and how much is Spielberg's. Frankly, I think it's impossible to really say, and I don't think it's all that important anyway. Whichever way you look at it, the final product is the end result of a collaboration between two of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. It's also a film that I have mixed feelings about. I really want to say that I love it - and I do love a lot of it - but it has so many little issues throughout that detract from the overall experience that I can only say I like it a lot.

Set in an indeterminate future, the story concerns a revolutionary robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) designed by roboticist Professor Hobby (William Hurt) and trialled as a product by a couple, Monica and Henry (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), whose son is terminally ill and kept in hibernation till a cure can be found. David is unique in that firstly, he is a child robot and there aren't many of those, and secondly he is programmed to genuinely love his 'parents'. David makes a strong impression on Monica, but when their real son is unexpectedly cured and comes home, David begins to resent his status as an 'artificial' child and longs for Monica's love. Trouble ensues that leads to David embarking on a dangerous quest to find the 'Blue Fairy' from the story Pinocchio so that she can make him a 'real' boy, which he believes will allow Monica to love him. During his journey he is accompanied by 'Teddy' (voiced by Jack Angel), an AI enabled teddy bear, and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a lively gigolo robot.

There's a point in this film where many people feel 'AI' should have ended, but it goes on for another 20 odd minutes before the credits start to rolll. I don't really agree that the film should end there; I actually think the idea of the extended epilogue serves as a more satisfying and fitting conclusion to what is in many ways a fairy tale told in a sci-fi setting. This ending provides closure and provides a more meaningful character arc for David, one that doesn't end with him getting stuck like a scratched CD (analogy stolen from somewhere, can't remember!). Yet I still have issues with what happens in those last few scenes, because they don't make a lick of sense. Unless - and this is the interpretation I'm going to go with because it's the only one that I find satisfactory, even though there isn't any hard evidence in the film to support it - what David is told in those scenes is just a fabrication to give him what he needs to move on.

The film veers sharply from humourous to darkly humourous to downright dark and dour, and it's the conventional humour, especially some of the cutesy stuff early on, that doesn't work for me as it seems glaringly out of place. Even John Williams otherwise excellent soundtrack fails in these scenes and is a little obnoxious. Generally though, the film is more dark than cute, and it touches on numerous themes that the subject matter lends itself to quite readily. The future world raises questions about the prevalence of technology and our relationship to it, particularly with respect to providing ersatz experiences. The manner in which AIs are used and the grisly fates of many of them makes one wonder how such creations should be used, how 'human' they should be, and ultimately if they should even be created at all. What is our responsibility to our creations (be they organic or technological)? Throughout the film the dark side of human nature crops up, from the cynical use of the artificial to make up for what we don't have to the wanton destruction and hate towards things we feel threatened by. There's a notion in the film that perhaps mankind will have machines as their progeny, and that perhaps we deserve to.

Despite all these great themes and questions being latched on to, there are weaknesses. Some of these ideas are only superficially developed by the often contrived storyline. The question of what type of intelligence these machines have, whether it is real or merely programmed, is never raised at all. What is David's 'love', and does it transcend the notion of a programmed machine and cross the boundary of artificial to real (assuming that we can even define such a boundary)? Much of what happens in the film assumes that these robots are 'alive' in a very real sense, but people in the film don't seem to care too much about such potentially profound implications. And while David stands out as a fully fledged character, he is still a robot, which begs serious questions about his behaviour at some points - wouldn't his creators have programmed safety parameters into him to prevent some very obvious bad things from happening?

Apart from these problems and some very clunky dialogue, the film is great all round. It's definitely not an action movie and is a thoughtful and at times moving sci-fi drama, though it does have its moments of excitement and grandeur. It's quite bleak and cynical for a Spielberg film, but there are a few uplifting moments in there. The future world is superbly realized through excellent production values and seamless effects, but we're only given tangential glimpses into it that are merely sufficient to serve the needs of David's tale. Osment does a phenomenal job as David and is pretty much perfect in the part, but he's upstaged by Jude Law who steals every scene he's in with his charismatic Gigolo Joe. The Teddy character is also pretty terrific, and strangely enough has more personality than a lot of the humans (actually, that's true of all the robots - the humans are the mechanical characters in this story). The only performance I felt was sub par was Frances O'Connor as Monica, who despite having what should be an emotional role seemed strangely artificial, though to be fair she had some clunky lines, which couldn't have been helpful.

'AI' is a very good sci-fi film, one that definitely makes an impression and demands to be re-watched and contemplated. I don't think it attains its ambitions as well as it could have, but it hits the mark quite often and engages on intellectual and dramatic levels that many so called 'sci-fi' films don't even aspire to. I'd recommend it for that reason alone, but at the end of the day it's worth watching because it's original, very well made, and very compelling.


CyberKitten said...

I *really* thought that the film would've been excellen if it finished when David got trapped in the 'helicopter' underwater... But as you said... it went on.. and on.. and on.. until I was almost screaming @ the screen for Spielberg to END the damned thing!

A good idea I thought though ruined by the usual over sentimentality. I honestly needed an insulin shot after ingesting so much suger from that film. [grin].

Antimatter said...

Well, I read somewhere that according to Spielberg that ending was how Kubrick envisaged it.

Btw, my take on it is that the stuff about being able to bring back his mother for just a day was a fabrication on the part of the robots in the future to give David what he wanted and let him get past it. It doesn't make sense to me otherwise - why just one day, and what's the cosmic significance of one day?!

The sentimentality of the ending has an edge to it from that perspective as well - it was all just a fabrication on the part of the machines! Heh heh...

Miedy said...

Another movie that I feel like I need to watch it again. I saw it few years ago with no Indonesian subtitle and just completely lost.
I didn't know that it was originally a Kubrick's project. I just saw his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time and still can't get it out of my mind. It's probably one of the best movie experience ever, especially that it was made on the 60's. Sorry to be a little off topic :)

Antimatter said...

I hated 2001 when I first saw it as a kid. Then I saw it years later during my uni days, and while I could appreciate the calibre of filmmaking on display (helps that it was at the cinema - spectacular!) I still felt that I wasn't really getting the film at all. Maybe I never will, but I need to see it again real soon!

Maybe the fact that I feel the need to see it is testament to its greatness! Heh heh...

Miedy said...

Well, it's not really something that easy to follow but to think that it was made on 1968 just amazed me so much. I kept thinking how on earth they have the technology to create such a movie, I'd probably thinking in different way if it's made recently (now, it's getting even more way off topic :))

Antimatter said...

The effects of 2001 are still impressive even by today's standards. It looked incredible on the big screen. And the physics are still, to this day, more realistic than any other 'space' film that I'm aware of.