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Robo Boy Gets Real

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A.I. (PG-13)
DreamWorks

In the short story upon which A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) is based ("Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss), one character asks another a seemingly simple question: "How do you tell what are real things from what aren't real things?"

The answer: "Real things are good."

Filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick apparently think -- with Aldiss -- that that's a dubious answer. It's more complicated than that, and A.I. is their attempt to mine the question for all it's worth.

So far, most movie critics are saying one thing or another about A.I.: it is either a near masterpiece (Newsweek and others) or a near failure (Salon and others). The movie was released just last week, but because it represents a unique collaboration between these two significant filmmakers (the late Kubrick developed the story for over 15 years before proposing that Spielberg direct it), people are trying -- prematurely -- to weigh in on the movie's importance.

Sadly, this is the nature of movie criticism, but it is misguided and unjust where something like A.I. is concerned. Thumbs up or down do not apply here, because this movie is not meant merely to entertain. It wants to prod, to provoke, to attempt to be art, and, as such, it deserves patient consideration.

A.I. is a philosophical fable addressing relevant questions about technology and humanity. Set in a distant future when the melting of the polar ice caps has caused coastal cities to be drowned, it describes a time when science has successfully created robots to look and act like human beings. These simulacra are created in the service of some human need, be it housework, entertainment or sex. In an opening scene, robotic scientist Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) poses a question to his colleagues: Could this technology also be utilized to meet the basic human desire for unconditional love?

The experiment is tried out on Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor), a mother whose biological son is very ill. In an attempt to alleviate her suffering, her husband gives her a robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) who is programmed only to love. David loves with insistent tenderness, and Monica's initial resistance to the gift is soon overcome. David's affection is so real that Monica forgets he's a sophisticated toy -- when her husband becomes annoyed with David, Monica speaks in his defense, "But he's just a little boy!"

More problems arise when Monica's son, Martin, recovers from his sickness and comes home from the hospital. Before long, it's apparent that David is capable of feeling the absence of love and all its attendant emotions: jealousy, fear, even hatred. Desperate to protect her home, Monica abandons David in the woods. David's programming tells him that this should not be. He is supposed to love his mother, and she is supposed to love him in return; she loves Martin because he is human, and if he were only human too, she'd be able to love him.

Sound like Pinocchio? It is. David hears the story early on and makes the obvious connection. He believes that if he finds the Blue Fairy, she will do for him what she did for Pinocchio -- make him into a real boy.

The second and third acts of A.I. follow David's journey to find the Blue Fairy, and much of what is wonderful about A.I. occurs here. These scenes are by turns exciting (as David runs from capture), harrowing (at the Flesh Fair, a futuristic equivalent of WWF where robots are violently destroyed), darkly comic (when David meets Gigolo Joe, a robotic prostitute played by Jude Law), and beautifully eerie (when we travel through New York underwater).

The movie ends with a coda the likes of which we haven't seen since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As in that movie, A.I.'s ending involves new characters, deeper themes, and a transformation. To say any more would be to spoil it, but don't let anyone tell you (as some surely will) that this epilogue is unnecessary. It is central to both Kubrick's and Spielberg's vision for the film.

This is an odd pairing. Kubrick was detached and distrustful, while Spielberg is sentimental and boyish. But both share three important things: a dread of the unknown, a belief in man's capacity for screwing things up, and an absolute love of filmmaking.

The first two things inform the philosophical weightiness of A.I., which is plainly a film about Big Questions: What is our responsibility to the things we create? What's our responsibility to our creator(s)? Can technology provide happiness? What are the consequences of unrestrained technological production? And (odd as it may sound) what is the importance of storytelling? In the children's hospital where Martin is sick, scenes from fables (Cinderella, The Emperor's New Clothes) are painted on the walls. Peter Pan and, again, Pinocchio, are referenced explicitly, and the movie has all the markings of a fable -- narrator, magical characters, cautionary themes. Spielberg wants to remind us that tall tales are still the place to ask important questions, and he does so openly here.

The visual experience of A.I. is its own reward. One is reminded of all that is great about Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, E.T., and others. The space-efficient futuristic house, the Flesh Fair, and Manhattan submerged are images I will not soon forget, and the costume and art design are, along with Moulin Rouge, better than anything else we'll see this year.

There is more to praise, including masterful performances from O'Connor, Osment, and Law. Osment, in particular, is flawless. As in The Sixth Sense, his performance is one of considerable depth and nuance. The kid is a prodigy.

But A.I. is also largely enigmatic and can feel clunky, and it is sure to alienate many people. Viewers will probably love it or hate pretty quickly, but here's hoping they reserve opinion at least long enough for a long conversation with friends. Whatever else it is, A.I. is certainly worth talking about.

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