Plot: What’s it about?
Perhaps somewhat unfairly, Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, the 1999 Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman starrer Eyes Wide Shut, had a great deal of anticipation attached to it. What would Kubrick, one of the great filmmaking icons of the twentieth century, turn out for his triumphant final act, audiences wondered. Needless to say, the movie failed to meet expectations, and a majority of critical sources panned the effort. Coincidentally but somewhat appropriately, the Kubrick-inspired, Steven Spielberg-directed A.I. Artificial Intelligence may meet the same fate, in that, after being subjected to the same undue attention, it ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of an intriguing story about a boy robot attempting to find his humanity.
This thematically classic science fiction tale, elements of which are vaguely Asimovian, was originally conceived of by Kubrick and passed onto Spielberg (a filmmaker whose reputation may equal Kubrick’s by the time his career is done) by Kubrick’s estate following the late filmmaker’s death in March 1999. Kubrick is cleverly inserted into the credits several times over, either directly or indirectly, and there were “insider” reports that, in the years leading up to A.I.’s eventual production, Kubrick had been actively in contact with Spielberg about how best exactly to do the movie.
Ultimately, though, it was this collaboration that did the film in, because Kubrick and Spielberg are filmmakers with completely different visions on life and humanity — which is only important because A.I. focuses substantially on those two themes. The film, set well into the future after the polar icecaps have melted and humans have begun to rely on androids called Mechas to sustain their way of life, follows a Mecha named David (Haley Joel Osment) who is the first boy Mecha ever created. Programmed to exist as part of a family and love his parents as a human child might, there is predictably a mixed reaction among the humans leading to David’s exile. It is there that David’s true journey begins — inspired by the classic tale Pinocchio, he aspires to find a mythical Blue Fairy who will turn him into a real boy.
Along the way, Spielberg, who receives his first screenplay credit since 1982’s Poltergeist, directs the audience’s attention toward contemplation of the human existence numerous times. Indeed, this is the very epitome of a thinking man’s movie, because Spielberg is almost constantly coaxing thought out of his audience. The rejection that the humans serve up toward David, the first sentient Mecha, is simply a new face for the same instances of social division that have plagued the human race since the beginning of civilization. (It’s also a theme that’s quite present in Spielberg’s recent dramatic offerings — films like Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan all examined some sort of social division.)
Much of the time, though, Spielberg also seems to feel obligated to pay homage to Kubrick, whose touch is very present throughout the film. Many of the darker elements (such as the so-called “Flesh Fairs,” in which humans celebrate their humanity by destroying Mechas) do not coincide with Spielberg’s more tactful approach to film; similarly, many of the more heartening moments in the movie (such as the last half-hour or so, when a boy is allowed to have one more day with his long-dead mother) do not coincide with Kubrick’s cynical take on life and the human condition. This give-and-take isn’t healthy for a film so thematically founded — like its main character, A.I. is constantly searching for an identity, although unlike its main character, the movie never finds it.
Which, of course, isn’t to say that A.I. does not have its pleasing, even downright engaging moments. Haley Joel Osment, the infamous child star who may never outlive his role as the boy who could see dead people in The Sixth Sense, has proven here beyond a doubt that he can carry a movie; whether audiences are ready to accept him remains to be seen. (It may have thus been a serendipitous stroke of casting to have Osment play the boy David.) He makes several scenes work for Spielberg where a lesser child star may not have, and both he and costar Jude Law (who plays a Mecha whose purpose is the perfection of sexual favors for humans) thankfully master the technique of playing an android while not appearing to play an android.
At over 150 minutes long, though, A.I. can’t be carried on acting alone, and although most of the fundamentals are solid (cinematography, editing, and production design, to name a few), the story is the most obviously lacking component. Spielberg’s desire to gear the movie toward the thematic resulted in a lacking narrative — while the audience is given plenty to think about, there’s no real context to frame it in, no basic story to surround it. (A.I. is one of those movies a viewer will look back on and be shocked to realize how little actually happened.)
It’s something of a shame, because every scene is pregnant with possibility, and the story seems to be hiding under a thin layer — if only Spielberg had ruptured that layer in his creative process, the goods might’ve come flowing out onto paper and onto celluloid. But he did not, which makes his decision to avoid writing screenplays for nearly twenty years seem almost wise — Spielberg is a director who is obviously more in tune with the telling of a tale than the tale itself.
By the year 2001, though, a Spielberg production is almost on full autopilot. Spielberg’s usual crew is on hand, from director of photography Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn to composer John Williams. This explains the stately, ultra-professional look that A.I. has, like the half-dozen Spielberg films to precede it, and the top-notch quality of the film on a basic, technical level. Even a gaggle of actors assembled for a Spielberg film seems somehow more inspired — the droll William Hurt takes on a noble, prophetic tone in several of his lengthy speeches. Analysts will have a hard time finding fault with A.I. in this capacity.
But all of these pale in comparison to the importance of a movie’s story, which is the capacity that A.I. is most at fault in. If Spielberg had chosen a direction for his movie, or perhaps framed it better within the context of a more progressive story, he might’ve had another instant classic on his hands. Instead, his movie reeks of that other kind of A.I. — the artificial importance that Stanley Kubrick seemed to build into all of his movies. A.I. takes itself too seriously for the unwieldly slow-moving thing that it is, and it will ultimately pay the price when viewers find it too dry for their liking.
Video: How does it look?
This is a tough one here. While A.I. is a brand new movie to DVD (and a brand new movie period), but right away I was not very impressed with how this looked visually. Of course, we are dealing with Speilberg here and you never know how he’s going to manipulate the screen. Still, I couldn’t get over how some of the lighter shots showed a LOT of grain and artifacting. The print used is very clean, almost flawless, but it boggled my mind (and still does) as to how this transfer can look so sub par, especially considering how good most of Dreamworks titles look. Now, there is a lot of techno-organantic material in this movie, meaning that a majority of it is CGI and on that note I do have to admit that the effects are flawless, second to none that I’ve ever seen in a movie. Still, this can’t detract from the fact that I was not that impressed with how this is presented on DVD. They even “did it right” too; meaning that a majority of the supplements are on the second disc and only the movie and one featurette are on the first. Consider my mind boggled, but don’t expect a pristine picture. It’s not bad, per se, just not up to the standards that we’re used to for such a new movie such as this.
Audio: How does it sound?
What A.I. lacks in picture quality, it more than makes up in sound. Two awesome tracks, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and a DTS 6.1 ES literally make the movie come alive. As per usual, I chose to listen to the DTS track first and did it ever rock! While this is a more subtle track that something like Twister (where everything is “in your face”), this delivers the goods on many levels. The surround effects are used almost constantly, creating a very “real” 360 degree atmosphere that envelops you into the movie. As always, John Williams score sets a great mood for the movie and the dual tracks do their best to try and replicate it. The Dolby Digital track isn’t bad either, we’re all kind of spoiled as to how much better the uncompressed DTS track can sound, but if Dolby Digital is your thing, then you can’t go wrong here either. Dialogue is very clear, having no loss or distortion at all. Quite simply, the tracks here are amazing, heads above the video quality, so if you can…craknk it up when viewing!
Supplements: What are the extras?
A 2-Disc offering from Dreamworks? Sit back and relax, A.I.’s got you covered when it comes to the supplements. On the first disc, all we’ll find is the film with the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks and a 12 minute featurette entitled “Creating A.I.” The featurette is essentially a history of the film, complete with Kubrick’s way he wanted to see the film and his work with Stephen Spielberg. It’s on the second disc that we’ll find the rest of the supplements. First up, under Acting A.I. (the menu is broken down into 8 sections). “A Portrait of David” is a 9 minute featurette about the wonderful acting of young Haley Joel Osment. Thus proving that he was no “one hit wonder” in The Sixth Sense, Jude Law and others also comment on his acting ability. Next up is a 6 minute featurette entitled “A Portait of Gigolo Joe”, which is Spielberg telling us how he made the character from notes of Kurbrick’s.
Designing A.I. is another section that contains two more featurettes. The first is called “A.I.: From Drawings to Sets” which runs about seven minutes. This covers the concept work by Chris Baker and how he created things for the sets. He also worked with Rick Carter to make the actual sets. Very interesting. “Dressing A.I.” focuses on Bob Ringwood and concentrates on the amazing costumes used for the film. In the next section, Lighting A.I. has a 5 minute conversation with Janusz Kaminski who discusses, oddly enough, the lighting for the film. A bit short on information here, as there could/should have been a lot more information.
The next section, Special Effects also could have been a lot more, but the included 7 minutes talks with the Special Effects Supervisor Michael Lantieri and he explains how some of the effects used for the movie were done. I found this very interesting, as the thing that impressed me the most about the film were the special effects. Robots of A.I. could very well be the most interesting piece found on the disc. Essentially, Speilberg tells us of what he wanted to accomplish and then left it up to Stan Winston and his creative team to actually make it happen. As you can tell during the course of the movie, the results were outstanding. This 13 minute featurette was by far the most interesting piece on the disc.
Special Visual Effects and Animation: ILM” shows us the work done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. Naturally, a major piece of the movie is done with special effects, and this 22 minute section is broken down in to 5 parts: An Overview (running 5 minutes), The Robots (running 3 minutes), The New York City Sequence (running 3 minutes) and Animating A.I. (running 8 minutes). Each of these offer a great insight into the CGI world that is A.I. The Sound and Music of A.I. is essentially just that. Music is what makes a movie tick and a 7 minute featurette entitled “Sound Design” has an interview with Gary Rydstrom who tells us with his involvement of the film. “The Music” is naturally devoted to John Williams (who is a favorite composer of mine) and his use of music throughout the film.
There is a closing segment entitled “Closing: Stephen Spielberg: Our Responsibility to Artificial Intelligence” that is played while the DVD credits “roll”. There are some archives, which contain two trailers for the film. Some 100 storyboards are also included, but by now we’ve seen the movie and most of the supplements, so pictures don’t quite do it for me! Some conceptual drawings by Chris Baker and some sketches. And lastly, there is a major supplement devoted to the “usual” Production Notes, which run over 100 text screens!
While A.I. might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can say that the DVD is well worth your time and money. The supplements alone are amazing, and will keep you busy for a few days. The video presentation leaves a bit to be desired, but the audio will blow you away. Like the movie or not, but the DVD is awesome.