WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Grieving couple Monica and Henry Swinton take in a prototype from Henry’s work to help them cope with the grief of their son Martin’s illness. The prototype is David, a child designed to love with all its mechanical heart; but when Martin recovers, David’s presence is at odds with the family’s happiness. He is set free and is lucky to find the hand of an electric gigolo as he treads a path through an unfriendly world, seeking a way of winning his mother’s love.
Although he can boast a CV as impressive as any director, there are still those who claim that Spielberg does not have a genuinely adult sensibility. Schindler’s List and the opening sequence (at least) of Saving Private Ryan would appear to make this claim preposterous, yet the debate rages on: and AI: Artificial Intelligence, based on the Brian Aldiss story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, and directed by Spielberg under the aegis of Stanley Kubrick, only adds fuel to the fire.
The action (and keep that word in mind) takes place in the near-ish future, where the seas have risen and engulfed vulnerable cities like Amsterdam and New York. Life goes on, although there are restrictions on pregnancies, leading William Hurt’s Cybernetics professor to build a ‘mecha’ child capable of love who will fulfil the lives of childless couples. A perfect testing ground appears to be the home of Hurt’s employee Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose son Martin (Jake Thomas) is in an apparently irreversible coma. When Henry first brings ‘David’ (Haley Joel Osment) home, Monica finds his robotic faithfulness creepy; but her intense need to nurture eventually wins out and she warms to him, reading him Pinocchio, giving him Martin’s old but intelligent Supertoy Teddy, and later imprinting David with a code that binds him to her irrevocably.
The trouble is, Martin isn’t permanently comatose after all, and his return home throws David into confusion, not helped by the fact that Martin and his friends see David as a mere step up in technology from Teddy and therefore something that can be toyed with. Several dangerous incidents tempt Henry to return David to his maker – where termination is the only option – but Monica drives David to a wood and pushes him away, with Teddy for company and advice to stay away from the factory ringing in his ears. He soon finds himself rounded up with a host of other cast-off androids, captured by Brendan Gleeson for the purposes of destruction at a noisy, grungy ‘flesh fair’; however, he teams up with love-making mecha Joe (Jude Law), framed unfairly for murder, and gets away with his life because of his vulnerability, allowing the pair to continue David’s quest to find his very own Blue Fairy, become a real boy, and therefore win his mother’s love for good.
Critics may jump on the insistent Pinocchio references as evidence of Spielberg’s child-centric imagination, but in fact they stem from Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of the story, Kubrick having had the project on his mind for years (he died before work on the film started in earnest). The idea is not entirely successful but is one of AI’s smaller issues, since the film suffers from such a chronic lack of action that you might think the title refers to the ai, the sloth beloved by English-speaking Scrabble players. From the off the film moves at a glacial pace, the first fifty minutes or so largely confined to the cold, antiseptic world of the Swintons’ apartment, and we get very little idea of how society works in this post-disaster world.
When it does open up a little, we are treated to some astonishing visuals as David and Joe go on the run: the sequence in the woods, with the mechas cannibalising parts from dead colleagues, is particularly good, and the realisation of a half-submerged New York towards the end is terrific. However, their visits to the grungy flesh fair and the naughty, neon Rouge city are unfocused and uninspiring. The problem is that most of the characters are either so unpleasant – you wish Martin had stayed in his coma, for a start – or such bland ciphers (count the number of substitute fathers) that the film relies almost entirely on Monica, David and Joe. As scriptwriter, Spielberg lets them down badly; even though Joe is quite good fun, David’s moping insistence on finding the Blue Fairy gets you down after a while, and Monica is asked to perform somersaults in her attitude towards the young robot child.
Worse, many of the characters speak in worthy, awkward and jargon-filled bursts which make them unrecognisable as real people, raising the suspicion that the whole cast is populated by automatons. It’s quite telling that by far the best character is Teddy, the wise little bear brought to life by the talents of Stan Winston and Jack Angel’s calm voice.
And then you have the denouement. Glossing over some of the issues I have with the New York of the Near-ish future (despite being underwater, Hurt’s company still has facilities there?), the film has a perfect conclusion at about an hour and forty-five minutes in, followed by a silly fish-driven interlude and another good ending five minutes later.
Unfortunately, the film then spends another half hour on a coda with pretensions to 2001*, which introduces benevolent aliens/super-robots (more father figures, whichever), more bad dialogue and a happy ending of such cloying sentimentality that whoever came up with it – Aldiss, Kubrick or Spielberg – should have a good word with themselves, alive or dead. No doubt the intention was for the viewer to well up and confess ‘I can love a robot!’, but to be honest any emotions raised (other than boredom) are thanks to the good work and natural cuteness of Haley Joel rather than the pull of the story.
I don’t wish to dismiss AI out of hand, when it’s clearly a work to which a lot of time and attention has been given. As I say, it often looks amazing; and although the characters don’t come across that well, it’s no fault of the players, who no doubt do exactly as they are told. Unfortunately, there is so little action, such a lack of atmosphere, and such a failure to build rapport or momentum that it is irrelevant to argue about its philosophical merits, and impossible to score the film any higher. It is simply that terrible thing: a snoozefest.
NOTES: You may well ask why I have given 2001 such a good score whilst criticising it for the same lack of pace as AI. In my view 2001 is absolutely brilliant at creating atmosphere, Kubrick allowing the pictures and music to tell the story, whereas AI is fatally bogged down by Spielberg’s lumpen and patronising dialogue. As reviewers elsewhere have noted, the involvement of the two directors produces an unappetising emulsion of their styles: pure Kubrick would have been more adult, whilst pure Spielberg might have resulted in something akin to the entertaining D.A.R.Y.L.