AI: Artificial Intelligence

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Warner Brothers 2001.

Before watching the movie:

It’s not often that I come across a science fiction movie that I’m not looking forward to seeing. This film should have everything going for it. It was made recently, so should have a clean, appealing aesthetic. It’s about robots and what it means to be human. It was made by Stephen Spielberg. So why have I put this off for ten years?

I’m not looking forward to the story. It sounds too sad for me to enjoy. A child android is programmed to be completely human, but he’s still a robot in society’s eyes. Wait, that sounds like Bicentennial Man without Robin Williams. The problem I expect is that the robot in that movie was on a quest to make society understand him, but in this movie, since he is a child, I only expect harsh treatment and crying. Admittedly, that’s a little too simplistic. I fully expect this one to fall in the category of movies I liked better than I expected because my expectations were too low.

After watching the movie:

In the near future, humans have created “Mechanoids,” androids capable of emulating human action. But Professor Allan Hobby wants them to do more. He designs David, a prototype child mechanoid designed to feel real love for a parent. The test parents are a couple with a deathly ill child cryogenically frozen until they find a cure. Monica is skeptical at first, but eventually comes to care for David, and he imprints on her. Then their son is cured, and brings a rivalry that ultimately results in David having to be returned. But Monica can’t bear to take him to be destroyed, so she hides him in the forest. David is heartbroken by the fact that she doesn’t love him, and is convinced that if he can find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, he can be turned real and then his “mother” will take him back.

This is a complicated story to summarize. Apparently, the first section was based on a short story, and the seam between David’s life with the Swintons and quest for the Blue Fairy afterward is quite noticeable. The pace of the entire film is quite slow, to the point that I’m surprised that most of the the second half only takes place over a few days or weeks. What bothers me most is more or less what I expected: David doesn’t take action so much as react, he does little to affect his path except for a small part of the second half.

Haley Joel Osment delivers an amazing performance. I haven’t seen much of his work, especially when he was this young. My first thought in forming an expectation of how he would be was that robots are a good role for child actors because they don’t have to emote. First point: early on, he did a terrific job of acting stiff and mechanical in a deliberate way. Second point: the film is entirely about the emotions of his journey, and once David is no longer a blank slate, he is completely humanesque and fully emotive.

On the other side of that, one major thing that bothered me was the conflict between the premise of the film and what is actually presented. We are told that David is the most human mechanoid ever programmed and the rest are very obviously mechanically motivated. The reality is that all of the mechanoids we see (except the first one who was there to make the point) play as very human, they’re just varying levels of naive. The only thing David does that the others don’t is fixate on an idea to robotic extremes.

A note on the visual effects is obligatory for this film. Some of the most groundbreaking effects for their time are just “impressively expensive” today. I may understand the magic too much when I look at a robot that’s lost all of its head but its human face and think about how the effect they used is exploiting something greenscreen does that is usually something to avoid. One or two shots looked like they had heavy artifacts from optical processing. The physical robot effects were very well done, but they were done by Stan Winston’s studio, so that’s no surprise.

Altogether, this was as sad as I expected, but a different story than I expected. Its three acts are very different from each other. One is a domestic horror story, one is a dystopian quest, and one is an epic denoument on a scale with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but more understandable. And did I mention it’s sad?

Watch this movie: to have watched it. The past tense is a better experience than the present tense.

Don’t watch this movie: for any sort of encouraging message

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