The Stanley Kubrick film that wasn't.
It took about thirty years for 'A.I.' to reach the big screen, from the moment the novel Super-Toys Last All Summer Long was adapted, through numerous changes in attached writers and large scale character alterations, to the death of Kubrick in 1999, with the vastly underrated 'Eyes Wide Shut' capping a career that was as meticulous as it was revolutionary. In comes Steven Spielberg, and with the advancements in computer technology, along with the casting of the known "it" child actor, one of the most true to its genre science fiction films was finally born.
The story behind 'Artificial Intelligence' and its long, long development is almost as interesting as the film itself. Almost. An interesting two-toned film, 'A.I.' asks the universal question, about the meaning of life, but does so through the eyes, and surprising heart, of a soulless being. The film is as likely to tug at your heartstrings as it is make you throw your hands up at a few questionable sequences and turns along the way, and is likely to draw love it or hate it responses among those experiencing it for the first time.
The world of the future has been affected by all that global warming...whatever it is...destroying numerous landmark cities and devastating the human population. New laws are passed concerning reproduction, and those without children are given a different option than having a pet: mechas, robots that feel and think. Groups of humans have come to loathe the mechanical beings, some assume out of jealousy due to their immortality, and stray machines are hunted and destroyed for entertainment.
A married couple (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor as Henry and Monica Swinton) lost their only child, in a way, as Martin (Jake Thomas) is preserved only by suspended animation. Henry's employers, Cybertronics, offer to let his family use David (Haley Joel Osment), a new prototype robot capable of love, like a child. Hesitation and fear give way to acceptance, but when Martin is revived, in a manner of speaking, the "sibling" rivalry and a few innocent mishaps put David out on the streets, knowing nothing but the imprinted love he has for Monica. Now he's hunted like a fugitive, and while he meets numerous robotic friends (including Jude Law as Gigolo Joe) who help him try to find a new place in life, the memory of a children's story gives the robotic boy hope, hope that he, much like Pinocchio, can transform from a lifeless robot to a real living boy who Monica can accept.
'A.I.' asks all the right questions in its two and a half hour quest for meaning. Sadly, it doesn't always give the right answers. While the more fascinating and endearing aspects are given their proper development and conclusions, a few interesting tidbits and moments get swept under the rug, and aside from the streetwise Joe and the absolutely adorable Teddy, David's animatronic doll, there really aren't many side characters who are treated like actual beings, human or no. The heavy focus on David does not allow for room for some of the interesting characters (such as Brendan Gleeson's Lord Johnson-Johnson) to get more than a quick moment's notice. Sure, the film is told solely through David's eyes, and as such, only his encounters with characters matter in the story, but the slight deviation from the routine would have helped the lengthy runtime.
The opening act of the film is an absolute emotional nightmare for a number of reasons. It deals with depression and guilt, concerning the idea that a child can be substituted in any fashion. It deals with abandonment and attachment, as cruel twists of fate turn David's possibly simple return into an impossible nightmare for anyone with a conscience. There's so much happening psychologically with all four of the characters (David and the three Swintons) that it's hard not to catch the undertones and meanings, and see the looming tragedy. It's the perfect science fiction domestic dilemma. David is a beautiful character, a creature of pure fascination and love, whose mimicry is fondly reminiscent of 'Starman,' and yet, we know from the opening scene of the film that he's due to be hurt so incredibly badly that even the early reveal can't shield us from the pain, as the prophetic question "if a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold towards that mecha in return?" is revealed.
'A.I.' struck me on a different level, as I see the film as having more than just the obvious meaning about purpose; the constant theme of abandonment and possession, of friends living and inanimate, and the emotions tied to the difficult choices none of us ever want to make. 'The Simpsons handled this theme wonderfully in 1993, and I think that everyone has that object that they imprinted on as a child, that has always held meaning to them, whether they have it or not. Me? I'm fortunate enough to still possess my favorite childhood stuffed animal, and even perused eBay recently until I was able to find a matching one in new condition (and it wasn't an easy search, let me say!), so that the next generation of smart mouthed Bosses can potentially have what I did. I say all this, because Teddy obviously plays this part to both David and Martin, but David is Monica's teddy bear, the object she'll never forget or forgive herself for losing. It's tragic, even if it's fated, and we all can relate.
Sadly, 'A.I.' doesn't quite quit when its ahead. The constant Pinocchio parallel is fantastic, and explored to its logical conclusion, up until logic is thrown aside and a new element is brought in that was as ridiculous in 2001 in a Spielberg film as it was in 2008 when it was done in 'Indiana Jones.' Yep, random ass aliens that don't belong in the film whatsoever. Sure, they were a part of the original story treatment, but supposedly the thin humanoid creatures were more Kubrick than Spielberg, despite his obvious predilection. Gigolo Joe is a fun character, but he's tossed aside much like Burns' BoBo, or Monica's David, ironically enough, and never really gets a chance to resonate. We think he's saved for a higher purpose, but really, he isn't.
'A.I.' is not a fun film. It's light-hearted and free one moment before turning on a dime and becoming crushing and cruel. Sure, it may feature some interesting cameos (Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, Ben Kingsley, a young Adrian Grenier, and Chris Rock, who totally gets treated like he deserves), but the star of the show is one of the best child actors in history. Osment is a godsend, handling a nuanced performance like he were a seasoned vet whose been at it his entire life. 'Artificial Intelligence' is worth watching for his performance alone, to show that not all child actors ruin films, and sometimes they're what make them special (...when they're not ruining them). I don't know if Stanley Kubrick would have been proud to have his name attached to this film, but I know Spielberg should be.
Different studio. Different encode. Slightly different picture...same result. Paramount's turn releasing 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' doesn't impress over the Warner releases found everywhere else in the world. AVC MPEG-4 replaces VC-1, but when the picture is as uninteresting as it is here, does it really matter?
The 1080p transfer for this film is rarely sharp, and is again a here one minute, gone the next affair when it comes to detail levels. Numerous soft shots still find their way into the picture. What's different, though, is how much noisier this release is. The fish tank in the boys room at times seemed to be overflowing or bursting due to this effect. DNR is still applied, while edge enhancement and those tiny bands are also in play. Skin tones are overly orange and warm, while contrast is again apparently tweaked due to the global warming situation. There aren't as many dirt blips this time around, but they are instead replaced by a few big buggers, white semi-transparent blobs that pop up every now and again.
Which one looks better? I honestly don't think it matters. The end result here is that all the releases of this film, so far, worldwide, are far less than stellar, which is what I, perhaps unrealistically, expected.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track found on Paramount's release of 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' isn't bad by any means. It is, however, underwhelming. Much like the Japanese disc, it's ho-hum throughout. It shares the same strengths, and the same weaknesses. As such, here's how I felt then, which is how I feel now.
Dialogue has no problems, ever, and room dynamics are absolutely perfect. Still, this entire film is fairly front heavy, as it takes about an hour for a real rear presence to make itself known, in the Flesh Fair. Up to that point, there is some random atmosphere, but the keyword is random. This film would have made more sense if it expanded its soundfield as the film opened up, from its domestic setting to the wide open world, but that just doesn't happen here. Bass levels are fairly light, but there are a few scenes where it gets really going, particularly the sequence where the straggler droids get wrangled up. This is a passable track, but there are so many missed opportunities, I can't score it any higher and feel good about myself in the morning.
Every single extra from the Japanese release is here. No more, no less. The only difference is that some are broken up in the menu differently, to make it look like there is even more content. It's really rather unnecessary. The only difference between the two releases is that the trailers for the film are now in HD, instead of SD...if you can call that HD, that is. They're pretty damn sloppy.
The extras may not seem like much at first glance. However, each section has a subsection, which then has a subsection, which then has a....and so on. Sadly, there is no play all option on any part of this disc, so prepare for a ton of HD menu to SD extras back and forth. It's awfully annoying.
There is a ton to weed through here, but there is one gaping downside: with the way each particular aspect has been broken down into subsections, there isn't much depth given to anything, and most features barely skim the surface of what is interesting. No extensive documentary, no commentary, just some DVD-era stuff that really seems aged, already.
'Artificial Intelligence' is a film that has hit me a different way each time I've seen it. I can't get enough of it, either, as there's always that little bit more that I missed, or misread, and it opens up new doors and alleys in the film. I would have killed to see this under the hands of Kubrick, but his replacement is no slouch either, even if he is far from his prime these days. The American release of the film is no better than the imports found around the world, so the name of the game here is just where you can get it cheapest. Keep your eye open for a discount import, but don't go out of your way. No matter what, any difference found here is negligible.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.