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.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Paramount is currently on slate to release 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' on April 5, 2011, but some markets already have their versions of the film available, including France and Japan, where Warner Bros has the distribution rights. The French release is less expensive than the Japanese once shipping costs are considered, and should be Region Free, due to being a WB release.
The Japanese disc comes in a slightly fatter than standard blue keep case, on a BD50 disc. There is no annoying pre-menu content, thankfully. The menu itself is static, with an audio loop that plays through twice, before disappearing. Strangely enough, this disc does not have any Japanese audio options, not on the menus, not in the setup options. It's entirely possible (and highly probable) that this disc detected it was in an American player, which is why everything was so easy to navigate.
If the Paramount release of 'A.I.' has the same visual qualities as the Japanese (and Euro markets) Warner Bros release, then there is going to be some complaining come April. Presented with a VC-1 1080p encode (at 1.85:1) this sci-fi drama is a slight disappointment on Blu-ray.
Detail levels are here one minute, gone the next, with a few random soft shots for good measure, and textures are equally sporadic, and this is the tale of this disc, as inconsistency rules the day. Skin tones are rarely perfect, and often run excessively rosy to a burnt orange (which is the most common, sadly). Contrast levels are slightly warm, but that seems to be deliberate, due to the whole "melted polar ice caps" situation, but there's really no excuse for the random black crush. There are only a couple dirt blips, which is great, but there is also some obvious DNR in play, which drove me a bit batty. Law, you never know what's up with him, as he has a porous, life-like face one minute, and an extremely waxy, smooth, feminine appearance the next (and Osment is always way too smoothed out). Throw in minor banding and some random edge enhancement, on top of some serious digital noise issues, and this one just doesn't quite impress. A real shame, considering the potential.
Don't mistake the fact that this release has a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mix as it having a great audio quality. It's never much more than a ho-hum track. 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.
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.
'A.I.' is a very interesting film, one that doesn't quite force an opinion on its viewers, where interpretation and emotion can create different viewing experiences. The film has its quirks, and it has its moments where it's damn near unbeatable in terms of its storytelling and scope. Unfortunately, it also has entire segments that just don't belong, and some tone issues, especially since the film really is like three separate stories, so that once a new chapter is reached, there is no backtracking allowed. The Japanese import of 'A.I.' has troubled, but not horrible, audio and video, and a ton of extras, even if they're hardly all that innovative or in depth.
So, buy the import, or wait two months, that's the question. Honestly, considering Paramount's track record lately, I'm a little hesitant to recommend readers wait. It's possible, though not too likely, that it will be a better disc, or have a new extra or two. It's also likely Paramount will actually keep this Blu-ray in print for more than two years. Oh, sarcasm, you keep popping up. Anyways, whether you import it or wait for the domestic release, this reviewer recommends a purchase one way or another. A film this good belongs in a good collection, and it is definitely a film that will inspire thought long after its lengthy runtime is over.
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.