A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE - Blu-ray review

Spielberg combines thought and vision, mind and heart, to create an entirely engaging movie.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio
 
Eddie
Feng

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Eddie comment on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Slowly but surely, we're getting all of Steven Spielberg's work on high-definition Blu-ray. It's not all coming at once, to be sure, but it is coming, like this 2001 release, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."

I mean, damned if he did, and damned if he didn't. When Spielberg inherited the "A.I." project from Stanley Kubrick, he could have made the film exactly as Kubrick would have carried it out in style and function. If he had done so, his critics would surely have accused him of mere mimicry and would probably have unfairly and unfavorably compared him to the older director. Well, Spielberg did the film his way, and people still complained that if Kubrick had done it, it would have somehow been better. Let's accept it: This is Spielberg's film, no matter who wrote the story on which it's based and no matter how important the filmmaker who preceded him on the project. We must credit Spielberg for having had the guts to undertake the venture at all, whether we think he succeeded in creating a masterpiece or not.

Frankly, I find it a little dismaying that so many critics and moviegoers disparaged the film. No, it is not one of my favorite movies of all time, but I cannot deny the importance of the story, with its social, philosophical, and ethical themes. This is a film that dares to tackle moral issues, while at the same time attempting to entertain. And, for me, the thought-provoking elements of the story line are every bit as much a part of the entertainment factor as are the captivating sights of humanlike robots, futuristic hover crafts, and fantastically elaborate cities. In "A.I.," Spielberg combines thought and vision, mind and heart, to create an entirely engaging movie.

About the time of the film's release, "PC Magazine" (Sept. 4, 2001) asked Dr. Brian Scassellati, who led the Cog robot project at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, whether the movie's plot was plausible. In answer to the question, "Will robots ever be able to feel love?" Dr. Scassellati replied, "It depends on what you mean by 'feel.' I think that we're clearly going to be able to build something that shows the outward characteristics--something that displays the correct emotions. And then I think it's really a philosophical question of 'Does this thing really feel emotions?' If we can show that outward appearance, that's basically the same thing. It's the only way we understand people anyway; so in that way the robot has actually become a complete surrogate for another person." Obviously, from this reply we can see that not even one of the top scientists in the field can define what it means truly to be alive, to feel, and to think.

"A.I." has the distinction of not only asking at what point artificial intelligence becomes "real" intelligence, but, in fact, what it means to be "real." Or, haven't you noticed the robotic-like stances of all those people behind the counters in the mall, or the sterile, mechanical voices you hear so often in telephone solicitors. In the film, David, the robotic child, is more "real," more responsive, more caring, than a few live people I've met over the years.

Of course, there is the metaphysical dilemma to address as well. For countless centuries, religions have taught us that the difference between humans and lower animals is in the soul, the joining of a human body with a spiritual core. It's the basis for most beliefs in an afterlife, that the spirit of the deceased ascends to another plane. If Man can mechanically perfect the outward appearance of a human being and combine it with the capacity for self-motivated thought, would the resultant robot somehow acquire a spirit, a soul, as well? Or, is that only in the province of God? The film neatly and properly sidesteps the issue, neither Kubrick nor Spielberg willing to touch upon delicate religious convictions that might eclipse their own points.

A robot that can love is the aim of the future society in "A.I.," a child substitute with real subconscious love for its parents, not feigned, synthetic, programmed love. Then, the film asks whether parents can love such a being in return. However, the film never answers the question any more than Dr. Scassellati of MIT answered it. Is this a shortcoming of the film, that it leaves the viewer with ambiguity at the end? I think not. To have provided facile answers to tough philosophic questions would have been purposeless and unjust to anyone but the viewer looking for absolute closure at any cost. To leave it to audiences to decide for themselves the meaning of life, why we're here, and where we're going is far more imaginative and rewarding.

In more ways than one, "A.I." is like Kubrick's "2001," a film that posited similar queries. Remember that in "A Space Odyssey" we see Man creating an artificial intelligence that can think for itself, albeit still in a programmed way, and then we see traces of a super-advanced galactic race guiding Mankind's destiny in much the same scheduled manner. Are we any more or less programmed than HAL? Perhaps only if we think of the question in the metaphysical sense. John Williams's soft, otherworldly music accompanies most of the action in "A.I.," just as similar, though classical, music underlined the tensions in "2001." Likewise, just as "2001" took us through time as well as space, much of the plot of "A.I." is broken into large and varying time periods, from the relatively near future to several millennia away. Then, too, Spielberg makes allusions to his own "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," with our first image of David a blurred silhouette, appearing like one of the director's space aliens, an image repeated at the movie's end.

Despite its similarities to Kubrick's and Spielberg's own previous work, "A.I." is very much a late-Spielberg film. It is sentimental and dewy-eyed, photographed largely in soft focus, something Kubrick would probably have avoided; yet the film moves along at a Kubrick pace, slowly and deliberately, delicately and leisurely, yet in a businesslike manner. Furthermore, Spielberg emphasizes the psychological and ethical issues perhaps more openly than Kubrick might have done. Spielberg probably overstates the whole business of the Pinocchio references, the Blue Fairy, and the question of whether robots can love or hate. Does this make "A.I." a better or worse film than Kubrick might have envisioned? Does it matter since it's Spielberg's film, after all?

In addition, I had some moderate concerns about Spielberg's emphasis on conspicuously showy effects and behavior. For instance, would reasonably intelligent parents actually allow their million-dollar baby boy-toy, David, to get anywhere near the clutches of a group of real, live youngsters and not expect trouble? Not if they know anything about human conduct they wouldn't. Would the computer company that made David have allowed their model to practically destroy itself if it tried ingesting real food? Probably not. In the second half of the film, part of which corresponds to the island of pleasures in "Pinocchio," is it really necessary for the mechanical-hound motorcyclists to look so melodramatically fearsome, or is this mainly a cinematic device to keep the audience in their seats and not wander to the popcorn stand? Indeed, is it necessary to change the tone so abruptly in the second half to one of flashy, tawdry seediness, with Gigolo Joe and the "Flesh Fair" so glaringly represented? Yes, naturally, it's all a part of the myth, and it does point up the differences in the attitudes of people toward mechas, robots; but it also seems a tad too much an attention-getting device in a seriously thoughtful film. Nevertheless, Spielberg does create some visually arresting scenes here of magnificent cities above and below the sea, and the spectacle absolutely keeps the pulse of the film alive, so I can't really complain.

Ultimately, I did find the movie becoming slightly tedious at over two-and-a-half hours, but I also found it well worth my time. Perhaps the allegorical implications of the story didn't catch me as much as they did some people; perhaps I was too much aware of the director's attempts to be profound too much of the time. I don't know. I do know I liked the idea that if David had the self-motivation to chase down his dreams, he'd have been real enough for me not to want to hurt, mechanical being or no, with or without a soul. If I would have qualms about hurting David, it must mean I would have feelings toward his feelings, a sure sign that something sensitive and moving was going on here.

Sure, the ending turns from the purely figurative and esoteric to the wholly emotional. So what? This isn't a doctoral treatise. It's a film that shows its heart on its sleeve, a Spielberg characteristic, not a Kubrick one, but a trait with which I can easily live.

John's film rating: 8/10

The Film According to Eddie:
(Warning: My exhaustive review of "A.I." discusses the film in detail, including important plot and thematic points regarding the ending.)

Usually, when asked if a movie is any good, a person will respond by saying, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it."

Either answer is the worst way to respond to the question.

I hate "2001: A Space Odyssey." I will never pay good money to own that movie (unless it is the very last print in existence, and I have to buy it to save it from destruction). Is it pretentious? Incredibly. Does its pretentiousness make it a bad movie? Difficult to watch, perhaps--slow, even--but not bad at all. I think that Kubrick's space opus is a great, influential work, one with ideas and visuals that put other films to shame. I recommend that film to anyone serious about cinema, but I hardly like it at all.

I have a problem with people who post messages like "This film will confuse most audiences." Why do audiences hate movies that challenge them to think? Now, I know that most Americans walk into a theater with a single-minded purpose--to be entertained. For entertainment purposes, they should watch something like "Face/Off" or "Bring It On" (admittedly, in my opinion, two outstanding works), not "A.I."

"A.I.," the brainchild of a collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Brian Aldiss, may have been a summer opener, but it is not a popcorn flick. Rather, it is a powerful philosophical treatise, one with a scope that discusses the very nature of man and humanity's final destinies. Written and directed by Spielberg, the movie unsettles and jars with its frequent swings in mood, pace, and ambition. Yet, these shifts are intentional (as opposed to the rhythms of a poorly prepared feature such as "Pearl Harbor").

Based on Brian Aldiss's late-1960s short story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long," the narrative's focus remains startlingly prescient for mankind. The script examines robots, sure, but it also examines the very nature of man. What makes man "man?" What might enable robot to become "man?" Is man less of "man" than robot? Is robot a better "man" than man? Even more stunning is the notion that granting a machine "just enough" self-awareness, emotions, and a certain je ne sais quoi might result in a robot with a "soul." Might that mean that humans are merely scientific creations (chemicals bonded in some way), bodies/machines that happen to house "souls"; by that equation, we are faced with the possibility that a mind is as artificial as any cold, metal object, that a spirit is no mystic force but simply the idea of being able to grow without outside prodding.

As mentioned, Brian Aldiss wrote his story way back in the 1960s, but the film found its way onto screens only in 2001. Along the way, Kubrick wrote an 80-/90-page treatment and created hundreds of sketches, storyboards, and designs. Then, Kubrick called upon Spielberg to join in on the project. When Kubrick passed away in 1999, his wife and his brother-in-law implored Spielberg to bring the story to the big screen.

"A.I." begins with a meeting headed by Professor Hobby (William Hurt, doing his best to look, sound, and act like Liam Neeson), the director of Cybertronics. In the future, global warming has melted the polar ice caps, and coastal cities like Venice have been swamped. (Spielberg's script doesn't mention any cities other than European and American ones, and there is a certain level of ethnocentrism in the film, one aggravated by the politically correct gathering of characters in attendance at Hobby's meeting--a gesture that rings a bit false.) The manufacture of robotics by firms such as Cybertronics has kept the world's advanced economies healthy, and now Hobby wants to create a "mecha" capable of love. The world's resources are scarce, and couples must apply for permits in order to have children. Hobby hopes to create new markets and to "fill a great human need" by creating a child mecha who will love a parent unconditionally without all the complications of having to feed, nurse to health, etc. of an "orga" child.

Hobby and his team select Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), an employee of Cybertronics, to test out David (Haley Joel Osment), the new mecha prototype. Henry and Monica (Frances O'Conner) have a gravely ill son who lies cryogenically frozen, waiting for a miracle cure. Initially, Monica resists David, even hating the robot child. You can't just replace your own child with a robot, she screams at Henry. This prompted someone with whom I saw the movie to call Monica "a bitch," an assessment with which I disagreed. Why is Monica "a bitch?" She is in deep denial over the fact that her son may never wake again, and David happened to have set off the torrent of violent emotions that Monica repressed over the years.

David's robotically "real" demeanor continues to unnerve Monica. She hates the machine, but she cannot help but look at how "real" it looks, with its haunted eyes and permanently affixed smile.

Gradually, Monica warms to David, and she finally activates the protocol that will program it to love her. With the love protocol set, David begins to interact with humans more "normally," like a real child. Just as soon as things seem to start looking rosy for the Swintons and David, however, Martin, the real son, recovers from his illness due to a miracle cure. Martin goes home, and through a series of misunderstandings, Monica feels the need to take David back to Cybertronics for destruction.

She cannot bring herself to send David to its end, however, and Monica abandons it in a forest instead. For the rest of the film, David undertakes a journey similar to Pinocchio's. Having the story read to it once by Monica, David hopes to become a real boy and to go back home to enjoy the warmth and security of being with Monica. (Many people have expressed bewilderment, even outright anger, at how literally "A.I." uses the Pinocchio story as a frame for its story. Why?, I wonder. It's not as if the film LIED about its sources and then slapped you in the face with them.)

During its travels, David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mecha created expressly for delivering the pleasures of the flesh. The two mechas are nearly destroyed by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) at something known as a Flesh Fair, a demolition derby where humans destroy "artificiality."

David and Joe escape, and they eventually arrive at New York City. There, David learns about the truth of its creation. In despair, it plunges itself into the ocean, where it sits in front of a Blue Fairy (like the one that Pinocchio meets) for ages, imploring, "Please, please, please make me a real boy." Two thousand years later, super-robots find David deep inside the frozen wasteland that is Earth (the ultimate ice age). They give David a chance to spend one day with Monica. What are these super-robots doing? Studying David, most likely.

At the end of the film, David goes to sleep for the first time in its life. The situation is not fully explained, but it's possible that the other robots have simply shut it off for the time being, or it has learned how to expire, to die, after losing Monica for all eternity.

Spielberg's script is deceptive in its presentation of "love." The word "love" is repeated continuously, but "robot love" is not Professor Hobby's only creation. By imprinting a robot with "love," you create a machine capable of understanding all other emotions. Love encompasses joy, sorrow, courage, fear, anger. Love is everything and nothing, so that is why David comes to grow beyond its maker's wildest dreams. However, its monomaniacal quest to become real and to gain Monica's love set limits for its growth, too.

In one scene, Martin taunts David during dinner. Martin starts gobbling spinach, and David begins to emulate Martin's gross behavior. Despite knowing that the ingestion of food will damage its circuits, David eats and eats until it stops functioning. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote about this scene, and he was left scratching his head. He wonders why David wasn't programmed not to eat. The answer is simple--David knows that it shouldn't eat, but it does so anyway. Why? In a word, LOVE. It loves Monica, and it wants to be a real boy and do all the things that a real boy can do so that Monica will love it back. Love skews its logic paths. Love, like all things human, is imperfect. The introduction of love into a sentient machine's system will deprive it of objective thought, just as love causes humans to behave like idiots so often.

Most audiences, without thinking, will hate Lord Johnson-Johnson. They are utterly lost. The character makes good points about the dangers of mechas, and humanity's over-dependence on smart machines means that, essentially, we have created things that will replace us humans on Earth one day. Keep in mind that while David happens to be the protagonist of "A.I.," it isn't automatically the "good guy." (Example: Hitler and the Nazis are the protagonists of "Triumph of the Will," but does that make them the good guys?) It's no one's fault but the viewer's for falling in love with David. Indeed, the Flesh Fair's audience's reaction to the near-execution of David is Spielberg's/Kubrick's way of laughing at the audience--are you really sympathizing with a robot that obsesses, with Oedipal fury, over a woman?

A lot of people have wondered why the other mechas at the Flesh Fair showed fear and other emotions. Well, it's simple—any thing that understands its existence, that is self-aware, will desire some measure of self-preservation. The nanny robot sings and comforts David because of its programming, the comic robot cracks jokes because its programming makes him sound funny, etc.

I have the feeling that Spielberg, being the fan of Japanese anime that he is, probably lifted some ideas from what he had seen and put them into his own film about mechas. In particular, I think that he referenced "Bubblegum Crisis Megatokyo 2032" and "Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040," two anime series that examined the role of, yes, mechas in society. In both "Bubblegum" story lines, mechas help mankind accomplish much, but man's inability to cope with an advanced species leads to violent conflicts. Should humans treat mechas as inferior subjects? Is it even ethically permissible to treat mechas with contempt and insult? "A.I." owes something to the sensibilities of Japanese animators.

The PG-13 bestowed upon "A.I." by the Motion Picture Association of America says little about the actual tone of the film. So creepy are its visuals and so disturbing are its messages and themes that children and individuals who are not quite mature in certain regards should be discouraged from seeing the movie. In particular, Spielberg manages to examine sexuality in complex, thought-provoking ways surpassing moments even in "The Color Purple" and "Schindler's List."

The power of the imagery comes courtesy of Spielberg's usual crew, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and production designer Rick Carter. In one scene, Monica peers through a pane of columned-glass, and David's eyes are refracted into tens of eyes. Combined with that unceasing smile, David looks downright monstrous. The cold, sterile environments of the future effectively "chill" the mood of the film for its entire running time--everything is so gray, so efficient. Even when Spielbergian lights shine strongly, the film feels clammy to the eyes. Yes, Kubrick's ghost haunts "A.I.'s" visual look.

Little needs to be said about the sheer technical proficiency of the special effects and the sound design. Spielberg knows that an effects shot must be assuredly established to allow for the audience to believe in the possibility of the visuals in question. Putting together master shots followed by more master shots gives the audience room to breathe and to inhabit the world of "A.I." The film may not be an outright step in innovation, but at the very least, it is the culmination of what is possible at the given time.

For all its sci-fi trappings, "A.I." presents a reality that is plausible. Yes, it uses Pinocchio as an inspiration, but David does not become an organic boy. No slight of hand, no deus ex machina appears to magically turn David into a human being. Spielberg grounds the film's science in what we do know. However, perhaps David is a real boy in the sense that it is a creature capable of human growth (our current standard for judging "intelligence").

Ultimately, we are left with the question of whether or not humans owe any sort of emotional affect or even simple respect for machines that think. After all, if we respect other animals because they are "alive," what about creatures that "know" about their environments with the sentientability that humans possess? How do we treat mechas that "know" but are essentially just smart versions of our toys, our cars, our TVs?

Most of the reviews that criticize "A.I." indicate the reviewers' failure to understand the film on a level higher than simply "watching a movie." I did not feel entertained by "A.I." (indeed, I was thoroughly disturbed after seeing it), and I resisted any affective pull from the film's elements (Haley Joel Osment, Teddy the teddy bear, etc.). After all, one of the most dangerous (and simplistic) things that a person can do is to try to identify with a fictional character. Emotional attachments blind a viewer from seeing and understanding the full reach of a movie's ambitions.

Such has often been the case with Spielberg's films. Most people like or dislike his works for the "wrong" reasons. When one allows oneself to be seduced by a film's sentiments, one can be misled or be persuaded to adopt a position one usually attacks. Case in point: Trent Lott said that he liked "The Cider House Rules" very much, and members of the media wondered just what an anti-abortion advocate liked so much about a pro-choice movie.

Admittedly, "A.I." does elicit strong feelings from me, but the film does not depend on emotions in order to be a successful endeavor. If you think about it, movies that are pure rides of emotions often fail because they require little thought. This concept can be seen in David's unappealing side--all it cares about is Monica returning its love, and its odyssey is a decidedly simple one. However, and it does not know it, David's quest questions everything thought to be so fundamentally key to mankind.
I know a group of people who hate Spielberg for his "sap." I honestly don't understand these people--they don't like to feel emotions? They don't like to know that they're capable of feeling "sentimental?" They don't like how they lose control so easily? Again, it's not a filmmaker's fault that an audience member feels a certain way. The viewer is ultimately responsible for his/her responses to an object.

Therefore, individuals who harp on Spielberg's "sentimentality" and "warmth" should be criticizing themselves for their inability to distance themselves from base, emotional responses formed instinctively as immediate reactions to a visual cue. Spielberg is no Chris Columbus, a filmmaker who relies solely on catharsis. Catharsis relieves you, but Spielberg's films do not. Even the most emotionally draining of Spielberg's works leave you with intellectual doubts and fears.

"A.I." challenges the viewer far more than any film that I've ever seen. By nature, cinema asks audiences to fall under the spell of a mechanical creation, that of a machine projecting photographic frames onto a viewing area. "A.I." literalizes that notion in the guises of David, Teddy, and Gigolo Joe, and the movie goes so far as to challenge our notions of "good" and "bad." The most perturbing concept in "A.I." is that our emotions, a core constituent of our "humanity," may be our ultimate undoing. Machines, with their dread precision and adaptability, will inherit the earth because orgas are contradictory beings. Only inorganics have the resilience to endure.

My only quibble with "A.I." resides in the fact that Spielberg made a film that depends too much on a sense of morality. Like Nietzsche, I believe that the answers to man's questions depend on our willingness to move beyond seeing things in terms of "right" and "wrong." For example, the question is not so much if it's "right" or "wrong" to genetically replicate a human being but whether or not we are capable of dealing with the problems of replicating a genetic and visual identical of a person who will not share the same core as the original (memory, personality, ability).

Did I like "A.I.?" I honestly don't know. Ask me later. Is it a great film? Yes.

Eddie's film value: 10/10.

Video:
DreamWorks engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 to transfer the picture to Blu-ray disc in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. On one of the disc's featurettes, the filmmakers discuss the lighting used in the movie, which varies from soft, filtered shots to brightly lit, even gaudy scenes. If you recall, Stanley Kubrick favored natural lighting whenever possible, so in deference to Kubrick's practices, Spielberg also uses natural and simulated natural lighting whenever he can. He also uses a muted color pallette, oversaturated colors, high contrasts, low contrasts, backlighting, and other techniques that the viewer may or may not appreciate.

In any case, the picture quality of on BD looks good in capturing the director's intentions. A fine film grain, inherent to the print, slightly veils the screen, along with a smoky look in the opening sequences. The overall PQ is somewhat soft much of the time, but when Spielberg wants the image to look sharp, it does, indeed, look crisp and sharp; and the screen is quite clean, free of extraneous specks, lines, or scratches at all times.

Audio:
Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 for the soundtrack, the audio engineers capture the movie's subtle and not-so-subtle sounds effectively. For the first third or more of the film, there is mainly dialogue, so don't expect a lot of activity in the surrounds at first. Then, when the action of the escape and search scenes kicks in, you'll hear a variety of encircling noises from all the speakers, with strong bass, more than ample dynamic range and impact, and excellent clarity. Even John Williams's musical score sounds good with its ambient bloom in the rear channels.

Extras:
DreamWorks carry over most of the extras from their two-disc DVD edition to the Blu-ray disc, most of the items in standard definition. First up is "Creating A.I.," about twelve minutes of introduction with Spielberg and others summarizing the film's origins. Next is "Acting A.I.," with two segments, "Portrait of David," four minutes on Haley Joel Osment's character, and "Portrait of Gigolo Joe," five minutes on Jude Law's character. After that is "Designing A.I.," again in two segments: "A.I. from Drawing to Set," seven minutes, and "Dressing A.I.," five minutes. Then, "Lighting A.I." spends about four minutes on the look of the film, from its sterile beginning to more brightly lit action and dimly lit drama sequences.

Moving on, the next items seem self-explanatory: "A.I./FX," seven minutes; "The Robots of A.I.," thirteen minutes; "Special Visual Effects and Animation: A.I.," with five segments totaling about twenty-three minutes; and "The Sound and Music of A.I.," two parts of six minutes each. A brief, two-minute section, "Closing: Steven Spielberg: Our Responsibility to Artificial Intelligence," kind of brings things to a close. Almost. Because there are still the "A.I. Archives," which include "Storyboards," "Chris Baker's Portfolio," a "Production Design Portfolio," "ILM Concept Art," a "Portrait Gallery," and a "Steven Spielberg Behind-the-Scenes Gallery," photographs for the latter two segments by David James.

The extras conclude with a pair of theatrical trailers in high definition; thirty-two scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired. The movie comes with a handsomely embossed slipcover enclosing one of those lightweight Eco-cases guaranteed to save the planet and almost protect your disc.

Parting Thoughts:
If you've never seen "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" before, you may not know entirely what to expect. In many ways, it's a typical Spielberg film in that it's thoughtful, sentimental, and well paced for its material. But that material is not exactly what Spielberg might have handled himself if he hadn't taken on the project after Kubrick's death. Nor should one try to compare the film to what Kubrick might have done with it. We're left with a long, expansive, always illuminating but never didactic look at life and love and what they mean to Mankind. Good enough.

The final film value score below is an average of the ratings of both reviewers.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
9
Film Value
9