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The making of humanity

Review: 'A.I.' an eye-opening sci-fi fable


By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is an often-disturbing film about an experimental robotic boy who yearns for human relationships. Though originally developed by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg inherited the project when Kubrick passed away in 1999.

Like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange," it's a sci-fi fable that examines the ruthlessness of technology and emotional detachment. Though many of the sets are reminiscent of the spaceships in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," thematically speaking, the Spielberg picture that "A.I." most closely resembles is "Schindler's List": both movies are infused with the terror of facing down a society that views you as less than human.

Set in a distant future in which the world is overrun by rising ocean levels, over-population, and starvation, "A.I." follows the plight of David (Haley Joel Osment, in an astoundingly subtle, expressive performance), the first robot that's ever been programmed to love. David's creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), is aiming to build a device that can comfort couples who can't conceive children, or aren't allowed to by population-controlling laws.

Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law star in 'A.I.'

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David is placed in the home of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor). The Swintons' biological son, Martin (Jake Thomas), has been ill, and has been cryogenically frozen until science can find a cure for his illness. David will hopefully ease the couple's loneliness.

Once Monica activates David's parental imprinting program, he seems like a normal little boy. He finds himself being drawn closer to Monica; his circuitry tells him that she's very much his mother. But when Martin is cured and returns to the family, David is suddenly treated as little more than a household appliance. Mean-spirited Martin also likes to trick David into doing dangerous, inexplicable things that force Henry and Monica to return him to the lab.

A little boy, a little machine

You can sense Kubrick's spirit haunting the aloof, deliberate first act. Then Spielberg's sensibilities slowly take over, with the overall tone mating his yearning "E.T." vibe with Kubrick's infamous semi-nihilism. The results are sometimes contradictory, but there's a sleek, high-tech dread to several of the sequences that's unlike anything in the Spielberg oeuvre. For most of the picture, his "little boy lost" leanings ("A.I." explicitly references "Pinocchio") seem to be pounding its head against a wall of despair.

Monica's emotions get the best of her while she's taking David to be destroyed. In a harrowing scene that's genuinely difficult to watch, she stops her car and tearfully tells him that he should avoid human contact and look for other robots. Then she abandons him in the woods and drives off.

Clearly, this isn't the touchy-feely fantasy Spielberg that we've come to expect.

Soon, David -- in the company of a dulcet-voiced teddy-bear robot who continuously follows him like a miniature guardian angel -- stumbles upon a nightmare vision of his possible future. Variously damaged "mechas" (short for "mechanicals") are rummaging for replacement body parts in an animatronic dumping ground. There, David meets a suave, handsome mecha named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). Joe, who duplicates Gene Kelly dance moves and brags about his programmed sexual prowess, tries to help his new friend find the mother who deserted him. But Joe has problems of his own. In what passes for a subplot, he's trying to avoid being captured by the police.

At this point, Spielberg loses his footing to a degree. The next hour or so is filled with bizarre images and dazzling leaps of imagination. Unfortunately, the story isn't progressing all that much, as Joe and David pass through a series of offbeat, creepy vignettes that sometimes feel more like special effects showcases than useful scenes.

The two are eventually captured by a sleazy robot rustler (Brendan Gleeson) who enlists them in a terribly unsettling demolition show. Joe then escorts David deeper into the tawdry underbelly of their soulless world, an awe-inspiring journey that culminates in a Manhattan where the skyline barely rises above the ocean's surface.

The various story threads are ultimately pulled together by an enchanted finale that's Spielberg at his most unapologetic, poignant and mystical. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

Outstanding design

It's too early in the year to go tossing Oscars at people, but Spielberg's technicians have really outdone themselves this time. Production designer Rick Carter based many of the gaudy, neon-lit settings on Kubrick's detailed sketches and notes. He's created a world that's part suburban comfort and part carnival funhouse.

And Stan Winston's robots are nothing short of stunning. He and Spielberg seamlessly interweave mechanical devices, actors in costumes, and stunning digital effects. You get lost in a far-fetched environment that springs to full, frightful life.

"A.I." is easily the best big-budget picture to be released so far this year. Spielberg has made better movies, but he's never challenged his audience so deeply in what appears to be an utterly commercial setting. For once, you're encouraged to ponder complex questions while enjoying an amazing ride. It proves that, when a talented director puts his heart in it, you can have it both ways.

WARNING: Leave the kiddies at home! There are all kinds of freaky images in "A.I.," some of which might even upset adults. And the abandonment angle isn't exactly designed to induce swooning in 9 year-olds. Look for a quick cameo by Chris Rock, as a soon-to-be-destroyed robot. No, really. 142 minutes.

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