"His love is real. But he is not." It's one of the corniest taglines in recent memory, but it also well sums up the main debate that swirls around AI Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg's fruition of the late Stanley Kubrick's long-gestating project based on the Brian Aldiss short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long." Is it possible to empathize with a protagonist who is a machine specifically programmed to feel that emotion? Consequently, is his emotion truly "real"?
These are indeed valid and troubling questions as one watch AI, but as with a number of films fundamentally flawed in design, execution more than smooths over most of the rough spots--namely Haley Joel Osment's extraordinary lead turn as David, the "he" of the syrupy tagline. In this future world where robots routinely coexist with humans in their households and in society in general, David stands apart from all the other "mecha": he is the first to be programmed with the ability to love. When Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor), whose terminally ill son with her husband Henry (Sam Robards) lies cryogenically frozen in a hospital, speaks the code words that activate David's emotional circuitry, there's no turning back. David will always love Monica and crave her love in return forever--long after she may become tired of him, long after whenever she dies.
Thus raises that question: how to sympathize with David when his feelings are as synthetic as the rest of him, turned on with the flip of a figurative switch? Just like any machine programmed to do a job, David is completely focused on his: loving his "mother" no matter what, never once questioning this pursuit of her reciprocal love. Such singleminded obsession has a distancing effect by design, but any detachment is bridged by Osment. Look no further than the emotionally brutal scene where David and Monica part; only a true heart of ice won't be affected by Osment's wrenching wails for Monica. But the true genius of his work are its fine subtleties: the slight but undeniable differences between pre- and post-"activation" David; the distinctly mechanical mobility of his body that belies the deep well of feeling in his eyes, which in turn belies the potential for danger that can be sensed from within him.
So when AI moves away from the placid confines of the suburban Swinton home and into the wild and woolly world of such locales as the neon-drenched, hedonistic urban center known as Rouge City or--in the film's most stunning sight--a Manhattan that is all but completely submerged in water, Osment's David remains a captivating companion on an increasingly strange and surreal journey. Along the way David and his loyal "supertoy" sidekick Teddy (a real marvel of top-notch puppetry, CGI, and voiceover work) hook up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot whose name says all one needs to know about his purpose in the world. This character, played with an appropriately oily sexuality by Law, is a bawdy original, but he's mostly around just to provide David with a hand to hold.
Gigolo Joe personifies ("mechanifies"?) the most fascinating and frustrating quality of AI: the tension between the opposing sensibilities of Spielberg and Kubrick. At times the mixing and clashing works, as in the first act, where Spielberg apes Kubrick with alarming accuracy in the chilly, clinical tone and sterile environments; and it's hard to imagine the famously cynical Kubrick being able to pull off the wallop that a proven button-pusher like Spielberg brings to the aforementioned David/Monica scene. But as the film progresses, the odd coupling becomes more problematic. Gigolo Joe and Rouge City suggest a Kubrickian naughty streak, but they've been neutered by Spielberg, in the end rendered less edgy than they could (and should) have been. And for all the genuinely powerful moments Spielberg is able to wring, his weakness for easy sentimentality peeks through at the wrong mome
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