Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:25 - Released 6/29/01

It is an age old question that has bothered science fiction writers for generations: If computer technology progresses to the point that machines can think for themselves, as it surely will someday, then at what point do they begin to have a consciousness? And, following that, to what extent do we owe them respect as sentient beings? Can they feel? Can they love? Can they dream? The issue has been addressed on TV shows like Star Trek (Cmdr. Data went through it many times), and also in movies like 1999's Bicentennial Man and Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, in the real year 2001, another Kubrick story, A.I., reaches the screens and offers a beautiful, thought-provoking, and altogether unsettling view of the subject.

Directed by Steven Spielberg (his first feature film in 3 years, since 1998's Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan), the movie arises from a concept developed by the late writer/director Kubrick, who apparently spoke at length about the project with Spielberg before his death in 1999. Based on the 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss, and adapted for the screen by Spielberg and Ian Watson, the film is at once emotionally cold and deeply touching, provoking questions upon questions upon questions about the future of our global population and its cybernetic progeny. The subject matter may be as old as science fiction itself, but the product is as thoroughly engrossing a conversation piece as any of Spielberg's recent films, offering 13-year-old actor Haley Joel Osment a long-awaited opportunity to shake his oft-mentioned association with The Sixth Sense. From now on, Osment will be "the kid from A.I."

Osment plays David, the prototype model of a new type of "mecha" (short for mechanical) being developed by Prof. Hobby (William Hurt), the C.E.O of the Cybertronics company of the distant future. After supplying the human population for years with helpful but unfeeling android assistants, Hobby dreams of a product equipped with something no other mecha has ever had: the ability to love. Unfortunately, David's introduction into a family environment proves abortive, as his interpretation of the phrase "I love you, Mommy" is identical to his reading of "I see dead people." But since his mother (Frances O'Connor) can't bring herself to destroy him, he is simply sent off into the world to make his own way. Familiar with the story of Pinocchio, he is convinced that if he can find the blue fairy, she will turn him into a real boy and he will finally win his mother's love. You see, the trouble with an android programmed to be forever 8 years old is that although he can remember stuff that happened to him 500 years ago, he can't grasp the notion that blue fairies don't exist. I had an uncle like that.

Along his multi-millennial quest, accompanied by his trusty cyber Teddy bear (voice of Jack Angel), David meets a mecha gigolo named Joe (Jude Law), consults a possible descendant of the Internet (voice of Robin Williams), and witnesses some of the inevitable repercussions of a society where androids become as populous as humans in an overcrowded and emotionally sterile world.

In Spielberg's nearly 2½-hour visualization of Kubrick's idea, we are treated to some amazing sights and concepts, all of them intriguing and most extremely creepy. Despite its PG-13 rating and the presence of Osment in the leading role, this isn't by any means a "kid movie." In a strange mix of innocence and sinister surrealism, one sees shades of Pinocchio, Schindler's List, The Wizard Of Oz, and every Kubrick movie ever made. Osment's transformation from borg to boy is fascinating; it is unclear whether his lack of warmth despite the presence of tears and other outward emotional appearances is by design or simply a lucky accident. Frankly, I never thought he seemed much like a "real boy" in The Sixth Sense or Pay It Forward, either. Law is as well-groomed and unemotional as any flesh-and-blood gigolo would be; his ability to change hair color and accent is even more impressive. Finally, O'Connor's characterization of David's emotionally confused mother is either overcomplicated or undernourished. Perhaps she felt the ghostly hand of Kubrick on her shoulder, urging her to be cold and impersonal; perhaps Spielberg felt that hand. Coldness and impersonality pervade this movie throughout; maybe it's the natural result of humans imagining a post-human society. Whatever the reason, A.I. is an apt tribute to Kubrick, blending a fascinating subject with unsettling imagery. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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