In a summer when filmgoers were beaten over the head with far too many senseless, overpriced, and over-hyped blockbusters (with seemingly every trailer leading off with the trite, "In a world where . . ."), one picture quietly yet effectively defied the pack. A project originally conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is that long-overdue breath of fresh air sought out by those who yearn for truly visionary Science Fiction. Rather than subject audiences and critics to more of the same "popcorn movie" drivel they’ve come to expect and despise, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ offered those who experienced it much more to think about than just big explosions and fetching female figures. Forget the stable of "professional critics" who mercilessly panned the picture for its uneven flow and apparent syncopated pace; it’s these qualities that make the film so powerful and thought-provoking. Now, with this stunning new Special Edition DVD from Dreamworks Home Entertainment, we’re afforded an even better opportunity to more fully witness and internalize this very important motion picture.
It’s a time when polar ice caps have melted, coastal cities are deluged, and life-like robots – "mechas" – are created for human servitude and companionship. David (Joel Haley Osment) is an experimental prototype robot that, unlike any before him, is programmed to experience and elicit the emotion of love – unconditional love. Offered to Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) whose real son, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in cryo-stasis with an incurable disease, David demonstrates an undying love for his "mother." But when Martin experiences a miraculous recovery, Monica ultimately abandons David, literally leaving the boy-mecha in the rainforest of New Jersey. Now, David’s only desire is to become a "real boy" and regain Monica’s love. His quest leads him and his conscience-like Teddy (a SuperToy) on an exodus through a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah where man and machine face off in all things, pleasure and pain. Accompanied by mecha Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), David seeks out the only true being with the power to grant David his ultimate humanity.
Shades of ‘Pinocchio’? You bet, but in a much more stylish and undeniably darker tone. It is a fairy tale at its heart, but it teems with a grimness that makes it all the more powerful than if presented as a saccharine feel-good fantasy. Clearly, the mood is all Kubrick, who had spent his cinematic career probing the blackness of the human heart. Some have proclaimed his views as far too fatalistic yet his pictures always seem to strike a nerve as we ponder his intent and puzzle over his decidedly enigmatic conclusions. The eventuality that Steven Spielberg would bring Kubrick’s dark Utopian vision to the screen is nothing short of a blessing. There’s no doubt that many believed ‘A.I.’ would be just another ‘E.T.’ And, to Dreamwork’s discredit, the ad campaign for this very important film was sadly mishandled – it does seem to herald yet another Summertime kiddie-flick. But, this one is clearly not for youngsters, who will likely become disturbed over the harsher sequences. But, despite the cute ad campaign and despite some moviegoers’ distrust that Spielberg could ever again deliver a picture with adult-level impact (such as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Schlinder’s List’), ‘A.I.’ shows just how capable this director can still be as he delivers an uncharacteristically less-than-rosy perspective of the human condition.
Granted, much of the schizophrenia that others charge the film is rife with is what makes it all work. It’s obvious that this three-act narrative sways between Kubrick’s bent toward hopelessness and Spielberg’s eternal optimism. Interestingly enough, I found that I was very distrustful of the film and where it would lead me, intellectually and emotionally. With the opening act, it showed all the markings of a Kubrick ambush (to the tune of ‘my isn’t this interesting and wonderful, then over the cliff you go’.) yet it appears to be Spielberg who saves us from a miserably depressing experience. Clearly, Spielberg worked diligently to stay true to Kubrick’s framework, but still be prepared for Spielberg to masterfully play your heartstrings. Yet, watching the film vacillate between hope and resignation, I found it was a journey to be given in to, making is all the more poignant in its final message. And, I will admit, this one had me welling up, big time; something I haven’t done since ‘E.T.’ back in 1982. But, I say, to get the most of the experience, you must let yourself go, open you mind and heart, and prepare for a somewhat confounding odyssey that certainly demands additional viewings.
And I could go on and on about this film, from it’s impeccable acting (Haley Joel Osment is astonishingly believable here) to the superlative visual effects that are a feast for the eyes yet never denigrate to becoming needlessly overindulgent or unnecessary. Composer John Williams’ score is one of his best ever, which is quite a statement, I know, given his incredible body of work. The oddest thing about it all is I never dreamed I would wind up being so enraptured with this picture (again, I fault the marketing minds a Dreamworks for robbing this picture of the audience it so deserved). I, too, at first glance thought this to be another one of those cookie-cutter money-makers and was so overjoyed to see it dare to break the modern-day mold of Hollywood brain-drains. This is definitely required viewing for just about anyone who longs for a real cinematic experience.
As for this new DVD, it too is nothing short of spectacular. Disc One features the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer (framed at 1.85:1) that easily ranks as a "reference quality" treatment. Most striking are the well-controlled color levels and the near-impeccable image detail. Given it’s a very busy picture, visually, this one receives highest marks for never becoming over-saturated nor over-enhanced. The black levels are perfect with nary a trace of graininess or murkiness. The source print appears to be equally pristine with no evident flaws. This is a truly beautiful image to behold.
On the audio side, the disc’s 5.1 Dolby Digital and 5.1 DTS tracks are equally impressive (with the nod going to the DTS track for it’s slightly fuller performance). Just as the story itself sways in mood, so too does the soundtrack. The surround channels get a good dose of exercising, from booming effects crescendos to very subtle ambient information. The LFE channel kicks in quite dramatically during the "Flesh Fair" sequences. John Williams’ score finds consistent presence throughout the presentation and dialog is always clear.
On the extras side, there are so many special features that you’ll want to plan an additional sitting to take them all in. The bevy of documentary material actually begins on Disc One with ‘Creating A.I.’ in which director Spielberg and his cast offers some general behind-the-scenes insight into the making of the film. Disc Two continues with ‘Acting A.I.’ and ‘Designing A.I.,’ both which comprise of dual featurettes that go deeper into the characterization and visual style of the film. Next up is the very exhaustive ‘A.I. Archives’ that consists of six galleries of material including storyboards, pre-production sketches, portrait galleries, and behind-the-scenes photos of Steven Spielberg at work. This section also includes two of the film’s theatrical trailers. Then there’s ‘Visual Effects/ILM,’ a five-featurette package that covers the impressive work of the ILM team. ‘Robots of A.I.’ is most captivating as we’re given a tour of effects master Stan Winston’s studio and how he and his team brought the various mecha effects to the screen in most convincing manner. And there’s more: ‘Lighting A.I.’ is a short featurette in which cinematographer Janusz Kaminski discusses his approach to lighting the film. ‘The Sound and Music of A.I.’ catches up with sound designer Gary Rydstrom and composer John Williams as both discuss their approach to adding the necessary aural texture to the film. The only throwaway featurette is ‘Closing’ in which Spielberg ponders the concept of artificial intelligence in everyday life while the disc credits roll. Finally, there are cast and crew bios and production notes. Whew! What a healthy dose of bonus content.
At the end of the day, I find little to quibble over with this picture. Yes, it does have a few faults and inconsistencies, many of which other critics and reviewers have pounced upon with incriminating relish. But, for a picture with this sort of ambition – bravado, if you will – that steps forward to break the tiresome predictability of genre films of this day, ‘A.I.’ is the only true major motion picture to come from the otherwise empty Summer of 2001.