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Featured Blu-ray Review: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

April 4th, 2011

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

When A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was released a decade ago it was seen as a very ambitious project by Steven Spielberg. It was based on a script by Stanley Kubrick, which the legendary director had been working on for decades. It starred Haley Joel Osment, who just two years earlier had earned an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense. However, despite costing more than $100 million to get to theaters, it opened with less than $30 million during its debut. To put this into perspective, the week before The Fast and the Furious opened with more than $40 million. Worse still, the latter film actually had better legs and within a couple weeks, A.I. was barely in the top ten, and at the end of the month, it was all but gone from theaters. Was the film ahead of its time? Was there an issue with poor marketing? (Some were expecting a kids movie more like E.T.) Or is there something else?

The Movie

First we learn that global warming has resulted in the flooding of many great cities that were along the old coastline and that with the changing climate came a scarcity of food that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions. In developed nations, the governments prevented collapse by rationing pregnancies and the void created by the drop in birthrate was filled by Mecha of countless design, all meant simulate humans. However, the head of one of the firms that produces this Mecha, Professor Hobby of Cybertronics, wants to build something more. A robot with the ability to love. Not just an artificial intelligence, but something almost human. Something that would love a parent like a child does.

When the prototype is ready, they need a test family from within the company. One that has high company loyalty, the right temperament, and they find one such man who has also suffered a family tragedy. Henry and Monica Swinton were lucky enough to get a license to have a child, but tragically, that child became ill and was placed in suspended animation while a cure was being researched. That was five years ago and understandably they still haven't been able to recover from this emotional loss. So they are chosen to take the case of David. Faster than you can say, "Uncanny Valley", Monica is quite emotionally distressed. She does agree to take him in, and eventually really bonds with him and activates the irreversible imprinting program. She treats him like he was her son and reads "Pinocchio" to him. At this point, it seems like it could be happily ever after. But this is just the first part of the story.

By a miracle of science, Henry and Monica's real son, Martin, is cured and returns to the family. There is understandable friction between Martin and David, after all, the reason Monica freaked out in the first place was she thought Henry was trying to replace Martin with a robot, so it makes sense Martin might feel the same way. There are a few incidents, some relatively minor at first, but after a near drowning at a party, the Swinton's decide to return David to Cybertronics, where he will be destroyed. However, Monica has become so attached to David, she just can't bear to let that happen, so instead she sets him free in the woods with his favorite robotic teddy bear and tells him to avoid humans so he doesn't wind up at the Flesh Fair. David is determined to return to Monica, but he thinks the only way he can do that is by finding the Blue Fairy from "Pinocchio".

The second chapter of the story begins as we meet Gigolo Joe, a Lover Mecha. His last job goes about as poorly as one could go (when he get to the hotel room, his client has been murdered). On the run, Joe meets David when they are both captured by the Flesh Fair and David clings to Joe for protection. The proprietor, Lord Johnson-Johnson sees David as the ultimate insult to humanity. Not only are corporations building robots to be laboring and lovers, but they are building replacements for your children. He wants David destroyed immediately. The crowd sees it otherwise and the pair are released, lest the crowd tears the place apart. So Joe joins David on his quest to find the Blue Fairy.

Unfortunately for me, this quest runs headlong into unacceptable spoiler territory.

As I previously stated, A.I. cost nearly $100 million to make, and adding in its prints & advertising budget, it cost well over that mark to get to theaters. However, considering its price and the fact that it was a summer tent pole release, it was a bomb at the box office. Perhaps "bomb" it too strong of a word, but it certainly underperformed. I think the reason for that has little to do with the quality of the film and more to do with its nature. It's far too deliberate a film to work as a popcorn action flick, which I think is what a lot of people were expecting. On the other hand, on a few occasions the spectacle got in the way of the story. It's like the filmmakers themselves were not quite sure what kind of film they were making. Finally, while it has a child actor in the lead, it is not a kids movie. In short, it's a marketing nightmare.

That's not to say the movie was flawless. At close to two and a half hours, "deliberate" is a kind way to describe its pace. The movie can easily be divided into two separate parts: the domestic and the quest. The early domestic parts of the movie represent most of the best parts and seeing Monica and David become mother and son, only to have that relationship rocked by the return of her real son was great. On the other hand, the quest was to quixotic. David was searching for the Blue Fairy in order to be turned into a real boy. That wasn't going to happen, not unless there was a serious deus ex machina ending, which would have been awful. Because of this, there was little dramatic tension. I found myself asking, "How are the writers going to get out of this?" not "Will David become a real boy?" The ending of the quest itself wasn't badly done, especially given the constraints. This brings us to another problem. After the quest ends, the movie keeps going and we get a third act involving super-advanced robots that "evolved" after humanity died off. It really felt that the writers didn't know how to end the movie.

Overall the movie is definitely worth checking out. It's further proof that Haley Joel Osment was arguably the best child actor ever. Plus while the spectacle was a little too much at times, it did make the film look amazing. There are just too many flaws to make it one of the best in Steven Spielberg's career.

The Extras

Unfortunately, the Blu-ray is shovelware. Fortunately, the DVD did have quite a lot of extras. There is a making of featurette that is an overview of the film. A couple featurettes on Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law respectively, one on the production design, etc. There's a short, but fascinating featurette with Steven Spielberg talking about artificial intelligence and how we could create machines that while they wouldn't be able to truly love us, we could start to love them. He also talks about how our ability to create A.I.s would result in serious moral dilemmas. He begins to touch on these subjects, but the featurette is just over 2 minutes long, so it is not in-depth enough.

The video does have some issues; however, these are virtually all due to artistic choices. The film is a little hazy at times and the softness means some scenes don't have the high detail level of other Blu-rays. Colors can be a touch over-saturated at times, but again, this was an aesthetic choice and not a flaw in the transfer. To emphasize, the Blu-ray takes the source material and makes it look as good as it can without interfering with the vision of the director. The audio is very strong with clear dialogue throughout and good use of the surround sound speakers. Granted, a lot of the film takes place in a quiet domestic setting, so during those scenes most of the activity is front and center, but when the movie is active, so is the rest of your home theater system.

As for the price, $17 is a tad more than I would want to pay for shovelware; however, this film isn't the kind that shines in High Definition and paying a couple extra dollars isn't a bad deal.

The Verdict

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is not your typical summer blockbuster. It's part domestic drama, part doomed adventure and it comes with a moral dilemma that is fascinating, but hard to answer. The Blu-ray has enough going for it that it is definitely worth picking up, maybe even upgrading. I would have liked some additional extras, maybe even an audio commentary track. (Now there's a quixotic quest.)


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Filed under: Video Review, Artificial Intelligence: AI