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Review: One robot film too many

In an age when global warming has melted the ice caps and flooded many world cities, US-made mechas (humanoid robots) are a popular consumer item. With pre-programmed personalities, they work as nannies, mechanics and ladies of the night.
Even as a growing movement of humans opposes mechas, a determined researcher, Professor Hobby, creates a model capable of loving. It looks like a child, learns and adapts, and once its owner speaks a seven-digit code, it forms a permanent emotional bond.
"But if it loves its owner then what moral responsibility does the owner have toward it?" asks an executive.


Steven Spielberg directs A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
photo: Courtesy Continental Films

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Running time: 145 minutes
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt
Playing: in Bratislava at Istropolis cinema
Rating: 5 out of 10

In an age when global warming has melted the ice caps and flooded many world cities, US-made mechas (humanoid robots) are a popular consumer item. With pre-programmed personalities, they work as nannies, mechanics and ladies of the night.

Even as a growing movement of humans opposes mechas, a determined researcher, Professor Hobby, creates a model capable of loving. It looks like a child, learns and adapts, and once its owner speaks a seven-digit code, it forms a permanent emotional bond.

"But if it loves its owner then what moral responsibility does the owner have toward it?" asks an executive.

"That's the oldest moral question," replies Hobby. "After all, God created Adam so that Adam would love him."

What follows in Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the tumultuous journey of the first love-capable mecha, David. But the question of responsibility is relegated to the background as the film focuses on his quest to reunite with the woman he understands to be his mother.

The result is that David, played by Haley Joel Osment, is less a character than a plot device. Too human to be much of a curiosity, too machine-like to arouse sympathy, he captures neither our hearts nor imaginations.

David is placed in the home of a couple, Monica and Henry, whose only child is cryogenically preserved. In one of the film's best scenes, David, who doesn't blink or make noise when he moves, startles Monica by walking into the bathroom and nonchalantly beginning a conversation. Later he makes her laugh by aping her movements at the dinner table, although he doesn't eat.

When Monica reads the seven-digit love code - "...Socrates, dolphin, tulip, hurricane..." - David becomes less spooky in everyday matters but more challenging metaphysically. He calls her mom, hugs her and as he begins to understand human life, laments her mortality. Does she have a new son or a very complex toy?

Here Spielberg loses his grip on the material. David's transformation into a loving robot poses a multitude of questions - does the capacity to love make him sentient? Is he capable of other emotions? What does he understand about himself? If he loves only his mother, what defines his relations to others? Instead of exploring these issues, the director jerks the plot forward.

Monica's (human) child is miraculously cured. A sibling rivalry develops, resulting in two nearly fatal accidents. Through tears, she decides to return David to the factory, where he'll be destroyed, but finally leaves him in a forest, telling him never to come home.

Now David is on his own in a futuristic world that recalls Blade Runner, Close Encounters and Star Wars. He is captured by mecha bounty hunters, escapes from a carnival show in which mecha are tortured and destroyed, and flees to Rouge City. Here a hologram sage tells him the blue fairy from Pinocchio, which David believes can turn him into a real little boy, thereby earning his mother's love, is in the underwater city of Manhattan.

These scenes treat the plight of David and other mechas as an excuse for stunning sci-fi visuals. I would rather have learned more about their motivations than watch them fly amphibicopters against the submerged NY skyline. Do they possess the will to live, for instance? The mechas flee from danger but only David panics when faced with destruction.

In Manhattan, David meets his maker, who, it turns out, created him in the image of his dead son. "You've been motivated by love and by your dreams," Professor Hobby tells him. "Something no robot has ever been."

It's a shame Hobby (William Hurt) doesn't get more screen time. Whenever he opens his mouth, the story's vital issues - the obligations and feelings from the human creators to their robot creations - are addressed intelligently and poignantly.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence plays like it is trying to be the defining film of the cyborg/robot genre. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) is more intriguing because we know enough about the artificial beings to feel sympathy. Spielberg made some of the best movies of the 1980s and 1990s, including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. This one got away.

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