The top secret collaboration with Stanley Kubrick gets a highly intelligent P.R. push

By Steve Daly
May 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

For months now, anybody with Internet access has been able to download mysterious, fuzzy focus trailers for ”A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” the Steven Spielberg movie opening June 29. (You can just make out the shadowy likeness of star Haley Joel Osment, who plays a boy robot.)

More recently, hip Web surfers have discovered a fictional person buried in the ”A.I.” credits named Jeanine Salla, who’s listed as a ”sentient machine therapist” and who turns out to be the key to a sort of ”Alice in Wonderland” Internet portal: Enter her name in a search engine, and soon you’re clicking through scores of ingeniously cross referenced websites that detail some sort of future civil rights struggle between pro- robot and anti- robot citizens. (The clue strewn goose chase exceeds any Net based movie buzz builder to date for sheer scope — including savvy campaigns for ”The X-Men” and ”The Blair Witch Project.”)

But on Monday, April 30, a posse of publicists from Warner Bros. unfurled a new strand of ”A.I.” heraldry the old fashioned way: in person. The studio invited a group of about 400 students and journalists to a lecture hall on the Cambridge campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As star Osment and producer Kathleen Kennedy looked on, a quartet of real life robot researchers and academics spoke about their work, and about how it compares to the futuristic events depicted in ”A.I.,” thus giving both their own studies and the film a joined at the hip P.R. push. (Remember similar news flash campaigns built around paleontologists and dinosaur DNA for ”Jurassic Park”?)’s about entertainment, of course, so to us the big news wasn’t the scholarly talk. It was the five minute ”A.I.” clip unspooled by Kennedy, the first public showing of the opening scene from the not yet finished film (it’s still in dubbing and post- production, as is typical two months before release).

WARNING: Now’s the time to hit ”BACK” on your browser if you hate spoilers — though we promise, we’ll be gentle.

Opening shot: A churning sea in slow motion. (We’d tell you all about Ben Kingsley’s introductory voice over narration, but faulty projection cut off most of it.) The camera pulls back through a rain streaked window to reveal a room that’s… what, exactly? Even those who saw it couldn’t be sure. We meet a CEO of some sort (played by William Hurt) in a crowded library cum meeting room that looks comfortingly, reassuringly 19th century — more Harry Potter than Flash Gordon. Hurt, a scientist and inventor as well as a businessman for ”Cybertronics of New Jersey,” is presenting a lecture to an eager group of what appear to be fellow employees (perhaps some are also students, or business consultants) on the subject of whether robots can be programmed to love humans.

One utterly humanoid robot that hasn’t quite reached that milestone, it turns out, is already in the room — a fact that’s revealed in a stunning moment involving a long, slender needle, someone’s vulnerable flesh, and the surprise exposure of an ”ON / OFF” switch. After a casually cruel demo of how robots, like humans, learn to avoid pain, Hurt flicks the test subject android’s ”OFF” switch and then, in the scene’s ”wow!” moment, splits open her mechanical skull so he can show off the machinery inside.

Short as the scene was, it seemed to settle one burning question immediately: This is a Steven Spielberg movie all the way. ”A.I.” may have gestated in the late Stanley Kubrick’s cool, clinical mind for several decades before Spielberg took it over, but everything about the visual style — the smoky backlighting, the fluid camera moves, the avuncular manner of Hurt’s talk (very much like Sir Richard Attenborough’s Dr. Hammond in ”Jurassic Park”), the carefully multiethnic extras shown in shadow in the foreground who listen raptly like kids attending to a bedtime story ? is vintage Spielberg; he’s employing every trope in his playbook, but with a new moral gravity that’s fused together seamlessly by his gifted cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, the man who lensed the first two ”Jurassic Parks,” ”Schindler’s List,” and ”Saving Private Ryan.”

Just as the showmanship on display in the clip dazzled, so did the entire presentation. Press folks moved on to a dizzying walk through of M.I.T. projects in progress, everything from ”intelligent rooms” activated by voice commands to eye sensors trained to follow your gaze around the computer screen, thus nixing the need for a computer mouse. In the coming weeks, expect to see a flood of newspaper, TV, and magazine stories about the academic A.I. community, just as ”Private Ryan” and ”Schindler’s List” triggered historical reminiscences by the cartload. Professor Spielberg is about to open enrollment for A.I. 101, and he’s determined to make every moviegoer a student.

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 145 minutes
Complete Coverage