Somewhere, Stanley Kubrick is smiling. The notoriously secretive director (who, before his 1999 death, made Steven Spielberg install a fax machine in his bedroom so the two could collaborate on ”A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) must be thrilled that his pet project of more than two decades has turned into this summer’s biggest guessing game. Even the title of the film, in which Spielberg directs Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment, is causing some befuddlement. Weeks before the June 29 opening, Today’s ordinarily well prepared Matt Lauer accidentally referred to the movie as ”A.1.”
No, the film isn’t about steak sauce. Beyond that, though, little is known. Publicity materials are purposefully vague, saying ”A.I.” ”focuses on the relationships and challenges involved when a robotic boy, the first programmed to love, coexists as a member of a family.” Some things we’re sure of: The plot is loosely based on ”Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” a 1969 Brian Aldiss short story, and Spielberg wrote the shooting script (his first solo credit since ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) based on Kubrick’s script, notes, and drawings.
And we know that the marketing is, well, different. Instead of the usual summer-movie tack of plot leaks, trailers that reveal endings, and general overhyping, Warner Bros. (a division of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY parent AOL Time Warner) has opted for a campaign that heightens the film’s Kubrickian mystique — with a dash of ”Blair Witch” cybercool tossed in as well. The highlights:
— An elaborate Web game, designed and implemented with the help of unnamed Microsoft employees, that includes 30-plus sites and centers on the mysterious death of research scientist Evan Chan.
— A fictional consultant named Jeanine Salla, a star of the Web game (jeaninesalla.com), who is listed in the film’s credits as ”Sentient Machine Therapist” and boasts a real Manhattan phone number — complete with voice-mail. (Though one Warner exec says neither Salla nor Chan figure into the film’s plot.)
— The possible seeding of movie sites with false or misleading information, such as a recent scene-by-scene post on aint-it-cool-news.com that was later tagged a hoax. ”It was created by the studio but not directly,” says site guru Harry Knowles. ”It was spawned by the fervor the online game has created.”
— Enlisting real artificial-intelligence researchers, like Cynthia Breazeal, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AI Lab, as marketing consultants. ”I’m helping [Spielberg] establish a connection between themes in the movie and what we are working on,” explains Breazeal.
As a result of this reality-bending strategy, the film’s promotion has played out like the ultimate mind game. Take an April 30 event at MIT, staged by Breazeal and Warner as equal parts academic wonk session (on the state of AI research) and Hollywood hucksterism (including a five-minute ”A.I.” preview). During a Q&A featuring real AI researchers as well as Haley Joel Osment, one apparent student — who had just removed a Warner Bros. sticker he had been wearing outside the auditorium — asked Osment if he had worked with Jeanine Salla, never mentioning that she’s not real. ”She was mainly involved in postproduction, so I never really met her,” Osment coyly replied.