John Williams – ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ was premiered on June 28th 2001 in the United States and on September 21st in the UK, so the movie itself should be fresh in our minds. From an idea conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, ‘A.I.’ is a formulaic story of a young android – played by Haley Joel Osment from ‘The Sixth Sense’ – whose purpose is to bring ‘love and happiness’ to his adopted family but ends up wandering the streets of New York in his quest to become a ‘real boy’ and find his friend Jiminy Cricket. Whoops, wrong movie! Steven Spielberg’s visuals are stunning even if the script is rather lacklustre, but we’re not interested in all that…

John Williams, master of the movie soundtrack, penned the score for ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’. Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last forty years you’ll know his work from the likes of ‘Jaws’, ‘The Eiger Sanction’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’ and ‘Jurassic Park’. In other words, some of the most recognised contemporary classical music of the twentieth century.

Although Williams penned the majority of the score himself, for the movie’s one and only song he teamed up with lyricist Cynthia Weil. Recording took place at Sony Pictures Scoring Stage (Culver City), Chartmaker Studios, Sony Studios (New York) and UCLA’s Royce Hall, but unusually aside from vocal soloist Barbara Bonney, no other artists nor the orchestra used are credited on the disc.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is one of the first original soundtrack recordings to be made available on DVD-Audio at the same time as the conventional CD version and when the movie itself is still playing in theatres the world over, so it looks as though more mainstream releases may be starting to trickle through…

Aside from the enchanting ‘For Always’, for which an Oscar® nomination must be on the cards, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is largely a dark, oppressive and atmospheric piece. You won’t find stirring musical characterisations such as Darth Vader’s theme from ‘Star Wars’ or the recognisable melodies of ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘E.T.’ but there are typical Williams elements, ‘Rouge City’ has obvious similarities to ‘Dual of the Fates’ from ‘The Phantom Menace’. There are other influences too, where choirs are used there is more than a passing resemblance to the monolith sequences of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ both in style and presentation, a gentle homage to Kubrick maybe? I found that on an artistic level, the ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ soundtrack to be somewhat hit and miss, at times I was engrossed and yet toward the end of the piece my mind began to wander, largely because of the repeated use of the ‘For Always’ theme, sans vocalists.

The highlight of the piece, for me at least, is ‘The Moon Rising’ which contrasts melodic orchestral tones with an upbeat techno electronic passage that also happens to offer one of the few artistic implementations of all six channels.

As ‘A.I. ’ is a recent recording, was produced by one of the leading composers of our time (Williams) and hails from a major label, one would expect a level of fidelity suitably benefiting the piece. Wrong. ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is one of the worst DVD-Audio discs I have heard to date. I’ll break down why into two categories.

1) The recording. For some reason, when ‘A.I.’ was recorded, even across multiple venues, it appears the engineers forgot to turn off the studio’s air conditioning units. This results in what I consider an unacceptable level of background noise and it’s not just hiss but a low, almost sub-sonic grumble. All six channels are affected, so during quiet choral passages, the opening bars of ‘Stored Memories and Monica’s Theme’ for example, the disc suffers from a constant low frequency rumble, akin to but worse than the bearing noise of a worn turntable (remember them?). The presence of so much noise renders DVD-Audio’s inherent signal to noise ratio advantages moot, one might as well be back in those long-forgotten analogue days.

The presentation of instruments and soloists also leaves something to be desired. String instruments don’t have the ‘bite’ one would ultimately hope for and at times appear somewhat compressed in terms of dynamic range.

One thing this disc does have however, is oodles of low frequency energy, and it’s not only delivered by the highly active LFE channel but by all five full-range channels. There are passages that may prove a little too much for some subwoofers – ‘Abandoned in the Woods’ and ‘Replicas’ being the two most aggressive examples – especially if you’re fond of high playback volumes. If you desire nothing more than a musical subwoofer workout, then this is the disc for you!

2) The Multi-channel mix. ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is a prime example of what would otherwise be an acceptable disc, ruined by the ‘creation’ of a multi-channel mix. Although the surrounds and centre channel are in use throughout, they do nothing to heighten one’s enjoyment, the centre simply provides a subtle blend between front left and right channels (which narrows the soundstage width and increases the likelihood of comb filtering) whereas the surrounds deliver artificial ambience, spreading the front soundstage around to the sides of the room in what I would consider a largely unnatural way.

The presentation is dedicatedly cluttered, ‘Stored Memories and Monica’s Theme’ features a delicate piano/cello rendition of the movie’s theme, but due to the mix both instruments are veiled and indistinct, almost distant in character.

Yet it’s only when one encounters the two multi-channel versions of ‘For Always’ (with and without Josh Groban) that one realises the engineers involved in this project have really made a mess of things. Lara Fabian’s outstanding vocals are presented in equal quantities by all three front channels, which is bad enough, but some bright spark has also added a time alignment delay to each, thereby rendering what should be a pure solo lead into an echoing, conglomerate mess. The result is bearable until Fabian really lets rip, then her delivery becomes so muddled that it’s impossible to understand the lyric. Groban’s part does not suffer in the same way, so one can only assume the butchering of Fabian’s sweet voice was a deliberate artistic decision.

The flaws in the mix are particularly apparent because Warner has provided a dedicated two-channel DVD-Audio version on the same disc (it is not downmixed from the multi-channel version). It’s so much better than the multi-channel abhorrence as to be beyond a joke. Here, the ‘For Always’ vocal is unsullied, stable and as a result far more enjoyable.

Ironically, if you select the two-channel DVD-Audio track and then engage Pro Logic II Music or Logic 7 Music within your processor, the experience, complete with anchored centre and free of strange time-alignment trickery is far superior to the ‘professionally’ (and I use that word loosely) created multi-channel mix.

The disc notes credit Shawn Murphy for the ‘remix to surround sound’ and Bob Ludwig for DVD-Audio mastering, so at least we know who to blame, although not in what proportion.

As for disc extras, they’re few and far between, just a brief note from Steven Spielberg that is mirrored in the disc’s inlay card, production credits (likewise) and a handful of still images from the movie itself.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ is an opportunity wasted by Warner Bros., the John Williams score deserves a recording of the highest fidelity and conversely, does not deserve to be the victim of a horrendous surround remix. I can find little to recommend this DVD-Audio disc, the red-book Compact Disc offers a similar level of fidelity and the same two-channel mix.