Just so you know: The promos for Steven Spielberg’s A.I./Artificial Intelligence are misleading. They show Haley Joel Osment, as a child robot, pleading to become a real boy, like Pinocchio. The ad copy reads, “His love is real. But he is not.” Jeez. Even E.T./The Extra-Terrestrial would phone home for a rescue crew if he heard such bilge. But A.I., despite being freighted with clunky exposition, windbag moralizing and thumping self-importance, is a far darker and more disturbing piece of science fiction than its marketing campaign lets on.
Spielberg directed A.I. and wrote the screenplay – his first solo effort since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. But it’s unlikely that A.I. will join that film and E.T. as a pop-culture landmark. It’s too unwieldy and uningratiating for that. Still, in a year dominated by poseurs, from Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor) to Dominic Sena (Swordfish), A.I. is unmistakably the work of a real film-maker. Failure in the hands of passionate talent is always more exciting to watch than a trendy blockbuster from the hack du jour.
And Spielberg is stretching past the crowd-pleasing thrills of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the heroics of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, to create his most complex take on parent-child bonds since the underrated Empire of the Sun. For starters, the film takes place at a future time when most of the planet has been destroyed by global warming. Hell, Manhattan is un-inhabited and half underwater. Osment, in an uncanny performance that is simultaneously tender and chilling, plays Dave, the first mecha (short for “mechanical”) who has been programmed to have “feelings” by a Dr. Strangelove scientist (William Hurt). Dave is capable of love, hate, fear, jealousy and murder. In a coldly gripping scene, Dave bludgeons another kid robot into rubble. Then there’s Jude Law, who makes a lively, raunchy screen presence as Gigolo Joe, a sex mecha who offers his services to female orgas (short for “organics”) and flashes his equipment in tight leather pants. “Will it hurt?” asks a female human, scared and yet salivating at the thought of this mecha penis inside her. I’m jumping ahead to show the kind of lost boys Spielberg is dealing with here. This is not Hook.
What you really need to know about A.I. is that it represents a unique collaboration between Spielberg and a dead man. I’m referring to Stanley Kubrick, the director who had planned for more than twenty years to make a film based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” by science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss. Back then, the notoriously secretive Kubrick had taken Spielberg into his confidence, asking advice from the director and his team of experts, notably Dennis Murren, the f/x whiz who helped those dinos jump off the screen in Jurassic Park. But when Kubrick, 70, died in 1999 after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, A.I. died with him.
That is, until Spielberg decided to see the project through, preserving Kubrick’s vision and adding much of his own. The result is arguably the most schizoid film in modern cinema. These two might as well come from different planets. Spielberg champions human triumph; Kubrick, in films like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, preferred to patrol the dark side. While Spielberg sees the community of man, Kubrick saw man alone and alienated. Having Spielberg complete a film originated by Kubrick is like having Francis Coppola call in Ron Howard to collaborate on Apocalypse Now. It doesn’t compute.
Still, watching this clash of the titans casts a perverse spell. As Spiel-berg says, “I felt like I was being coached by a ghost.” He got that right. The home into which Dave is adopted is pure Kubrick – sterile, an-tiseptic and hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) has adopted Dave to help his wife, Monica (Frances O’Connor), through the pain of losing their real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been cryogenically frozen until a cure for his cancer can be found. It’s a Kubrick situation that Spielberg turns less grave by letting Dave create a familiar domestic chaos. Dave is creeping the Swintons out. He follows Monica around all day, even invading her privacy on the toilet. Osment calls on the otherworldly quality that worked so well in The Sixth Sense. Dave hasn’t mastered human mimicry yet; his laugh is too loud, his stare too intense. Think E.T. meets The Shining as Monica recites the words on his imprinting card that will make Dave love her for life. Should Monica tire of her mecha son, there is no deprogramming card. Dave must be returned to Cybertronics, the factory where he was created, to be dismantled and destroyed. Pretty, huh?
Trust Spielberg to keep softening the blows that Kubrick inflicts. I cringed when Teddy, a toy bear that talks, started giving Dave fatherly advice on handling the return of Martin, miraculously cured, to the Swinton home. How does that Spielberg touch jibe with the Kubrick-like scene in which Dave almost drowns Martin in a swimming pool? It doesn’t. As Monica drives Dave back to the Cybertronics death camp – hey, the robot almost killed her real kid – A.I. skips from light into dark and back again. Not so bad as a concept, except that Spielberg – he’s got the conch – manages to dilute his own personality and Kubrick’s in the process.
As the plot escalates, changes locales and encapsulates more than 2,000 years, you watch the film as a game, trying to figure out who concocted what. There’s a scene at night when a truck dumps used robot parts in the woods, and zombielike mechas (some played by handicapped actors) emerge to exchange an arm or a leg or a jawbone. That seems the essence of Kubrick. Ditto a Flesh Fair in which mechas are tortured and shot out of cannons to amuse base humans.
On the brighter side, Dave links up with Gigolo Joe for a trip to Rouge City – a very Wizard of Oz flourish – in which a hologram called Dr. Know, with the voice of Robin Williams, offers fast information and snappy patter. Dave wants to know where to find the Blue Fairy, who will turn him into a real boy and make his mother love him again. Later, Dave and Joe escape Rouge City in an amphibi-copter that dives into the murky waters where much of Manhattan has sunk. As a despairing Dave sits atop a skyscraper, the ruin of a great metropolis beneath – cheers to exemplary cinematography from Janusz Kaminski – the imagery has a fierce beauty that honors both Spielberg and Kubrick. Sadly, the moment is fleeting.
Although A.I. is a film of visual astonishments, ultimately Spielberg doesn’t trust Kubrick’s harsher view of the future. We’re a long way from the evolutionary complexity of the star-child image that ends Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Spielberg’s closeup of a robot shedding a tear. Spielberg can’t resist loading up his film with friendly aliens, an exultant John Williams score and one last look at the comforts of home. Whether audiences are pleased or vexed, very vexed, by A.I., any movie buff worth his salt will want to sift through this fascinating wreck of a movie to figure out what led two of the most distinguished names in world cinema to tell the story of a boy who just wants his mommy.