Years from now, when film scholars try to break the code behind A.I. Artificial Intelligence, they'll find two names wrapped around each other like strands of DNA: Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Those of us who follow film closely never expected these legendary directors to work together. They're so...different. Spielberg's the Peter Pan of Cinema, eternally youthful despite his recent sorties into World War II via Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, whereas Kubrick seems to have been born old, centuries old, with all the cynical detachment that implies. This is the guy who lit Barry Lyndon using only candles, after all; he likes it dark. Right up until his death two years ago, Kubrick was also a fastidiously private man, drawing a veil of secrecy over all his projects, whereas Spielberg has never kept anything from his audiences. You can hear his movies coming for miles.
Until this one. A.I., which was nurtured by Kubrick for years and then, after his death, handed over to Spielberg at the request of Kubrick's family, has kind of slunk into theaters, as if reluctant to assume the "event movie" mantle. There was that Kubrickian preview ' provocative, yet rather stingy with plot details, which previews rarely are these days. And apparently there's been an Internet campaign going on, Blair Witch-like teasers that have little, if anything, to do with the movie. Otherwise, there's been a minimum of hype. Or maybe anti-hype is the hype. Or maybe the producers decided that the name "Spielberg" is all the hype anyone would ever want or need. Or maybe ' maybe ' Spielberg simply wanted to launch the movie in a way that Kubrick would have approved of. Which makes you wonder: Did Spielberg also try to make the movie in a way that Kubrick would have approved of? Is this a Spielberg movie or a Kubrick movie?
Both, obviously, although God knows where one ends and the other begins. Luckily, there's plenty of movie to go around, for A.I., which stars The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment as a robot who dreams of becoming a boy, is two, if not three, movies in one. In terms of genre, it's a domestic drama plus an adventure tale plus a sci-fi fantasy. In terms of tone, it's cold as ice and as warm as a puppy. And in terms of Spielberg's career, it's some of the best work he's done since E.T. and some of the worst work he's done since Hook. For the first hour or so, I thought I was witnessing a masterpiece ' a futuristic fairy tale for adults that asks tough questions about what it means to love and be loved. Then, like a child in the woods, the movie suddenly takes a wrong turn and never completely finds its way back, winding up so far away from home as to constitute another movie altogether.
Osment does some nice work as David, the robot with the Pinocchio complex. "Would you like me to sleep now?" David asks the couple that has just brought him home to live with them, and you have to laugh, both because it's the first time in the history of the world that a child has asked that question and because Osment drains it of exactly the right amount of emotion. From Spock to Data, actors playing androids have had to decide where to pitch their performances, toward the human end or toward the machine end. Osment starts just this side of human and spends the rest of the movie closing the gap. At first, there are some bugs in the software: David's movements are too quick, too fluid, and he says things like "I like your floor." Plus, he's always around, smiling. The couple were looking for something to fill the hole left by their son, who's cryogenically frozen. Instead, they got Betsy Wetsy.
Except that this particular Betsy Wetsy can't wetsy, in part because he can't eat or drink. And yet he sits at the dinner table with the couple, mechanically lifting a drinking glass to his lips. Like ventriloquists' dummies, androids both amuse us and scare us, and there's a wonderful scene where David starts laughing uncontrollably ' seemingly uncontrollably ' then abruptly stops. The couple, well played by Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor, are about a half step behind David, still laughing after he's stopped, and the disjuncture is harrowing. This early portion of A.I. is unusually dark for a Spielberg film about children, with movies like Westworld and The Stepford Wives lurking in the shadows. And the quality that made Osment so effective in The Sixth Sense, that beyond-his-years stillness, makes him even more effective here. As the wife soon learns, David's so cute it hurts.
Based in part on a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss called "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," this first section of A.I. is about what happens when a child robot gets rejected by his "parents." And what makes the early portion of the movie so poignant is its undercurrent of an adoption gone bad. Spielberg is careful not to overplay his futurist card. The couple's home is little more than a modernist box dressed in glass, wood and stainless steel, with vaguely Japanese stylings, and their clothes are awfully close to ours. Even David's teddy bear, which used to be the real son's teddy bear, seems only a few generations beyond Sony's Aibo or Matsushita's Robokitty ' pets programmed for cuddliness. By not forcing the sci-fi angle, Spielberg allows us to focus on the performances, especially Osment's and O'Connor's. Their scenes together have the emotional wallop of a Greek tragedy.
O'Connor isn't like the other Spielberg moms ' harried suburbanites who love their kids but don't quite notice them. She's more desperate, more fragile. It takes her a while to warm up to David, but when she does she lunges at him with the affection of a woman who's lost one son and doesn't want to lose another. Then, in a plot twist that Spielberg doesn't bother to explain, the first son returns home and almost immediately starts stirring up trouble. Sibling rivalry is a Spielberg specialty, of course, and the scenes between these two half-brothers draw on Spielberg's vast reservoir of memories from his own suburban childhood. There's a spinach-eating contest, which lands David in the repair shop for some emergency surgery, and it's not long before we realize that David, who's programmed only to offer love and affection, is no match for your average suburban brat.
I'm not sure I can recall a movie that had me so spellbound one moment, so bored the next. When David gets left in the forest, he sets off with Teddy to find the Blue Fairy, who he hopes will turn him into a boy, as she did Pinocchio. Alas, the movie itself gets turned into a block of wood, pounding us over the head instead of carving itself into a workable second act. Jude Law shows up as Gigolo Joe, the future's answer to the inflatable doll, and although Law obviously did his homework ' he has the marionettish grace of James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy ' the movie keeps him at arm's length, as if he might disturb the E.T. crowd. Sex hasn't really been Spielberg's forte over the years, and Joe is literally a sex machine, a rubber-coated stud. But Spielberg, who appears to have run out of Kubrick notes at this point, never figures out how to link Joe's journey with David's.
Nevertheless, they wind up in the same cage at Flesh Fair, a gladiatorial arena where humans take out their resentments on androids. Here, Spielberg seems to have lost not just his narrative footing but his ability to stage a scene. With its heavy-metal soundtrack, its oily emcee (Brendan Gleeson), its slobbering crowd, the Flesh Fair sequence is a pale imitation of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which wasn't all that bright to begin with. And things don't get much better in Rouge City, a Vegas-like capital of sin that uses that oldfangled material, neon, to light up the night sky. (Who says the future ain't what it used to be?) Neither Flesh Fair nor Rouge City has the sheer density of Blade Runner's L.A., which continues to set the standard for urban dystopias. In comparison, Spielberg's vision here, most of which he inherited from Kubrick, seems thin, two-dimensional, theme park-ish.
Maybe he was saving himself for the movie's third section, which takes place in a submerged Manhattan. (The polar ice caps have melted Ã la Waterworld.) Here, David meets his real father, Professor Hobby, played with no particular distinction by William Hurt. Gepetto to David's Pinocchio, Professor Hobby might have been a meaningful character, but there's simply not enough time to cover all the ground that Spielberg wants to cover. I won't give away the endings, of which there are several, including one that reaches far into the future of the future. (Think 2001's Stargate sequence.) But I'm happy to report that, despite still being narrated by a guy with a British accent (will the BBC never shut down?), the movie manages to slide more or less back on the tracks. I was genuinely moved by David's movie-end devotion to his mother, even if, when you get right down to it, it consists of only ones and zeroes.
Though artificial intelligence has been around since the 1950s and perhaps peaked in the 1980s, it remains a fascinating subject for science fiction. Can machines think? Can they feel? And if so, are we little more than machines ourselves? These questions have lain at the heart of any number of recent movies, from Blade Runner to Bicentennial Man (directed by Spielberg protÃgÃ Chris Columbus). One might have expected Spielberg to extend our thinking on these questions a little more if he hadn't taken over a project that's been around for almost 20 years, but what we get instead is the old thinking as visualized by some of contemporary film's greatest visualizers. The Dream Team from Jurassic Park ' Dennis Muren on f/x, Stan Winston on robotics, John Williams in the orchestra pit ' give the early portion of A.I. just the right futuristic sheen, a world like ours only different.
It's interesting that they went with a live actor to play David rather than a "synthespian" ' i.e., a computer-generated character. Kubrick reportedly considered the idea, finally rejecting it as impractical. (How many years do you suppose this ultimate perfectionist would have spent on that particular challenge?) And Spielberg rejected it too, mostly because he was afraid of not reaching the audience. But what's ultimately so fascinating about A.I. is that it's not about how we feel about David so much as about how David feels about us, the blind constancy of his devotion to his mother. Near the end of the movie, he seems prepared to spend all of eternity ' or until his batteries run down, whichever comes first ' begging the Blue Fairy to turn him into a boy so that his mother will want him back. That I was moved to tears by this liquid crystal display of affection is a joke Kubrick would surely have loved.
Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin ' we've had centuries to get used to the idea that we may not be the center of the universe, but it always helps to be reminded. As machines continue to encroach on our mental and physical abilities, about the only thing left that sets us apart is our desire to be set apart. How strange, then, that Spielberg, one of the most singular directors in the history of cinema, would be so willing to merge his artistic personality with another singular director. "I felt that Stanley was with me for the three and half months it took me to write the screenplay and then the three and a half months it took me to shoot the movie," Spielberg recently told Time magazine. It's lovely to think of Kubrick as the ghost in this machine, guiding Spielberg from beyond the grave. Now we'll just have to wait for those film scholars of the future to tell us how this co-piloted movie wound up so wildly off course.