Spielberg Channels Kubrick
Among the pantheon of postwar American film directors, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick - two of the titans, to be sure - don't seem to have much in common. Kubrick worked infrequently, withdrew from the States to live and work in England from the
1960s onward, and generally tended to project a vision of humanity that ranged from antiseptic (1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey) to darkly comic (1963's Dr. Strangelove, 1980's The Shining) to bleak (1987's Full Metal Jacket), and to all of the above (1971's A Clockwork Orange). Spielberg is of course a prolific modern-day-mogul, one whose tendency towards mawkishness (demonstrated in certain parts of 1998's Saving Private Ryan, 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1985's The Color Purple, and even in his masterpiece from 1993, Schindler's List) has done nothing to diminish his status as America's most popular and financially successful moviemaker, ever.
Despite these differences, both directors were longtime mutual admirers, and over the past two decades Kubrick had sought Spielberg's advice on a science fiction project that kept stalling. Kubrick's proposed film about a child robot was shelved during the director's final years as he worked on the underrated Eyes Wide Shut - but although Kubrick died prior to the release of his last film, his long-held project remained alive thanks to Spielberg, who, using his own screenplay and unparalleled technical expertise, brought the pieces together. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is merger of two disparate visions - Kubrick's often-chilly skepticism and Spielberg's unfailing hope - and although the story unfolds unevenly, the overall film is captivating, to auteur-theory disciples and sci-fi buffs alike.
A.I. is set in the not-too-distant future, after the polar icecaps have melted and the earth's land mass has diminished accordingly. Cybertronic engineering has by this time perfected intelligent and eerily lifelike robots (called "mechas," for mechanical) to serve mankind ("orgas" = organic) in any way imaginable, but a scientist (William Hurt) wants to take a further leap into ethical Hades and construct a child mecha who will love his assigned flesh-and-blood mother for eternity. Eventually, an eleven-year-old prototype named David (Haley Joel Osment) is matched with two human parents (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor), whose son (Jake Thomas) is on life support. After a period of unsettling adjustment, the grieving mother programs David to love her forever (the code, once implemented, is irreversible), and for a brief time their relationship settles into an idyllic normalcy. Soon, however, the couple's real son recovers, and this malicious rascal comes to resent the attention his flawless sibling commands. After a couple of frightening near-catastrophes, David is abandoned by his mother in the woods and left to fend for himself, with only an animatronic Teddy Bear for companionship. His "mother" insists that David never return home, because he is not human - yet David is programmed to love his human mother, and to receive love in return, nothing more. So David decides to become human - and if this is beginning to read like a twisted take on Pinocchio, rest assured that Spielberg is well aware of the similarity.
Midway through, after David is on his own, A.I. changes tone abruptly: what was a slowly-paced mixture of tension and sweetness becomes a series of manic adventures as David meets up with other downtrodden robots. After escaping demolition at a "flesh fair," where mechas are de-limbed and blown up before rapacious human spectators, David bonds with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot stud who is fleeing from the orga authorities (Gigolo Joe's scenes detailing his sexual expertise are some of the film's best). The unlikely pair journey to a sexual Mecca called "Rouge City" (an inspired visual creation - not far below the envisioned Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner ), and then on to the submerged ruins of Manhattan, where David's seemingly-futile search reaches an end. The film then downshifts into a meditative final passage, where Spielberg bypasses at least two possible conclusions to flash-forward far into the future, in the hopes of reconciling David's one true desire - to be loved as an actual, human child - with the unalterable reality of his own artificiality.
A.I.'s amalgam of Kubrick and Spielberg doesn't always hold; the picture is about twenty minutes too long, the rapid shifts in narrative pace and tone are jarring, and outside of Osment (building on his otherworldly persona from The Sixth Sense ) and Law (following up on his sci-fi work in Gattaca  and eXistenZ ) none of the actors have much to work with. Ultimately, though, A.I. is the rare summer movie that engages the intellectual region of the mind as well as the visceral. Give Steven Spielberg credit, both for his ambition in resurrecting Stanley Kubrick's project, and for the final result. A.I. doesn't match the best of each director's canon, but it's an effective expression of two great cinematic minds nonetheless.