Space Oddity

Spielberg and Kubrick had a weird little kid, and its name is A.I.

For almost two decades, Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a film based on Brian Aldiss's 1969 short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," about a robot child named David who wants only to be "real" so Mummy and Daddy will love him. The late director of 2001: A Space Odysseyand A Clockwork Orangeenvisioned "Super-Toys" as the frame upon which he could hang his own reworking of Pinocchio, and perhaps he also saw it as an extension of what he began in 2001: David is HAL as a little boy, a machine who aspires to consciousness and emotion -- in other words a machine that wants to become like its creator. But Kubrick found an even better director for his project: friend Steven Spielberg. "Super-Toys" would allow Spielberg the chance to revisit old themes and doll them up in the fancy togs of a fellow mythmaker. He could remake Close Encounters of the Third Kindand E.T. the Extra-Terrestrialin Kubrick's image. He could commingle the childlike with the clinical, the heartbreaking with the heartless. Finally Spielberg could make a movie about children and aim it solely at adults. (The movie is simply too slow, too serious, even too sex-drenched to play to kids.)

The results, then, are just as you would expect: A.I.: Artificial Intelligenceis Kubrick as interpreted by Spielberg, which means it's by turns poignant and cold, twisted and sweet, dreamy and drab, effortless and overwrought. In short the movie is a stunning, ambitious mess that leaves you wondering how much better it might have been without Kubrick's specter peering over Spielberg's heavy shoulders. But what else could it have been? Theirs is hardly a perfect marriage: Kubrick's movies are chilly and distant, existential tone poems made by a control freak who loved movies but not necessarily the people who paid to watch them. His perfectionism too often quashed whatever passion sneaked into his films: They look great but feel empty. Spielberg, especially the young man who made Close Encountersand E.T., revels in innocence and awe. Spielberg, the eternal optimist, presents life as one big happy ending: We're going to be rescued, whether by aliens or Roy Scheider or Tom Hanks. Kubrick, the curmudgeonly cynic, seemed to believe we are all doomed. One walks out of his movies filled with hope only because we hope the world isn't as bad off as the director's work suggests.

A.I.attempts to reconcile those disparate world views. The movie wants to overwhelm you with sadness and despair, but it's too frosty and manipulative to elicit a single tear. Spielberg is credited with A.I.'s screenplay -- it's the first time he's written and directed since Close Encounters -- but the film is faithful to both Aldiss's story and Ian Watson's original screen story, commissioned by Kubrick. Watching it, a moviegoer can't help but feel the director wanted to become Kubrick, which means this is the first Spielberg movie that seems to have one hand on the viewer's chest, keeping him or her at bay.

Man and machine, time and space, Kubrick and Spielberg: The pairings of Hollywood's future in film
Man and machine, time and space, Kubrick and Spielberg: The pairings of Hollywood's future in film

A.I.fleshes out, for lack of a better phrase, Aldiss's simple, heartbreaking short story into a grand-scale fairy tale -- Pinocchio as reimagined by the visual-effects team at Industrial Light & Magic. We learn at the film's onset that the ice caps have melted and drowned Earth's biggest cities, and in a distant, overpopulated future in which childbirth is regulated by the proper authorities, humanoid robots have taken over our most menial chores; they serve us, even pleasure us, until they're discarded for better models. Professor Hobby (William Hurt), A.I.'s Geppetto, proposes to a group of fellow robotic designers that they create a "robot who can love," and the result is little David (Haley Joel Osment), who is made of synthetic flesh and computer circuitry. Hobby is unprepared to answer the inevitable Big Question: Can you get a human to love the robot back?

The response is found in the home of Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), whose flesh-and-blood son Martin (Jake Thomas) suffers an illness that requires him to be suspended in cryogenic deep-freeze. His holding tank is in but one of myriad scenes that look like something lifted from 2001; the audience, like Martin, shivers in the sterile setting. Henry, who works for Professor Hobby, envisions David as Martin's replacement, but Monica refuses to look at his unblinking, expressionless face: a machine bereft of true emotion but prone to disturbing outbursts of laughter. Monica finally warms to the cold little boy, imprinting him with seven words that will forever bond mother and "child," and as she does so, his face softens (Osment looks, on occasion, like Cary Guffey, the child in Close Encounterswho longs to ride in the crystal chandelier in the sky). The catch is that David can love only her, and if Monica ever decides she no longer wants David, he will have to be destroyed.

But Monica and Henry will never love David as they do Martin, who one day comes home from the hospital and begins treating his "brother" as if he's nothing more than the latest and greatest super-toy -- a better version of their talking teddy bear. Martin taunts David, constantly reminding him of his artificiality; he's a "mecha" (a machine) in a world of "orgas" (organics). Martin gets Monica to read to them from Pinocchio: "David's going to love it," Martin says with a cruel smirk. But the story gives David hope: If he can find the Blue Fairy, he, like the puppet in the book, can become a real boy.

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