Space Oddity

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

The first third of A.I. feels so much like Kubrick it's as though the film had been directed by a ghost. The Swintons' home, with its polished wood floors and post-IKEA furnishings, looks barely lived in. It's a quiet, lonely place, and even composer John Williams, who's made millions providing Spielberg with orchestral bombast, stays hidden in the shadows with music that's less a score than a whisper of strings. Up to this point, the movie plays like small-scale domestic drama -- the story of a rejected stepchild wanting only to love and be loved. But all that gives way when Monica takes David out in the forest to dump him, lest the rejected boy end up destroyed. His screams pierce the soundtrack ("If I become a real boy, can I come home?") as the landscape becomes suddenly desolate and threatening.

What follows next is perhaps the most twisted Kubrick-Spielberg amalgam imaginable: We're introduced to Gigolo Joe -- played by Jude Law behind a thin veneer of makeup that turns him into a human-size sex doll -- is Fred Astaire on the dance floor, John Holmes in the sack. Living in a sleazed-out town, Joe comes across as something that could have been cooked up by Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove collaborator Terry Southern, a man fond of his kink. "Once you have a lover robot," Joe brags, "you'll never go back." But Joe is nothing more than a plot device, the older brother David never had. He belongs in a different movie -- a fun one.

When Joe finds himself in bed with a dead girl, he's forced to go on the run and winds up in a robot graveyard in which outdated, gruesomely half-destroyed models scavenge for parts. David and Joe are rounded up for a Flesh Fair, where mechas are destroyed onstage for human amusement. It's a horrific moment, because it subverts an image from E.T.: The moon literally rises out of the horizon and scoops up the unsuspecting androids, hauling them off to slaughter. It's BattleBots gone mad, a Klan rally in which humans destroy their mechanical -- indeed, their superior -- counterparts.

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

Details

Based on a screen story by Ian Watson and a short story by Brian Aldiss. Opening at selected theaters.

Like 2001, A.I. suggests that artificial "humans" are better than the real thing; if theirs is a synthetic love, at least their processors don't manufacture synthetic hatred. The humans are ogres, be they Monica Swinton (who else but a hateful woman would dump a child in the middle of nowhere?) or Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), the robot-hunter who terrifies the Flesh Fair audience by insisting David is part of a "plan to phase out God's little children." But whatever point Spielberg is trying to make about racism and fear of the future is lost in the spectacle and eventual sentimentality of the Flesh Fair sequence, which deteriorates into proselytizing by way of the World Wrestling Federation. And because we see the struggle to define humanity through the eyes of David and Joe and not their creators, the battle between mechas and orgas becomes simply too cartoonish to take seriously.

Joe finally leads David to a place where he might find the man who knows the Blue Fairy: Rouge Town, a dreamy Fuck City where denizens populate A Clockwork Orange's milk bar, clubs are entered through the parted thighs of computer-generated women, and Dr. Know provides answers to scared little synthetic boys. And here, suddenly, the movie begins to fall apart: Robin Williams, as the voice of the Einstein look-alike Dr. Know, conjures memories of his own Bicentennial Man, a clumsy, sickly sweet version of what's essentially the very same tale.

In the end the film fails because Spielberg chickens out. Instead of a Kubrick movie, he's remade Close Encounters, only without the sense to edit himself (even the music echoes Williams's use of "When You Wish Upon a Star"). A.I. comes to a very logical, if overpoweringly cheerless, ending about fifteen minutes before the final credits roll. But Spielberg plunges forward, and the result is frustrating and pointless. What had been a fairy tale becomes daffy sci-fi tomfoolery; our emotions are hung out to dry along with some garish special effects that serve only to create distance between David and the audience, which never existed till that point.

It's as though Spielberg has succumbed to the "ponderous seriousness" of which Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1977 when comparing Close Encounters (which she loved) to 2001 (which she loathed). The mythmaker who wants to explore just what makes us human (our desires and drives, as it turns out, not merely our emotions) succumbs to the franchise-maker who wants to usher us out the door feeling, if not cheerful, then at least satisfied. The ending -- which suggests that little boys want nothing more than to sleep with their mothers -- is not enough to betray the movie, which is too engaging, too ambitious, and too bizarre to dismiss, but it suggests that Spielberg is not quite ready to make grown-up sci-fi movies. And he won't be until he figures out that happy endings aren't always the best ones.

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