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Kubrick's vision, Spielberg's heart

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[Warner Bros. Pictures]
Human parents Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) bond at the dinner table with their mechanical son, David (Haley Joel Osment).

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 28, 2001


Haley Joel Osment is exceptional as Steven Spielberg's latest Lost Boy, caught up in a world created by mastermind Stanley Kubrick.

Entering a theater to see A.I. Artificial Intelligence will feel like a religious experience for many moviegoers. Director Steven Spielberg created it from an outline bequeathed to him by Stanley Kubrick's estate. The father and son of modern filmmaking, in a project unavoidably haunted by Kubrick's holy ghost.

A.I. isn't the cinematic rapture we're hoping for, maybe because there's one too many geniuses involved. Spielberg and Kubrick share an uncommon intuition for probing humanity, yet with polar styles: the sentimental versus the clinical. They're on the same page in two entirely different books.

Kubrick nursed along A.I. for a decade before his death in 1999. It's difficult to imagine why he took such an interest, considering the film Spielberg made. Kubrick always aimed for the mind and gut. Spielberg is all heart. A.I. has potential for either stimulation, but not both.

Perhaps this is the A.I. that Kubrick would have made. If so, the movie would be even more vulnerable to charges of being too emotional, swapping his trademark chilly analysis for warm fuzzies. Kubrick may have pulled it off, confounding audiences yet again. I don't think so. There are elements here -- especially an Ewok-like sidekick -- that Kubrick would have certainly darkened. We'll never know.

A.I. turns out to be another technically marvelous Spielberg fairy tale about a lost boy making it home. That the boy is actually a robot child makes him as bravely naive as E.T. himself. It's a cruel world out there, as Spielberg's young protagonists have always discovered. Kubrick's kind of world. A world that Spielberg briefly gawks at and barely explores.

The time is later this century, after "greenhouse gases" melt Earth's ice caps, submerging cities like so many Atlantises. Family size is strictly regulated, and emotionless androids who don't use precious resources provide anything from housework to sex. Professor Hobby (William Hurt) proposes taking robotics a step farther, creating a child who can feel love for parents who miss such joy.

Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards) are chosen for a test run of David (Haley Joel Osment), a remarkably lifelike robot. Monica and Henry's biological son Martin (Jake Thomas) is comatose. Devotion to him makes Monica apprehensive about taking the final step of imprinting David with voice commands that will make him love her unconditionally.

The key question is: What does Monica, or anybody for that matter, owe someone just because they're given love? Kubrick might have toyed with our moral reflexes, as in Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut. The first hour of A.I. -- the film's best sustained drama -- has the master's sense of sterile voyeurism.

Then the movie leaps into Terry Gilliam territory, with garish sets and vulgar action as David is separated from Monica. (Dad doesn't matter much, but seldom has in Spielberg's households.) Abrupt narrative changes are common in Kubrick's work, particularly Full Metal Jacket and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his vision of the moment never wavered. Spielberg seems to forget whom he's honoring here, lingering on Kubrick's storyboards too long for little reason except the dazzle.

Inspired by the bedtime story Pinocchio, David sets out to find the Blue Fairy who will transform him into a real boy. Maybe then Mommy will love him. One problem with A.I. is that Monica disappears for nearly an hour, taking the story's most provocative angle with her. Her third-act return is when Spielberg completes his hijacking, with a tear-jerk climax of a kind that Kubrick never showed any inclination toward.

The main reason A.I. remains compelling, and not just a cult oddity, is Osment's performance, so carefully measured and casually performed that it's creepy. He's always in control of little tics that betray David's artificiality; never blinking, with only subtle hitches in body language to suggest the circuitry underneath. Watch Osment's face when David gets programmed to love for a lesson in how tears are genuinely earned on screen.

There is much to admire in A.I., from Rick Carter's varied production designs to a strange, charismatic performance from Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, a randy robot guiding David through the figurative dark forest. Spielberg unleashes some thrilling images of sunken Manhattan and carnivals of robotic torture before revisiting his Close Encounters of the Third Kind muse.

However, there is just as much about A.I. that is maddening. Making the Pinocchio connection gets in the way in that over-baked second act. Kubrick probably wouldn't cause distractions by hiring Robin Williams and Chris Rock for animated voices. The discussed social conflict between Mechas (mechanical beings) and Orgas (organic humans) is wasted. David's toy bear Teddy, an impressive bit of computer imaging, belongs in a cuter movie. Kubrick's cute factor might go as far as HAL 9000 with a smiley face.

That's the rub with A.I., that its intelligence seems so artificial and diluted. The idea comes from a filmmaker visionary enough to take audiences to the stars. Spielberg merely wishes upon them.

MOVIE REVIEW

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

  • Grade: B
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, William Hurt, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Brendan Gleeson
  • Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, based on the short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss
  • Rating: PG-13; violent images, sexual situations, profanity
  • Running time: 145 min.

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