A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Directed by Steven Spielberg
We fade in on huge churning waves, not a bad place to start: Steven
Spielberg's A.I. pegs
our end of days as waterlogged, with whole cities drowned under
melted icecaps. It's the future and people now live in places like
New Jersey--comfortably, in fact--thanks to science: Robots fill
the void imposed by ecological disaster and strict sanctions on
pregnancy. That's a lot of doom and zoom to be riding in on those
cresting waves, and you brace yourself for the chop--just as Spielberg
must have when he picked up this project from the late Stanley Kubrick,
who, insiders say, secretly obsessed on its finer points for decades.
as toned and well-positioned as he is, just can't surf these waves;
they might have even thrown the master. At its essence a retelling
of the lost-boy Pinocchio story bathed in a meticulously imagined
high-tech universe, A.I. has the overpowering taste of a
dense French reduction left to stew for too long; it's so saturated
with baroque detail and curly-cue plot extensions that you choke
on the richness. It's like a million hours spent playing with the
This is not the typical problem that sinks most summer blockbusters,
alchemy by which the input of dozens of high-paid and presumably talented
writers is somehow combined into a lump of coal. A.I. is deliberate
in a way than can only be attributed to its two chief creators, Kubrick,
the mechanic supreme, and Spielberg, the great pop impresario. As
such, it's a psychotic piece of filmmaking, but a strangely personal
one too, a mythic boyhood fantasy (E.T., The Empire of the Sun)
modeled on a blueprint made by a HAL computer. The strangled result,
while never less than arresting, is the most maddening of failures,
a double-stymie of genius: a Kubrick film literalized to the point
of obviousness, a Spielberg film largely choked off from emotion.
We are the robots.
Someone must have thought this was a good idea, maybe Spielberg
himself, though his fulfillment of A.I. strikes me as duty
as much as tribute. (There may have also been guilt: At one point
he agreed to a formal collaboration with Kubrick but extricated
himself after a month or so of intense transatlantic faxing.) At
any rate, A.I. is certainly the most expensive honor ever
paid a 90-page treatment, itself based on a one-gag short story
by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss called "Supertoys Last All Summer
Long," published 30 years ago and expanded over time by other writers,
primarily novelists Ian Watson and Sara Maitland.
Whatever spark was there though, holding Kubrick's interest for
25 years and burning unspeakable amounts of development money, will
remain a mystery, now even further obscured by Spielberg's personalized
version of the material. (The rambling screenplay is his first since
Poltergeist.) But how could it not be? Kubrick, more than
anyone else, depended on his own eye and stylized remove for his
O.K., so A.I. isn't a masterpiece rescued from an untimely
death. It's here, though, and if hosannas aren't exactly in order
there's certainly a lot of captivating whiz-bang to process, starting
with the slightly menacing first scene--a robotics lecture given
by William Hurt, who calls on his company to create a "mecha" who
can love. It's an erudite chamber of the gods: self-satisfied with
their progress and quick to applaud. (Hurt seems too wan a presence
for the required arrogance; it's a part that calls for one of those
plummy scientists from A Clockwork Orange.) Not five minutes
in and we're already at a meta moment, where the creation of robot
life can be swapped for the creation of cinema: Spielberg prevails
(of course) as the benign god of what we see here--dramatically
lit scientists with good intentions hesitating at moral quandaries--over
what would have likely played as all-too-human buffoonery in the
lapsed church of Kubrick.
Suddenly it's 20 months later and their experiment is a reality.
Enter David (Haley Joel Osment), a serenely beautiful child stepping
tentatively into his adoptive parents' foyer. Osment's debut, so
haunted and intuitive in The Sixth Sense, heralded a talent
unseen since the lankier days of Jodie Foster, and he's clearly
the real deal. With A.I., he has applied himself to a plasticine
weirdness that would be a challenge to any actor, masking layers
of expressiveness under artificially designed wraps. He's almost
too perfect when he calmly asks, "Would you like me to go to bed
now?" (The question is certainly a first in the history of child-rearing.)
Spielberg stretches out in this initial section, and you might
be surprised by how far he strays from familiar ground, leaving
behind the picture of idyllic family life for some sharp commentary.
David gives his owners the creeps, jolting them to nervous glances
at the dinner table after a pre-programmed explosion of laughter
at the sight of a hanging spaghetti strand. It's an expertly timed
exchange, free of dialogue--a sly gloss on a saccharine, take-a-photo
moment. Elsewhere, Spielberg is provocatively dark, especially after
the couple's real son, Martin, returns home from a cryogenic deep-freeze
in which he was suspended while awaiting a cure for his disease.
He soon becomes a nasty rival, spurring David to self-mutilation
and competition; he even forces their teddy bear (itself an ingenious
robot with the clipped adult voice of a Joe Friday detective) to
choose between them.
There's a built-in irony to these brothers, the sickly Martin with
his motorized leg braces and David, his durable but disposable surrogate
who at one point stares blankly from the bottom of a swimming pool,
forgotten in a panic that attends only to flesh-and-blood emergencies.
A.I. teases us with a whiff of greater dimensions--something
to do with human fallibility, a quest for perfection only attained
in the making of perfect things. But in striving for that kind of
cynicism (so natural to Kubrick, who breathed bleaker air), Spielberg
sweats himself into uncomfortable shrillness. For all his fluidity,
he's just no good at metaphysics. Thus Martin becomes a tiny terror
and David a saintly unfortunate soul, impossible not to love.
Worse still are the parents, set up strictly for easy contrast:
Monica is an unnaturally fickle mother, exposing and closing her
heart to David like a shellgame hustler (Frances O'Connor has one
quiet, overwhelmed moment looking in the mirror that hints at unexplored
depths); Henry (Sam Robards) goes from a can't-we-keep-the-puppy
earnestness to fear and callousness in between edits.
So when Monica invites David for a drive in the country, we already
know what's in store for him; the archetypal abandonment in the
woods has a shamelessness to it ("I'm sorry I didn't tell you about
the world," she says, fleeing) that obliterates whatever critical
distance remains. David may still be a replaceable product, but
his heartwrenching pleas ("I'll be so real for you!") make that
status almost an afterthought. So why introduce high-concept underpinnings
in the first place, given the cost of parts?
It's right around now--after Spielberg has hammered David into
his kind of robot, adorable and misunderstood--that A.I.
becomes a dangerously innocuous affair. Determined to become a real
boy and regain his mother's love, David wanders across a pile of
robotic carnage, limbs and jaws jutting out like Holocaust photography.
This scene and his subsequent captivity at a "flesh fair," where
robots are chainsawed and melted down for the entertainment of screaming
hordes in bleachers, are as nightmarish as anything Spielberg has
ever attempted, brutal and visceral as Schindler's List.
Their success, though, relies on the transference of robots into
persecuted outsiders: wandering mechanical Jews flung into tragic
circumstances. It all seems a bit easy, given this project's pedigree.
Robots are people too, it says (and thanks for the tip, Steven),
but this must surely be a retreat from the indictment Kubrick was
likely planning. "They made us too smart, too quick and too many,"
is the most telling line, spoken resignedly by Jude Law in a slick
turn as a lover robot on the run; greater stuff of fate and folly
was definitely in mind.
But Spielberg's sticking with Kid A: airless set pieces pile up
long after any quest for a Blue Fairy should have reasonably ended,
finally propelling us to the submerged skyscrapers of Manhattan
and a properly Kubrickian coda thousands of years later. John Williams'
score swells (what else does it know how to do?) and one ultimately
realizes that someone's played a big joke on poor David. Was it
the scientists who programmed him to love a monster mom? (And why
can't the super-advanced robots who greet him on the other side
of an ice age help him out with that little bug?) Or was it Spielberg
who programmed us to respond so helplessly to a machine in child's
clothing? To say that A.I. ends in a dreamlike vacuum of
self-absorption may be putting it too bluntly: Spielberg puts all
his chips on his young lead--now the only "human" in sight--and
we're dragged down into a weird oblivion of Oedipal bliss, uncomfortably
close in tone to a golden-hued coffee commercial.
Call it a draw. A.I. never does truly mesh its two artistic
sensibilities as some critics are gushing--it's more like mash.
(Or mush.) Kubrick's hundreds of sketches and notes are the real
artificial intelligence here, implanted in a filmmaker whose triumphal
moments--on the shark boat or making mystical mountains out of mashed
potatoes--have risen above thought to pure kinetic pleasure. If
you smell burning wires, it's due to intellectual overload. I fear
this new sentient Spielberg: He is at once our greatest mass communicator
and our least analytical. Only a snob can dismiss his work outright;
only the patronizing can call A.I. his breakthrough.