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Spielberg's 'A.I.': The Strings Are Showing
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2001


    'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' Jude Law, background, and Haley Joel Osment gaze at unfinished robots in "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."
(Warner Bros. and DreamWorks)
Even without death rays and Martian fighting machines, the classic science fiction movie that Steven Spielberg's "A.I." most suggests is "The War of the Worlds."

The worlds belong to Spielberg himself and to his mentor, inspiration and the original developer of "A.I.," the great late Stanley Kubrick.

The two men seem so similar: extraordinary cinema geniuses, driven, perfectionist, powerful, autocratic.

And they are so different.

Spielberg is suburban, sentimental, a believer in happy endings, family wholeness, benevolent aliens that are just a projection of his optimistic worldview. Even if it contains killer sharks, the universe ultimately makes sense; it can be known and understood.

Kubrick came out of harsh New York German-Jewish intellectuality. He's the chess master, the pipe smoker, without a sentimental lick to him, caustic, cynical, cold and analytical. In one of his films, he blew up the world as a joke! The universe is a whirligig of gases and cosmic debris that always conspires to render human nobility and aspiration futile.

So: Spielberg sees the glass as half full; Kubrick saw the glass smashed and ground into your face.

And that struggle fills "A.I." from start to finish. Kubrick bought the original short story and carefully nurtured and developed it. It is rumored that he enjoyed a secret collaboration with Spielberg; fax machines in closets were involved (how very Kubrick!). When Kubrick died, possibly to escape the reviews of "Eyes Wide Shut," Spielberg took over the script, rewrote it, produced it and filled it with his own strengths and weaknesses.

The result is fascinating, if uneven and ultimately rather silly. Problems with the ending, so common these days, dog this visionary film as well.

The original idea has a very specific '50s feel to it, reflecting Kubrick. It's a movie about robots that hails from the days when robots seemed the ultimate expression of human genius, complete with corollary notions that someday artificial life powered by artificial intelligence would fit seamlessly with and ultimately replace humanity. "Blade Runner" has already probed this issue, seeking an answer to the sci-fi writer's classic query: Where does man end and machine begin?

And here's the answer: Who cares? It doesn't matter. Man and machine will never meld, and to pretend that they will is to waste everyone's time. It's so four decades ago.

So "A.I." is a strangeness: a technically brilliant '00s film full of annoyingly ancient '50s ideas. The movie is full of answers to questions that are seldom asked anymore. Thus it's a film best not to think about, or to pay careful attention to. Just enjoy Spielberg's masterful narrative voice as he pulls you through the odyssey of a science fiction Pinocchio who just wants to be a real boy.

The film is set a few decades after 2001. Most of humanity is gone (the ozone hole got bigger and suntanned billions to death, melting the ice caps and performing ultimate urban renewal on all the coastal cities). But life is pleasant in the small high-tech, cloistered suburbs where elite survivors live. There, alas, the Swintons, Monica and Henry (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), are in mourning.

Their son, stricken with a fatal disease, is cryogenically preserved, awaiting a cure (another '50s idea!). It turns out that Henry works for a high-tech outfit that is in the business of building robots – they're called mechas – so perfect they seem all but human. The one human trait the programmers hadn't been able to hard-wire into their disks is love. But now, under the guidance of Professor Hobby (William Hurt at his most professorial), they've got a prototype of a love-capable mecha.

And so David (Haley Joel Osment) comes to live at the Swintons', where his adorable literalism makes him seem like a child raised in a lab. He bursts in on Monica sitting on the toilet, because that big no-no hasn't been drummed into him. But soon enough Monica, who has been fighting it, falls into mother's love with him and he has replaced the frozen Martin.

This is Kubrick's suburbia, not Spielberg's. The house never has the messy jumble of a real place, which Spielberg has captured in films like "E.T." It's a severe, Scandinavian-modern type of place; moreover, the whole gestalt is Kubrickian, from the stately camera movement, to the classic (snaillike) sense of pace, the early-in-their-career use of low-voltage actors (I don't even know who Frances O'Connor is!) and the careful, Flaubertian detail work.

But the emotional turmoil soon unleashed feels Spielbergian: it's from a turbulent childhood with a vanished father and a lot of confusion between siblings. Martin is awakened, cured and returned home, and suddenly the two boys are fighting for Monica's love, acting out, the whole family disintegrating under stress.

And so Monica faces a shattering decision: She must remove the non-child, whom she loves as much as the real child, from the family. But if she returns him to the company, he will be deactivated, which she interprets as execution. She takes him to the woods and lets him go.

Thus David enters the real world, which turns out to be a history of the future as told by movies of the past. It's part of the carnal London from "A Clockwork Orange" but also the post-apocalypse outback of George Miller's "Road Warrior" films with an overlay of Ridley Scott's incredible evocation of L.A. in "Blade Runner."

The issue of sexuality is another odd field in which Spielberg's and Kubrick's sensibilities collide. Kubrick clearly reveled in the sexual; his masterpiece "Dr. Strangelove" is full of sexual double-entendre, one of his early succès des scandales was "Lolita," and his last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," barely escaped an NC-17 rating. By contrast, Spielberg is Mr. Clean; I cannot think of a single scene in his films where sexuality is significantly addressed.

But sexuality is a theme that runs through "A.I.," for one of the intriguing aspects of the mechas was their deployment as sex partners. So Jude Law, under slicked-back hair, his handsome features exaggerated by aggressive makeup, becomes David's boon companion in their quest for knowledge. He is a sex professional named Gigolo Joe, though his part in the film is roughly the equivalent to Jiminy Cricket's. Spielberg, who longs desperately to stay in PG-13 territory, never embraces the sexuality implicit in Joe, or even in Rouge City, the town of mecha whores and porn goddesses to which Joe and David head.

For a while the film becomes pure adventure story, as Joe and David, on the lam, join a tribe of lost mechas who are being hunted by exploiters for carnival shows as a protest against the over-mecha-nization of the world, and roam in search of a Blue Fairy that David believes will turn him human, for he has stumbled upon a text of "Pinocchio" and thinks it's a how-to book. It's great fun, as an unlimited production budget allows the filmmakers to conjure all sorts of heretofore unseen sights, including a mecha-hunting vehicle disguised as, yes, the moon.

But ultimately the movie's conclusion arrives, bringing what is certain to become legendary befuddlement. I struggle here not to give anything away, but the highly intelligent might want to back off now, for they may divine what it is I'm saying.

It appears to me that Kubrick was intending to reiterate that sense of confused wonder and awe that he brought to the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey," the profusion of images that carried the dark message that there were things in the universe that man could not know and that he would have no vocabulary to understand or remember. As Keir Dullea sought the source of the mysterious signals, so does David seek reality and a chance to bond again with his beloved mother. In the first film, this produced a seminal moment in film history: Dullea on one of the moons of Jupiter, sitting in a Louis XVI bedroom. That was Kubrick's methodology for suggesting the human mind encountering something beyond its scope and recasting it in familiar images.

And so it is with "A.I." when – I give you no other details purposely – the boy is liberated to full humanity. In fact, he not only represents humanity, he has become humanity. If he's not fully human now, he can never be.

But Spielberg couldn't let Kubrick's evocation of this wonder go without grounding it in some knowable reality. Thus he invents agents who make the metaphorical transformation realistic and palpable – and silly. In a Spielberg movie, you have to figure that somehow aliens will be involved, they will be calming and benevolent, not savage and predatory.

The result is grand but somewhat trivial. The majesty of Kubrick's cold universe has been dragged into the warmth of Spielberg's cuddly one. You want to believe in these two tellers of tales and you want to believe that they could solve their differences to tell one great tale between them, but somehow those differences end up being the most memorable thing in the film.

"A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (146 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.


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Haley Joel Osment filmography

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Feature: 'A.I' May Not Be So Very Sci-Fi

Interview: Haley Joel Osment

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