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Steven Spielberg aspires to intelligence


Somewhere, maybe in the place where dreams are born that’s mentioned near the end of Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Stanley Kubrick is laughing. Yes, it took him until 2001 to do it, but he’s posthumously exposed the void behind the feel-good mask of America’s most successful filmmaker. And he got Spielberg himself to cooperate. A project nursed for years by Kubrick and bequeathed to his friend, A.I. is not only Spielberg’s least-pleasant film, it’s a willful self-deconstruction that will make it impossible to look at the director’s films the same way again.

The problem is, no one is likely to see this one in the first place. The buzz around A.I. has been terrible, and it will probably be Spielberg’s worst reviewed and least commercially successful release since Always. So why am I recommending it? I was moved by the way it addresses identity, loss, and the need for meaning, and also by the spectacle of antithetical sensibilities — Kubrick’s cold, wry fatalism and Spielberg’s dazzling, naive sentimentality — in a death match for our culture’s soul. True, it’s far too long and exhibits the worst traits of both authors. But it also confirms their best; like the film’s chimerical androids, it’s a surreal amalgam that grotesquely reflects the face of humanity.

Spielberg has picked up the habit of self-reflection in this collaboration with Kubrick, but not the art of concise exposition. Whereas 2001 managed to outline all of human history in 20 minutes of wordless imagery and one monumental jump cut, Spielberg plods first through a voiceover narration and then a speech by Professor Hobby (William Hurt), a pioneer in artificial intelligence, to establish his setting and premise. Global warming, it turns out, is real: the ice caps have melted, coastal cities are submerged, and a tiny minority of the human race (probably the same fraction who will benefit from George W.’s tax cut) live in gadget-enhanced prosperity. Do these lucky few dedicate their technological resources to helping their fellow humans cling to existence?

Hell no. Their biggest challenge, as Hobby pontificates, is to create a more convincing humanoid machine. Sure, current robots simulate feelings, as Hobby demonstrates with a comely android reminiscent of the topless tootsie who torments the newly programmed Alex in A Clockwork Orange. But do they really feel? Can they love? Like Spielberg’s own films, they put on a good show of human sentiment, but is there a soul beneath the effects?

Enter David (Haley Joel Osment), the ultimate mechanical house pet for childless couples like Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose own boy lies terminally ill in cryogenic sleep. At first creepily sweet, David turns into a stalker as Monica goes about her housekeeping (nice to know that gender roles will deteriorate as much as the environment in the near future), cornering her in a closet in a sour allusion to E.T. His closest relationship is with an animatronic bear named Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), but David displays an unexplored violent streak, almost drowning a boy when his pain response is tested. No surprise, then, that Monica abandons him by the roadside in a wrenching scene that recalls the agony and outrage of another allegory of monstrous parenthood, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

That’s the biggest thrill so far in an affectless, futuristic family melodrama that could have been broadcast on The Outer Limits. The effects kick in, though, as David sets out on his quest. Before ditching him, Monica read David Pinocchio as a bedtime story, and he believes that if he can find his own Blue Fairy, he will become a real boy and win his mother’s love. Vying with Teddy for the Jiminy Cricket role is Gigolo Joe, whom Jude Law plays as a cross between Fred Astaire and Robocop. Law makes the most of being a sex toy in a PG-13, strictly heterosexual picture, and Joe figures wryly in the film’s most disturbing segment, when an airship in the form of a giant full moon — a dead ringer for the DreamWorks logo — swallows up the latter-day Pinocchio and company, taking them to the Flesh Fair, where robots are blown to bits as bloodthirsty, moralistic entertainment. With its horrific images reminiscent of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, could this be a critique of the morality of Hollywood itself?

If so, that won’t stop Spielberg. The family-friendly delights of the Oz-like sexopolis Rouge City await, as does a drowned New York City and a millennium-long anticlimactic dénouement in a world transformed into one big Etch-a-Sketch (these are the special effects Kubrick didn’t live long enough to see and so make this film himself?) where David has become, if anything, more of a spoiled brat. Intermittently is heard the refrain from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child,” a ballad of the fairy abduction of human children from a world “more full of weeping than you can understand.” Perverse and uneven, A.I. might yet mark the point where Spielberg renounces fairyland and becomes a real boy.

Issue Date: June 28- July 5, 2001