If it were possible for a movie-savvy viewer to take in a screening of A.I. -- the long-awaited sci-fi film developed by Stanley Kubrick then turned over to Steven Spielberg prior to Kubrick?s death -- with no knowledge of the film?s lineage, that viewer would likely still discern the touch of both of those very different directors.
The bizarre notion of Spielberg helming a Kubrick project certainly promises a clash of styles, but I never expected that clash to be so naked on the screen. However, the wildly disparate sensibilities of these two cinematic autocrats do indeed meet -- clashing, oscillating, merging, and disconnecting -- in this odd, affecting, sometimes thrilling, sometimes puzzling sci-fi epic.
The film, written and directed by Spielberg (his first screenplay since Close Encounters of the Third Kind) using a story and visual style honed, with typical obsessiveness, by Kubrick, somehow conveys both Spielberg?s childlike wonder and gee-whiz futurism and Kubrick?s detached formalism and intellectual rigor, Spielberg?s all-American need for warmth and reassurance and a wellspring of darkness and sadness that just as clearly comes from Kubrick. The rub is that at some junctures these conflicting tones seem to be working together, intentionally, while at other moments the film feels fractured, as if the two directors are struggling over ownership. And it?s hard to decide what?s more intriguing or moving -- the harmony or the discord.
A.I. is set in an unspecified future when greenhouse gases have melted the polar ice caps and some cities have been submerged. In this world, continued prosperity has been assured through rationing of children, and technology has allowed the creation of remarkably lifelike androids, ?mechas? to the human ?orgas,? that can perform human tasks. At Cybertronics, one android manufacturer, a professor (William Hurt) seeks to take this technology one step further by creating androids with the capacity for love, love being the key to developing human subconsciousness.
The company develops a child android that can be programmed (and never deprogrammed) to love its adoptive parents, prompting one Cybertronics designer to ask, ?If a mecha can love a person, what responsibility does that person have to love in return??
Cybertronics creates a prototype of the child mecha, David, played to perfection by Haley Joel Osment -- brilliant in one of the finest recent Hollywood films, The Sixth Sense, and the object of manipulation in one of the worst, Pay It Forward. David is given to a company employee (Sam Robards) whose wife, Monica (Frances O?Connor), is distraught over the fate of their real son, Martin, who has been the victim of some unspecified accident or ailment and lies dormant in a coma or some sort of cryogenic preservation.
A.I. divides neatly into three acts, and the first follows the domestic integration of David into the family?s world. Monica is at first wary of David, and the early home scenes are suffused with horror movie creepiness, but she soon opens her heart to him, deciding to activate his ?emotional circuitry? so that he gives her the unconditional love of child for parent.
This section of the film concerns a nuclear family milieu more akin to Spielberg, but the design -- cool and modern -- is as deliberate and controlled as the direction. Spielberg could almost be channeling Kubrick during this first act.
The story is complicated by the healing of Martin, who treats David like a toy, explaining to him, ?I?m real. You?re not.? Spielberg deftly handles the relationship between the two ?boys,? giving their interaction a realism that Kubrick may not have managed. And there is humor and pathos in David?s attempts to ape human needs and rituals that he is not wired to perform -- eating, sleeping.
The second act of the film -- and I won?t reveal how this transition occurs -- is pure Spielbergian wonder, a journey that is part Pinocchio, part Blade Runner, and part The Wizard of Oz that finds David on the road to ?Rouge City? to visit the omniscient ?Dr. Know.? Accompanying David are a robotic teddy bear and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a ?lover-model? android who has sort of the look and manner of the Tin Man. This section is full of fascinating futuristic set pieces and has less emotional strain or scientific speculation than the preceding and following sections. There is an unforgettable visit to an android junkyard, where vagrant mechas search for usable parts while humans hunt them down for destruction in a horrific ?Flesh Fair.? As David searches for the ?blue fairy? (from Pinocchio, which Monica had read to him and Martin) that he thinks can make him into a ?real? boy, the trio journey to an underwater Manhattan -- ?the submerged city at the end of the world.? The blue fairy is a metaphor here -- the will to believe in such things described within the film as both the great human flaw (Kubrick?s analysis?) and the great human gift (Spielberg?s?).
The film?s final section, set far in the future, merges the two auteurs? sensibilities and styles into something rather original, with echoes of Kubrick?s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Spielberg?s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is much more ambiguity in the film?s finale than is typical of a Spielberg film. The audience is torn both by how it should react to David?s single-minded devotion to mommy and how to choose between the responsibility to think and the impulse to feel. It?s difficult to determine just how in control Spielberg is of the film?s clashing tones at this point. Is this a brave juxtaposition of opposed readings or is the war of competing discourses beyond even Spielberg?s grasp at this point?
Despite or perhaps because of A.I.?s unsure tone, it is the most compelling work Hollywood is likely to offer up this summer -- a ?blockbuster? far removed from the equally inept garishness of Pearl Harbor and Moulin Rouge or the bewilderingly adored surface cleverness of Shrek. What happens when Eyes Wide Shut meets E.T.? What does the audience do? And who is the audience?