The Ultimate Boy Toy

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which stars Haley Joel Osment as a robot boy who longs to be human, is officially billed as a Steven Spielberg movie, but for more than twenty years Stanley Kubrick had been developing the project. At one time, he wanted Spielberg to direct it. The finished product is a synthesis of Kubrick’s vaunted imperiousness and Spielberg’s dreamland pop. It’s one of the weirdest achievements in film history: Temperamentally, Spielberg and Kubrick are such polar opposites that A.I. has the moment-to-moment effect of being completely at odds with itself. Spielberg is able to duplicate precisely not only the grandiose and abstracted look of Kubrick’s post-Strangelove movies but also their subzero emotional temperature; at the same time, he’s fussing up the film with a vast storehouse of references to his own movies, most specifically E.T. He’s trying to pump hot sentiment into the deep freeze.

The results are alternately emotionally wrenching, unsatisfying, and bewildering. How could they not be? A.I. bears strong evidence of the darker, kinkier, and more unforgiving Kubrick movie it might have been, but at almost every opportunity Spielberg, who also wrote the script, softens Kubrick’s misanthropy. Maybe this tenderizing is all for the best: We don’t need to see Robo Eyes Wide Shut. But since the Kubrick material also has the effect of denaturing Spielberg, nothing true-blue comes through from either filmmaker. Spielberg isn’t liberated by Kubrick; he’s reined in by him. A.I. is not so much an homage as it is a kind of hocus-pocus channeling of the Master’s themes and tropes and camera moves, which are then superimposed onto Spielberg’s own.

The movie is set in a sterile future in which natural resources have been severely depleted and the birth rate is strictly regulated. Mechanical robots, acting as helpmates to humans and called mechas, are omnipresent. (Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long was the film’s initial inspiration.) Martin (Jake Thomas), the mortally ill son of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor), has been cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found. Henry is an employee at Cybertronics Manufacturing, where its resident visionary, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), has developed the first child robot, David (Osment), whose capacity to love and be loved is unique. Henry brings David home to his grieving wife as a surprise gift; both parents are cautioned that once emotional imprinting takes place between them and their mecha, there is no turning back except to relegate David to the scrap heap. Following a family flare-up, David’s odyssey to avoid that fate takes him into a nightmarish, carnival-like underworld of renegade robots who are chased and despised by the humans they nearly outnumber. With his mechanical teddy bear in tow, he takes up with the preening Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who has been programmed to service flesh-and-blood women. Joe is creepy and yet, in his desire to please, touchingly lifelike. He clicks his heels like Ray Bolger; he cricks his neck and out comes “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

One of the curiosities of A.I. is that the robots are arguably less androidlike than the humans, although with Haley Joel Osment it’s hard to tell – he seems preternatural no matter what role he’s playing. (William Hurt is another one who always manages to seem zoned out.) There’s a good sick joke in the notion that the robots are more human than the humans they are aching to be, but Spielberg doesn’t seem to be in on it. David’s Pinocchio-like quest to be flesh and blood and win back the love of his mother is played straight, even though Mom, despite her smiles and teariness, is a stiff. (David’s unnurturing father is a standard Spielbergian distant dad.) A.I. makes a big deal about how we humans have lost the capacity to love in a society in which technology has displaced emotion. But its own capacity for emotion – with a few exceptions, such as a devastatingly sad scene with David pining for transcendence at the bottom of the ocean – seems forced rather than genuinely felt. This is what happens when you try to will a classic into being. Spielberg is grappling with a modern dilemma – technology versus heart – that deep down he doesn’t buy into. It may have been true for Kubrick that humans are becoming more and more machinelike, but, dystopian scold that he was, this alarming development would have been, if anything, cause for celebration (or at least a black Mass). Spielberg, by contrast, has always had an almost beatific approach to technology: That approach is what gave Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. their supernal glow. Spielberg isn’t afraid of the future; on the contrary, he wants to be its ringmaster.

Is it any wonder, with all these crossed circuits, that A.I. is such a mishmashed fable? Fables need to be magically simple. Early in the movie, David’s father cautions his wife that since David was created for love, he might also be capable of hate. This is a Kubrickian conceit. And yet David, despite at one point inadvertently endangering his family, is shown to be a sainted child without a speck of malevolence. Spielberg bathes him in a nimbus that would make Pinocchio warp with envy. David’s love for his mother, as it’s played out, is another example of brackish material making its way through Spielberg’s cosmic car wash. With Mommy finally all to himself, David tucks her in and sleeps contentedly beside her and makes her coffee just the way she likes it. It’s a boy’s Oedipal fantasy served up without irony. Who could have predicted that “When You Wish Upon a Star” would come to this? Doesn’t Spielberg recognize that this clash of the pre-Freudian with the postapocalyptic is just plain nutty?

With Schindler’s List and Amistad and Saving Private Ryan behind him, Spielberg has certainly earned the right to create a dark E.T. Except that’s not really what we have here. It’s more like a manic-depressive E.T.: The depressive part is all that (yawn) soullessness-of-technology stuff; the manic part is Spielberg trying to break through the blankness and indulge his own entertainer’s spirit. The most interesting drama in this movie is not David’s struggle to become human; it’s Spielberg’s struggle to serve his many muses.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Haley Joel Osment.

The Ultimate Boy Toy