Saving Stanley Kubrick

With A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg tries to rescue the world's most elusive filmmaker from an unhappy ending

 

Set in a near-future world half-drowned by melted ice caps and increasingly dependent on android intelligence, Spielberg's latest reflexive allegory begins with the director--in the form of William Hurt's aptly smug Professor Hobby--wondering aloud whether it's possible to build a big-budget robot that can actually love. (You'd think his Hook would've answered the question definitively.) Enter the angelic Haley Joel Osment, who, like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, is entrusted to provide some good old-fashioned star power in order to ease the burden of all that "realism."

Trouble is, Osment's immaculately conceived child-replacement "mecha," whose rather telling first comment to his new parents (Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards) is, "I like your floor," seems more creepy than cute throughout--one of several Kubrickian elements that Spielberg strains to make palatable but can't. And while the director tries to honor his mentor by avoiding the emotional highs of mega-hits such as E.T. ("challenging" for Spielberg means dreary, if not boring), there's nevertheless a constant disconnect in A.I. between the filmmaker's sense of the profundity of the material and the shocking emptiness--or artificiality--of what's actually on screen.

"Real" compared to what? Haley Joel Osment with the Hollywood machinery in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
"Real" compared to what? Haley Joel Osment with the Hollywood machinery in A.I. Artificial Intelligence

In interviews, Spielberg has spoken of having tried to include as much of "Stanley" in the movie as possible, and indeed the all-digital panoramas of the Manhattan skyline--with the Statue of Liberty up to her neck in ocean--do match the color sketches that Kubrick commissioned in the Eighties. But it's hard to imagine the maker of The Shining bathing A.I.'s domestic scenes in heavenly backlighting, as Spielberg does here, or lathering on John Williams's latest syrupy score for maximum sentimentality, or allowing an omniscient narrator to summarize the movie's themes lest we kids in the audience get scared or confused or listless. (God forbid the viewer should be allowed to decide for herself what the film is about.) Spielberg gives of Stanley with one hand and airbrushes his image with the other, resulting in a movie that not only lacks the unified vision of either director, but casts the fierce ambiguity of a legendary artist as another grave crisis to be resolved. (If Spielberg wanted to "explain" Stanley Kubrick, he should have directed 2010 in 1984.)

What A.I. does understand, perfectly, is family dynamics--or, at least, demographics. The story of Osment's young David, including his struggle to move from one stage of compliant conformity into another, is, like most Spielberg fables, an apparent cinch to lure kids of all ages. Adopted siblings will get a special charge from the director's harrowing scenes of fraternal competition between the wimpy robot and his parents' blood-related son (Jake Thomas), miraculously cured of a crippling disease and eager for preferential treatment. And what father couldn't relate to the secret, threatening bond that develops between mother and child? What mom would fail to see herself in the O'Connor character's frustration with her failure to control little David's every action? Still, the early "joke" of the mecha walking in on Mom while she's perched on the toilet introduces a level of near-sexual unease--likely inherited from Kubrick--that Spielberg proceeds to handle with unwont awkwardness, as if he were desperate to find the laugh track. And once fickle Mom decides to dump the unruly David in the middle of a forest (talk about separation anxiety), female viewers will need to look elsewhere for identification--but not, alas, to the mecha's mass-produced counterpart, Darlene, who never comes out of the box.

Left with only his fuzzy companion Teddy, a "supertoy" whose ironic status as the film's most sympathetic and intelligent character seems to go unnoticed by Spielberg, David wanders the wilderness and decides that his mission, per Pinocchio, is to prove that he's a "real boy." In this, his Jiminy Cricket is an even more effeminate "love mecha" known as Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), whom he meets when the two are thrown into an android concentration camp that doubles as a carnival sideshow for the redneck anti-technology crowd. By default, this nightmarish "flesh fair" is A.I.'s most deeply felt set piece, fearfully imagined by Spielberg as a cross between Ozzfest and a monster truck show--if not the multiplex on opening night, teeming with humanity. Not surprisingly, the billionaire visionary appears much more at home in Professor Hobby's tastefully appointed corporate boardroom than with the hordes in stadium seating. Which is to say that when David locates the missing father in what looks like an office showroom at Restoration Hardware, it's a happy ending--or, rather, the first of a half-dozen happy endings. (Stop reading now if you don't want to know the other five.)

If A.I. seems programmed to perpetuate the comforting male myth of reproduction without the mother, poor David--feeling "real," after all--can't resist the urge to win back the love of the one who abandoned him. So, with the help of the ceramic Blue Fairy (small wonder Spielberg's perfect female is a perpetually smiling statue) and a band of benevolent extraterrestrials (this is the point in the movie where the risk of giggling is greatest), our robot hero miraculously reunites with Mom--but only for a day. Then (I told you there were a half-dozen endings, right?), the mecha crawls into bed and falls asleep like a good little boy. Fully actualized only when he's passive and unconscious, David, his eyes shut tight, journeys to "that place where dreams are born"--otherwise known as DreamWorks™. As Kubrick said of Schindler's List, A.I. is "about success"--although, at least relative to E.T., the grosses may tell another story.

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