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Battlebots

It's Kubrick vs. Spielberg in a Fight for the Soul of A.I.


Guess What's Coming to Dinner? David the droid (Haley Joel Osment) feels the love from ˘Dad÷ (Sam Robards) and ˘Mom÷ (Frances O'Connor) in A.I.

By Adele Marley | Posted

You've got to hand it to Steven Spielberg, that most manipulative and calculating of genius auteurs: His fervor to push his audience's emotional buttons usually pays off. He tries to make us cry and usually hits the jackpot. A.I. Artificial Intelligence--a spectacular, imaginative misfire about a lifelike boy robot imbued with the ability to love and dream--is similarly provocative, genuinely so. Unfortunately, the primary emotions A.I. evokes are dread and gut-wrenching angst. This paean to separation anxiety--in which a sweetly sensitive boy droid (a convincing Haley Joel Osment) desperately seeks to be reunited with the mother who abandoned him--is the most despairing Spielberg movie ever. However, anyone who knows the film's history can guess how that happened.

A.I. is an unusual collaboration between two of cinema's heavyweights, Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick. The latter spent much of the past two decades developing a film version of the short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by science-fiction scribe Brian Aldiss. (The story originally appeared in the pages of Harper's Bazaar in 1969.) Spielberg says the notoriously secretive Kubrick took the younger director in his confidence to obtain some technical advice about his pet project. Spielberg also claims that Kubrick suggested that the younger man should direct it himself, which apparently was all the impetus Spielberg needed to take the reins after Kubrick's demise. A "concept by" credit is the only one afforded Kubrick (aside from the fact that the film is dedicated to his memory), but the recognition doesn't adequately reflect his extensive involvement or influence.

Kubrick's fingerprints are all over A.I., from his trademark cynicism to hints of his icy directorial approach (you can imagine the shots he would have gone with in some scenes). But his sensibility doesn't blend smoothly with Spielberg's warmth and sentimentality. Still, you have to respect Spielberg for following through with this curious compromise of style. Maybe all the dabbling in history the director has done recently (1993's Schindler's List, '97's Amistad, and '98's Saving Private Ryan) has turned him on to exposing human nature's dark side. Who knows?

A.I. constitutes Spielberg's initial foray into futuristic storytelling. As a narrator (Ben Kingsley) solemnly explains, the greenhouse effect has finally caught up with human extravagance. Melting polar icecaps have submerged many coastal cities, and Zero Population Growth is de rigeur (to prevent further squandering of natural resources). Lifelike robots roam what's left of the earth and they're built to serve--and in some cases, replace--man. David (button-eyed Osment) is an automaton (called "mechas"; humans are "orgas") developed by the stoic but cuckoo Professor Hobby (William Hurt). The new mecha prototype David embodies is designed to feel emotion, form attachments, and even dream--the cutting edge in artificial intelligence.

Hobby sends David to grieving parents Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor) to keep them company until a cure can be found to save their terminally ill, cryogenically frozen son. The couple is at first freaked out by their houseguest, but Monica decides to forge a bond with the 'bot tot anyway. She activates David's imprinting process so he will become emotionally attached to her permanently. Unfortunately for David, a cure is found for the Swinton's biological son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who turns out to be a jealous, scheming meanie of the first order. Now that she has her son back, Monica tires of David's creepy devotion and abandons the devastated droid and his savvy animatronic bear pal, Teddy--Jiminy Cricket to David's Pinocchio--in a distant forest.

David meets the android Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, a fitting choice, given that he's more beautiful than anyone with a pulse could hope to be), a slick superstud who's on the lam after being framed for the murder of one of his lonely female clients. David, Joe, and other robot outcasts are soon rounded up and deposited at a "Flesh Fair," a kind of demolition derby--dubbed "a celebration of life"--where the hapless machines are disposed of in feats of entertaining destruction to the delight of a cheering, pissed-off hillbilly mob (who have correctly deduced that they're being replaced by mechas). David and Joe escape, and Joe agrees to help the toy boy find his beloved mother.

It's in these scenes where signs of Kubrick's trademark misanthropy are out in full force: There's not one sympathetic human character in A.I. (as per Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL the computer was the only character that didn't behave like an automaton). Humans in A.I. play God by destroying the planet and masterminding a slave race, imbuing robots with emotional intelligence to suit human needs. ("They made us too smart, too quick, and too many," Joe elaborates.) Even the mother who David pines for throughout the movie is a crummy mom, a neurotic who's too emotionally lazy to endure her own grief. She's clearly unworthy of David's devotion. (The one thing A.I. does right is demonstrate how cruel it is to exploit trust and parent a child badly.)

It's a credit to Spielberg that his film is genuinely affecting and eschews his usual sentimental approach. Still, A.I. is a baffler. The movie encourages ambivalence--if not flat-out antipathy--about human nature, and then expects us to buy the Spielbergian sunshine we're sprinkled with as the story approaches its end. It may prove to be the one film released this year that constitutes art. However, for all its visual wizardry, wry thematic brilliance, and ability to move its audience, in the end A.I. simply does not compute.

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