Well, here it is: the bastard child of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. When Kubrick died before making his long-developed project, A.I., Spielberg decided to pick up the pieces and bring Kubrick’s film — or his version of it — to fruition. The results are something of a schizophrenic mess, but an utterly fascinating schizophrenic mess. It’s also first film I’ve ever seen by Steven Spielberg that I completely respected — it being neither a whiz-bang popcorn movie nor a transparent bid for an Oscar. Whatever else A.I. is or isn’t, it’s a serious work. Essentially, the story is a grim sci-fi reworking of Pinnochio featuring a robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), instead of a puppet; a talking teddy bear instead of Jiminy Cricket; a high-tech scientist, Prof. Hobby (William Hurt), instead of Gepetto; and a sex-toy android, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), instead of Lampwick. Spielberg doesn’t stop there, however, since the film contains elements of The Wizard of Oz, a dash of John Boorman’s Zardoz, enough (somewhat inexplicable) uses of spherical imagery to remake Ken Russell’s Tommy three times over, and more than a soupcon of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And right there is one of the problems with the movie: It contains way too many elements from other sources and not enough identity or personality of its own. In another sense, though, it suffers from having two personalities — those of Spielberg and Kubrick. Two more unlikely collaborators could scarcely be imagined: the icy, intellectual Kubrick and the feel-good populist Spielberg. In pure theory, such a collaboration might result in humanizing the one, while taking the saccharine out of the other. In impure practice, what you get is more like a movie at war with itself. To his credit, Spielberg tries his damnedest to honor Kubrick by making the film in at least something of the late filmmaker’s style. He gives the film a harder than usual edge and much of the action takes place either in typically sterile Kubrickian surroundings, or in the midst of a decaying, hostile world. (The Kubrick film it resembles most is A Clockwork Orange.) Two flaws with this approach are apparent from the onset. First of all, the story itself cries out for exactly the sort of emotionalism that Spielberg is here deliberately eschewing. By avoiding that emotionalism, what he ends up with is a downbeat, depressing work where you never really care very much about the characters. (It might be coined “the feel-bad movie of the summer.” Moreover, Spielberg — whatever his faults — has too much personality to completely subvert his own tastes to a Kubrick approach. Spielberg as Spielberg keeps poking through: the robotic teddy bear, Dr. Know (a cartoonish Albert Einstein holograph that answers questions with Robin Williams’ voice), etc. In the end, this makes the film into a kind of divertingly ghoulish game where the viewer can try to spot what is Kubrickian and what is more directly Spielbergian. Interesting, yes, but it tends to draw the viewer out of the movie to a distracting degree. Equally unfortunate is the fact that one thing Spielberg seems to have totally absorbed from Kubrick is the tendency toward excessive length. The film clocks in at a very long 144 minutes and seems ready to end at least twice before it actually does. Even at that, it fails to resolve key plot elements, create understandable motivations, or actually convey the requisite sense of possible danger from David. So in any number of senses, A.I. is a failure … but it’s such a glorious failure. It may go too far and it certainly goes on too long, but it has a resonance that will linger with the viewer long after more successful films has dissipated into nothingness. You may not like the feeling imparted by the film’s final, quietly shattering moment, but it’s not likely you’ll soon forget it. There’s a genuine mythical quality to the imagery, and despite its shortcomings, A.I. is the closest Spielberg has come to crafting a true fairy tale — albeit a wholly downbeat one.
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