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For almost two decades, Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a film based on Brian Aldiss's 1969 short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," about a robot child named David who wants only to be "real" so Mummy and Daddy will love him. The late director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange envisioned "Super-Toys" as the frame upon which he could hang his own reworking of Pinocchio, and perhaps he also saw it as an extension of what he began in 2001: David is HAL as a little boy, a machine who aspires to consciousness and emotion -- in other words, a machine that wants to become like its creator. But Kubrick found an even better director for his project: friend Steven Spielberg, whom "Super-Toys" would allow the chance to revisit old themes and doll them up in the fancy togs of a fellow mythmaker. He could remake Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. in Kubrick's image. He could commingle the childlike with the clinical, the heartbreaking with the heartless. Finally, Spielberg could make a movie about children and aim it solely at adults.
The results, then, are just as you would expect: A.I. Artificial Intelligence is Kubrick as interpreted by Spielberg, which means it's by turns poignant and cold, twisted and sweet, dreamy and drab, effortless and overwrought. In short, the movie is a stunning, ambitious mess that leaves you wondering how much better it might have been without Kubrick's specter peering over Spielberg's heavy shoulders. But what else could it have been? Theirs is hardly a perfect marriage: Kubrick's movies are chilly and distant, existential tone poems made by a control freak who loved movies but not necessarily the people who paid to watch them. His perfectionism too often quashed whatever passion sneaked into his films -- they look great but feel empty. Spielberg, especially the young man who made Close Encounters and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, revels in innocence and awe. Spielberg, the eternal optimist, presents life as one big happy ending: We're going to be rescued, whether by aliens or Roy Scheider or Tom Hanks. Kubrick, the curmudgeonly cynic, seemed to believe we are all doomed.
A.I. attempts to reconcile those disparate worldviews. The movie wants to overwhelm you with sadness and despair, but it's too frosty and manipulative to elicit a single tear. Spielberg is credited with A.I.'s screenplay -- it's the first time he's written and directed since Close Encounters -- but the film is faithful to both Aldiss's story and Ian Watson's original screenplay, commissioned by Kubrick. Watching it, you can't help but feel that the director wanted to become Kubrick, which means this is the first Spielberg movie that seems to have one hand on your chest, keeping you at bay.
A.I. fleshes out, for lack of a better phrase, Aldiss's simple, heartbreaking short story into a grand-scale fairy tale -- Pinocchio as reimagined by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic. We learn at the film's onset that the ice caps have melted and drowned earth's biggest cities, and in a distant, overpopulated future in which childbirth is regulated by the proper authorities, humanoid robots have taken over our most menial chores; they serve us, even pleasure us, until they're discarded for better models. Professor Hobby (William Hurt), A.I.'s Geppetto, proposes to a group of fellow robotic designers that they create a "robot who can love," and the result is little David (Haley Joel Osment), who is made of synthetic flesh and computer circuitry. Hobby is unprepared to answer the inevitable Big Question: Can you get a human to love the robot back?
The response is found in the home of Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), whose flesh-and-blood son Martin (Jake Thomas) suffers an illness that requires that he be suspended in cryogenic deep-freeze. His holding tank is in but one of myriad scenes that look like something lifted from 2001; the audience, like Martin, shivers in the sterile setting. Henry, who works for Professor Hobby, envisions David as Martin's replacement, but Monica refuses to look at his unblinking, expressionless face. Monica finally warms to the cold little boy, imprinting him with seven words that will forever bond mother and "child," and as she does so, his face softens. The catch is that David can love only her, and if Monica ever decides she no longer wants David, he will have to be destroyed.
But Monica and Henry will never love David as they do Martin, who one day comes home from the hospital and begins treating his "brother" as if he were nothing more than the latest and greatest super-toy. Martin taunts David, constantly reminding him of his artificiality; he's a "mecha" (a machine) in a world of "orgas" (organics). Martin gets Monica to read Pinocchio: "David's going to love it," Martin says with a cruel smirk. But the story gives David hope: If he can find the Blue Fairy, he, like the puppet in the book, can become a real boy.
The first third of A.I. feels so much like Kubrick it's as though the film had been directed by a ghost. The Swintons' home, with its polished wood floors and post-IKEA furnishings, looks barely lived in. It's a quiet, lonely place, and even composer John Williams stays hidden in the shadows. Up to this point, the movie plays like a small-scale domestic drama, the story of a rejected stepchild wanting only to love and be loved. But all that gives way when Monica takes David out in the forest to dump him, lest the rejected boy end up destroyed. His screams pierce the soundtrack as the landscape becomes suddenly desolate and threatening.
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