E.T. the Extra-Tutorial

Kubrick seems to guide Spielberg's hand in the ponderous A.I.

What follows next is perhaps the most twisted Kubrick-Spielberg amalgam imaginable: We're introduced to Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law behind a thin veneer of makeup that turns him into a human-size sex doll -- Fred Astaire on the dance floor, John Holmes in the sack. Living in a sleazed-out town, Joe comes across as something that could have been cooked up by Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove collaborator Terry Southern, a man fond of his kink. "Once you have a lover robot," Joe brags, "you'll never go back." But Joe is nothing more than a plot device, the older brother David never had. He belongs in a different movie -- a fun one.

When Joe finds himself in bed with a dead girl, he's forced to go on the run and winds up in a robot graveyard in which outdated, gruesomely half-destroyed models scavenge for parts. David and Joe are rounded up for a Flesh Fair, where mechas are destroyed on stage for human amusement. It's a horrific moment, because it subverts an image from E.T.: The moon rises out of the horizon and scoops up the unsuspecting androids, hauling them off to slaughter.

Like 2001, A.I. suggests that artificial "humans" are better than the real thing; if theirs is a synthetic love, at least their processors don't manufacture synthetic hatred. The humans are ogres, be they Monica Swinton or Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), the robot-hunter who terrifies the Flesh Fair audience by insisting David is part of a "plan to phase out God's little children." But whatever point Spielberg is trying to make about racism and fear of the future is lost in the spectacle and eventual sentimentality of the Flesh Fair sequence, which deteriorates into proselytizing by way of the WWF.

Hang on: Jude Law (left) and Haley Joel Osment take us where we don't necessarily want to go in Spielberg's A.I.
David James
Hang on: Jude Law (left) and Haley Joel Osment take us where we don't necessarily want to go in Spielberg's A.I.


Rated PG-13

Joe finally leads David to a place where he might find the man who knows the Blue Fairy: Rouge Town, a dreamy Fuck City where denizens populate A Clockwork Orange's milk bar, clubs are entered through the parted thighs of computer-generated women, and Dr. Know provides answers to scared little synthetic boys. And here, suddenly, the movie begins to fall apart: Robin Williams, as the voice of the Einstein look-alike Dr. Know, conjures memories of his own Bicentennial Man, a clumsy, sickly sweet version of what's essentially the very same tale.

In the end, the film fails because Spielberg chickens out. Instead of a Kubrick movie, he's remade Close Encounters, only without the sense to edit himself. A.I. comes to a very logical, if cheerless, ending about 15 minutes before the final credits roll. But Spielberg plunges forward, and the result is frustrating and pointless. What had been a fairy tale becomes daffy sci-fi tomfoolery; our emotions are hung out to dry along with some garish special effects that serve only to create distance between David and the audience.

It's as though Spielberg had succumbed to the "ponderous seriousness" of which Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1977 when comparing Close Encounters (which she loved) to 2001 (which she loathed). The mythmaker who wants to explore just what makes us human succumbs to the franchise-maker who wants to usher us out the door feeling if not cheerful, then at least satisfied. The ending, which suggests that little boys want nothing more than to sleep with their mothers, is not enough to betray the movie, but it suggests that Spielberg is not quite ready to make grown-up sci-fi movies. And he won't be until he figures out that happy endings aren't always the best endings.

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