About halfway through Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a familiar scene begins to unfold in darkened woods. As an impossibly large moon crests the horizon, lights begin flashing through the trees. Frightened non-human creatures skitter through the underbrush, the bobbing lights in hot pursuit.
But the fleeing creatures are not cutesy extra-terrestrials collecting plant specimens; they’re decomposing robots caught scavenging for spare parts. And their pursuers are not faceless government types with flashlights; they’re armored demon motorcyclists from an anti-robot “flesh fair.”
Welcome to the world of Steven Spielberg channeling the ghost of Stanley Kubrick.
The story of this strange collaboration has already been oft-repeated—how Kubrick nurtured A.I. for nearly 20 years before his death in 1999, frequently discussing the project with Spielberg during that time, even suggesting before his death that Spielberg would be a better choice to direct it than would Kubrick. Those were the facts, but they seemed to fly in the face of everything we knew about the two filmmakers’ work. What sort of unholy thing, one shuddered to think, would the offspring of E.T. and HAL 9000 look like?
A.I. is in every way its parents’ child—alternately sentimental and chilly, affectionate and disturbing, emotional and intellectual, and always state-of-the-art visually breathtaking. Rarely has a potential blockbuster been both so eager to please and so willing to snap your neck with a 180-degree shift in tone. It’s a sprawling two-and-a-half hour work of occasional genius desperately in need of medication for bipolar disorder.
Set in an unspecified near future, A.I. introduces us to David (Haley Joel Osment), the next phase in robot development at Cybertronics. More than a glorified tool or plaything, David has been designed with the capacity to love, a surrogate child with a built-in marketplace in a society with strict population controls. His test parents are Cybertronics employee Harry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose own biological son Martin (Jake Thomas) has been cryogenically frozen with an apparently fatal virus. And so the bonding of adoptive mother to synthetic son begins.
The opening hour of A.I. looks like so many of the Spielberg family fantasies that turned him into a brand name, shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski so as to bathe the entire Swinton home in a glow of domestic contentment. It’s an hour full of powerful emotional moments earned, surprisingly, through subtle performance and convincing storytelling rather than through swelling orchestral cues or slow tracking shots. Monica’s response to David runs from horror to acceptance to affection—then back to horror again when she is forced to give David up. The scene that closes the first half of the film, in which Monica abandons David by the side of the road, jams a lump into your throat even as you realize you’re being manipulated the way only Spielberg can manipulate you.
Then, with only a moment of darkened screen to prepare you, it’s time to get yanked out of Spielbergia and blasted into Stanleyland. This new world is populated not just by strained families, but by robot prostitutes, homicidal husbands, bounty hunters and giant carnivals dedicated to the torture and destruction of “mechas” (mechanical beings). As David sets off on a Pinocchio-inspired quest for the Blue Fairy—convinced that his mother will love him again if he can become a real boy—he joins up with aptly named “love mecha” Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) to tour A.I.’s futuristic world. Everything about that world radiates a creepy, sinister vibe, from the aforementioned scavenger robots to the Amsterdam-meets-Las Vegas-via-Industrial Light & Magic sensuality of Rouge City. Spielberg adopts a cooler, more detached visual tone for David’s adventure through the real world, culminating in a startling depiction of the uglier side of machines with emotions.
By all rights, A.I. should disintegrate as Spielberg jams these two radically different styles into one package. Each half of the film at times feels rushed or vaguely incomplete—the social texture behind the robot-bashing movement languishes undeveloped, and David’s “father” Henry quickly becomes a plot device rather than a fully-realized character. A.I. reaches, struggles, strains and grasps for greatness, delivering something massive and frequently unwieldy.
It’s also deceptively simple, which is why it remains so powerful even through its identity crisis. Issues of scientific ethics and hubris aside, A.I. is essentially a fairy tale, informed by the primal sensibility of those stories that lead children into dark fears of abandonment. Osment anchors the narrative with David’s unshakable need to find his mother, the solemn child of The Sixth Sense and Pay It Forward replaced by a pricklier, more troubled adolescent. His performance acts as a guide rope through the chaos of A.I. No matter how suddenly it shifts, you can still hang on to find your way through to the end. And the ride is often thrilling.
A.I. takes yet another shift at the close of hour number two, into an epilogue that simply must become the new definition of “misbegotten.” Like nearly every moment in the rest of film, those late scenes inspire slack-jawed awe at how far computer-generated special effects have come. But all of Spielberg’s worst tendencies are also on display, drowning the conclusion in high-concept pathos as surely as melting polar ice submerged the film’s Manhattan.
Yet somehow A.I. survives this inexplicable third act, just as it somehow survives its multiple personalities. Spielberg’s attempts to twist and mold himself into Kubrick’s sensibility—like David’s cute robot teddy bear delivering ominous warnings instead of one-liners—create something uniquely fascinating in film history. Like its young protagonist, A.I. is a work of meticulous craftsmanship imparted with a soul, full of wonder yet never entirely sure where it should be going next. It takes after its fathers.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (PG-13) HHH Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law.