[Deep Focus]
Ghost in the machine

Impeccably conceived and photographed and impossible to summarize in a single sentence, A.I. is an honestly exciting project. It's an all-too-rare thing in contemporary Hollywood cinema -- an actual science fiction film that considers the impact of futuristic ideas on society rather than using them solely to fuel visual fireworks.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, an especially fertile ground for science fiction literature, the obsessively thoughtful Stanley Kubrick made a pair of science fiction films that are enduring classics of the genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey considered extraterrestrial contact, the nature of human evolution and the implications of the creation of thinking machines. It was followed three years later by A Clockwork Orange, which wondered whether the human brain could be programmed to reject violent and sexual impulses, and pondered the moral complications of such programming.

It's no surprise, then, that Kubrick was subsequently intrigued by "Super-toys Last All Summer Long," an elegant 1969 short story by Brian W. Aldiss that takes place in an overcrowded future earth where pregnancy is allowed by permit only and an intelligent but artificial child has been developed as a substitute for real parenthood. It's said that Kubrick was inspired by Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extraterrestrial to develop this story of an artificially intelligent child who can feel love for his human "mother" as an elaborate science fiction film.

In the mid 1990s, Kubrick decided to proceed with Eyes Wide Shut, pushing A.I. to the back burner. He had been discussing the project at some length with Spielberg, who says that Kubrick even suggested that Spielberg direct the film instead. After Kubrick's death in 1999, Spielberg stepped forward to take over the project. The resulting film is a fascinating and frustrating amalgam of Kubrick's visual style and Spielberg's emotional facility, a hybrid project that functions more as one master filmmaker's valedictory to another than a masterpiece on its own terms.

Following a clunky expository opening, in which scientist William Hurt gets the audience up to speed, the opening 45 minutes or so are all the more absorbing for their refusal to venture outside of a single domestic setting. Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards are the parents who adopt David, a prototype of a "mecha" boy, as a surrogate for their own comatose son. As David becomes aware of the true conditions of his existence, he develops an affinity for the Pinocchio story, and eventually winds up on a journey to find the Blue Fairy, who he believes can turn him from a mecha into a real boy.

The boy is played by Haley Joel Osment, he of the sad round eyes and frightened-little-boy demeanor. Osment is quite good in a part that's more challenging than his role in either The Sixth Sense or Pay It Forward; he's far less outwardly irritating than most little imps of cinematic renown and adeptly portrays the ontological melancholy that his character requires. (Here's some trivia: as David, Osment never blinks on-screen.)

As Gigolo Joe, a slick "love mecha" whom David befriends on his quest, Jude Law is a welcome, countervailing influence on the presence of sweet little Haley. After the fim's long domestic section, the arrival of Law's slyly physical performance, coupled with his character's mildly risque bons mots, comes as something of a relief. Law is probably underutilized, but he's a lively addition to the film's otherwise conservative mood.

Particularly in the earliest scenes, Spielberg seems to be deliberately channeling the spirit of Kubrick, with careful compositions, odd camera angles and frames within frames that echo the late filmmakers trademark's. But it's the ghost of Andrei Tarkovsky who really seems to wander through the shadows of A.I. Particularly in a scattershot coda that deals with the relation of memory to reality and dreams made flesh, this feels more like Solaris than any Kubrick film. In equally important ways, Spielberg seems to have been influenced by M. Night Shyamalan, whose thoughtful, unhurried films may well have given the old master new courage to deal with an audience on more leisurely, contemplative terms.

Spielberg the populist filmmaker does hold sway over Spielberg the spare aesthete. The film opens, unconventionally, on a shot of roiling blue waves. Spielberg holds it only for a moment before voiceover kicks in. During the long opening sequence in the family home, some beautifully austere photography is flashed on the screen so quickly that it almost feels as if we're watching a slide show. Spielberg lives and dies by the narrative, and he's hurrying to get us from point to point. At these times, A.I. feels sort of like a Kubrick movie run through a VCR in forward-scan mode.

On the other hand, there are startling images that seem to come largely from Spielberg. A massive pile of robot body parts dumped at David's feet is redolent of the most sickening Holocaust imagery. A subsequent sequence set in a "Flesh Fair," where mechas are tortured and destroyed for a bloodthirsty audience, cements the metaphors for racial intolerance and genocide. The Flesh Fair, where the house band is Ministry and where the inflammatory rhetoric echoes contemporary racial prejudice, is a fairly brilliant, brave conceit. (One of the robots destroyed on-screen is a black-faced character who speaks, quite unexpectedly, in the voice of Chris Rock.) It's undermined, however, by David's eventual escape -- eventually these bloodthirsty 21st century rednecks demand that David be released essentially because, aww, he's such a cute kid.

From this point out, the film feels much less like Kubrickian speculation and more like a special effects show reel. There's a city-sized red-light district that pays glowing-neon homage to A Clockwork Orange (where Robin Williams makes an audio cameo), and there's the film's money shot—Manhattan submerged in ocean water (in a style of imagery first seen in the Spielberg-produced Deep Impact).

A.I. succeeds as a morality tale. In the shadow of continuing advancements in genetic engineering as well as computer science, the film sharply condemns cavalier attitudes toward the creation of life. As in most good science fiction, the story works on more than one level--it addresses the kind of thoughtlessness that hurts all humans as well as robot children. One obvious cinematic antecedent is Blade Runner, which also posed questions about the relationship between humans and their Frankensteinian creations, especially when humans neglect their obligations as good parents. (Remember the doomed Roy Batty's demand of his corporate maker, Tyrell: "I want more life, father.")

Spielberg is smart enough to recognize his own strengths, and at its best A.I. is an gripping, post-Schindler return to classic form for a director whose sense of adventure has always been rooted in the mythology of the suburban American family. There's a moment where David stands beside the pool as a bunch of neighbor kids gathered for his brother's birthday party start circling him like predators (they're curious and a little crass, like kids can be, but not necessarily malicious) that feels so natural, so quintessentially childhood-in-America, that it's scary. If Spielberg's greatest thematic concern is the act of parenting, then A.I. should be his magnum opus.

But the familiarity of the Spielberg Moment also intrudes upon the world of A.I.. Having John Williams slip a few bars of "When You Wish Upon a Star" into your movie is a trick that you can get away with once in your career, and Spielberg did indeed get away with it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It feels secondhand here. When David first appears to Monica, he's shot out-of-focus against a bright white background that suggests the aliens from Close Encounters, and when David listens from a distance as Monica reads from Pinocchio to his "brother," it's a direct steal from E.T. Because the film is so different from Spielberg’s ouevre in so many important ways, these borrowings are a little distracting. Unfortunately, they wind up as harbingers of bad things to come, when Spielberg goes completely off the emotional deep end in an attempt to tie up his Pinocchio story.

The last 20 minutes of A.I. are bizarre and unexpected in ways that expensive studio films so rarely are. I watched them with my mouth quite literally hanging open. More than once, the film teeters at the edge of conclusion and then lurches away again, moving further into its own pseudo-scientific convolutions. You almost have to admire the fact that Spielberg is so resolutely unafraid of looking foolish. It’s tempting to put the blame at his feet for a film that collapses so completely; after all, Spielberg’s name may as well be writ large across the weird sentimentality of the final scenes, and he does take a sole screenwriting credit. What’s missing is an intellectual conviction to match the depth of raw feeling that’s on display in these final minutes. Without it, the twists -- and, at last, the definition of what it means to be human -- feel trite and unearned. But elsewhere, Spielberg really does right by the material. At its best, A.I. feels like some kind of masterpiece.

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg
from a screen story by Ian Watson
and a short story by Brian Aldiss
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn
Production design by Rick Carter
Makeup effects by Stan Winston
Music by John Williams
Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, and Frances O'Connor
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

Brian W. Aldiss's short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" can be found online.

A completely subjective archive
DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer