Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The man who made "A Clockwork Orange" and the man who made "Jurassic Park."
Those names just don't go together, yet there they are at the beginning of "A.I.," the new science fiction drama that's been wrapped in a typically Kubrickian shroud of secrecy. A collaboration between these two radically different filmmakers seems like a bizarre idea, but they were friends for nearly 20 years, until Kubrick's death in 1999, and, in this case, their sensibilities mesh surprisingly well.
In a future plagued by environmental devastation, where people must gain government permission to procreate, a scientist (William Hurt) builds a mechanical child who can feel genuine emotions, including love for its adoptive parents. The child, David (Haley Joel Osment), is sent to live with a couple (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) whose own son is gravely ill. Through a series of misunderstandings, they come to believe that David is dangerous, and the mother, unable to have him destroyed, turns him loose in the woods.
Accompanied by his constant companion, a "supertoy" Teddy bear, David sets off in search of the Blue Fairy from "Pinocchio," his favorite bedtime story (and the obvious inspiration for the film). He is convinced that she can turn him into a real boy, which will cause his human mother to love him and take him back. Along the way, he meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a "love mecha" on the run after being framed for murder.
Together, they journey through a truly frightening world in which robots are viewed as either servants or threats, and are frequently attacked by humans seeking to eradicate these artificial people.
The history of "A.I." is as interesting as the film itself. Back in the '70s, Kubrick bought the rights to the 1969 Brian Aldiss short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," then spent years reworking it to his satisfaction, introducing the "Pinocchio" metaphor, among other changes. He eventually brought the project to Spielberg's attention, and they began working together. After Kubrick's death, Spielberg used his friend's stacks of rewrites and production notes to fashion his own script, and took on directing duties as well.
The resulting film is remarkably coherent, considering its background, and Spielberg does an admirable job of keeping the narrative moving in a fairly straight line without compromising its fantastical elements. What's most impressive about "A.I.," however, is how well the conflicting styles of its creators balance each other out every time Spielberg gets the warm fuzzies, Kubrick's ghost brings a slight chill to the proceedings, just enough to keep things from getting too sentimental.
For his part, Spielberg has matured as an artist over the years, and he's learned the value of being dark and disturbing once in a while (something Kubrick understood better than anybody). He also continues to be one of the few directors who can make special effects serve the story, instead of the other way around, which is absolutely essential in a movie as visually ambitious as "A.I." There are some truly mind-boggling set pieces in this film, but they never feel showy or arbitrary.
It's fascinating to watch such strong creative personalities play off each other, even when it doesn't quite work. The final scenes, for instance, are downright schizophrenic, with a vaguely creepy Kubrick-style finish, followed by a sequence that just screams "obligatory happy ending," then, finally, the REAL ending, which quietly drifts off in what can only be described as a compromise. This is the only time "A.I." completely loses its grip, and even then, it's impossible to take your eyes off it.
Spielberg has always been good with actors, and he couldn't have gotten a better young star than Osment, who is simply one of the best there is, of any age. The audience gets to watch him transform from an awkward automaton to an emotionally devastated child to a determined adventurer, all in the space of 2 1/2 hours. Law is equally good as the charming Joe, although he (and most of the other actors) don't have all that much to do. It's Osment's show, and he's certainly up to the task.
"A.I." is, by turns, unsettling, thought-provoking and inspiring. It's not the kind of film Spielberg usually makes, and it's not the kind of film Kubrick would have made. Instead, it captures the essence of both directors, with all their frustrating contradictions and their brilliance.