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'A.I.' — Spielberg's Strange Love

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DAVID JAMESŚWARNER BROS./DREAMWORKS

Haley Joel Osment plays a "toy boy" who wants to escape a garish robot world

A noted scientist of the remote future lays down a piquant challenge to his colleagues at Cybertronics Manufacturing. "I propose that we build a robot who can love...a robot that dreams." Hurrah and alas, his dream is realized. Two years later, Cybertronics has assembled the perfect child, "always loving, never ill, never changing," and has found a potentially ideal couple to adopt him--or try him out. But we know the danger of answered prayers. Real life is messy; love can break your heart. Even the heart of a "toy boy" like David, who will be abandoned by the one he loves most and have to face a brutal world before he can find a saving human touch.

A love story, a prophecy and a fairy tale (Pinocchio, to be exact) in the guise of a science-fiction film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence represents the collaboration and collision of two master filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, who spent parts of more than 15 years on the project; and Steven Spielberg, whom Kubrick finally asked to direct it, and who did, from his own screenplay, after Kubrick's death in 1999. The film, whose genesis and shooting have long been cocooned in secrecy, opens next week.

For his first sci-fi project since 2001, Kubrick had planned, as Spielberg says, "to take a step beyond the sentient relationship that HAL 9000 has with Bowman and Poole, and tell a kind of future fairy tale about artificial intelligence." When he suggested that Spielberg direct it, "I thought he was out of his mind. He was giving up one of the best stories he had ever told. But he said, 'This story is closer to your sensibilities than my own.' " Once Spielberg began work on the film, at the behest of the director's widow Christiane and her brother, Kubrick's producer Jan Harlan, "I felt that Stanley really hadn't died, that he was with me when I was writing the screenplay and shooting the movie."

A.I. will beguile some viewers, perplex others. Its vision is too capacious, its narrative route too extended, the shift in tone (from suburban domestic to rural nightmare to urban archaeology) too ornery to make the film a flat-out wowser of the E.T. stripe. A.I. boasts a beautiful central performance — Haley Joel Osment, 13, plays David with a kind of buoyant gravity — and a canny turn by Jude Law as a robo-stud, while other actors are wan. The film is bold, rigorous and sentimental by turns, and often all at once, as should be expected from a two-man movie where both have strong wills to match their great gifts, and one is dead. "This will be a repeat of 2001," says Harlan. "Some people will hate it. Never mind."

Even when A.I. meanders or stumbles, it is fascinating as a wedding of two disparate auteurs. Kubrick took five, seven, a dozen years to make a movie; he optioned Brian Aldiss's short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," on which A.I. is based, in 1983. Spielberg has shot multiple films in one year, and in his spare time he helps run the DreamWorks film studio. Spielberg has the warmest of directorial styles; Kubrick's is among the coolest. One aims to seduce the audience; the other wanted to bend moviegoers to see it his way, or to hell with them. The resulting fugue is like a piece composed for brass but played on woodwinds, a Death Valley map on which Spielberg has placed seeds, hoping they will somehow blossom...

...the way a boy robot might hope that a woman's love could make him human. David is the cybergenic triumph of Professor Hobby (William Hurt). Who wouldn't want this perfect child, years past colic and teething, years before the gonadal eruptions of puberty? The chosen "parent" is Henry (Sam Robards), a Cybertronics employee whose wife Monica (Frances O'Connor) has sunk into remorse because their son Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma. So here's a pick-me-up for a grieving mother: a machine that looks and acts like a kid--the best kid ever.

Monica, initially spooked by this shiny-faced, irrevocably pleasant simulacrum of a boy, comes to appreciate David's virtues; he has no flaws, except that he is not "orga" (organic) but "mecha" (mechanical)--and not Martin. From a closet she retrieves an old supertoy, a stuffed bear named Teddy, who becomes David's most faithful companion. Soon David is calling her Mommy. Bereft of her only natural child, she cradles this artificial one. Bathed in Nativity light, mother and child melt into a Pieta.

A medical advance restores Martin, who is instantly resentful of the new kid in the house. Martin tries to get the cute intruder to break a toy, but David can't. He's being tested and tempted. The real boy tells robo-boy: Try being a kid; it means smashing things.

A few unfortunate accidents persuade Monica to abandon David in a forest. Quick as a face slap, David and the audience are in a strange new world containing refugee robots with half-faces and a jaunty "love mecha" named Gigolo Joe (Law). In Kubrick's script, says Law, "Joe was much more aggressive, more twisted." Here he is, in Spielberg's word, David's "scoutmaster." (This was the section Kubrick could not solve and which Spielberg, in developing it, has softened. The Kubrick version would have been rated R; this film is PG-13.)

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