Clash of the Titans

Spielberg and Kubricks A.I.

The great science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick once asked, in the title of a novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel, which eventually became the basis for the Ridley Scott thriller Blade Runner, explores the limits of human love and compassion in a future-tense world lacking in both. What gives the story pathos is not only the hopes of the androids to transcend their synthetic selves, but, finally, the human need for connection, which is pretty much what gives the new Steven Spielberg film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, its deep feeling as well. That, and the very strange collaboration between Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, a collaboration that initially seems so improbable and turns out to be so weirdly contradictory that it's hard not to ask: Does Steven Spielberg dream of Stanley Kubrick?

To judge from his torturously muddled film, a hybrid of towering reach, walloping emotional sadism and spasms of kitsch, a clash of titans, of aesthetics and of world-views that distills the best and worst of Kubrick and Spielberg both, the answer seems to be yes. The genesis of the film is a short story published in 1969 by SF writer Brian Aldiss titled "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," about a 3-year-old named David who yearns for his mother's love. Kubrick bought the story in the late 1970s and for years tried to develop it, at one point suggesting that Spielberg direct. Spielberg picked up the project after Kubrick's death in 1999, apparently no longer afraid of unhappy endings. The sharp, gloomy kicker of the Aldiss story is that not only is David synthetic, but he doesn't know it—he's a supertoy for a childless human couple who are bereft of the very empathy and love that are hard-wired into him. He's phony, but his hurt is real.

In the film, David, played by Haley Joel Osment with saucer eyes and an otherworldly air of eternal expectancy, is the substitute for the terminally ill son of Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor). The couple's real child, the 10-year-old Martin (Jake Thomas), lies in deep freeze in a Kubrickian infirmary (all white flowing surfaces, it looks like a wing of the first space station in 2001), where he's read bedtime stories by a mother obsessed with once again giving him life. While Monica tends to their home, husband Henry works at Cybertronics Manufacturing, a company shrouded in secrecy and backlighting that is run by an artificial-intelligence visionary named Professor Hobby (William Hurt). Henry brings home David, the first of his kind, to serve as an emotional salve (or perhaps slave) for his wounded wife, and with the robot he also brings a warning: there's no turning back. Once electronically "imprinted," David will be bonded to Monica for the rest of his unnatural days.

It's a killer setup (mother love always is), as close to Kubrick's home territory as Spielberg's in its themes of betrayal and loss. David is indeed imprinted by Monica, who finds herself gratefully embracing him in return. But then Martin recovers, and David is more or less regulated to the toy heap alongside Teddy, a stuffed bear with a voice that purrs like an engine and a personality that combines all the attributes of Dorothy's Oz friends in one fully articulated body. (This winsome companion even kicks up dust when he toddles over dirt ground.) Much of this unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion through scenes that, although meant to be set in the future, are more familiar than not. There are hints of the day after next—the robots, certainly—but Henry and Monica don't look that much different from many other middle-class suburbanites in the movies, what with their vaguely feng shui-ed digs, backyard pool and casual narcissism. The joke is that they're as generic as the unimprinted robots—except that Spielberg doesn't seem to be in on the joke.

Sincerity has been one of Spielberg's virtues; only a filmmaker who has such faith in happy endings could have made E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with all their mystical-alien hokum, work so brilliantly and with an absolute absence of irony. Since then, a frequently voiced criticism of Spielberg has been that he needed to grow up to become something more than an entertainer. It's an admonition that Spielberg has tried to address by assuming a moral authority to which he has no intellectual right, and it's found this instinctual filmmaker consistently undercut by his refusal to look at the world as it is—whether at Auschwitz, where water rather than gas pours down on prisoners, as it does in Schindler's List, or in a colonial America in which slaves can argue for their freedom, as they do in Amistad. It's this compulsion for moralistic fairy tales—the Disney imperative—as well as an addiction to box-office conquest, that has ruined each of Spielberg's putatively more adult films. That's too bad, because he is, to borrow theorist Andrť Bazin's term, a genius of the system, as great a filmmaker as the American film industry has produced. One of the many problems with A.I., though, is that Kubrick was a genius of his own exacting system.

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