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By Tim Merrill | June 27, 2001

Left to his own devices, literally a babe in the woods, David’s only friend is Teddy, his mechanical teddy bear. Teddy is another of A.I.‘s oddities. At first, with his determined walk and husky voice, he seems like prime comic relief, a fuzzy little HAL knockoff. However, Teddy never ends up doing much but trailing David around on his journey.
It’s when David bumps into Gigolo Joe, a preening “love mecha” played with jaunty flair by Jude Law, that AI really starts to get weird. But it’s a pleasing weirdness; you can feel Spielberg ceding the wheel to Kubrick and climbing into the back seat. From here on out, we’re treated to a little less “E.T.” sugar and a little more “Clockwork Orange” vinegar. Skewed visions abound: a pile of metallic limbs is dumped into a ditch, picked over by half-destroyed mecha vagrants. A drifting moon reveals itself as a patrolling hot air balloon. Motorcycles are ornamented with big snarling dogfaces.
Captured, David and Gigolo Joe end up at the Flesh Fair, a not-so-futuristic sort of monster truck rally. Except there are no trucks, just mechas being crucified, blowtorched and blasted out of cannons. The sequence doesn’t make much sense, but there’s humor in the notion that – from the looks of the howling, moronic audience – Harley tank tops, cheap-a*s beer and mullet haircuts will truly never go out of style.
David manages to make it out of this demolition derby with Gigolo Joe’s help…but it’s probably best not to further discuss the plot.
Suffice it to say that A.I. heads off into many different strange, sometimes wondrous directions; unfortunately, it also has the sectional, linear sort of structure common to many of Kubrick’s films. The Flesh Fair is as slam-bang as the film ever gets; more often than not, the rhythms of A.I. – 140 minutes paced with Kubrickian deliberateness – feel scarcely more pulse-pounding than the somnambulant Eyes Wide Shut.
But it’s never less than fascinating to behold the give-and-take between Spielberg’s natural crowd-rousing instincts and Kubrick’s ascetic discipline. Much of the film is downright bizarre, yet the actors are always bathed in that special rich golden light, with the camera gliding in toward their upturned faces. The sin-crazed sexopolis of Rouge City – supposedly built with strict fidelity Kubrick’s sketches – looks like a PG-13 candyland, nowhere near as sinister as the Eisnerized Times Square.
Spielberg penned AI himself, his first screenwriting credit since “Close Encounters.” This probably accounts for the occasionally lumpy storytelling (and for some unwieldy voiceover exposition read by Ben Kingsley, saintly again after his Sexy Beast flipout). But the more schizoid the storytelling becomes, the more we are stunned by Kubrick’s concepts and Spielberg’s images. The vision of a submerged Manhattan is far more haunting here than in “Waterworld”‘s half-assed attempt.
These days we expect to be ravished by Amazing, incredible, awe-inspiring visuals, but we’re no longer used to being tickled by actual ideas. For its concluding twenty minutes, A.I. takes a flying leap that many viewers may find astonishing but most will feel, well, alienated by. The long opening shot of this final segment is what state-of-the-art special effects are – and really should be – all about. If you happen to still be awake at this point, your mind will get well and truly blown. It’s a temporal leap, a logical leap, a deus ex machina like you’ve never imagined. And it fills our eyes with some of the most far-out visuals seen since…2001, actually.
Kubrick, bless him, always knew how to use his endings to provoke, disturb and sometimes outright confound the viewer. Not so Spielberg, who has never been able to resist the final weepy crescendo, even in “Schindler’s List” and Saving Private Ryan, two films that really didn’t need such gilding. Unfortunately, A.I. is no exception.
Yet, whatever its faults, A.I. is still a work of true science fiction, not a space opera, not a monster movie. Here there are majestic ideas at work, things Hollywood hasn’t much use for anymore. (The Matrix, for all its brains, was still mainly about all those hardcore action blowouts.)
Even the comforting hand of the most popular filmmaker in history, however, can’t make A.I. seem anything but slightly oddball. A film as cloaked in mysterious anti-hype as this one still has massive expectations to live up to. The rabid geek brigades waiting for “The Ultimate All-Time High-Tech Sci-Fi Adventure” are sure to be downcast.
In a way, that’s what makes Spielberg’s efforts all the more admirable. Watching him fuse his traditional wide-eyed optimism to Kubrick’s steely pessimism is never less than riveting. Certainly, he still labors at what Kubrick couldn’t have cared less about – namely, moving us to floods of tears. Spielberg has always dealt in emotional grandeur, whereas Kubrick practically patented his own brand of teasing ambiguity. “Ambiguous” is the perfect word for how most people will likely feel about A.I. itself, and somehow that’s almost a badge of honor.
Masterpieces, as evidenced by what Hollywood’s corporate crap factories have been presenting us with these last few years, are in shorter supply than ever. A.I. could never fulfill the weight of expectation. But Kubrick probably created a higher percentage of masterpieces than almost any other director; he only made thirteen features in his lifetime, after all. One never fails to revisit his films, even the ones that may have seemed unworthy at the time of their release. Any Kubrick film is always worth watching again, even if only in pieces – there is something new to discover every time. No matter how A.I. plays on the first viewing, sooner or later you’ll want to check it out again.
Rarely tidy, sometimes silly, often frustrating, always intriguing, A.I. is dedicated to Kubrick the man, but equally to his spirit of questing, of questioning. We take for granted that every last one of Kubrick’s films was overflowing with big ideas, themes and questions. Spielberg may stumble here and there, but he never stops doing his damnedest to honor that spirit. Now that we’re halfway through the real 2001, how many films even come close to such a goal?
So, what do you think? Discuss the film in our Hate Mail section: STEVEN SPIELBERG’S “A.I.”: ARTIFICIAL EMOTION?>>>
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