Let it be established up front that A.I. is no “E.T.” And this is a good thing indeed. Finally, Steven Spielberg has made a film that is not for everyone. And we have Stanley Kubrick’s ghost to thank for it.
Let’s also pause for a moment to consider how unique is this union of two legendary directors: the Eccentric Recluse meets the King of Hollywood. Spielberg and Kubrick, two filmmakers whose styles and sensibilities stand diametrically opposed, are master technicians with vastly different notions about the nature of humanity. The fact that they were friends seems amazing enough; who would have dreamed they’d ever collaborate, even under such unusual circumstances?
Kubrick is said to have decided long before he died in 1999 that he would rather produce A.I., with Spielberg directing. Obviously this was hardly the controlling Kubrick’s traditional modus operandi. Though he had – according to Frederic Raphæl’s controversial book “Eyes Wide Open” – been critical of “Schindler’s List,” he was always fascinated by Spielberg’s effortless way with the mass audience. Kubrick must have known that he was on Spielberg’s playground with this warmhearted science-fable.
Whatever one thinks of the end result – reactions will be varied and fierce – we’re not likely to see a project of this kind again.
So, is A.I. a masterpiece? No. Was Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, a masterpiece? Not especially. But before you think “I knew it! Kubrick would have done it so much better,” consider this question: Why did Kubrick want to mount this elaborate retelling of “Pinocchio” in the first place? What did cinema’s supreme cynic ever see in such a modest little fairy tale?
For A.I. is, quite simply, the story of a little boy who wants his mother. Based on Brian Aldiss’ “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” a ten-page hint of a story published in 1969 (it reads like a prologue to a novel that was never written), A.I. was one of Kubrick’s abiding obsessions for the better part of thirty years. What in those ten pages inspired Kubrick to labor with Aldiss on a succession of story outlines, to produce nearly a thousand concept drawings and designs, to hire a platoon of special effects artists and advisors over the years? Could it be that Kubrick had finally made contact with…his inner child?
Of course, Spielberg’s inner child needs no introduction; he’s been thrilling billions of paying customers since 1975. But since the catharsis of “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Little Stevie seems to have retired – the desultory Lost World proved that once and for all. While A.I. never achieves the dizzy heights of the Holy Trinity (“Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), it’s a damn sight better than “Hook.” Though A.I. is in fact about a little boy, Spielberg attempts to tell this story with fewer sentimental flourishes than in the past. That is not to say he has put away his bag of tricks; he’s merely allowing Kubrick to hold the strings this time.
A.I.‘s little boy is called David, and he is robotic, a “mecha.” His designer, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), has explained in the film’s opening scene that the only element missing from all his cybernetic creations is the ability to love. Twenty months later, David is born.
A young couple, whose own son Martin lies cryogenically frozen until a cure for his rare disease is found, soon find David at their door. He appears as an angelic wraith, draped in white robes, the avatar of a new race. Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), the father, is fascinated. But mother Monica (Frances O’Connor) is horrified – at first – by the idea of replacing her not-quite-dead son with a “toy.”
But whose heart wouldn’t soon open to David, as young Haley Joel Osment plays him? The uncanny Osment, as we all know from his momentous performance in The Sixth Sense, is a genius. There’s just no other way to describe his total lack of actorly affectation, his disinterest in playing cute and cuddly. Most kid actors can barely even play kids, much less soulful, lovesick cyborgs. Osment appears in nearly every scene of A.I., but he bears the crushing weight of this production as lightly as a halo.
There’s a wordless, wonderfully awkward dinner table scene in which David tries to assimilate into his new family by miming the act of eating, something he of course, has no need to do. Monica’s resistance to him breaks down then and there. Before long, David becomes her No. 1 Son, v.2.
Then Martin (Jake Thomas) is suddenly cured, and brought back home. It’s a touchy situation for David, and for the viewer. If A.I. has a villain, it’s certainly Martin. Right away, he treats David as a toy, one he’d dearly love to smash to pieces.
The problem is the matter-of-fact way with which Monica treats her bio-son once he returns; their bond is never clearly drawn. But when nasty little Martin sees to it that David becomes a danger to him, the decision is made: David must go. Because of Martin, David is forced out into the cruel world – a world, as Monica sorrowfully says, “I never told you about.”
Read the exciting conclusion in Film Threat’s “A.I.” analysis in part two of BICENTENNIAL BOY: KUBRICK’S RUBRIC>>>.