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Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law have a robot staring contest.

2001, Warner Bros.
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Steven Spielberg has spent the last 30+ years carving out a name for himself in the "great directors" hall of fame. He is, without a doubt, one of the very best American filmmakers we have, yet with "A.I." (IMDb listing), the Oscar-winning director is stepping outside of himself to pay tribute to the equally beloved director, the late Stanley Kubrick. When he passed on, Kubrick left behind the groundwork (script outline, production drawings, special effect tests) for this ambitious science-fiction epic to be made after his sexual-odyssey film "Eyes Wide Shut." Longtime friend Spielberg has taken it upon himself to connect all the scattered remains of development, and form a cohesive film out of the pieces. The end result showcases Steven Spielberg doing his very best impression of a Stanley Kubrick film, thus disregarding everything that we love from his own style of directing.

The film is basically three sections of story (totaling a running time of 140 minutes) using one of Kubrick's (and Spielberg's) favorite storytelling devices: the journey of the innocent. In section one we learn that it is the future, and the polar ice-caps have finally melted, thus flooding the coasts of every continent. A young couple (Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards) is lamenting the imminent demise of their ailing son, and in a desperate bid to restore routine to their home, they procure one of the very first mechanical (or "Mecha") children. His name is David (Haley Joel Osment), and he can be the most ideal child any family would want—except that he's a machine and incapable of true human love. At first scared of him, the couple soon adopts David into their lives.

When a medical miracle occurs, and the couple's suffering human child returns home, David promptly discovers he is second best and will stop at nothing to reclaim the love he only briefly tasted. Accepting the story of "Pinocchio" as fact, David starts to believe that if he can find the Blue Fairy, he will be able to be transformed into a real boy, and then return to the family as an equal.

In this section of the film, it is made quite clear that any warm and fuzzy Spielberg traits that we have come to expect have been placed aside so the director can assume the cold, calculated aesthetic of a Kubrick film. Eschewing dialog in place of visual metaphors, Spielberg (who also takes sole credit for the script) does a wonderful job getting into the isolation of a Mecha, and the loneliness and frustration David feels as he dreams of being a real flesh and blood kid. It's a performance for Haley Joel Osment that should win him even more kudos than he's amassed so far. He brings a carefulness, yet confusion to David that I'm sure no other child actor ever could. Even with his mandatory tears and puppy-dog eyes, Osment's performance has to—and does—anchor the film delicately.

The film opens with an existential debate over the birth of rational robots, and just how far is too far in creating what will eventually take over humans' role on Earth. The voice of this advancement is represented by a doctor named Hobby played by William Hurt in a somber performance as a Dr. Frankenstein who's intentions are admirable, but his creations have taken a life of their own. Hurt does return toward the end of the picture, yet his character remains frustratingly elusive. There is a connection between David and Dr. Hobby that is never paid off properly.

In section two, David meets a "love" Mecha named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) while imprisoned by Mecha-hating radicals that find the robots threatening. The extremist group runs boisterous live shows called "Flesh Fairs" that torture and destroy Mechas much to the delight of the thousands of people that come to witness the carnage. When the revolutionaries discover that David represents a new breed of Mechas that can simulate real emotions and fears, they set David and Gigolo Joe free. Continuing his quest for the Blue Fairy, David and Joe travel to Rouge City, a sex-drenched metropolis that can provide crucial answers to David and his questioning of his own existence.

It is in this section that the doubts of "A.I." being to form. While epic in scope and technology (the special effects are remarkable), the film seems at times to be a little too synthetic for its own good. Utilizing numerous digital backgrounds and environments rather than tangible sets, "A.I." often looks far more shoddy and uninteresting then the craftsmanship was intending. The Rouge City sets particularly look like Roger Corman leftovers.

Spielberg is a director who never skimps on creating whole worlds for his characters, yet we only see small sections of the new Earth that the film implies has been dramatically altered. For a planet that is nearly underwater, David's parents seem to live comfortably in a picturesque suburban home, free from any danger. While Rouge City, seemingly only clicks away, inhabits a rough "Mad Max" style production design. I wish Spielberg would've been a little more generous in detailing this new Earth, as it would've added greatly to the sense of space in David's journey.

As we meet the Mechas throughout the film, question begin to rise with them as well. Just how intelligent can these robots get? We are introduced to all varieties of Mechas during the "Flesh Fair" scenes, but any real understanding of their background is left in the air. Also confusing is how—if they are hated so much by the population—some of them are able to walk the streets so freely. Some of the Mechas are caught and destroyed, yet Gigolo Joe (amongst many other sex Mechas) runs around town with his plastic skin and hair, and nobody seems to mind much. As big as the "A.I." realm is, maybe it's too big for Spielberg's own screenplay to merit attention to every little detail. That's a shame too, as some of those details are more interesting than David's journey ends up being.

The third and final act really gives new life to the term "science fiction." I won't specify what transpires, but the last 30 minutes takes place 2,000 years after act two. The film breaks off the story in favor of a left-field plot twist that is more peculiar than fulfilling. It is in this section that Spielberg drops the Kubrickian batting stance and goes right for the tears. Now this is what I originally expected from Spielberg, yet after two hours of standoffish style and ice cold performances, the sudden jarring change to sentiment is disorienting. Taking into account the already bizarre climax, "A.I." most certainly does not end as satisfying as it begins.

Like most of Kubrick's own films, "A.I." is a love it or hate it affair. In the end, it actually isn't about the interpretation of the deep symbolism, marveling at the film's rather self-aware attempts to deconstruct itself, or even basking in the glow at the last chance filmgoers will get to see a Kubrick film. "A.I." is really more about just how far are you willing to go with Spielberg as he works in disguise as another filmmaker. The end result of "A.I." is equal parts powerful, respectful homage and frustratingly constipated storytelling, and as much as I like to see Spielberg trying something new, Kubrickian detachment just isn't in his blood.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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