The wanderers

A misplaced "gift" goes on a quest for its own return.


written and directed by Steven Spielberg with Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, and William Hurt opens June 29 at Cinerama, Neptune, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others

ROLL OVER, STAN. After the grave deprived you of the chance to realize your long-brewing science-fiction movie, your estate turned to the one man with the clout to bring your pet project to fruition. Thus, two years after your demise, we have A.I., from Steven Spielberg—the director whom you once resented for preempting your long-brewing Holocaust movie with Schindler's List. That old rivalry has been smoothed over, of course, with the opening credits proclaiming an "Amblin/Stanley Kubrick production of a Steven Spielberg film." Hey—at least your name came first!

But here's the thing, Stan: It's not really your movie any more. Spielberg wrote it, and your famously cool, clinical sensibilities have been—shall we say?—warmed up a bit. Still, some astringent traces of your work remain, including the basic premise borrowed from a five-page story published by English sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss in 1969 (just between 2001 and A Clockwork Orange). Those were the Cold War days when new-school sci-fi assailed technology's dehumanizing effects. As Vietnam raged around you, the future seemed pretty dark indeed.

That pessimism informs a hasty expository prologue in which a benevolent scientist (William Hurt) explains that, in an apocalyptic future afflicted by global warming and flooding, scarce resources dictate only "licensed pregnancy." Even as humans are dwindling, however, "mechas" (robots) are taking over many of their functions. Hence the "new market" for a child mecha that can inspire and reciprocate love with would-be parents. Hurt and his multicultural colleagues are so well-intentioned and decent—like the cast of a Macintosh commercial—that you don't have time to ask, "Why not give them pets instead?" Then, naturally, one scientist raises the issue of human responsibility to their sentient charges; if mechas have feelings, those feelings can be hurt.

So, Stan, when did you ever care about mere feelings? From Dr. Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut, did any of your characters ever feel anything at all?

FOR SPIELBERG, we know, feelings are paramount, especially when the Swinton family takes delivery on adorable David (The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment). Walking into focus accompanied by John Williams' insufferably lachrymose score, the kid's undeniably cute, a towheaded, saucer-eyed 11-year-old. "I like your floor," he stammers of his posh new surroundings (late 21st-century Pottery Barn?). Mother Monica (Mansfield Park's Frances O'Connor) initially resists "it," then predictably slips up in her pronouns, coming to love "him." Cracking the owner's manual, she decides to imprint with the boy—an irreversible process, she's warned.

Bathed in golden light like a pieta, mother and child receive Spielberg's full family reverence. Yet families can be fractured, and that trauma (familiar from his earlier films) results in young David hitting the road. There, the forlorn lad falls under the charge of swaggering Gigolo Joe (The Talented Mr. Ripley's Jude Law), a "love mecha" whom you'll immediately recognize, Stan! He's the brash bastard son of Clockwork's Malcolm McDowell, right down to his penchant for song and dance.

His presence also suggests a very different, far more adult kind of movie. Spielberg makes a few nods to Clockwork's sex-saturated production design, but A.I. is more childish fairy tale— Pinocchio is repeatedly invoked—than grown-up sci-fi. (It's even got a soothing storybook narrator, Ben Kingsley.) So while there are hints of your twisted humor, Stan, like people having sex with robots, A.I.'s very PG-13. Spielberg adds a few action bits, resulting in a feeble pastiche of Blade Runner and The Road Warrior, plus heavy-handed moralizing. (Persecuted mecha are like Jews—get it?)

Another thing, Stan—why was this picture released in June? Remember how you used to micromanage your movies' marketing? Full of longing, sadness, and mortality, A.I. is a serious holiday flick with a strange coda ill-suited to summer frivolity. It's finally a surprisingly chilly, morbid film, even when couched in Spielbergian mawkishness. (Although the director does a nice job integrating visual effects into cool, matter-of-fact futurism.) Perhaps you had your way after all. Even if by proxy, you've produced another flawed, ambitious work where the hero—despite his dreams—has no heart.

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