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 super-toy 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 Andre 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.
Kubrick didn‘t need happy endings, as his work could brutally prove. That’s one reason why he was so often criticized for being cold, a meaningless judgment that also misses what Kubrick himself understood full well — that human beings, even filmmakers, are complex and ambivalent. It‘s something that Spielberg has never grasped, and probably never will. His movies are filled with heroes and monsters, but rarely characters who, by their faults, their weaknesses, and not just their heroics, show themselves as all too human. (The Nazi played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List is as human as the mechanical shark in Jaws.) In the original story, Aldiss doesn‘t reveal that David is a robot until the very end; in contrast, Spielberg seems determined to remind us of his artificiality in scene after scene. It’s a curious gambit, and seems to work at cross-purposes with our burgeoning sympathy for David; there are moments when we can‘t see the boy for the circuitry. But there’s a point to this: Even as Spielberg is busy turning David into a hero, he is doing all he can to sidestep the dark moral of Aldiss‘ story, in which the robot is more real, more human, than his flesh-and-blood keepers.
Spielberg’s infidelity to Aldiss (and perhaps to Kubrick, who knows?) would be pardonable if it didn‘t ruin his movie. In the end, he has failed to make a persuasive, smart movie about robots and people because he can’t bear the idea that human beings are imperfect, that they abandon their children, that they break minds and bodies, sometimes for sport. There‘s an excruciating scene in A.I., in which Monica leaves David in the woods, that gets at everything great and terrible about this movie. The scene is important on a number of counts — it shifts the film’s look from its dreamy naturalism to a nightmarish surrealism, and combines Kubrick‘s aesthetic of cruelty and Spielberg’s aesthetic of bathos into a single devastating encounter. At that moment, as David screams out that primal, defining fear — Mommy, don‘t leave me! — Spielberg doesn’t just terrify us, he peels back our skin. Few other directors have the power to move us so effectively, so viciously, and it‘s a good guess that if Kubrick thought Spielberg could take on his project, it was because he saw the total control with which the younger man could not just manipulate our emotions, but force us to weep. Time and again with Spielberg, sentimentality is nothing other than a polite form of sadism.
Kubrick put A.I. on hold to make The Shining, but he rehired Aldiss after he saw (and admired) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. According to John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, while the director originally envisioned A.I. as a science-fiction story in the vein of Star Wars, E.T. set him on a different path. “Then, gradually, I realized,” Aldiss told Baxter, “this time it wasn‘t Star Wars, it wasn’t E.T. It was fucking Pinocchio! The Blue Fairy! I worked with him for about six weeks, and I couldn‘t get rid of that Blue Fairy.” Spielberg couldn’t get rid of the Blue Fairy, either. After proving himself a master of mean on the level of Kubrick and Hitchcock, he takes David out of the woods and straight into a live-action, faithful retread of Disney‘s Pinocchio. He spices it up with some sexual innuendo and a few tremors of violence, including a badly staged coliseum scene that’s derivative of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but without the frenzied erotic energy. Then he brings in Robin Williams. If you think it couldn‘t get worse, think again. The last half-hour is such unadulterated kitsch — space aliens with British accents, lots of gauzy white light, John Williams’ merciless score — that it puts the film‘s meta-story into savage relief: If Spielberg hoped to turn into a real artist with this film, in Kubrick he found the wrong Gepetto.