Steven Spielberg is back on the job.
In films as different as "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Saving Private Ryan," Mr. Spielberg has shown an extraordinary knack for getting under the public's skin - less through the power of his ideas than through a remarkable skill at weaving vivid plots and pushing emotional buttons. He also seems to know just before we do what subjects and stories will appeal to our current moviegoing moods.
Spielberg doesn't always reach his goals - remember "Always" or "Amistad," anyone? - but his success rate is so high that even his detractors have to take him seriously.
His new "A.I.," also known as "Artificial Intelligence" (opening today), may not be the year's best movie - or even the summer's biggest hit. But it's hard to imagine another Hollywood picture that will spark as much discussion as this highly ambitious, technically sophisticated, and wildly unpredictable fantasy has already stirred up.
The movie gains extra fascination from the fact that Spielberg inherited the "A.I." project from another filmmaker, the late Stanley Kubrick, who would surely have spun the story in very different ways. Or is this actually a Kubrick movie in disguise, using Spielberg's patented emotionalism to sugarcoat a slyly intellectual commentary on the nature of intelligence, the purpose of technology, and the meaning of life itself?
'2001': an openly spiritual film
Those issues are at the heart of "A I.," and the tilt of your movie-rating thumb may depend on whether you think it's a thought-provoking parable or a high-tech joyride through subjects that deserve more serious scrutiny than Spielberg's science-fiction wizardry can provide.
In the brilliant "2001: A Space Odyssey" among the most openly spiritual films Hollywood has ever released, Kubrick speculated on humanity's ability to rise above itself and assume a new nature so different from earthly experience that the story had to end without trying to show it.
In his hands, "A.I." might also have reached such transcendent heights. As a Steven Spielberg film, it's just another fairy tale - often jolting and engrossing, but not the mind-enlarging saga it might have been.
The story takes place on Earth in the distant future. Global warming and rising oceans have destroyed great cities, curtailed living space, and forced governments to place limits on childbirth. Yet life goes on, and it's not so different from what we know today. People work, play, marry, and raise the children - one per household - they're allowed to have.
It's not a bad existence for most folks, especially since highly evolved androids are on hand to help with daily tasks. But what if a robot could provide more than practical assistance? What if it could become a genuine family member and truly love the "parents" who raise it, teach it, and love it in return?
That's the dream of a gifted scientist (William Hurt) at Cybertronics Manufacturing, and he makes it come true, designing an android whose "artificial" intelligence includes "authentic" affection. This fulfills the dream of a couple (Sam Robards, Frances O'Connor) whose child (Jake Thomas) has fallen gravely ill. If their son Martin dies, perhaps their android David (Haley Joel Osment) can fill the resulting void.
But this raises a whole new set of "what if" questions. What if Martin survives, setting off a sibling rivalry? On a deeper plane, what if David's human love proves incompatible with his robotic nature? And going far beyond this household, what's the proper place of not-quite-humans in a world that humanity thinks was made for humanity alone?
Spielberg directed "A.I." from his own screenplay, the first he's written since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" almost 25 years ago. Everything about it, from its mercurial plot to its hyperactive editing, carries his stamp. But it takes on additional interest when you remember that Mr. Kubrick first conceptualized the project and spent several years developing it, postponing the production mainly because Hollywood couldn't yet provide the high-tech effects he needed.
It's hard to think of two more different filmmakers. Kubrick was coolly experimental enough to make groundbreakers like "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001," while Spielberg bubbles with emotion and chases the widest possible audience. Kubrick consulted with Spielberg about "A.I." before his death, however, and stated that Spielberg would be an excellent person to direct it. Now that the movie is finished, Warner Bros. is presenting it as "a Steven Spielberg film," but publicity materials trumpet Kubrick's involvement. Spielberg says writing it was like being "an archeologist ... putting Stanley's picture back together again."
Man vs. Machine: a Kubrick theme
Who is the movie's real auteur, then? One way of answering this is to think about Kubrick's attitude toward the relationship between people and machines, a theme underlying many of his films.
Kubrick had great respect for technology - he was a technically innovative filmmaker, after all - but he saw great dangers in privileging the mechanical aspects of thought over the human and spiritual aspects. The hero of "2001" must kill a prideful computer before he can embody humanity's future as a transcendent star-child, and "A Clockwork Orange" suggests that the organic ("orange") side of human nature must be valued over the mechanical ("clockwork") side, even if this means preserving human evil as well.
"A.I." studies the human-and-machine equation from a different perspective, implying that the boundaries between oranges and clockworks might be hazier than we suspect. Judging from Kubrick's completed films, he would have seen David as the ultimate victim of mechanistic thinking - a bundle of metal programmed to dream of the sublime, a doomed Pinocchio yearning for psychological and spiritual ideals that will never be within his grasp.
Spielberg also views David this way, but being a less intellectually probing filmmaker, he grabs onto the Pinocchio angle and lets it run away with the movie. This isn't surprising from the director who ended "Close Encounters" with Jiminy Cricket singing "Over the Rainbow" on the soundtrack. But it does turn much of "A.I." into an unofficial remake of the classic Carlo Collodi story and (even more) the great Walt Disney animated film, especially when David leaves his human home for adventures in a cold, cruel world that treats outsiders with harsh contempt.
This said, the movie gives harrowing twists to its Pinocchio plot. If you're expecting a fairy tale like "E.T." or "Jurassic Park," be warned that the violence-prone Spielberg of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" is also on display. He knows society's weakness for brutality and degradation, and here he shows how inhumane the human race can be, showering the futuristic equivalents of racism and bigotry onto David and his minority group.
The most disturbing scenes occur in a sort of Roman arena where conscious robots are graphically mutilated, dismembered, and destroyed before a mob of howling spectators. Spielberg also spotlights sexual exploitation via Gigolo Joe, a robotic prostitute (Jude Law) who plays a key role in the story.
If these elements of "A.I." recall Kubrick's clinical approach, the movie is most Spielbergian in its cinematic style, despite occasional tributes (floating camera movements, strikingly symmetrical images) to the Kubrick touch.
Janusz Kaminski's lighting works harder at tweaking our emotions than etching a believable world. Michael Kahn's editing hurtles from shot to shot as if a moment's pause would send us shuffling to the popcorn counter. John Williams's music is a cloying stream of fantasy-film formulas that would have appalled Kubrick, who used music in stunningly original ways.
'A.I.' reveals Spielberg's worldview
It's impossible to discuss the ending of "A.I." without giving away too many secrets, but it's safe to say the last portion will have you either cheering or jeering, depending on how much you've let yourself surrender to Spielberg's beguiling worldview. It will also depend on how much you accept the melancholy implications of the final scene, which suggests unexpectedly dark layers to his view of the human condition and the ultimate significance of death.
This is a chief reason why it's hard to sum up "A.I." with a simple yea or nay. In many ways, it's a canny and compelling entertainment. But when Spielberg took on a subject nurtured by Kubrick's acute intellect, he also took on the responsibility of exploring the philosophical ideas that captivated Kubrick in the first place.
It's far from clear that Spielberg has the depth as a thinker or the breadth as an artist to do this. He seems to feel the meaning of life and the excitement of movies amount to pretty much the same thing. While that attitude has helped him become a master entertainer, it has bounded his ability to illuminate the world in profound or enduring ways.
I realized the limitations of Spielberg's worldview when I looked over some publicity stills from "Jurassic Park" a few years ago. These pictures emphasized the human characters rather than the prehistoric monsters, and I was struck by how almost every photo showed a person looking with awe and wonder at a monumental presence towering overhead. If you didn't know the movie's premise, you might think these characters were praying, or at least gazing with respect at some manifestation of a higher power.
They weren't, of course, but the consistency of these photos helped me understand how Spielberg energizes his movies by tapping into our religious impulses, even though he's rarely concerned with actual religious ideas.
There are exceptions to this - the religious scenes in "Amistad" and the powerful Jewish concerns of "Schindler's List," for instance - but Spielberg is a fundamentally earthbound filmmaker who wants to seduce our imaginations, not elevate our sensibilities.
He gives us the illusion of connecting with something greater than ourselves, and it's the challenge of creating this illusion that fascinates him. He doesn't seem to care about the notion that art can serve more exalted purposes.
This isn't a fault in itself - the same is true of most popular filmmakers - but it explains why Spielberg isn't the ideal teller of the "A.I." tale.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor