- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

With all due respect to the staggering array of spectacles Hollywood already has hurled at the public this season, from "The Mummy's Return" to "The Fast and the Furious," the closest thing to an "event" attraction is "A.I.," Steven Spielberg's presumably faithful realization of a dystopian fable inherited from the late Stanley Kubrick. The initials stand for "Artificial Intelligence." While it's unlikely to prove as popular as "E.T." did almost 20 summers ago, the new movie has a special claim on uniqueness.

Rarely does a famous director of one generation consent to complete the unmade project of a famous director of an earlier generation. Checking out such an act of veneration may be sufficient reason to see the film, especially among confirmed moviegoers. It appears that Mr. Spielberg derived a singular gratification from taking on the challenge and obligation of a movie originated by one of his idols.

The source material is a short story published in 1969. Mr. Kubrick acquired the property a decade later and spent 20 years contemplating a movie adaptation. At one time, he hoped to construct an adequate robot prop to simulate the naive protagonist now impersonated as sweetly as possible by Haley Joel Osment. Haley's character, a lovelorn android lad named David, is contrived as an experimental foster son for an upper-middle-class couple, Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) of the next century or so.

The plot travels an arduous and grandiose distance, ultimately stretching two millenniums into the future. This destination evidently overshoots the history of the human race on Earth. The thematic upshot, a little difficult to celebrate if you happen to be human, is tear-jerking transcendence of a highly alienating kind.

The skeptical might summarize it as ill-considered ironic glorification of a mechanical mama's boy. It also could serve as a warning: Never discard your junk, because there's no telling when it might be mistaken for the last vestige of civilization.

When abandoned by Mrs. Swinton, the human whom he is specifically (and perhaps exclusively) programmed to bond with and cherish, little toy David begins his prolonged odyssey. It takes him from a deep, dark fairy-tale forest to a sinister carnival, called a Flesh Fair, where broken and discarded robots are demolished for the entertainment of coarse and hostile humans. The connotations even suggest a holocaust of the robots, who are then specifically identified as scapegoats for the humans, part of a dwindling population in a blighted and demoralized habitat.

Spared from the Flesh Fair, David encounters a lewdly glittering and sinister metropolis called Rouge City, where he is protected briefly by the most promising and diverting denizen of the future, Jude Law as a happy-go-lucky robot gigolo called Joe. Joe's head seems to be stocked with recordings of vintage show tunes, notably "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "Luck Be a Lady," also incentive for his dancing feet. The possibility that "A.I." might reinvent itself as a futuristic sex farce in the "Sleeper" vein proves a bum tease. Joe does introduce David to an animated swami called Dr. Know, who leads the impressionable kid toward a booby-trapped "creator," a cybernetics engineer named Dr. Allen Hobby, played by William Hurt.

First seen in the opening sequence, Hobby becomes the last of several unworthy humans who demonstrate a selfish inability to reassure David with unconditional love. In fact, the misguided inventor precipitates an emotional crisis that takes roughly 2,000 years to repair.

A good deal of "A.I." seems calculated to give audiences a dose of creepiness. Although the initial misanthropic tendencies probably can be ascribed to Mr. Kubrick, Mr. Spielberg makes a determined effort to be faithful to their coldhearted drift. He doesn't even give future life forms any credit for discovering human civilization in ruinous abundance. Evidently, not even movies will survive the next deluge and freeze-up. While David gets an answer to "Where's Mommy?" it would be more satisfying to learn where the Museum of Modern Art archives have gone.

The most impressive aspect of the production: simulations of otherworldly or underwater settings, the result of accomplished production design and cinematography as well as up-to-the-minute refinements in digital and computer graphic imagery.

These fanciful and extensive scenic panoramas may, in fact, have such a hypnotic effect, reinforced by the surging and mysterioso motifs in John Williams' score, that "A.I." will emerge as a cult favorite with a sizable slice of the public. You can get rhapsodies of the deep from certain images even if you can't make sense of the movie in dramatic or thematic terms.

A case can be made that "A.I." is a uniquely haunting picture. Unfortunately, the visionary dimension is also undermined by an abundance of myth-groping and mawkish sentiment, predicated on a mechanical thing whose "thingness" is always an obstacle to pathos. "A.I." is a persistent monstrosity too.

It keeps voyaging and ramifying even as it caves or deflates from episode to episode. An awful lot of portentousness sails along on precious little human interest or human trust.

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