Much has already written about A.I.'s legendary past: it was a pet project of the late Stanley Kubrick, who for years tried to get it made, without luck. You'd think he would have been able to just call up Steven Spielberg while he was alive and ask, "Hey, could I have $100 million to do this?" but instead Spielberg waited for Kubrick to kick off so he could take over the project and call it his own. I'm being cheeky, but that's how it seems.
What we're left with is a truly weird blend of the two filmmakers' styles: Kubrick's icy, detached sheen and Spielberg's mainstream suburban warmth. There are elements from each director's best-known works here, a little bit of The Shining, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange on one hand, a little bit of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Schindler's List on the other. Toss in a sprinkling of The Abyss and a hefty dose of Blade Runner, and you have one big mess.
A.I. is essentially three different stories: the first is a domestic drama set in the distant future, where a yuppie couple, grieving over their comatose son, decides to assuage their loneliness by "adopting" David, the world's first robot capable of human love. Haley Joel Osment plays David with his typically over-serious approach. This section of the film comes closest to Kubrick's spooky, sterile style, and it's the most successful: A.I. is based on a 1960s short story called Super Toys Last All Summer Long, which is what attracted Kubrick in the first place, but alas, that story is over by the end of the film's first hour.
In the film's second story, David finds himself lost in a forest where he can't phone home, but he can bond with a fellow robot, in this case a sex android called Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, perfectly cast), who leads him on various adventures across an ultra-futuristic landscape. The story bogs down as David, having heard the story of Pinocchio, believes that he too can become a real boy, and desperately begins searching for the Blue Fairy.
This tedious quest continues until the frankly wretched last act, which only out of courtesy I won't give away, but I will say that just as the film wears out its welcome, it tricks you into thinking it's all over with a satisfying, if sad, ending for our poor David - then picks up and continues for a sickeningly sweet 15-minute epilogue that brings to mind the pointless "special edition" finale of Close Encounters, which was nothing but tons of special effects. Here Spielberg goes for tons of effects and a completely unconvincing "happy ending", and it sinks the film.
Not that A.I. would have been perfect otherwise; it's too ambitious for its own good. Although its seamless visual splendor is impressive - every sci fi idea you ever had as a teenager is right up there on screen - it's also exhausting. And irrelevant: How ironic that Spielberg couldn't see the parallel between David's quest and his own, for just as a soulless robot boy convinces himself that his pre-programmed emotions are real, so does Spielberg believe the same of his film.
When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, a critic said that the reason why Jaws worked, and why Jurassic Park did not, was that hungry sharks are a real threat but resuscitated dinosaurs aren't. A.I. falters in the same way: E.T. suggested that in your home town, a charming alien could come down and be your friend. But A.I. is set so far in a stylized future that it has little connection to our own time. We could sympathize with E.T.'s Elliot. But for us, poor David remains, well, artificial.