The Big Picture: A.I (12)

Growing up is so very hard to do
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The Independent Culture

Movie-going won't be the same for a while. Some day we may be able to gaze without a shudder at scenes of a devastated, ghostly Manhattan, as occur in Steven Spielberg's A.I., and hear without flinching the city described as "the end of the world". But not now; not for a long time. And who will be going to see it in any case? Movies seem of little relevance at the moment, distracted as we are by the drama unfolding on television and in newspapers.

Still, the eerie, near-apocalyptic intimations at the beginning of A.I. certainly answer the present mood. The film comes of a famous collaboration, and offers a bizarre kind of promise. Based on a 1969 short story by the British sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss, it was a long-cherished (and characteristically long-delayed) project of Stanley Kubrick, which he eventually handed over to his friend Steven Spielberg. They're quite a couple of parents for any brainchild to cope with: on the one hand, the brilliant showmanship and fuzzy humanity of Spielberg, on the other the meticulous, antiseptic perfectionism of Kubrick.

While one can't say with absolute certainty who is responsible for what, the two halves of the film seem to divide quite discernibly between one director's sensibility and the other's. Set in an ominous future where global warming has flooded major land masses, the much-reduced population now requires the ministrations of robots, known as "mechas", which constitute a whole underclass of servants. A visionary scientist (played by William Hurt) at Cybertronics Manufacturing has pioneered a new sort of mecha, programmed to need and to love; what's more, this remarkable automaton is a boy named David (Haley Joel Osment), and he's to be adopted by a couple, Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards) whose own son is in a coma.

At first, David's arrival throws the Swintons into a panic. "He's creepy," says Monica, a brittle woman at the best of times. "You can never hear him coming, but he's always there." Osment does wonders with the role: his smoothly glazed skin and the unblinking fixity of his gaze are a bit creepy, yet he's smart, co-operative and, well, endearing in a mechanical sort of way. True to his programming he develops an enduring love for his mother, a love she apparently reciprocates until – aaagh! – coma kid wakes up, returns to the familial hearth and launches a covert war against his unwanted robo-sibling. This passage of narrative, surely Kubrick's in conception, is poised just on the edge of horror, and it's the most powerful in the movie. There's an eerily beautiful shot of David sinking slowly to the bottom of a swimming-pool that conjures both the isolation of a "special" child and his dismaying invulnerability: David can't drown, but nobody's going to save him anyway.

This is the point at which the movie (written by Spielberg, incidentally) seems to be reaching for a theme, namely: the nature of love. If David is capable of feelings, albeit programmed ones, is he not entitled to respect, and perhaps even love? He is surely more deserving of it than the Swintons' flesh-and-blood son, whose scheming ensures that David is cast out from the family home and abandoned, in true fairy-tale fashion, in the middle of a wood.

The philosophical disquiet gives way to a futuristic reworking of Pinocchio in which David conceives the idea that, if he becomes a "real" boy, his mother will love him for ever. And, notwithstanding some memorable stops along the way, A.I. begins a slow, ponderous descent into tedium.

Spielberg's visual inventiveness is not in question here, nor can one fault his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who lights his imagery with crisp exactitude. There's a striking instance of surrealist horror-farce when David stumbles on a dump, where half-broken robots scavenge through mounds of body parts for a spare eye or a substitute arm. This has to be done by night, for robots in this brave new world are generally persecuted or made sport of by humans. One of the film's big set-pieces is a "flesh fair", a cross between a lynch party and a rock concert where the crowds whoop at the spectacle of robots being trashed. There is pathos here, as some mechas go to their doom with a stoical smile, yet the danger David seems to be in, caged up with his fellow robots, is allowed to evaporate; when the crowd turns on the organisers of the fair, the boy simply walks off hand-in-hand with his teddy bear and a gigolo robot, Joe (Jude Law).

On the long trudge towards the film's enigmatic resolution, Law provides much-needed relief. Dressed in a long, black coat, with plastic quiff worn like a close helmet, he resembles an android rock star. Yet his style turns out to be more old-fashioned: he has dance steps like Gene Kelly and, with a jerk of his neck, the yearning strains of "I Only Have Eyes For You" waft through the air: a gigolo as walking jukebox. The film needs his insouciant touch, and once he bows out an awful dragginess sets in. Part of the problem is that Spielberg seems to believe he's offering something profound and uplifting, rather than something bleak and hopeless. David has gone to Manhattan in search of a blue fairy who he hopes will transform him into a real boy, but this fantasy of restitution, of separation annealed, becomes so convoluted that one loses the will to respond. Death and friendly aliens (or are they robots?) seem to be involved, though not in any way you might care to make sense of.

Visible through it all is Spielberg's abiding preoccupation with the bond between mother and child, and the anxiety of its possible rupture. But it's in the switch from the mother's point of view to the child's where the movie comes unstuck. The dread and confusion that haunts Frances O'Connor at the start – does she love this almost-child or not? – are compelling in a way that David's quixotic (and meaningless) longing to be a real boy is not, and no amount of spiffy visual pyrotechnics can lift a film that becomes as dark and cloying as treacle.