By autumn, when the bucket o' corn known as Pearl Harbor has been consumed and all but forgotten, audiences may still be chewing over the meaning and merits of "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." The ambitious, surprising science-fiction piece (inspired by a Brian Aldiss short story) was developed by the late Stanley Kubrick and brought to completion by the beloved Steven Spielberg. Jan Harlan, Kubrick's longtime producer, and an executive producer on this film, encouraged Spielberg to see the project through, as did Kubrick's widow, Christiane.
Set in the distant future, "A.I." is a fascinating, moving yet ultimately flawed riff on manufactured consciousness. "I propose that we build a robot who can love," Professor Hobby (William Hurt) of Cybertronics Manufacturing tells a group of his scientific colleagues. "Ours will be a perfect child. In the beginning, didn't God create Adam to love him?"
What, the film asks, might be the ramifications of such a development? Would mankind's creations outlive man?
Just as provocative as that central conceit is the film's attempt to unite two disparate cinematic sensibilities. Kubrick had a cold, calculating style, using black humor to great effect in such films as "A Clockwork Orange" and "Dr. Strangelove." Spielberg, meanwhile, has gained a reputation as an eager-to-please filmmaker who usually prefers to go for the touchy-feely rather than dig deeper. (Exhibit A: "E.T." Exhibit B: Practically everything he's done up until "Schindler's List" in 1993.) Spielberg is the Paul McCartney, if you will, to Kubrick's John Lennon.
Never say never: The two approaches do indeed meet in "A.I.," and the results are impressive, if somewhat frustrating. Viewers may leave dazzled by the film's sights, sounds and Spielberg-approved tale of a child's deep longing for his family, but they may be vaguely disoriented by the conclusions about the evolution of man, which are similar to those suggested by Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." There are references to "Clockwork Orange" and Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," while other passages are reminiscent of "Blade Runner," the "Mad Max" trilogy and Bicentennial Man.
There won't be much debate, however, about the warm, ultimately heartbreaking performance of Haley Joel Osment, 13. Osment has been assigned a burdensome task, that of holding the film's center together as the story cycles through entirely unexpected, unwieldy changes of locale and time. And the remarkable young actor is entirely up to the task of playing David, the mechanical boy in-tended to soothe the maternal longings of Monica (Frances O'Connor), a mother whose biological son Martin (Jake Thomas) has been cryogenically suspended for five years, awaiting a cure for the disease that afflicts his body.
It's a delight to watch Monica and her husband, Henry (Sam Robards), try out their new toy-boy (who's viewed at one point through a halolike fluorescent light). David is perfectly friendly and obedient, never needs to eat or sleep, and -- after the imprinting process -- demonstrates something like love for his mommy. In an ultramodern house whose occupants seem entirely cut off from the outside world, he bonds with the H.A.L.-like Teddy, a walking, talking, thinking teddy bear, and cuddles with Monica during bedtime readings of, yes, "Pinocchio."
The homey, domestic bliss is interrupted by Martin's return; it's around that time that the roboboy's real quest begins. David's travels take him (and us) to several amazingly designed worlds. One is a combination death-metal concert, circus and gladiator ring; another is a gaudy, neon-glowing urban neighborhood in which he meets cyberguy Gigolo Joe (a sprightly Jude Law). There's also a glowing hedonism center called Rouge City and a Manhattan that's submerged in the Atlantic. While not quite fulfilling, the trip is more than a little intoxicating.