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Why ''A.I.'' still causes arguments

Change your mind, again, about the Spielberg movie? That’s not a bad thing, says Ty Burr

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Jude Law, A.I.
AI: Warner Bros.

Why ”A.I.” still causes arguments

The book is closed on ”A.I.,” isn’t it? With Warner Bros. now acknowledging that the film probably won’t crack the $100 million mark that separates ”success” from ”abject fiasco” in the mayfly media mindset, with general audiences recoiling in confusion and distaste, it would seem that the culture has already moved on from Steven Spielberg’s collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick. C’mon, there’s a new pastel-colored comedy with Reese Witherspoon playing — let’s go see that, huh?

Personally, I’m in the minority that was fairly blown away by ”A.I.,” bizarro flaws and all. If for no other reason, it’s refreshing to come across a chunk of celluloid that’s willing to risk being argued about, that lingers and pokes at you throughout the week, coughing up images and unasked-for questions. I’m intrigued by all the camps that are put off by ”A.I.” This movie is flopping because it has united radically different groups of moviegoers into one sneering mob. Let’s tick them off, shall we?

STANLEY KUBRICK IDOLATORS
These are the folks that found good things to say about ”Eyes Wide Shut.” They seem to like ”A.I.”’s first half just fine, since the grouchy futurism of the man behind ”2001” and ”A Clockwork Orange” seems evident in the film’s pace, tone, and, above all, in the chilly sense that these mortals be fools indeed. It’s only when David (Haley Joel Osment) starts chasing that ridiculous Blue Fairy — i.e., when Spielbergian sentiment rears its head — that the Kubrickoids revolt. Worse, the Freudian paradise of the final scene has them retching in the aisles. I have problems with the movie’s wrap-up, too, but not because it sullies the memory of Kubrick. In fact, by all accounts, ”A.I.” ends exactly as Kubrick wanted it to (although not, it should be noted, as he might have shot it).

STEVEN SPIELBERG ACOLYTES
They expect nothing less than masterful narrative filmmaking from the heir to Hollywood’s Golden Age and are willing to put up with any attendant emotional goo. Unfortunately for them, ”A.I.” presents Spielberg at his most meditative AND (ultimately) sentimental. There are big, Kubrickian ideas here: What makes us human? Does our lack of perfection ennoble or doom us? Is love without choice really love? And Spielberg (to his credit) lets them hover behind the characters and story for the most part, occasionally letting them pierce the scrim of narrative. He also goes all out toward the end with a trippy plot change-up reminiscent of ”2001.” Too bad nobody goes to the movies on acid anymore.

MAINSTREAM FANS OF ”E.T.” AND ”CLOSE ENCOUNTERS”
They want warmth, clarity, and a movie they can share with their kids. They get darkness, a final 20 minutes that goes completely off the deep end, and a movie that’ll land the children in therapy. All I can say is caveat emptor, folks. (And those things are NOT aliens, they’re advanced robots, all right?)

LOVERS OF DYSPEPTIC ART HOUSE CINEMA.
No luck for them, either, since ”A.I.” courts feelgood sentiment in every close-up of Osment. That the movie’s saved by the actor’s enormous talent — just watch his face in the scene where he’s ”imprinted” — is all that keeps these folks in their seats. Too bad that the Teddy toy morphs from a beguilingly creepy familiar to a laughable Jiminy Cricket over the course of the film, and that the final scene seems to topple into mommy-love bathos. I say ”seems” because I do think that Spielberg has more complex ideas about that last sequence (remember the ”Freud and Women” book Monica is reading in the bathroom?), at the same time that I have to admit he hasn’t put them across clearly.

PEOPLE WHO LIKE PEOPLE
What may be most disturbing to many moviegoers is ”A.I.”’s underlying assumption that the human race isn’t particularly noble, nice, or important. That’s the thread that runs through all of Kubrick’s work, and why some critics dismiss him as a mere misanthrope. And it’s truly startling to see that belief refracted through Spielberg’s visual iconography. But there it is: Who we are is not as good as what we make. The movie dares to imagine that humans are a passing phase — a brief virus caught by Earth, perhaps — and that the robots who will outlive us are the better gods we have fashioned in our own image. Chew over THAT one at your next church meeting.

And be aware, too, that the kernel of this long-view message (distressing to some, refreshing to me) comes straight from Brian Aldiss’ original 1969 short story, ”Super Toys Last All Summer Long.” It’s available on the Web at several sites, including Wired, if only as proof that, whatever Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg have wrought, they’ve stayed unerringly true to their source. Maybe future generations — or the robots who’ll replace them — will be able to appreciate that better.

You’ve had time to think it over. What is it about ”A.I.” that’s dividing audiences? Have you changed your mind about it since you first saw the movie?