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Kubrick was a scholar of hubris. That was his persistent theme: the dream of being other, or more, than we are. The ambition that seems honorable in your standard movie hero is often revealed as idiot obsession in a Kubrick protagonist. He falls in love with a living doll (Lolita) or himself (Barry Lyndon), with an idea that may be decent (justice, say, in Paths of Glory), even artistic (writing a novel, in The Shining). But Kubrick sets him the sort of test and trap that real-boy Martin sets for David: a man must learn the limits of hope. And then, often, he dies. If there's a happy ending in a Kubrick film, it is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an astronaut evolves into a Star Child. Man becomes not-man, better-than-man, by shrugging off that mean thing we flatter by calling humanity.
A.I., in Spielberg's hands, twists the notion of the Star Child: the nonhuman is more human, and in the sweetest way. All right, it's because man--playing God, playing tricks--programmed him to love, even as other film robots, like the Terminator, are designed to destroy. In the A.I. world, robots are made to give pleasure and, in David's case, offer joy. Gigolo Joe is a sex machine, David a love machine. The toy boy's sole purpose is to give and elicit affection. His obsession (in Kubrick's terms) or dream (in Spielberg's) requires him to do everything to achieve Monica's love--after she renounces him, after she abandons him, after she's gone. The woman is unworthy, but she's all he has, all he needs to get back to.
That's pure Spielberg: the story of a stranded or abandoned child searching for signposts to home, for the reunion of the nuclear family. This Hansel-and-Gretel motif has been playing from his first feature, The Sugarland Express (two young marrieds struggle to rescue their child from foster parents), through half a dozen other films he has directed or produced (Poltergeist, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Empire of the Sun, Hook, Saving Private Ryan). That's a pretty full gallery of lost boys and girls. And what is that little parchment-pated E.T. but a precocious kid, light-years from home, looking for a cell phone?
That's an old-fashioned theme, but so is robotics. The Aldiss story (in which a couple contemplate dumping their robo-child as soon as the state allows them to have a real one of their own) was published in 1969 just a year after Kubrick's 2001 was released. These days, artificial intelligence has been overtaken, as scientific hope and ethical threat, by genetic engineering. A.I., set far in the future, conjures up popular worries 30 years in the past.
Well, as the Disney people said about Pearl Harbor, it's not a treatise, it's a movie. And as a movie, A.I. engrosses without quite enthralling. It's got technological wonders (the seamless integration of Teddy as a puppet and a computer image) that are truly wonderful. Scenes like the Flesh Fair and a chase through the woods display the supple camera work, dramatic lighting and savvy editing that you get when a terrific filmmaker is on his game. He isn't always, though. Intriguing plot twists (like the exploits of the nicely malicious Martin) are dropped for excursions that are more about art direction than efficient storytelling. And O'Connor lacks the maternal and womanly radiance that's needed, since the film is basically about a boy's urge to crawl into his mother's bed.