If ever there was an odd couple it is Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg: the icy master without a shred of human warmth or compassion - "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "Eyes Wide Shut" - mated with the essential humanist of "E.T." and "Empire of the Sun," the man who dealt with the Holocaust by finding warmth and heroism behind the Nazi fašade of "Schindler's List." They are together here because Kubrick had years ago latched onto a science-fiction story from 1969, had worked on it for years, and before he died asked Spielberg to take it over.
It's the story of a time in the future when, as a voiceover by Ben Kingsley tells us, global warming has ruined much of the earth, melted the ice caps, drowned the great seacoast cities, and imposed a limit on population in the remaining areas. Robots - called mechas - now serve the humans in all kinds of ways, and William Hurt, head of a corporation making them, comes up with a plan to create a robot that actually feels love, a robot that will give comfort to the many childless couples now facing barren lives. He will create a child-robot who exists only to love whomever will say the magic words, in the right sequence. That mother is Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor), whose real child, Martin, lies in a coma, cryogenically frozen because of an incurable illness. Monica and her husband Henry (Sam Robards) take the robot-child, David (the amazing Haley Joel Osment), and activate him. He immediately imprints on Monica. They are, almost, a real family. She reads him "Pinocchio," and David identifies with the puppet whose Blue Fairy changes him at the end into a real boy.
But then Martin recovers and comes home, and confronted with a new and absolutely perfect sibling, he does what any normal child would do; he makes David's life a hell, though David lives only for Monica's love. Finally, Monica abandons David, and his teddy bear, in the forest. As in a fairy tale David must now go forward on his own, searching for the Blue Fairy. Along the way he meets the mecha Gigolo Joe (Jude Law in a breathtakingly gorgeous performance, dancing his way through the film) and must survive a variety of attacks by humans against the robots they catch. David and Joe are directed by Dr. Know (the voice of Robin Williams) to Rouge City - a brilliant visualization of a future fleshpot - where they may find the Blue Fairy.
At this point we leave Spielberg territory and move heavily into Kubrickland, where 2,500 years pass and strange humanoid aliens now find David and his robot bear Teddy at the bottom of the sea (don't ask), and the film, which has been looking for an ending and finding two or three but not using them, finally, mercifully, comes to a sort-of conclusion.
What is the problem here? In a way, it begins with the original premise, which is stale and has a sci-fi concept that we sense we have already seen, or at least read. Somehow it isn't quite new enough, though we are expected to be shocked or moved by it. And the plot is too thin, the (human) characters too one-dimensional, to sustain the heavy weight of metaphor and symbol that the filmmakers have put on them.
Another bad decision, in my view, is to have made the mechas all just a bit off - not quite perfectly human - as though we wouldn't spot them if they didn't look a little funny. The film would have had much greater power had we been given robots who look exactly right. There is a sequence in David's odyssey in which he and Joe are captured by humans and rounded up for what's called a "Flesh Fair," in which they are destroyed in vicious ways as a sort of bizarre affirmation of humanity. Had the robots been indistinguishable from humans the sequence would have been overwhelming, and might well have achieved a kind of tragic grandeur.
But there are some exquisite compensations. Osment, who was so stunning in "The Sixth Sense," is once again remarkable. He has the transparency that only the very best actors have, wherein we can see into and through him. And Jude Law, even underneath robot makeup, has enough vitality to carry all his scenes. Some of Janusz Kaminski's shots and lighting have grandeur and power, and there is an amazing special effect in which the moon, a hundred times bigger than normal, rises over the forest to reveal a frightening scene.
All in all, "A.I." is a bold and bizarre failure, worth seeing just for the chance to examine what happens when two strong and diametrically opposed film sensibilities come together on one project. It is not a pretty sight, and yet at times it is beautiful.