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Kubrick's Hal meets Spielberg's E.T. for "A.I.," a near-brilliant futuristic twist on Pinocchio.

Boy Toy

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Yhough seriously flawed, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" is nonetheless fascinating and thought-provoking. Intended as a homage to his old friend the late Stanley Kubrick, this Steven Spielberg film is constantly at odds with itself. While offering up a healthy serving of Spielberg's crowd-pleasing idealism, "A.I." also contains more than a dash of malevolence that is distinctly Kubrick's.

But instead of undermining the film completely, this battle between Spielberg's and Kubrick's sensibilities is what makes "A.I." work as well as it does. For once, serving two masters makes for one intriguing effort. Alternating between moments of near-brilliance and missed opportunities, "A.I." has a feeling of restless discontent that gives the film the slightly skewed and disturbing quality it needs. After all, it is a tale of prefabricated love and a robotic child programmed to comfort needy humans.

Based on the 1969 short story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss, "A.I." looks at how supertoys will function in the distant future. But as envisioned by Spielberg, the future doesn't seem so far away or far-fetched. Global warming has left coastal cities like New York underwater and, consequently, the number of humans has dwindled. To fill the void, artificial intelligences — robots — have been created. The humans — or "orgas" — rule, while the robots, called "mechas," do all the work. The "mechas" have been designed to provide humans with everything they need — except love. Until now, that is.

Professor Hobby (William Hurt) has perfected a robot child named David (the once-again-remarkable Haley Joel Osment) who has also been designed to love. But before he can be marketed, clinical trials must take place. Enter Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), an employee of the cybertronic corporation that holds David's patent. Swinton and wife Monica (Frances O'Connor) just happen to be missing the touch, sound and love of a little boy. Their own son, Martin, is in a coma.

Much of the first 30 minutes of the movie is exposition — introducing us to the characters, both real and unreal, as well as giving David plenty of opportunity to acclimate himself to the world of humans, doing what they expect of him. Spielberg makes the most of the inherent creepiness of the situation, coaxing a startling and acute performance from Osment. The talented young actor looks and moves like a life-size doll. His eyes are bright and shiny, but still somehow vacant and dead.

When Martin (Jake Thomas) wakes up from his coma and returns home, sibling rivalry rears its ugly head. Monica, the only one who's truly bonded with David, also suffers pangs of guilt and confusion. But with their real son back, his robot stand-in quickly becomes superfluous. And so David is cruelly abandoned. He may love, but he is not truly loved in return.

While the first half of "A.I." feels like Spielberg's channeling Kubrick, the second half plays out like a perverted twist on "Pinocchio." The once bright and shiny David ends up at a Flesh Fair where robots are tortured for entertainment, but also where he meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male-prostitute robot or "love mecha." While David begs anyone who'll listen to "please make me a real boy so mommy will love me," Joe tries to set the kids straight about humans and robots. In an edgy but nervy performance, Law's Joe tells David he is finally learning what other robots know instinctively — that humans hate robots, no matter how much they need them.

Spielberg and his technicians have created a future world that is visually stunning, seamless, believable and beautiful. Although rated PG-13, "A.I." is not exactly what one would call kid-friendly. And those who hope the use of initials in the movie title coupled with Spielberg's name on the marquee signal an uplifting jaunt through Spielburbia will be in for quite a shock.

Originally intended as a Kubrick-crafted production of a film directed by Spielberg, the movie changed with the master filmmaker's death. But instead of "A.I." turning into a classic Spielberg work, even scenes that appear to be "pure Spielberg" give way to a Kubrickesque darkness and pessimism.

Overall, it's this Spielbergian hopelessness I personally found most intriguing. Spielberg does stumble back to his roots, giving us a false ending that leads to an overly sentimental stretch we could do without. Even though "A.I." may not be quite the great movie many wished for, any Hollywood movie that forces us to question the meanings of life and love deserves acclaim.

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