dir. Steven Spielberg
Now playing at various theaters.

The one thing--the only thing--that the films of Steven Spielberg have in common with those of Stanley Kubrick is their inadequate cinematic understanding of love. Put broadly, the latter director was too cynical to stop questioning love's nature and allow it to transcend the moral and philosophical gray (to black) areas his movies inhabited--love was always too simple and cheap an answer for Kubrick. The former, meanwhile, is often too credulous to question love at all, choosing instead to suffuse it with orchestral flourishes of sentimentality--Spielberg always lets you have the hug. While both directors are/were consummate filmmakers, great in seemingly opposite ways (that old mirror/candle routine), their common lapse as artists lies at the heart of... well, at the heart, actually. So it only makes sense that their semiposthumous "collaboration" (with Spielberg directing his own screenplay, based on Kubrick's detailed treatment and 20 years of story development) should center on the question that has continually confounded them--to say nothing of mankind--throughout their illustrious careers: What is love?

Less predictable, however, is the resolution with which A.I., the remarkable fruit of the two men's (though mostly Spielberg's) labors, refuses to answer that question. In a fable whose moral seeks the definition of love--and in a broader sense, of humanness--the filmmakers turn their puzzlement on the viewer by way of presenting everything love decidedly isn't.

The archetype for their fable is Pinocchio, the story of a puppet who wants to be a real boy. In his place stands David (played masterfully by Haley Joel Osment), a robot boy "articulated in limb, articulate in speech, and not limited in human response"; in an age of robots, he's the first one programmed with the capacity to need and give love to his owner, in this case, an emotionally distraught woman named Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose own real son lies in cryogenic coma, waiting for science to catch up with his fatal disease. Her husband (bland Sam Robards, a very Kubrick casting maneuver) brings the prototype David home from work to try and help Monica deal with her "undigested grief" about their real boy. She's reluctant at first, but David's smile and always-underfoot cuteness--the first of several elements in A.I. that I don't think Kubrick could've pulled off--wins her over. She says the secret words to activate his love chip ("cirrus, Socrates, particle, decibel, hurricane, dolphin, tulip") and he begins to call her "Mommy."

Almost immediately, we realize that the version of "love" that David has been programmed with is a pathetic one, all need and demonstration. The home is all soft light and cold elegance, and when we first meet David, he's all reflection and refraction--in bits of mirror, on impossibly shiny countertops, through glass walls. But when he has been imprinted on his mommy, it's Monica who is reflected in David's eyes, the object of a love that can't die but also, tellingly, can't evolve or grow--as if it were a battery that never needed replacing or recharging. Though he starts off as a curative device to help Monica get over her son's lasting illness, David soon becomes an albatross, needing constant reassurance and hectoring his mommy with declarations. It's during this sequence that Spielberg introduces an idea that couldn't be more alien to his body of work: that love may be defined not by its expression, but by its withholding (a very Kubrickian notion). Of course, no one in the film comes anywhere near this realization; they're all either too selfish to care, or too numbed by access to convenient technology to know how to process such a complex response. You might say that love in this film is defined by its utter absence; A.I. is all about wanting.

As Monica's son returns from the hospital, a rivalry is set in place between mechanism and organism, with predictably sad results: The innocent supertoy is cast out into the nightmare world of real artificial life, and sets out on his heroic journey to find the blue fairy that will change him into a real boy.

And, like his wooden forebear, sad-mouthed, sweet, needy David endures one dusky peril after another--accompanied by his Jiminy Cricket (an incredibly cute robot bear named Teddy) and by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, perfect), a sex robot also on the lam from mankind--en route to the end of the world ("MAN-hattan"), where David meets his Geppetto, and discovers just how unique he really is.

Despite (or because of) its roots in fairy tale, A.I. is deeply sad and austere. David's mini-odyssey is dark and harrowing and even the happy ending rings with pathos. But after all the special effects have subsided, the filmmakers (Spielbrick? Kuberg?) leave us without any kind of answer to the questions raised by the resounding selfishness evinced by every single character in the name of love. David's plight plucks our tenderest strings, but I don't think making us care about a robot would have been an interesting enough project for Kubrick, nor any sort of challenge for Spielberg. In the end, what makes the film work is its hybridization of the two directors: deep cynicism, and naive hope in the face of it--even if we can't define love, the ability to recognize its opposite may be what makes us human after all.