The movies that split people down the middle, put in the Empire dock…

PROSECUTION: SIMON INGRAM

People of the jury: first, a warning. Given the parentage of Messrs. Kubrick and Spielberg, you may hesitate to convict the cinematic mess on trial here today. It is not the intention of the prosecution to discredit either party, but I implore you: regard A.I. as no more than the inflated smudge of schizophrenic cinema it is, and convict.

Our evidence? A.I. was born as a short story. And why are short stories short? So they can be enigmatic and concise, make their points and move on. Such was the case with Supertoys Last All Summer Long, Brian Aldiss’ engaging but slight tale of a robot boy programmed to love but unloveable himself. It was from this fragile seed that Stanley Kubrick teased A.I.’s overblown canopy, inserting a crackpot Pinocchio subplot en route.

After years of “You direct it, Steve”/“No, you direct it, Stan” volleyball with fax-buddy Spielberg, fate, or death, intervened — leaving poor Steve to deliver a chilly Kubrickian  vision under the cuddly banner of A Steven Spielberg Film™. So is A.I. the product of two creators seamlessly marbled as one? Don’t be daft. It is a sticky clash of styles, an Everton mint of austerity and vulgarity, ice and nice, sordid and sweet, shifting gear over its toiling length with jarring, clutchless crunches. Regardless, it would be tough to like a film with a central idea this ghastly: the replacement of an ill child with a robot — a creepy, moon-eyed little factory of emotional confusion — irrevocably programmed to fawn on ‘Mommy’ with realistic love. No human being would consider this a good idea.

There are other horrible misjudgements. The scenes of robot persecution at the Flesh Fair uneasily echo Schindler’s List, but play it for laughs. Jude Law’s love machine, Gigolo Joe, flaunts the embarrassing notion that the female sexual fantasy of the future is Fred Astaire dressed as a gay pimp. And that pantomime second act: child, scurrying furball and elastic-limbed musical companion heading for a distant city to be told where they can obtain human qualities by a head on a big screen. Hardly fresh, is it?

Then — oh — there’s that death-strike final act. Superrobots waffling about equations in space-time, who despite infinite technology just can’t manage to make their note-perfect clone of Mommy live more than a day? Puh-leease. What began as an unpleasant but promisingly austere morality tale — having endured the off-to-see-the-wizard nonsense of the middle act — ends a pseudo-philosophical shambles that makes you wonder if you dozed off and missed something important.

We’ll let Gigolo Joe’s last words close this one: “I am! I was!” But who? Or what? Ladies and gentlemen, A.I. is a creation desperate to convey something meaningful, which does little more than look shiny and provoke confused feelings. For the sake of the (real) children, judge harshly.

* * *

DEFENCE: KAT BROWN

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in his haste to treat cinema as a science rather than entertainment, my honourable friend appears to have entirely missed the point both of A.I. and film as a whole. Kubrick and Spielberg are filmmakers, not scientists, and the petulant weight of expectation my friend throws at them does their skills a disservice. In fact, I put it to you that this futuristic fairy tale is one of the most underrated five-star films ever to hit the silver screen.

Spielberg has always excelled at combining the chilly with the cuddly, and in A.I. he has made one of the finest children’s films for adults ever seen. It has all the melancholic charm of that other real-vs.-artificial classic, The Snowman, and an ending brimming with intelligence and compassion. Immortal David’s incomprehension of his mother’s lifespan is just as sad as James’ confrontation with the puddle in the garden the next morning. In addition, my friend’s short-story argument crumbles against not only this, but the examples of fellow short-starters Minority Report, Brokeback Mountain and The Shawshank Redemption.

If I might correct the prosecution further, the ghastly malevolence of “real boy” Martin getting his mother to read Pinocchio to David is heartbreakingly cruel. Spielberg has always read children perfectly, and the theme which my honourable friend so misguidedly spurns is a masterstroke. “Stories are not real!” screamed Mommy Monica earlier, but in showing that man’s jealousy will overcome technological advancement every time, A.I. is arguably the most human vision of the future ever committed to film. No wonder Earth 2,000 years on is populated solely by robotic vases on legs. Accusing A.I. of lack of freshness? Good grief, if Hollywood stopped recycling plots, we wouldn’t have movies. As it stands, A.I. stands out as the most original take on sci-fi in years, as beautiful as it is strange.

Visually it’s gorgeous. From the apocalyptic enclaves of Manhattan to the eccentric beauty of the Flesh Fair’s moon ship, we’re seeing CGI that still stands up today and some terrific performances. Never allowing the audience to forget that David is a robot, Haley Joel Osmont’s turn is outstanding. His need to be loved is human, but Collodi’s wooden puppet didn’t go around killing his rivals. Jude Law’s slapstick Gigolo Joe is a knowing throwback to The Wizard Of Oz’s Scarecrow, but the real star will always be Teddy — a wonderful bit of invention inspiring any amount of frantic wish-list alterations from children.

As for the ending — perfect. Leaving David at the bottom of the sea was never in Kubrick’s original plan, and the robot’s one magical day alone with his confused and reincarnated Mom is as unsettling as it is satisfying. David’s no Pinocchio, but he gets his happy ending, and for one bittersweet moment, so do we. Convicting A.I. because it’s not traditional Spielberg and Kubrick goes so far beyond silly it’s a crime in itself. Even more so when it’s this damn beautiful.

 Empire, February 2008

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