dir. Steven Spielberg
Opens Fri June 29
Various Theatres

It's often been said that the film director's job is to play god; to create an original world, populate it with people, and then steer them in a way that pleases the creator. But more often than not, the director is more of a demi-god, fashioning a creation that's half-baked or, in the worst case scenario, a monstrosity. Take Showgirls for example.

Steven Spielberg's fatal flaw as a demi-god has always been his unceasing infatuation for audience manipulation--tugging at the strings of one's heart, but stupidly forgetting to have the strings digitally erased in post-production. That's why the mind reels after learning that the late, great director Stanley Kubrick bequeathed the reins of his pet project, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to Spielberg, who well, let's face it, is not much more than a gifted showman.

On the surface, the two directors couldn't be more different; Kubrick, the nihilistic visionary who crafted The Shining and Dr. Strangelove, and Spielberg, the mushy lover of sap who brought us the revolting reincarnation of Peter Pan in Hook. But we should've trusted Kubrick, because he knew Spielberg has a heart underneath all that fluff, and that's exactly what the dark, cold, and sterile tale of A.I. needed.

Welcome to the future, where Professor Hobby (William Hurt) dreams up a humdinger of a money-making idea for his cybertronic manufacturing company; building life-like children for the average barren couple. He constructs a prototype, David (Haley Joel Osment), and sends him home with an employee whose own son is on the brink of death. Though the mother is in no mood for a "replacement son," she eventually warms up to the idea, especially after learning that David has been programmed to love her completely.

Nasty complications ensue when the real son gets better, moves back into the house, and--naturally enough--thinks David is a weird robotic creep trying to beat his time with Mom and Pop. Before you know it, David is taking that long ride back to the factory. However, Mom has a partial change of heart, and dumps him out so he can make a run for it. Unfortunately, all David really wants is to become a "real boy" who his mother can truly love.

What follows is a road-trip of Candide-like proportions, where David finds himself embroiled in a myriad of fairly ugly situations in his quest to become human, and return to the mother he holds so dear. And this is where A.I. turns surprising; it's often downright creepy and dark. All the performances are up to snuff (especially Jude Law as a cybernetic gigolo who serves as David's spirit guide of sorts) but Spielberg outdoes himself by taking us on an exhausting journey of a world that teeters on the brink of logic, sci-fi, and fairy tale. It's as if some futuristic scientist took Spielberg and Kubrick's brains out of their formaldehyde-drenched jars and shmooshed them together to create a film that strives to be nihilistic as well as kinda cute.

This is not to say it's successful on all levels; while the intention is surely to make viewers ponder their own search for the meaning of love, A.I. can't seem to escape the sterile world in which it's based. Also, at almost two-and-a-half hours, your butt will assuredly begin to doze. Nevertheless, A.I. can be still be chalked up as a success for Spielberg, who has managed to put aside the cotton candy for a moment or at least gaze upon it with a steely, dispassionate eye. The old man (Kubrick) would probably be proud.