By PETER CALDER
(Herald rating: * * )
Notionally a partnership between two of the cinema's most visionary artists, Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, who handed his original conception over to the younger man, this multi-layered futuristic fantasy is rich in promise. But in the end the marriage between Kubrick's conceit (he was inspired by Brian Aldiss' short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long) and Spielberg's mercilessly saccharine sentimentality is an unhappy one.
The fingerprints of Kubrick's eerily antiseptic intellectual rigour are all over the first 45 minutes even through he was not involved in the film's making (his name survives only as an above-the-line joint production credit with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and in a dedication) and there are sly references throughout to The Shining, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange.
But just as it begins to engross as a rumination on the nature of being human - and specifically whether the man-made simulacrum of love might be as good as the real thing - it changes direction with jarring abruptness and becomes a rambling, sci-fi adventure story, a sort of Blade Runner for pre-teens which deploys its symbolic conceits with a heavy hand and leaves us wondering when, or even whether, it will ever end.
David (Osment) is a cyberchild (a mecha in the film's rather laboured argot), introduced into the home of Henry and Monica Swinton (Robards and O'Connor) whose only son is comatose and cryogenically frozen after an unspecified misfortune. The newcomer is a special kind of robot, the brainchild of a scientist (Hurt) who believes he can program enduring love. It is a measure of the film's early success that Osment's doe-eyed adoration of his mother is at once heartrending and monstrously disquieting.
She, for her part, despite her best efforts to reciprocate David's affection, cannot shake her feelings of revulsion for this monstrous creation and her decision to abandon him seems almost inevitable. And it is then, as David and his cybernetic teddy bear (the film's sole truly endearing character) fall in with a mecha gigolo called Joe (Law) that the film leaps off the rails and begins its long and wildly careering path.
Spielberg litters the next 90 minutes (that the film seems a lot longer than it is is the worst of its many flaws) with glib and literal-minded observations which are intended to invest it with a gravitas it is never entitled to ("The ones who made us," intones Joe, "are always looking for the ones who made them") and attempts to cover up a multitude of flaws with a voiced-over commentary which seldom rises above the banal ("Thus 2000 years passed by," was the most jarring).
But for all its stellar aspirations it remains dull and earthbound and its attempts to reinvigorate the story of Pinnochio seem leaden and predictable.
With ET and the underrated Empire of the Sun Spielberg long ago established his mastery of the idea that in a child's-eye view of the world cinematic magic is to be found. But there's nothing magical about AI. It's as wooden as the little puppet on whom much of its symbolic weight rests and, unlike Pinnochio, it never comes to life.
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law , Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 140 mins
Screening: Opens Thursday nationwide
By PETER CALDER