I have been looking forward to rewatching this film since I added the Saturns to my reviews – not because I enjoyed it so much the first time…in fact, I hated it. I just really wanted to make sure that I hated it.
This film has as good a science fiction pedigree as you can get. It began as a project by Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg decided to complete it himself after Kubrick’s death; it’s based on a short story by British sf legend Brian Aldiss called “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long;” and, it concerns the very Asimovian question of whether a robot artificial intelligence can love, and, more importantly in this case, would he be loved back?
In a catastrophic future caused by global warming, there are strict population controls. Some people choose to fill the gap left by not having children with robotic “mecha” children. David (Haley Joel Osment) is a prototype with the aforementioned lovin’ upgrade. He is placed with a couple whose real son is on deep freeze, and they come to like him. They allow David to imprint on them, but when their real son comes back, David is a fourth wheel (cars in this future have three wheels, get it?), and the mother leaves him in the woods with his robotic teddy bear. Inspired by his mother’s dramatic readings of Pinocchio, David goes off to find the Blue Fairy and become a real boy. He meets sex-bot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who joins him on his quest.
The visuals are pretty fantastic, and there’s a few human-face-on-robotic-chassis effects that were pretty cutting edge ten years ago. That’s really the nicest thing I can say about the film. Yep, I still didn’t like it.
I have several problems with it. Haley Joel Osment’s performance is impressive, but in a creepy way. Watching him in this film is just plain unsettling, as you suspect he may actually be a robot (the Child-Actortron 3000). An even bigger problem is the pacing. Kubrick hadn’t gotten past the story stage, so this is mostly Spielberg, but he tried hard to do a Kubrick impression. That’s where the film starts to fail, I think. He begins with a much more deliberate pace and imbues every scene with a weighty sense of suspense or dread. These are old Kubrickian tricks, but I think only Kubrick can pull them off.
The movie suffocates under this weightiness, it’s slow, depressing, and dull, and it doesn’t have nearly as much to say as it seems to think it does. What is the message? What do we learn? People are mean to robots? Spielberg is good at sentimentality? People will wear glow sticks in the future? The future will look like Las Vegas meets a State Fair? I don’t know. The movie actually feels very New Wavey, which makes sense with the Brian Aldiss roots, but it’s the worst of New Wave misanthropy and pretension.
After meandering for two hours, the film does take a crazy left turn in the last half hour, that’s…well, at least it’s interesting. There are a lot of contrivances to get the film to an awkward sense of closure that only barely mitigates the slow-burn creepiness that bogs down most of its running time.