Grade: B-

Some of the first music by John Williams that occurs in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” in a scene set in a futuristic hospital, is vaguely reminiscent, in its use of jarring strings, of one of the pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti that was used so memorably in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But the sound that Steven Spielberg’s favorite composer has devised is far less dissonant and chilly than that which Stanley Kubrick selected for his 1968 masterpiece: it’s like Ligeti Lite, far safer and less challenging, more listener-friendly. That small fact is characteristic of the entire new enterprise. Kubrick may have optioned the short story on which the picture is based and labored over a script inspired by it for years, and he may have brought the younger director into the project intending to produce it himself, but the sensibility that infuses the finished project is predominantly Spielberg’s: “A.I.” resembles “E.T.” far more than it does “2001” or any other Kubrick film. Simply put, the late director, with his characteristically dark, cerebral, unsentimental vision, could never have made this film. Perhaps it was this realization–Kubrick was, after all, an extremely clear-sighted, pragmatic man as well as a genius–that led him essentially to turn it over to his colleague; after so many years of planning, he may have been reluctant to abandon it but conscious that he wasn’t the right man to attempt it. Because for all its polish and passing nods to the Kubrickian style, “A.I.” is basically a sappy picture, something of which the late master was completely incapable but is a trademark of Spielberg, particularly in his second-rate efforts. Of course, second-rate Spielberg is still better than the best that can be achieved by most directors: a good deal of “A.I.” is striking and memorable, but it’s a distinctly uneven picture whose reach exceeds its grasp.

From the narrative standpoint it’s also a very old-fashioned piece, set in a future where population has to be rigidly controlled because of declining resources and robots have therefore proliferated. A genius inventor, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) announces his intention to construct a child android which will actually have the ability to love, for placement in households where it’s needed–the right to have children being stringently limited. (This premise, which probably seemed plausible when the original story was written in the 1960s, strikes one as hopelessly outdated today. Surely the drive now would be to use genetic engineering or cloning rather than machines to meet such needs. But one can imagine why Kubrick might have been attracted by the concept, since the young protagonist is a kind of mixture of HAL-9000 and the Star Child of “2001.”) Cut to twenty months later and we find the prototype, David (Joel Haley Osment), introduced into the family of Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), whose own son is comatose and not expected to recover. The wife initially resists, but eventually succumbs to the tyke’s strange charms, and things seem to be going well until the couple’s son Martin (Jake Thomas) recovers and returns home. This spurs something very like sibling rivalry (and also discloses a societal anti-robot bias), which eventually leads Monica to abandon the inconsolable David to his own devices. The almost-kid then begins a quest to become a real boy, an adventure which links him up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male prostitute robot on the run from the law, sees him fall into the clutches of Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), a robot-hating bounty hunter with an anti-machine obsession, and eventually brings him to a nearly-submerged New York City, where he hopes to find the “Blue Fairy” that can magically fulfill his wish.

The last point is, of course, is a reference to “Pinocchio,” which is the admitted inspiration for the story (though the third act has a lot of “The Wizard of Oz” in it, too). In any event, without revealing too much about the outcome, we can say that Dr. Hobby and Mother Monica re-enter the plot, and there’s an eventual twist which recalls “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and involves the voice of none other than Ben Kingsley (sounding a lot like Anthony Hopkins), who also narrates the picture.

Spielberg tells this rather manipulative story in his own style but with lots of nods in Kubrick’s direction, too. There are verbal references to the latter’s work (a sign for a place called “Strangelove’s” at one point, for example) and even aural ones (a brief splash of music from “Der Rosenkavalier” is surely a wink at the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” opening of “2001”). But Spielberg also tries to emulate Kubrick’s visual palette in the design of the sets (many of them based on the late director’s own pre-production drawings), and his rhythms in some sequences, especially in the first and second thirds of the picture. Much of this effort, though, seems strained: while the deliberation favored by Kubrick, particularly in the late films, had a coiled intensity that gave the pacing a feeling of inevitability and even a threatening quality, here parts of the picture come across as merely slow. That’s especially true in the third act, which gets increasingly pokey and weepy (and also a trifle creepy in the youngster’s obsessive love for his “mother”). I’d wager that it’s the denouement that Kubrick could never crack, and Spielberg, who wrote the final script himself, hasn’t done so either. The sense of unconvincing uplift that “A.I.” finishes up with isn’t far removed from the similarly bathetic ending to Robert Zemeckis’ piously silly “Contact.”

The result in this instance isn’t nearly as devastating, however, because there are elements in “A.I.” that work extremely well. Spielberg manages some real Kubrickian touches in the first third of the picture, which depicts a home life almost as strange as that in “The Shining,” and in the “Clockwork Orange” passages of part two. And he has in Osment a youngster who’s actually accomplished enough to carry a picture on his own: many of his mechanistic reactions are on the same level that Jeff Bridges achieved in John Carpenter’s “Starman.” Law is good, too, as a character vaguely reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex Delarge. The other performers are disappointing, though. O’Connor is a pallid figure as Monica and Robards no better as her husband, while Gleeson huffs and puffs generically in a poorly-written role and Hurt maintains his customary somnolent mien. Young Jake Thomas is nicely odd as the envious, malicious (but also strangely protective) Martin, but not much is made of his presence. Indeed, next to Osment and Law the “performer” whom most of the audience will remember is a beautifully-realized animated teddy bear who accompanies David on his adventures. As voiced by Jack Angel in a soothing monotone reminiscent of Douglas Rains, he’s a character more engaging than the vast majority of humans on display. (That’s doubtlessly a nod to “2001,” too, where HAL seemed more human than the astronauts he served, as is young David’s name–the same as Keir Dullea’s character, after all). Of course the acting in Kubrick’s films isn’t usually the most memorable thing about them either, but that’s because it was so carefully integrated into the whole, rather than standing out from it, that its excellence wasn’t readily apparent. The same magic doesn’t happen here.

So take “A.I.” as a generous homage of one great filmmaker to another and as a picture which at least, in this summer of empty action flicks and brainless comedies, addresses an interesting if rather obvious question about human nature in a sporadically impressive way. But Stanley Kubrick’s true swansong was the brilliantly dreamlike “Eyes Wide Shut.”