Spielberg Captures the Little Boy Lost

All may seem lost in the current trash explosion of summer movies, but be patient–help is on the way. Like a welcome St. Bernard delivering a flask of brandy to snowbound blizzard survivors, Steven Spielberg has saved us from a daunting avalanche of summer junk films with Artificial Intelligence (henceforth entered into the cinema lexicon as simply A.I. ). Eagerly anticipated but shrouded in mystery, like all Spielberg films, it has left me awed. Expect greatness.

There are two Steven Spielbergs–the sophisticated, meticulous artist conscientiously dedicated to fighting injustice, righting wrongs and setting history right, and the little boy fascinated by toys, video games and science-fiction comic books. Both merge enchantingly in A.I. , an original and fanciful futuristic fairy tale that is technically dazzling yet emotionally accessible to the inner child in everyone from 9 to 90.

The setting is an advanced technological era in which an ice cap has melted under greenhouse warming, leaving the planet depleted of natural resources and the great cities of New York, Amsterdam, Venice and London underwater relics of a forgotten past. With everything licensed, from food to grass to children, robots have been engineered to serve as sophisticated appliances. There’s a robot for every function–except love.

For women awaiting government-approved pregnancies and parents whose human offspring with terminal diseases have been cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found, a research scientist named Professor Hobby (William Hurt) invents a new kind of robot for a company called Cybertronics Manufacturing–a walking, talking toy boy named David (played by Haley Joel Osment, the eerily mature child star from The Sixth Sense ).

David looks, sounds and feels like a real child; he’s the first robot with artificial intelligence capable of actual love, emotions and dreams. To the research lab, he’s just a test case, assigned to a childless couple (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) as a stop-gap experiment until their own son returns from the hospital, but David wants to be loved in return. Once activated, the robo-boy’s blank smile changes to unconditional surrender and, with obvious parallels to the Pinocchio story, David determines to become human.

Unfortunately, the world of humans teaches David more than love. He also learns to imitate the human traits of jealousy, rivalry, competition, cruelty and violence that drive his adopted parents to return him to the factory. Mr. Spielberg poses a moral question: You can make a toy love, but can you make a human being love back? Herein lies a tale that is thoughtful, provocative, technically astonishing and deeply troubling to the human heart, as well as a cautionary tale of the dangers in attempting to control the balance of nature.

One of the most endearing characters in the film is a sarcastic talking teddy bear with a superhuman artificial intelligence of its own, and the seasoned voice of veteran actor Jack Angel, who acts as David’s wise companion and loyal sidekick throughout his adventures. The sci-fi wizardry comes in when David is forced into the outside world, where the ecodynamics are divided into “Mechas” (mechanical robots) and “Orgas” (organic humans). Clinging to his scruffy teddy bear for protection and friendship, David is plunged into a nightmarish landscape of technical marvels, including a slag pit of discarded robot parts scavenged by Mechas searching for missing arms and limbs (for maximum authenticity, Mr. Spielberg employed real paraplegics to play the injured Mechas), and a diabolical Flesh Fair, a kind of whirling psychedelic disco carnival from Hell run by a villainous robot hunter (Brendan Gleeson), where the human opponents of artificiality gather to torture captured robots for sport and entertainment.

Narrowly escaping every harrowing pitfall, still innocently searching for the Blue Fairy who changed Pinocchio into a real boy, David and his teddy bear embark on a terrifying journey with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), an over-endowed renegade robot stud in the Mecha underworld who sells his illegal sexual services to lonely Orga women with vaudeville one-liners (“Once you’ve had a lover robot, honey, you’ll never want a real man again”) and plays Broadway show tunes with a click of his neck. Together, they travel by helicopter to the Mecha-restricted ruins of a lost city at the end of the world called Manhattan, an underwater cemetery where Radio City Music Hall is a lichen-covered artifact, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes .

There is more, but why spoil the surprises? In the epilogue, it is 2,000 years later, a new race of Giacometti-like creatures have inherited the planet, and David is an enduring memory of the human race–a wise man in the body of a child who has learned life’s greatest lesson: In real life, unlike fairy tales, there are no happy endings.

The acting is mostly memorable. The luminous Australian actress Frances O’Connor does a career-making turn as the humanly assigned mother who loves David more than society will legally allow. Brendan Gleeson is a juicy monster. Despite his colorful, waxy department-store-mannequin makeup and show-business cockiness, Jude Law’s seductive Gigolo Joe sparks and then sputters out like a wet battery. It’s a thankless role that goes nowhere, a worldly Fagin to the child’s trusting Oliver Twist. But as the centerpiece of the film, the precocious, angel-faced Haley Joel Osment is inspired casting. At a tender age, he already looks like an old soul trapped in the body of a 12-year-old constructed from silicon.

The film is a project left behind by the late Stanley Kubrick and resurrected by Mr. Spielberg, who also wrote the screenplay–his first since 1977′s Close Encounters of the Third Kind . From the displaced alien in E.T. and the eternally young Peter Pan trapped in a time warp, to the little Holocaust girl in the red dress in the black-and-white Schindler’s List , Mr. Spielberg’s recurring theme of lost children searching for a place to belong has become something of an obsession in his films. It is given a touching new dimension here: What could be more emotionally wrenching than a child who spends a lifetime fueled by the unquenchable hope that someday he’ll win his mother’s love, even if they’re separated by centuries?

At the same time, Mr. Spielberg touches on the themes of prejudice, discrimination and man’s inhumanity to man that he explored in Amistad and The Color Purple , and provides the nail-biting storybook excitement of popular crowd-pleasers like Jurassic Park . To this end, Mr. Spielberg’s resources are limitless. Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography, John Williams’ ethereal music, the voices of Meryl Streep, Robin Williams and Chris Rock, the groundbreaking special effects, computer graphics, digitally enhanced animatronics, and live action–rarely have so many elements come together in one film with such stimulating clarity of purpose. Yet even with the complex visual opulence, Mr. Spielberg never forgets how to tell a basic story in a fluid, coherent narrative form, with the kind of unforgettable truth, validity and impact that clings long after you’ve left the cinema.

With A.I. , Mr. Spielberg has produced one whale of an entertainment even the cynics are heralding as a filmmaking triumph. It’s not only one of the best films of the tepid American summer, it’s the film of the summer. Maybe the year.

Blossom Dearie Sure Can Swing

The inimitable Blossom Dearie has been held over through July at Danny’s Skylight Room, on West 46th Street. She is one of the few remaining connoisseurs of the great jazz and popular songs of a bygone era, when New York opened its doors past midnight to the kinds of soigné culture-vultures you see in old Kay Francis movies. Elegant as ermine, Ms. Dearie sings sophisticated songs by Dave Frishberg, Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy Fields, Sheldon Harnick and Antonio Carlos Jobim, to name a few of her worthy idols, in a hip voice evanescent as ether.

So much has been said about her soft, dandelion-dainty vocal style that some novices may not know how rhythmically she swings on piano. This is a good chance to find out. She has an impeccable sense of time, and she’s never at a loss when it comes to turning a phrase or investigating new tempos. She swings in chords. Her unique rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” is less bitter than Elaine Stritch’s, and the bossa-nova beat adds an extra flavor without losing any of composer Stephen Sondheim’s intended punch. You could sell the farm for a declaration of love as romantic as “Make Some Magic,” a song she wrote with British lyricist Duncan Lamont. Nobody gets quite the same saucy humor out of the famous Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz show tune, “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.” And she seems to have a special affinity for Jerome Kern, one I heartily share. (Her three-key modulation on the tag of “I Won’t Dance” is a total delight.)

In every show, she pauses after the first six songs for an intermission that refuels the patrons and adds money to the drink checks, then returns refreshed for six or seven more numbers, all delivered with superb diction and flawless phrasing. My only caveat is her inexplicable reluctance to learn new material. I don’t really mind hearing signature songs like “I’m Hip,” “My Attorney Bernie” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” for the thousandth time, and new converts to her special brand of alchemy seem to delight in discovering them for the first time. But I can hear them on her records and CD’s; I’m ready for something new. Never mind. Blossom Dearie is a purist who has mastered the art of understatement in an age of noise and overkill, and she never misses a trick. It’s always a distinct pleasure to welcome her back to a New York piano no matter what she sings. She’s one of a kind–nobody can imitate her. She makes veiled threats about retirement, but not as long as I’m around.