Why did Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick want Spielberg to direct Kubrick's A.I., the fable of a robot who wants a human mother's love? Imagine the personals ad Kubrick might have taken out:
"YOU LIKE: sweetness & light, plucky kids, happy endings, 'When You Wish Upon a Star.' I LIKE: a hope-free environment, leering homicidal teens, pitilessly ambiguous Götterdämmerungen, icy Gyorgi Ligeti melodies written 'as a dagger in Stalin's heart.' LET'S MEET FOR A MOVIE!"
Maybe they had a mutual case of genius envy. Kubrick needed Spielberg's speed. Ever since 2001's success freed him to do almost anything he wanted, Kubrick yearned to make a blockbuster as big as The Godfather or Star Wars or E.T. But he couldn't, because he enslaved himself with research. "I usually take about a year [developing a film]," he said in 1968. "In a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then as you're making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what's happening with the resources of all the analysis you've done."
After 1971, Kubrick's spontaneity expired (if not his genius). He spent decades mulling movies more than making them. Most of what he actually shot was over-thought, emotionally parched. Spielberg once (according to critic Michael Sragow) compared watching Barry Lyndon to "walking through the Louvre without lunch." Kubrick was all about making marmoreal masterworks, not pleasing mortals with morsels of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But surely he knew, as the real 2001 approached, that he wouldn't live long enough to fulfill his own fantasy: an A.I. movie starring real robots instead of actors (most of whom he treated like robots). And a child actor would age visibly during a yearslong Kubrick shoot. He hoped Spielberg might whip up a computer-generated boy for the lead, or at least do his famous fast magic with a live child actor.
So what's in it for Spielberg, in making a Kubrick movie? Perhaps to "eat at the grownups' table," as Woody Allen put it--to join the highbrow pantheon. Spielberg makes filmmaking look too easy, and makes too much easy money. We've all spent wild nights with his flying bikes and leaping lizards, but not everybody respects him in the morning. Many say Schindler's List is sui generis and Private Ryan simplistically jingoistic; his serious-issue movies The Color Purple and Amistad suck dead eggs. But when he dares to swap DNA with über-director Kubrick, you've got to give him credit.
There could be deeper motives. Biographical critics Joseph McBride and Henry Sheehan trace a strain of father fear in Spielberg's movies, and the father figures he seems fondest of are akin to movie moguls: Attenborough the proprietor of Jurassic Park, Schindler the factory "Direktor," and in A.I., William Hurt as Professor Hobby, the entrepreneurial inventor of the robot boy David. (Professor Hobby is far kinder than David's adoptive dad, played by Sam Robards.) The company Kubrick formed to produce Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie he scuttled after Schindler's List hit, was called Hobby Films. How better to honor a cinematic daddy than to finish his film in his style with a character named Hobby? What better way to transcend the anxiety of influence than to blend pastiche with one's own stylistic voice?
Anyhow, now it's finished: A.I., a film (as one producer put it) by "Stevely Kuberg." It's like no other movie, because it's so much like so many other movies. In one brilliant scene, the robots scavenge spare parts for themselves from a dump of less fortunate fellow robots: a new jaw here, a forearm there. The parts fit together jaggedly, but the crude welds enable the robots to function. That's the way A.I. is built: not just Spielberg's style mashed into Kubrick's, but characters and stories and particular shots from multitudinous movies (especially Kubrick's), all stuck together at odd angles. It's weird, but it works.