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Analysis

Echoes of Movies Past in 'A.I.'

Thematic threads from earlier works are woven into Steven Spielberg's tribute to Stanley Kubrick.

July 09, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is Steven Spielberg's homage to his friend, the late director Stanley Kubrick. And though "A.I." is much more a Kubrick film in terms of tone, style and execution, the haunting, often disturbing sci-fi drama contains several of the themes Spielberg has explored over the past three decades.

Here's a look at some of the recurring themes and patterns found in Spielberg's films and how they play out in "A.I."

A Lurking Evil

Evil is a strong theme in Kubrick's and Spielberg's movies--though evil often takes different forms in their works. In a sense, "A.I." is the culmination of both directors' visions and fears.

Evil is always lurking in Kubrick's films, whether it's in the form of nuclear bombs that destroy the world in his 1964 black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove," or the conniving Hal the Computer in his seminal 1968 sci-fi epic, "2001: A Space Odyssey," or even the haunted summer resort in 1980's "The Shining."

In Spielberg's universe, evil takes the shape of machines ("Duel"), creatures ("Jaws") and mankind ("Schindler's List"). Thirty years ago, it was a monstrous truck that was the evil threat in Spielberg's classic TV movie thriller, "Duel." Dennis Weaver is Spielberg's Everyman, an average businessman driving on a lonely stretch of highway who finds himself in a horrifying duel with a massive machine on wheels driven by a faceless truck driver.

In Spielberg's first big theatrical hit, 1975's "Jaws," the community of Amity Island is confronted by a relentless great white shark. Amity Island's hero, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), overcomes his fear of water and sharks to help kill the great white and save the town's inhabitants and tourist business.

Kubrick also explored the evils and horrors of war in his World War I classic "Paths of Glory" (1957) and his Vietnam epic "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

Likewise, Spielberg has examined global conflict in several films. Initially, his war films were lighthearted romps, like 1979's "1941," a comic tale about the Japanese arriving in California during the early days of World War II. In 1984's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"--though both lighthearted comic book adventures--evil took the shape of buffoonish Nazis.

Spielberg's two best-known war films have a much more ominous tone. His 1993 Oscar-winning masterwork, "Schindler's List," was an unsparing examination of the inhumanity and ferocity of the Nazis' hatred of the Jews. And in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan," a squad of average American men took on the Nazis in a do-or-die mission after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

But for a Spielberg film, "A.I." offers an exceptionally bleak depiction of the future. In the world of "A.I.," mankind has been robbed of all humanity and the robots are the only ones left in the world who seem capable of love, feelings and goodness. It is human beings who are bent on destroying their creations. "A.I." recalls the future world in Kubrick's controversial tale "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), where society turns a young hoodlum (Malcolm McDowell) into a veritable machine devoid of feelings.

Mothers and Sons

The depiction of the mother-son relationship in "A.I." is pure Spielberg; many of his films deal with the search for missing mothers (or children) and the almost primal need for close familial ties.

This mother-son thread plays a pivotal role in his first theatrical film, 1974's "The Sugarland Express." In this action-drama, mother Goldie Hawn gets her husband (William Atherton) out of prison so they can go to Sugar Land, Texas, to pick up their infant son, whom they refuse to give up for adoption.

Fathers--as in the case of Sam Robards in "A.I."--are often ineffectual in Spielberg movies, or totally nonexistent, like in 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The sci-fi blockbuster finds Melinda Dillon playing the single mother of a curious little boy (Cary Guffey) who is taken from their home by aliens.

And in "E.T.," Dee Wallace Stone is a single mother with three children. Even in 1991's misguided "Hook," the Lost Boys are pining for a mother figure. And in "Saving Private Ryan," one of the most haunting scenes is when Ryan's mother learns that three of her sons have been killed and that the fourth is missing behind enemy lines.

But Spielberg has never depicted this unconditional love of a child for his mother as strongly or deeply as in "A.I." David is programmed to unconditionally love his human mother (Frances O'Connor). When she abandons him in the forest, David takes extreme measures when he decides he must find the Blue Fairy from "Pinocchio," so she can turn him into a real boy and regain his mother's love.

Quest for Home

"A.I." also reflects the desire of Spielberg's characters to return to their home or their homeland, frequently to escape persecution.

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