My wife began to moan before the robot kid even got out of the house.
Unusually tolerant for the odd and the inconsistent, she immediately sensed the lack of cohesiveness AI possessed.
While Spielberg have never been one for what you might call "a tight plot," -- a story line driven by cause and effect -- he has always managed to pull his fingers out of the fire with strong symbolic imagery. Spielberg in his most masterful films is able to keep our interest by pulling the duffle bag of his rambling closed through sub textual connections. But even he went too far with AI, stretching our ability to endure the inane sameness by dragging out scenes of home life beyond their service to the tale.
AI is long, often boring, with an uncomfortable reliance on symbol rather than plot.
Part of the problem is that he has too many stories going on at one time.
Although Close Encounters also had a rambling symbolic core, he limited the character action lines -- and switched between them to keep up interest, something he failed to do soon enough in AI
Like in Close Encounters we have the pack of scientists plotting to advance the science of robots by making the robots feel real emotions.
This "what if" motif is at the core of all great science fiction.
But Spielberg -- despite his usual visual brilliance -- simply fails to tell a good yarn, the stuff upon which all great literature is built.
He doesn't seem to know what kind of story he needs to tell. He sets us up for a robot at home story, complete with the return of the real kid and the arrogant real children, the misunderstood robot who seems dangerous to the father, and keeps doing thing that would reinforce the father's fears.
This is potentially brilliant stuff, except it lacks development and conviction. He dumps two scenes of potential mishaps not as the build up to a climax, but as an excuse or motivation to dump the kid out of the house.
This first section is so realistic that we are not quite ready to accept the step back from realism Spielberg takes when he sends the kid out on his own.
Before we move on, however, let's examine the failings of the first part, even without contrast to the later parts of the movie.
We never really feel the necessary emotional changes required for us to believe what happens to cause the mother to fall in love or to accept the robot as kid. There are subtleties of characterization missing, and shifts in emotional reality that need a whole movie to justify.
As slow as the pace is, the film rushes through the emotional shifts without the necessary justifications or evidence to make the changes possible. While logically, we might fill in the missing pieces, tell ourselves later that the mother gradually came to accept the boy-robot, but we do not believe in our hearts -- needing dramatic scenes that are more than superficially or symbolically emotional.
We need to see these laid out like bricks, the way we saw ET develop in that previous film and the mother to develop the way the boy in ET did, and then both characters coming together for a dramatic conclusion.
The same can be said of the father who starts out as hopeful and later shifts to skeptical, with the thinnest of plot devices to justify the massive emotional change.
While the real boy son has more depth as instigator, even his motivation seem frail, unsupported by the necessary repetition to justify his jealousy.
Had Spielberg narrowed his scope to only the house scenes, making this a story about love and jealousy, and how a robot programmed to love may not necessary have the hate the father believes comes as a package, we might have had room for a great movie very much like ET.
But the film has greater ambitions to which it has not time enough to justify, and it soon launches itself in a totally different direction, abandoning the mad scientists with which it opened and the family upon which it centered for a totally different,and utterly unexpected reality of which the audience was never warned.
Every the transition was clumsy, even lazy, leaving the audience to fill in pieces the film maker should have provided. Or provided in more than a symbolic way.
In what should have been a tearful moment, the mother lies to the robot in order to lure the naive creature out of the house.
She may or may not have intended to bring the robot back to the mad scientists. She may or may not have had a change of heart.
She simply halts the car, takes the robot in the middle of the woods, and tells the robot he's o his own.
The robot cries, clings, but in the end cannot stop the mother from fleeing.
End of act one. End of realism. Welcome to the twilight zone or more accurately, a Spielberg version of Mad Max vs. the robotic society, filled with rampaging motorcycles, moon-like warrior balloons, a nomadic society o f hunted and persecuted broken robots and mobs of savage, distraught, and jealous humans who apparently feel interior and take out their rage in revival/stock car face/like thunder domes where the hapless robots are creatively destroyed.
The problem isn't the shift in theme -- although like the first part it is extremely superficial, making emotional assumptions that threaten to dump until into a morass of sentimentality -- it is the absolute shift in style. Spielberg pushed out of an utterly realistic home scene into a fantastic world, stepping back from reality into fantasy. We are dizzy from the shift, and never fully recover, because it only get worse, eventually falling into cartoon figuratively and literally.
We are introduced to a whole new set of character and a whole new sequence of story more than an hour into the film, and asked to accept this as if nothing had happened.
Spielberg is no stranger to mixing reality with fantasy. Close encounters proved as much. In fact, there is a strong structural resemblance between the two films. But in Close encounters, Spielberg weaved these tales together so that we leapt back and forth between each strand frequently so that there was a simultaneous development. The shock of the shifts was acceptable, even delightful because we were never left in any particular point of view to make the assumption that this would be a realistic film. And because of this constant shifting, Close encounters were able to create the massive scope AI only reaches for.
Instead, we abandon the scientists for the home, and then abandon the home for the woods and the hunt, and the somehow come back to the scientists and later the home.
Spielberg also abandoned his own great gift for creating excitement, such as opening his tales with a bang as in Raiders and Jurassic Park, then stepping back for the more mundane. Even ET started off this way. AI did not.
Part of the problem, too, is Spielberg's insistence on foregrounding the entire story. He could have achieved much more by centering on the mad max like story, and flashing back to the home scenes and even the scientists. As it is, the film dawdles in the sentimental, trying to connect elements that are hours apart, and expect the audience to connect the dots. The visuals of course are brilliant, but symbolic representations cannot over come flaws of story, no matter how well presented, and in the end, he has achieved a story that most people will watch once but never again, unless they be someone like my wife, who won't tolerate even one viewing.