Here it is then. The answer to a 20 year joke-in-the-telling/ movie-in-the-making that goes: "What do you get when you cross Stanley Kubrick with Steven Spielberg?" Passing on the distressing physical outcome of a giant walking beard, the creative punchline is AI, a sci-fi odyssey passed on to Spielberg via Kubrick's deathbed.
The collaboration is a stylistic conundrum in itself, of frosty analytical leers versus sentimentality, and of a director who used film as an excuse to dissect the psyche versus a director who uses film to excite it. The question is, can Spielberg meld the two personalities? The answer, frustratingly, is both a resounding yes and a thudding no.
The subject matter's certainly timely. With the weightier likes of Schindler's List taking precedence over his occupational sorcery, it doesn't take a huge leap to view AI as a soul-grapple between Spielberg's inner child and his rational adult. It's also clearly a personal crusade. Taking a rare screenplay credit, Spielberg has used Brian Aldiss' short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long as the basis of an audacious fantasy. Granted, the Kubrick influences stand out a mile (a steely scrutiny of Pinocchio), but visually it's all Spielberg, a film swimming with dazzling images and deliberate optical illusions.
Most surprisingly, AI presents the rare vision of a sober film-maker (whose stabs at surrealism so far amount to Close Encounters' pass-the-bong climax) really letting his beard down. AI's universe is one of sentient teddy bears, ominous moon-machines and looting mecha-tramps. Far from wistful, it's a disturbing vision, completely engrossing, always on a nightmare edge and brilliantly realised.
As the flamboyant sex-machine Gigolo Joe, Jude Law wears his charm-chip on his sleeve and makes a role that's essentially a receptacle for others' questions considerably more - dare we say it - fleshy than the material deserves. But it's Haley Joel Osment who's the revelation, holding the film together with awesome assurance. Seeing his initial disarming perma-grin slip into an angsty wilt , you're left in no doubt that Osment is a genuine prodigy. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the finale doesn't do his journey justice.
Rudimentary narration is one thing, but emotionally it just doesn't wash. After all, AI's very premise soars or sinks on whether viewers can invest themselves emotionally with a robot. And crucially, when Osment comes to the end of his odyssey and goes through the existential clicking of the red slippers, it falls flat on its face. Thematically it makes sense, but it's as if Spielberg has over-compensated for the movie's eerie aura by spoon-feeding us with his one weakness: syrup.
Bewitching and gripping it might be, but ultimately AI is a film about love that's cold to the touch and without a pulse. Somewhere, Kubrick is smiling.