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Steven Spielberg has always done his most heart-rending work not in the exotic wilds of Nepal, Normandy, or Never Land but at the ordinary American dinner table. In Jaws, the beast-from-beneath thriller is given true emotional bite thanks to a gentle post-meal moment between Amity Island’s shark-weary police chief and his sweetly mimicking toddler son. Richard Dreyfuss’ infamous mashed-potato meltdown in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is often remembered as being perversely comical—that is, until you revisit the movie and watch the young boy in the far left of the frame weep silently but steadily as his father spirals into alien-obsessed madness. And in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the loneliness of a dysfunctional suburban family is fully captured by a simple tracking shot of an exhausted single mother and her three excitable children eating supper, pondering “alligators in the sewers,” and talking about life without Father.

In the new A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a 144-minute marathon that spans the spectrum from brilliantly creepy (Act 1) to visually exhilarating (Act 2) to laughably misguided (Act 3), Spielberg returns to the table for not one but two soon-to-be-classic scenes of a family in flux. The big difference this time, however, is that he’s invited the specter of Stanley Kubrick to set out the silverware. The late cinematic visionary, who was obsessed (naturally) with this sci-fi project about a robot boy who yearns to be real, was adamant that Spielberg was the only man for the job. And for two-thirds of the film, Kubrick is proved correct.

With their only child on cryogenic life support—and assumed by everyone but his parents to be a lost cause—Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor) attempt to mend their fraying relationship by bringing home a prototype “feeling” robot named David. This “mecha,” played by Sixth Sense wunderkind Haley Joel Osment, freaks out his new parents early on; his movements are vaguely mechanical, and his empty eyes, unwavering smile, and gleaming forehead give him an eerie resemblance to a ventriloquist’s dummy. At their first meal together, the newfangled family eats in pregnant silence: The parents nervously chew their food; David, with nothing on his plate, pretends to do the same—until the robot unleashes a flurry of maniacal laughter, causing both mother and father (and audience) to scream in unison. Paying earnest homage to Kubrick, Spielberg abandons his Master of Light showmanship and sets up this powder-keg scene (and a gruesome one to follow) with chilly, methodical care: With John Williams’ funereal score tingling low in the mix, the director allows his camera to wander like an intruder through the cold, dimly lit halls of the Swintons’ futuristic abode, a sterile place where the warmth of love has been replaced with horror-movie shadows.

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Just before the Swintons’ real son, Martin, makes a miraculous recovery, Monica flips the switch on David’s one-of-a-kind “emotional circuitry,” programming him to love her unconditionally and forever. Just like that, David—a boy who will never die, a boy who will never leave his mother—no longer calls Monica by her first name; he simply cries out “Mommy” and, with body language that is suddenly fluid, gives her a hug. Osment’s wondrous transformation and O’Connor’s tear-streaked meltdown are heartbreaking—and a crack in the movie’s icy early mood. But A.I.’s flicker of brightness doesn’t last long. Portrayed with convincing snottiness by 10-year-old Jake Thomas, Martin can’t handle his mother’s divided affections. Manipulating David’s growing suspicion that he is not and never will be a real boy—Mom’s tender reading of Pinocchio certainly doesn’t help—Martin tricks David into eating human food. The horrific scene that follows is one that shouldn’t be spoiled with too many details, but it ruins nothing to say that the dinner involves oozy spoonfuls of spinach, an ugly reaction from David, and Spielberg’s callous camera lingering just long enough on this tomorrowland gone mad.

A.I. is based on Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” and where that piece of fiction ends, so does the movie’s first act. This also marks the last of Kubrick’s ghost rattling around in the machine. There’s now only one man in charge, and there’s certainly no mistaking who that man is. Along with both directing and co-producing A.I., Spielberg also wrote the screenplay, and by the time a hysterical Monica is forced to abandon David in the woods for fear that he has become dangerous to Martin, the director has completely returned to his trademark territory. As Monica drives away and a backlit David is seen getting smaller in her side-view mirror (yep: Jurassic Park), Williams’ orchestra kicks into booming overdrive, Spielberg’s camera zips this way and that, and David’s only company is a wise-cracking supertoy bear named Teddy. Now, Spielberg tells us, is the time for popcorn.

A.I.’s lightning-paced centerpiece is basically a road movie, with David searching for the same Blue Fairy who helped Geppetto’s wooden puppet. But thanks to an Oscar-worthy performance by Jude Law and a jaw-dropping barrage of CGI effects and animatronic critters, the film’s summer-blockbuster middle portion is almost as satisfying as its beginning. Scene-stealer Law plays Gigolo Joe, a “love mecha” with Fred Astaire’s grace and Cary Grant’s charm, whose only function is to pleasure women. (“Once you’ve had a lover robot, you’ll never want a real man again,” he purrs to an unsure client.) Joe, on the lam after being framed for a murder, first crosses paths with David at a fog-shrouded robot dumping ground, where various disfigured droids search clumsily for spare body parts. Soon, our electric heroes are captured by robot hunters who fly them via Moon Gondola (you have to see it to believe it…) to the Flesh Fair, where mechas are tortured in fiendishly inventive ways to the roaring delight of sold-out crowds. (Cutting the tension a bit, Spielberg enlists a popular comedian to give voice to a robot who’s shot out of a cannon through a ring of fire and beheaded by a fan.)

Although both the Flesh Fair and David and Gigolo Joe’s next destination, Rouge City, owe almost nothing to Kubrick, Terry Gilliam might want to inquire about royalties. The Flesh Fair (sales pitch: “A Celebration of Life!”) is a Technicolor blend of Ringling Bros., the WWF, and Thunderdome, with a rap-metal soundtrack intensifying the carnage and each device of destruction more elaborate than the next. The tunnel gateway to Rouge City, a neon-crazed sextropolis that pushes the boundaries of A.I.’s PG-13 rating, is a full-lipped woman’s gaping red mouth; its town center is a hundred-story-high pair of fleshy fishnetted gams. But where Industrial Light + Magic truly outdoes itself is in the End of the World (aka Manhattan). Because of some hoo-ha about the polar ice caps melting, a good chunk of the Big Apple has been swallowed by the sea. Spielberg dutifully takes us on an amphibicopter thrill ride in and around what remains of the above-water skyscrapers—then plunges us where we really want to go: under the waves, where David will finally find what he’s looking for.

Sigh: But that’s not all. It should be, mind you, but it’s not. A.I.’s psychobabbly coda, an unforgivable blemish on what is up to that point a spectacular moviegoing experience, takes place 2,000 years later, when David is the only “real” evidence of human existence. A.I.’s exploration of the complex workings of love—mother for son, mother for robot, even robot for robot—is handled with exquisite depth and poignancy in A.I.’s first two acts, but that just isn’t good enough for Spielberg (although, some might say, it might have been fine with Kubrick). Instead, we get stinky message points lobbed at us like rotting summer squashes. David, through means I won’t reveal here—partly because I had no idea what in the hell anyone was talking about—is allowed one more chance to prove his love to the person who mattered most. It’s a disgrace, really, especially David’s final teary transformation. If this is where he ultimately wanted to take us, then Spielberg—so smart, so restrained for so much of A.I. before resorting to sap-soaked Hook mode—should never have been excused from the dinner table. CP