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July 18, 1999, Sunday
Arts and Leisure Desk

FILM; The Masterpiece a Master Couldn't Get Right


EVERY movie director has movies he hoped to make but couldn't, usually for financial reasons (the favorite unmade projects of established directors usually tend toward the epic.) More than any director of his generation, Stanley Kubrick enjoyed freedom from these constraints. After the successes of ''Dr. Strangelove'' and ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' in the 60's, Kubrick was largely able to make what movies he liked.

Even so, the time that elapsed between Kubrick's films grew steadily longer: three years between ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' and ''A Clockwork Orange,'' in 1971; four years after that before ''Barry Lyndon'' was released, then five years until ''The Shining'' and another seven years until ''Full Metal Jacket,'' in 1987. In the remaining dozen years of his life, Kubrick completed one film: ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' which opened on Friday.

One reason for this increasing attenuation was the time Kubrick spent on various projects that were never filmed. One of these, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella ''Rhapsody: A Dream Novel,'' was eventually used as the basis for ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' the contemporary thriller completed just before Kubrick's death, in March. Another unrealized project, this one based on the life of Napoleon, foundered because of budgetary constraints during the inflationary 70's. A third, adapted from Louis Begley's 1991 novel ''Wartime Lies,'' was evidently being cast in 1993 when Kubrick set it aside.

But another project occupied Kubrick longer than any of these.

Based on a science-fiction story about a troubled child who is in fact a robot, the movie -- titled ''A.I.'' when Warner Brothers announced it in late 1993 -- had been an on-again-off-again project since the late 70's, when Kubrick first bought the story and hired its author, the British writer Brian W. Aldiss, to write a film treatment. Set aside in the mid-80's, when Kubrick made ''Full Metal Jacket,'' the project was resumed at the end of the decade. Eventually five different writers worked on the film treatment while a George Lucas company, Industrial Light and Magic, undertook preliminary special-effects work and two British artists worked on production design.

Despite the time and effort lavished upon it, the film was never made. In December 1995, Warner Brothers announced that Kubrick's next film would be a psychological thriller starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman -- the Schnitzler story, which Kubrick had been pondering since the early 70's. ''A.I.,'' it was announced, would go into production immediately afterward.

Whether Kubrick would have returned -- for the third or fourth time -- to the film is impossible to know. Secrecy surrounded the project, and Warner Brothers declines to talk about it. But the work that was completed, including drawings, special-effects test sequences and hundreds of pages of story development, suggests that ''A.I.'' would have been Kubrick's most intense and definitive vision of humanity in the throes of becoming something other than human: a science-fiction epic of enormous ambition.

The sinister-seeming yet finally ambiguous figure of technological man becoming less (or is it more?) than a man as he disappears into his machinery runs throughout Kubrick's mature work, from the image of Dr. Strangelove fighting off his prosthetic arm to the hapless recruits in ''Full Metal Jacket'' being turned into killing machines. It is the underlying theme of all Kubrick's films: an idea he could not let go of.

The Aldiss story behind ''A.I.'' is ''Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,'' published in 1969. It is about a withdrawn English boy named David and his talking teddy bear, which is actually a robot that was given to the boy by his worried parents for therapeutic purposes. At the end of the story, the reader discovers that David is also a robot, a sophisticated model that is supposed to behave like a real child but that can't please the childless couple who purchased him, despite the teddy bear's coaching.

Kubrick was looking for his next film project, and telephoned to ask Mr. Aldiss whether he had any stories that might be appropriate. Mr. Aldiss sent him a few, from which Kubrick picked out ''Super-Toys.'' ''It meant a great deal to him,'' Mr. Aldiss said in an interview. ''There was something in there about the little boy's inability to please his mother that touched Stanley's heart.''

THE two men began discussing the possibilities of expanding ''Super-Toys'' in 1977, soon after the appearance of ''Star Wars,'' a film Kubrick disliked. ''He didn't think it was as good as '2001,' '' Mr. Aldiss recalled. He said Kubrick had jokingly asked him, ''What sort of S.F. movie could I make that would make as much money as 'Star Wars' yet allow me to retain my reputation for social integrity?'' They played with ideas for expanding the story into a quest, only to find that the tale wound up resembling ''Star Wars.''

Kubrick shelved the project to make ''The Shining,'' but he returned to it in 1982. He met again with Mr. Aldiss, who remembers Kubrick was impressed the year before by ''E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.'' Kubrick saw his own film as being ''sentimental, dreamlike -- a fable,'' Mr. Aldiss said, adding that the story of ''Pinocchio'' came up in discussions.

Mr. Aldiss had his doubts but set to work. He was picked up by a chauffeur every morning and taken to Kubrick's large estate in Hertfordshire, where the two men would work all day. Kubrick saw the movie as a quest in which the robot David seeks to become a real boy as a way of winning his mother's love. As in Pinocchio, Mr. Aldiss recalled, ''there was even a Blue Fairy.''

After several months, not pleased with anything Mr. Aldiss came up with, Kubrick set the project aside. He had, meanwhile, since 1980, been speaking with Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam book ''Dispatches,'' about a Vietnam movie he wanted to make. (Mr. Herr said their discussions had resembled ''one phone call lasting three years.'') That collaboration would become ''Full Metal Jacket,'' a project that evidently proceeded smoothly.

Then, in 1989, two years after ''Full Metal Jacket,'' Mr. Aldiss heard from Kubrick again. Despite misgivings (Mr. Aldiss felt that Kubrick had treated him badly, over money and other matters), he returned to ''Castle Kubrick,'' as he called it.

Kubrick's vision of his robot movie had by now become extremely ambitious and very strange. Although he persisted in wanting his story to be a quest with fairy-tale overtones, the ambiance he imagined was a high-tech and hard-edged future. Kubrick wanted the robots to reflect the most up-to-date thinking on artificial intelligence, and he consulted with Hans Moravic (sic. correct: Moravec) of Carnegie-Mellon University, whose book ''Mind Children'' became Kubrick's standard reference. His movie's setting was a world in which global warming had left several coastal cities, including New York, submerged. And while David and a few other robots would be human in appearance, most would be radically futuristic -- Kubrick had not yet settled on their design..

But work on the story did not proceed well. Kubrick did not like many of Mr. Aldiss's ideas, and substituted his own. One idea that Mr. Aldiss liked was the ''concentration camp'' theme. ''Kubrick wanted David to be kicked out into what we referred to as Tin City,'' he recalled, describing a sort of skid row for old robots where they were worked as slaves until they fell apart. But Kubrick abruptly dropped the idea one day, and that was that.

Kubrick subsequently hired two more science-fiction writers, Bob Shaw and Ian Watson, to develop his story. Mr. Shaw did not last long on the project, but Kubrick got along well with Mr. Watson, who worked with him throughout 1990.

By now the story was filled with incident: David was the first of a new model of robot able to feel emotions. He could be programmed to love the couple that owned him, though he could not love others. David had been acquired by an unhappy couple whose only child suffered from an incurable disease and had been cryogenically preserved. The parents were not allowed to have another child.

When a medical breakthrough allows the daughter to be thawed out and cured, David becomes redundant, and after a period of intense sibling rivalry, the mother decides to get rid of him. She sets David loose, but to assuage her sense of guilt, she tells him that he can return when he becomes a real boy.

David's quest eventually takes him to a drowned New York City, where he finds the Pinocchio booth at Coney Island, complete with a model of the Blue Fairy, which David regards with reverential wonder. The story then jumps ahead thousands of years, to a future in which robots populate the world and humans are long extinct. David is discovered, his battery worn down, and revived by these inheritors of the Earth, who regard him as a link with a mythological past.

There was more, but Kubrick evidently felt it was not enough, for in April 1992 he approached Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he had collaborated on the script to ''2001,'' and asked whether he would write a treatment. Mr. Clarke wrote a short outline, which ended by taking the robots into galactic space and beyond. ''Rejected instantly!'' Mr. Clarke recalled. ''He hated it and asked me to tear it up.''

By this time, Kubrick had acquired the rights to ''Wartime Lies,'' another story about a wandering little boy and the threat of concentration camps. In April 1993, Variety reported that he was preparing to film a new project in Eastern Europe. By October, the movie, now retitled ''The Aryan Papers,'' was reported to be in pre-production, with shooting to begin early the next year.

If Kubrick's enthusiasm for Mr. Begley's novel burned intensely for a time, it soon burned out. In November, Warner Brothers announced that his next film would be ''A.I,'' a science-fiction epic involving robots, global warming and state-of-the-art special effects. The studio said Kubrick had set the project aside a few years earlier because he had not felt that the special-effects technology of the time was adequate for what he wanted to do, but that after seeing ''Jurassic Park'' he changed his mind.

ALTHOUGH he still did not have a script, Kubrick began work on designing the look of his high-tech future. He got in touch with Industrial Light and Magic, based in northern California, and Dennis Muren, its digital-effects supervisor, traveled to London with an associate, Ed Gorman, to speak with Kubrick. Kubrick questioned them closely about the feasibility of using digital special effects to create his future world. Mr. Muren returned to California and began work on computer-generated images of a submerged Manhattan, including a view of skyscrapers emerging from the sea.

For his robots, Kubrick turned to Chris Cunningham, a young special-effects artist who has gone on to direct arresting music videos. Kubrick had decided that David could not be played by a young boy, who would age visibly during the months-long shoot. The robot who looked almost human would be played by a machine, perhaps to be supplemented with digitized effects. Mr. Cunningham worked on a mechanical model at Kubrick's house throughout 1995. ''I spent the entire year just developing this one robot head,'' he said.

Kubrick also commissioned the British illustrator Chris Baker to draw scenes for his future world. Although Mr. Watson, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Baker all worked with Kubrick in his residence, none of them knew about the others.

As work on special effects got under way, Kubrick reached out to one last author, the English novelist Sara Maitland. She was the only nonscience-fiction writer to work on the project. He wanted, he told her, a story-teller. ''By the time I came to the project it had become enormous, unwieldy, unfocused,'' said Ms. Maitland. She quickly concluded that the story needed to make emotional sense as a myth or fairy tale, and believes that Kubrick realized this.

Kubrick was fascinated by artificial intelligence and fond of robots, which he regarded as a more environmentally adaptable form of human being.

''He decided to make this film because he wanted people to shift to a more positive view of A.I.,'' Ms. Maitland said. ''He was quite open to me about that. He said, 'I think of them as I'd like to think of my great-grandchildren.' And he's very fond of his grandchildren.''

Kubrick also was adamant that the story work in terms of myth. ''He never referred to the film as 'A.I.'; he always called it 'Pinocchio,' '' Ms. Maitland said.

It was the relationship between David and his mother that most occupied Kubrick and Ms. Maitland. An alcoholic whose Bloody Marys David would mix for her in a vain attempt to win her affection, the mother was the emotional center of the film.

At the story's conclusion, the robots that have inherited the Earth use David's memories to reconstruct, in virtual form, the apartment where he had lived with his parents. Because his memories are subjective, the mother is much more vividly realized than the father, and his stepsister's room is not there at all; it is just a hole in the wall.

For Ms. Maitland, the film would end with David preparing a Bloody Mary for his mother, the juice a brighter red than in real life: ''He hears her voice, and that's it. We don't see him turn to see her.'' Kubrick, however, wanted a coda in which the new race of robots, because of a technological limitation, cannot keep the the mother alive after reviving her. The movie would end with David in his mother's bedroom, watching her slowly disappear.

Ms. Maitland hated this, and was furious with Kubrick for insisting on it. ''It must have been a very strong visual thing for him,'' she says, ''because he wasn't usually stupid about story. He hired me because I knew about fairy stories, but would not listen when I told him, 'You can have a failed quest, but you can't have an achieved quest and no reward.' ''

One day in late 1995, Kubrick gave Ms. Maitland a copy of ''Rhapsody: A Dream Novel,'' and told her that he thought it would make a wonderful film. She did not know how long Kubrick had been planning to make a film based on Schnitzler's story -- or that he had been working with another novelist, Frederic Raphael, on a script for the past year. Ms. Maitland read the story and was unimpressed. ''That was the end,'' she said. Her final check arrived, and she never heard from Kubrick again.

Soon afterward, Warner Brothers announced: ''Stanley Kubrick's next film will be 'Eyes Wide Shut,' a story of jealousy and sexual obsession, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.'' The Pinocchio story was shelved once more.

As Kubrick prepared to film ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' he spoke of setting up a department that would build robots for ''A.I'' while he completed the other film. Mr. Cunningham, who left the project, does not know whether Kubrick went ahead with this. Mr. Baker also left the project at this time. Kubrick continued to speak with Mr. Muren through the beginning of 1999 but gave nobody any indication of how far along he actually was in pre-production for ''A.I.''

Would Kubrick have returned to ''A.I.''?

Ms. Maitland suspects that the project had simply got away from him. ''It was a good idea, but the story as story lost it,'' she said. ''You just can't load two and a half thousand millenniums onto the poor little Pinocchio story.''

But ''A.I.'' might have been more than simply one of the most innovative special-effects films ever made: its focus on the small boy in jeopardy and the doomed nature of his most cherished relationship affects the emotions as strongly as Kubrick's obsession with transcendence engaged his intellect. More than the Napoleon film or the adaptation of ''Wartime Lies,'' it is the unmade Kubrick project that held his imagination, and the one we are poorest for not having.

Correction: August 1, 1999, Sunday

Because of an editing error, an article on July 18 about Stanley Kubrick and his unmade film ''A.I.'' misstated the given name of a digital effects consultant from Industrial Light and Magic who met with Kubrick. He is Ned Gorman, not Ed.

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