Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence threw me when I first watched it last year; a fan of both Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, who began the project after reading Brian Aldiss' Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, I spent much of the film looking for the moments I could readily identify as belonging to either director. It was a rookie mistake, an outgrowth of a dependency on auteur theory to explain away the film and a distraction from the film's actual content and themes. I also tuned out the much-debated final section of the film, buying into the hype (before I'd even read it) that somehow it wasn't worth watching. Upon finishing the film, I nonchalantly popped it back in the Netflix sleeve and sent it back for the next movie in my queue.

Yet certain aspects stuck with me, ideas that I didn't pay attention to while watching the film now gnawing their way through the eroding memory of my "spot the auteur" game and nagging at me to give it another go. What really reinvigorated my interest, however, was Jonathan Rosenbaum's epic, 4000-word treatise on the film, entitled "The Best of Both Worlds." It remains my favorite article of his, and one of my absolute favorite pieces of film criticism. It is my go-to counterargument to those who argue that Rosenbaum is just some pretentious ass incapable of being pleased, using his once-limitless word count at the Chicago Reader to inform everyone how much smarter he was than us. It's also the article I use to introduce neophytes to his work. I could go on about what I love about this beautiful piece, but to do so would turn this review of a film into a rave of a rave that could spiral out of control and spark yet more discussions about my rave of his rave until Charlie Kaufman knocks at my door demanding a royalty payment.

Rosenbaum's praise of the film caused me to reevaluate my own indifference to it and, setting it aside long enough for some of the specifics to fade as to not influence my experience with the film, I at last returned to A.I. Rarely have I been so pleased to discover just how wrong I was.

A.I.
opens with the sight and sound of the ocean, serene waves that take on an ominous tone when a narration explains that, in the future, melting ice caps destroyed numerous major cities, displacing millions and leading to mass starvation in poorer countries. The areas that still enjoy some level of prosperity ensure their continuing riches by licensing pregnancies to maintain population levels. With the lowered populace reducing labor, robots become a staple of city life. But Professor Hobby (William Hurt) aspires to the next level of robotics. He dreams of androids that do not only look like humans and experience sensory stimuli but emote.

A year later, an employee at Hobby's company, Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O'Connor) suffer the pain of their child's illness. Cocooned in a pod reminiscent of the hibernation chambers of 2001 or Alien, young Martin must stay in suspended animation until a cure for his rare disease can be found. This situation makes the couple prime test subjects for Hobby's latest innovation: David. Henry brings home what appears to be an 11-year-old boy, but Monica immediately understands what the boy really is and shouts for it to leave.

With this minimal setup, Spielberg crafts not only his most thought-provoking film (it is admittedly up against slim competition) but one of the most unabashedly philosophical films to ever be produced for mass consumption (and make no mistake, this is very much a film meant for a large audience). This first section of the 150-minute feature is entirely based on emotional development between the "child" and his new "mommy." Monica is repulsed by the machine at first, terrified by the stiff, servile messages coming from this utterly realistic thing. Yet she slowly becomes accustomed to the boy, until at last she agrees to program him with code words that will fully activate his humanistic programming (once this bonding process is done, David cannot be returned to the company without being destroyed), and the moment that David looks up with suddenly softer features and calls Monica "Mommy" is as breathtaking in its simplicity and direct impact as the appearance of the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park is in its epic grandeur.


The first act also establishes an amazing unity between two disparate styles of filmmaking, between Kubrick's often bleak philosophical and anthropological concerns and Spielberg's emotional directness and his notion of cinema as a means of exhilaration and positivity. One of the employees at Hobby's initial presentation broaches a serious question she tags as moral but is equally existential, asking "If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that Mecha in return?" Hobby ducks the question by alluding to the story of creationism (that God created humans to love him, with the unspoken allusion to John 3:14's declaration of God's love of His creation), but sets up one of the basic issues the film addresses and asks us to answer.

Monica, driven by maternal instincts, dotes upon this robot as if her child, but Henry, who was so excited by the invention and pressured his wife into keeping David, sours when confronted with the fully programmed version, put-off by David's sudden humanity (this depiction of a father's excitement with the idea of a kid growing into a resentment and absence when the child finally arrives shows Spielberg getting to the heart of his theme of father-child relationships). When the Swintons' real son Martin (Jake Thomas) returns home, David receives his first exposure to human cruelty. I feel that Martin is somewhat justified in hating David, considering that his parents essentially replaced him with this robot while he lied in cryostasis, but he manipulatesDavid's programmed honesty and servility into turning the poor android into an unwittingly terrifying being, at times perceived by the Swintons as a Chucky doll of the 22nd century.

At last, Martin's schemes go to far, and the father orders David's return to the factory for destruction, but the mother cannot bring herself to kill her child, even if he's not technically her child or even alive. She instead takes him to a forest and abandons him with his animatronic toy bear, Teddy. It's a heartbreaking moment, as David displays the extent to which he can feel true emotions and love.

After a fade-out, Spielberg completely shifts gears, and the second act of the film investigates not an individual family who would order something like David but the society that is enthralled with Mechas. The director, working with Chris Baker's 600 pre-production illustrations, crafts a stupefying metropolis called Rouge City that makes Ridley Scott's vision of the consumerist overload of Blade Runner's Los Angeles look like an Amish community. Its epileptic blend of Scott's nightmarish futuristic vision, Las Vegas and the Pleasure Island segment of Disney's Pinocchio, Rouge City is as far away from the idyllic wealthy suburbs where we met David but linked by a nonplussed acceptance of robots among humans. Spielberg's visual evocation of Pinocchio is one of his more sly moves here, lining up nicely with the story's inexorable link to the story of the puppet who became a real boy.

Rouge City

Pleasure Island

Even the character of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), the first character introduced in this new segment, can be directly tied to David and his quest to be loved. Just as David was an experiment for humans to project love upon an ideal -- not only might unlicensed couples be allowed to have a child, it would always be stuck in that period of total and unconditional love, never growing old and moving away -- Gigolo Joe is manufactured to cater to every aspect of the physical aspect of human love. Both are empty shells who can only project their ability to love at the expense of any other identifiable traits; when the abandoned David meets Joe and tells him of his quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio tale, Joe, on the run after the bitter husband of one of his clients framed him for her murder, offers to tag along to seduce her.

Their search for the Blue Fairy is fraught with danger, as a subsection of society views the rise of Mechas as a threat to the species. In the film's only glaring misstep, both David and Joe are rounded up for a "Flesh Fair," a Thunderdome-esque exposition of Luddite savagery. Well, I say Luddite; everyone in attendance has their own futuristic gadgets, but they destroy any Mechas they can get their hands on in some zealous rage of self-preservation. Where this sequence goes wrong is in its visualization: the Flesh Fair is little more than a motocross, a rock concert(!)(?) and a warped public hanging square all in one, populated only, it seems, by shitkicking working class buffoons, none so poor that we might infer that robotics drove them out of work but displaying typical redneck bloodlust. The scene only redeems itself at its end, when its most eager participant (Brendan Gleeson) trots out David, the first robot to genuinely fulfill the emotional roles of a human, the crowd is so struck by his realism that they refuse to allow him to be destroyed. Does that mean that even a mongoloid mob such as this has some basic civility when confronted with something so well-made they cannot distinguish from a human? Or are they just so collectively dumb that they cannot fathom a machine being made like this despite all their violence predicated on the fear of something like David existing?

The central issue affecting David is the dividing line between "Orga," organic beings, and "Mecha," the robots. It's revealing that the humans, even the ones most adamantly opposed to the technology, do not simply say "man" and "machine," for the Mechas have grown into a type of existence that cannot be differentiated from a humans with the same facility as, say, animals, which technically are Orga. The robot servants and the pleasure bots like Joe can all carry out but one function -- when you strip away his ability for minor independence, the same applies to David -- but they can all reason, react to pain, find a certain pleasure in their lives, even if it's only a programmed response. In an early scene, David sits at the dinner table in his "stock" condition, his emotional programming still unactivated, and suddenly plays a bit of a trick on Henry and Monica bursts into loud laughter, causing both of the humans to laugh just as boisterously. It's a light-hearted and funny scene, but it brings with it a question: the machine David, not even yet programmed to achieve his most human-like behavior, can laugh at something he finds amusing. What, then, separates his mechanical response from the supposedly organic one of Monica and Henry?


Perhaps as a result of Spielberg's framing, though certainly a key aspect of the story, David is more sympathetic than any of the humans we meet; even Monica does not put up a struggle when the patriarchal Henry orders David destroyed, and her idea of a compromise is to simply dump a machine programmed to be a 11-year-old in a forest surrounded by humans who destroy everything they find and hope for the best. When David and Joe use a super-information center called Dr. Know (voiced by a loopy but not obnoxious Robin Williams) to find the Blue Fairy at "the end of the world" (a Manhattan covered by the risen seas), we discover the information was planted in Dr. Know by Hobby to reclaim his invention for analysis. Hobby delights at David's misery and the horrific jealousy he displays when Hobby introduces him to a copy of another David unit, which results in a violent (and futile) act of aggression to prove his individuality.

The final section of the film, set 2000 years after David runs away from Hobby and finds the Coney Island Blue Fairy deep in the ocean, is where even the film's fans suddenly scream in outrage. The first time I watched it, I had no idea what the creatures, seemingly made as much from pure energy as any flesh or metal, actually were; in retrospect, it's easy to tell that they're Mechas because of a sharp visual clue Spielberg gave us early in his out-of-focus, distorted introductory shot of David. The film up to this point pitted Orga against Mecha, but these humanoid Supermechas, wandering a frozen landscape long after humans went extinct, make the distinction meaningless. They scan David's memories and offer to reconstruct a vision of Monica to be with for a single day, allowing him his chance at happiness while giving them a window to study mankind through his experiences.


Many pointed to this segment as saccharine, Spielbergian fluff, though everyone involved is quick to point out that this coda was always in Kubrick's idea of the film. And, frankly, I don't see what people are talking about; David's day with Monica is fun and happy and carefree, yes, but it is also hollow, a programmed emotional stimuli no different than the one David himself was made to provide. In Rosenbaum's review, he noted that the issue broached at Hobby's first meeting tackles the idea of whether a robot and a human could share a mutually loving relationship, but the film never tackles the question of whether robots could be so humanistic that they might love each other. I respectfully disagree; the film revolves around the idea that human love has given way to mechanical, programmed affection, and though the real Monica's love of David obviously does not extend to that of a real human, she is devastated to leave him in the forest. Furthermore, David and Joe share a loving friendship, reliant upon one another for safety, and there is a haunting moment between them as an electromagnet snares Joe and he bids farewell to David with the hauntingly existential "I am...I was." David's vision of Monica at the end professes her unconditional love of David, as affecting but ultimately hollow a display of emotion as David provided to the real version.

This harsh juxtaposition reveals the "shotgun marriage," as Rosenbuam dubs it, between Spielberg and Kubrick auterial concerns. Spielberg's films are about the individual and the emotional resonance of that one person above all else, including accuracy or honest self-appraisal; I still love his Jaws to death, but as a young adult grown out of childhood I'm now somewhat put-off by its subtext, that people can always overcome giant obstacles, even if it means recklessly killing it without ever acknowledging a less violent solution. Kubrick's, on the other hand, are about the loss of individualism into the unified whole of society, usually in a satiric manner but occasionally quite serious (in 2001, the individual is absorbed into the obelisk to further the evolution of our species). In the film's final moments, we discover that the entire movie was a flashback of sorts, played for the Supermechas just as the projectionist played the film for us. Just as we feed off of David's emotions, so too do the future mechas take his most personal memories and project them to their curious society. In the combination of two wildly different styles, scenes such as this provide the most honest look at the methods and ideas of both directors.

Yet for all of its intelligence, all of its jaw-dropping visual splendor -- perhaps Spielberg's always acute visual sense resonated even more than his work on other films because the images are put in service of some genuine meaning -- A.I. succeeds because of its protagonist. Haley Joel Osment is now remembered for whispering "I see dead people" and for not escaping the aftermath of Pay It Forward (his tiny adolescent body just didn't have the strength to push the rubble of that film's horrific collapse off himself), but his performance here never hits a false note. He is initially creepy and overbearing, but transitions effortlessly into an adorable boy who is as lovable, fragile and naïve as any other kid. Osment himself decided upon the excellent idea of never blinking to reveal his artificiality, a wry character tic that proves unexpectedly heartrending at the end when David, himself revived by the Mechas and given only a day with a reincarnation with his mother, lies in her arms and closes his eyes, off "to that place where dreams are born."

5 comments:

  1. I've never understood the massive hate-on for this film. The only thing I'd say is that the movie could have ended three times before the ending Speilberg went with...

    ... when he pitches himself off the building
    ... when he stares at the blue fairy endlessly wishing
    ... when the mecchas (thank you for pointing out what they are!) tell him they cannot bring his mother back.

    I think any of those three ending points would have worked better, but it's not enough for me to write off the entire film.

    Kubrick and Speilberg seem like an unlikely pair. As a friend of mine likes to put it, Kubrick lives in the darkness, Speilberg just likes to play there.

    Great post!

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  2. I think that there's something haunting about the ending though. By following through to the very end (I assume that, by closing his eyes, David too is dying). If it stopped at any of those other points, bleak and affecting as they would have been, we wouldn't have gotten that final piece of the puzzle, that the Mechas gawk at his emotional journey the same way we do. In a way, Spielberg's commenting on the audiences (himself included) who love his films for their individualism and emotionality -- unlike Rosenbaum's remark that the asinine Flesh Fair crowd is Spielberg's derision of his typical audience. As I said in the review, it's the perfect distillation of both the pros and cons of the emotional approaches the two directors use in their films and an incisive (while never losing its beauty and relevancy to the story) commentary on both.

    I also love this movie because, now that I really look at Spielberg's career closely, it marked the start of his fantastic late period (barring stuff like Indy 4, of course), where he set his commercial concerns aside and made the most intelligent movies of his career. I'm going to talk about that later, probably in my retrospective of the decade.

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  3. Interesting that you find it haunting. I find it tidy, many others I know find it abraseively warm and fuzzy.

    As I mentioned, even with my slight dissatisfaction of the ending, I still love the film.

    I used to be, and still actually am, a big admirer of Speilberg's. Interesting that you see this film as the turning point, since I might step it back a movie or two to include SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or even AMISTAD. The influence I do see starting here is that touch of darkness that falls over MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH. Of course, he seems to enjoy taking a step out into the sun after such movies, hence THE TERMINAL and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

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  4. I should clarify: I don't find the actual day with Monica haunting (though I think that final bit of him closing his eyes touched me), I think the knowledge that he's been actively monitored the whole time and that the projection of Monica is hollow and unsettling.

    And the older I get (a relative, dangerous term for a 20-year-old to bandy about), I find SPR to be overly simplified, rah-rah cliché interspersed with the occasional breathtaking sequence. But SPR has the problem that War of the Worlds has, that those sequences are not arranged in a way that gives them collective meaning. Of course, SPR's action pieces are astounding and every explosion and gunshot has a purpose where Worlds was scattershot and sloppy at the best of times, but still.

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  5. wow Jake, your post is almost as long as the film...
    just as good though.
    yeah, i really like AI, like Hatter, dont see what all the angry fuss was about - its a really beguiling film and HJO is pretty amazing in it to be fair to him.

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