Skip to main content

He use to be a super toy, but now he's old and stupid.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
(2001)

(SPOILERS) The thought that kept repeating on me revisiting A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which I hadn’t seen it was in cinemas, was what kind of film it might have been had it starred a typical moppet playing David, the AI boy, rather than the creepy facsimile of childhood that is Haley Joel Osment. His casting creates a pervasively unsettling effect, and consequently adds a range of layers to the film, some no doubt intentional, others “happy” accidents, and yet others hampering it from being all it might be. Steven Spielberg’s first feature of the new millennium would surely have been a very different beast had, say, it been made a decade earlier when Macauley Culkin was the kid star du jour. As such, Osment’s presence can only be seen in terms of the fortuitousness of circumstance rather than express design (that he was a versatile child actor at just the moment when the long gestating product became a “go”).


Which goes towards making a fascinating picture: flawed, but fascinating. With Osment as David, there can be no doubt from the beginning that the connection between this yearning artificial construct and his adoptive mother is deeply wrong. So much so, it’s difficult even to believe that she “fools herself” into developing affection for him, because his “off” presence is more akin to that of the devil child from The Omen than munchkin you’d fret about leaving home alone.


David’s uncanny (unblinking) attentiveness to Monica (Frances O’Connor), with all the Freudian overtones (DePalma would had a ball with this movie) that come with it (in the end his dream fulfilled involves sharing a bed with her*), and Osment’s very calculated, precisely performed emoting, where one can see the cogs slipping into a gear rather than providing a genuine response (or the impression of a genuine response) add to this unsettling dynamic. There is never a sense that David’s relationship with his mother is beatific or even straightforwardly benign, so Spielberg has nothing to unravel for it all to go wrong (and, as a consequence, there is no real pathos in the separation). The imprinting only takes for David, not for Monica, who has been pressured into adopting the child by a largely absent husband (Sam Robards) who then rejects his son when the going gets tough (very much the Spielbergian formula, as evidenced by E.T.; it would be interesting to see how the father was presented in the Stanley Kubrick and Ian Watson treatment).


David: Do I smell lovely?

Osment’s David is so integrally odd that when he becomes obsessive or deranged there’s little chance of being conflicted or empathising with his greater plight. When his brother (Jake Thomas) tricks him into cutting his mother’s hair, yes, the former is a little shit, but you only have to see Osment summon that cold, pugnacious look in his eyes to be alarmed by the unreal boy (the clearest expression of this being the later scene in which he destroys his – presumably also sentient, and therefore implicitly a murderous act – production line duplicate, to Dr Hobby’s studied indifference). When David laughs at the dinner table, any remotely sane person would send him back to the shop right there.


David: If I’m a real boy, I can go back, and she’ll love me.

The distancing from David, for me, makes this a much less compelling exploration of what it means to be human than Blade Runner’s, even though this is far more direct in addressing the mechanics of the whole (Scott’s film is more oblique in its depiction of sympathetic synthtagonists).


Perhaps because Spielberg/Kubrick take an approach that so consciously owes itself to fairy tales, the lines are blurred and the resonance muddled; the science fiction elements are coated with pixie dust. Even Dr Hobby (William Hurt), the film’s sometime Geppetto, creates his Pinocchio as if by magic (he just “decides” to produce a sentient life form, as if it were that simple, and miraculously David is there 20 months later). David is accompanied on his quest for the Blue Fairy by a Jiminy Cricket (Teddy) and Rouge City is his road to Oz.


The analogies don’t stop there; as a boy who won’t grow up (one who has no choice in the matter), and obsessed with having a substitute mother, there’s a clear connection between David and Peter Pan; of course, Spielberg (who declared himself to have always felt like Peter Pan; “I am Peter Pan”) previously experienced the disastrous consequences of allowing that much-loved character to reach middle-age. There are also allusions to Moses, albeit ultimately a propos nothing (David’s mother leaves him to fend for himself).


Gigolo Joe: The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them.

It’s not a picture then, that is particularly rigorous in terms of scrutinising its science fiction side. Reputedly, Kubrick wanted to make a futuristic fairy tale after seeing Star Wars, which he didn’t like; that in itself rather suggests the joke being on the director, who entirely failed to emulate the mythic, populist vein tapped by Lucas (because really, there’s nothing even vaguely equivalent in that regard). At least, if a wide audience is what he was shooting for. In terms of fairy tales themselves, A.I. certainly inhabits that element, but it’s very much the darkness of the pre-Disney, beautified fairy tales, cautionary stories which don’t end happily ever after. Because, despite the take away of some viewers, no doubt influenced by the syrupy score John Williams ladled over the final sequence, A.I. most definitely does not have a happy ending.


Throughout, there are allusions to the quest for the creator, allusions that are married, on a personal basis, with the quest for unconditional love David seeks from his mother. Hobby justifies his ethically dubious (or, at least, not one to be pursued as frivolously as he does) decision to create a sentient AI, with an active subconscious, with the flippant “Didn’t God create Adam to love him?” The belief in a benevolent creator (or agent of ultimate power; David’s Blue Fairy), and that of similarly intangible love, provides reassurance of something permanent beyond ourselves, but A.I., reflecting the austere Kubrickian universe, offers a rebuke to such ameliorations; humanity is doomed, life meaningless, and we learn that evolved A.I.s will, in time, take our place. The Blue Fairy encountered by David is an illusion, one propagated as real by the future mecha in order to advance their research into the history of the human race.


David: Will you die? I’ll be alone.

It has been suggested that David dies at the end, going to the “place where dreams are born” although this post, purportedly from website promotional easter eggs at the time, if accurate, indicates David’s experiences are entirely simulated; he does, after all, cry an impossible tear while experiencing an impossibly perfect day with a simulacrum of his now impossibly loving mother as the future mecha look on.


The report suggests David’s simulation was a result of trial and error, after it was found that replicating his reality furnished too negative an experience, and that too positive a one was also ineffective. Finally, the conceit of the Blue Fairy granting his wishes was arrived at (the mecha, as such, become the manipulative engineers of religion, offering God as the only way to survive in a godless world, one where love is likewise a mirage to be exploited).  So David’s heartfelt quest yields a resolution that is entirely illusory, a deception on the part of his evolved descendants. This reading makes a good deal of sense, as the explanation about a replicated Monica surviving only a day sounded far too pat and convenient, but fits completely with a story given to a boy with an appetite for pat and convenient (fairy) stories.


The question might be asked whether these future mecha have the same kind of facility for self-reflection as David, since their solution is, on the surface, highly cynical, a means to gather information rather than resolve his dilemma. Consequently, the final edit in this extra textual interpretation (suggesting David doesn’t die, as “we can now study a working sentient”), offering an olive branch of a mother who can endure as tangible to David, and the possibility that he will be able to age, a glimmer of “hope” for the character, represents an apotheosis of this deception. Are these mecha empathic towards David? Or are they, like Hobby, assuming the role of the indifferent creator themselves, dictating their subject’s reality, experience, happiness?


If that’s the intent, then the takeaway from Kubrick and Spielberg’s vision might be that mankind too is lost in a childlike realm of delusions, blithely unaware of the cold, harsh truths that we are no more than cultures in a petri dish. A.I. plays throughout not just with conceptions of sentience and soulfulness, but also with the fragility of belief, belief in a high power, faith in the same, and in the purity and permanence of love. One might see the conclusion as entirely undercutting and disavowing any legitimacy in such notions.


So how does that fit into the traditionally sunny, hopeful Spielbergian universe? Curiously, it makes A.I. a remarkably effective companion piece to Minority Report, a more “complete”, successful and consistent film, but one also offering an apparently happy ending that is its own blackly humorous fake-out. I think the critical difference between the two is that Spielberg’s self-penned screenplay often evidences unflatteringly unfinessed dialogue and motivations. One might justify some instances of the latter by emphasising the importance of the heightened and fairy tale over obvious internal logic (the whole set up David’s breadcrumb trail to Dr Hobby, waiting in a drowned Manhattan, is unlikely in any kind of realistic sense).


Elsewhere, the narration from (Sir) Ben Kingsley is on-the-nose and variously crude and patronising, be it explaining about the loss of a child or over-explaining the plot come the conclusion (as such, the future mecha lack the linguistic distinctiveness one might expect, and – even given the creator aspect – are excessively in thrall to the wonders of the human legacy). We see this too in the frequently convenience of the wisdom imparted by Teddy and Joe, who rather suggest sentient characters at various points (one might argue this is merely a reflection of logic circuits, but if mecha don’t plead for their lives, why do they even run away when they stand accused of murder?)


Likewise, amid the Kubrick-tinged world of robot sex and sadistic flesh fairs, the comment “No one builds children. No one ever has. What would be the point?” suggests a remarkably naïve view of the state of things (or just one that’s 12 certificate). On the general point, it appears to go against sound business sense that a production line of identikit Davids should be delivered to expectant parents; wouldn’t they want someone unique (as unique as David wants to be himself)? It wouldn’t do to have dozens of Davids running into each other in the mall. Further still, how long would these parents actually want a child who remains the same age forever? As noted above, A.I. is not a movie that’s particularly interested in creating a believable science fiction world. Which doesn’t prevent it from exploring a range of provocative themes, thoughts and ideas, just that they frequently manifest in jumbled and ungainly fashion.


While by this point I’ve become rather tired of Spielberg’s cinematographer wingman Janusz Kaminski, and would love to see someone else revitalise his approach, A.I. is frequently striking to behold. The shots are meticulously composed, including elaborate foreshadowing of the final act in the first, from David’s watery solitude at the bottom of the pool to his first shadowy partial silhouette, the shape of the future mecha. Indeed, every aspect of the production is first rate (bar one mentioned below). Stan Winston’s effects work is outstanding, from the elegant modernist sculpture look of the future mecha to the junkyard bots (Clara Bellar’s nanny, destroyed while ever-smiling, makes for one of the picture’s most potent moments).


And Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel) is an entirely wonderful character, the purest Spielberg creation since Gizmo (apparently a toy line was nixed when the picture underperformed; I'd have bought one. I still would). Less appealing are the naff Dr Know ‘Einstein’ visuals, perhaps intentional recalling the cute home-made toon approach of Jurassic Park but at-odds with the surrounding visual tone (Kubrick apparently recorded Robin Williams for this part when he was still planning to make the film himself).


I don’t think A.I. is a neglected masterpiece, but it is unfairly maligned. It’s simply too interesting, too replete with bleak, unsightly and unsettling ideas to be dismissed. For me, Spielberg was a much more interesting filmmaker before he felt it incumbent upon him
to “be” a worthy and important one, ambitiously tackling laudable, worthy subjects. So basically, he began to lose me around the time Kaminski started as his regular DP. His best foot forward is finding the layers within popular entertainments, rather than exposing his intellectual limitations by wading in after dense subject matter. I suspect it’s no coincidence that his most satisfying, rather than Oscar-winning, pictures this century have been in the science-fiction (Minority Report, A.I.) and adventure (Tintin) realm, or that his worst (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) found him somewhat shame-faced at making the sort of film he now felt he was above.


Would A.I. Artificial Intelligence have been better with Kubrick at the helm? It would have been cooler (as in frostier), I suspect (and I doubt that he would have manifested what is obviously Spielberg’s Clockwork Orange homage for the ride into Rouge City), despite suggestions to the contrary by those who cite his being responsible for the Pinocchio aspect. I have a feeling it would also have been a nut he wasn’t quite able to crack, even if he’d taken another decade on it. There’s a potent idea here, but the marriage of the adult and the innocent, the logical and the fantastical, never quite gel; there is something awkward and dissonant in the premise that is very much of Kubrick rather than the ‘berg, but the Kubrick whose later films, while still frequently extraordinary, lacked his earlier structural integrity. As for the inheritor of the megaphone, in some respects, this might be the closest Spielberg has come to a horror movie, certainly in an existential sense, and whether consciously or not he has elicited a lead performance from Osment where sympathy is fleeting at best. In that sense, he may have done Kubrick too proud.


Is David's love really real, or is he an obsessive psycho child?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…