Tuesday, 4 October 2016

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

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

(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.

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