Thursday, December 8, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.14: Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, his most polarizing film: 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Grade: 98 (A)

Stanley Kubrick is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His ambition, daring, and technical mastery combined to make some of the most adventurous and thought-provoking films ever made, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to A Clockwork Orange to his wildly divisive final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick was also known for his precision and perfectionism, which lead to a fairly small filmography of only thirteen films. Kubrick’s meticulous (read: insane) attention to detail caused him to take years to develop each project. When he read Brian Aldiss’ short-story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, he decided to adapt it. And so began the long and troubled production of A.I.

Kubrick spent the better part of the late-80s and early-90s prepping A.I., testing several visual effects and re-conceiving the story as a retelling of Pinocchio. Kubrick had already brought friend Steven Spielberg on board to produce, but the notoriously controlling filmmaker broke character and offered Spielberg the job as a director, saying it was closer to his sensibilities. Spielberg initially convinced Kubrick to direct it himself, but when Kubrick died in 1999 before the film began production, Spielberg chose to finish his friend’s project.

Here’s where things get tricky: many Kubrick fanatics believe that Spielberg ruined A.I., shoehorning in kiddie-centric ideas and taking the film past its logical conclusion to a forced feel-good ending. Never mind that Spielberg and other collaborators have said that the film’s ending, along with other “kiddie” ideas, were Kubrick’s ideas, and that Spielberg stuck with his friend’s original vision. And what a vision. A.I. is a masterpiece, a fascinating blend of two visions far more compatible than most seem to think.


Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) heads Cybertronics, a company that produces “mechas”, or androids. Hobby has a brilliant new idea: a mecha that goes beyond normal functions, beyond looking human and acting human. Hobby wants to create a mecha that can truly, genuinely love; the result, David (Haley Joel Osment), is a robot child whose love for his “mother” can fill the void of whatever childless parent needs someone to take care of. Enter Monica (Frances O’Connor), a woman whose son Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma. Monica’s husband Henry (Sam Robards) works for Cybertronics, and their situation puts them first in line for the David prototype. Monica is given a warning: she can “imprint” David to make him love her like a child loves a parent, but the process is irreversible; if she chooses to return David afterwards, he will be destroyed.

Initially reluctant, Monica imprints David. The result is instant: David loves Monica, unquestioningly, as a child loves a parent. But their bliss is short-lived: David is permanently a child, and his questions as to whether or not Monica will ever die shows how unprepared he is for the answer. When Martin unexpectedly awakes from his coma, the household dynamic becomes uneasy. Martin and David compete for their mother’s affection, and Martin makes Monica read the story of “Pinocchio”, the classic tale of a toy who becomes a real boy. David, who doesn’t understand that fairy tales aren’t real, takes the story to heart. As Henry and Monica begin to fear David may be dangerous to Martin, they decide to take him back to Cybertronics. But Monica can’t bring herself to have David destroyed and, in a traumatic scene, abandons him in the woods. David then sets off on a journey to find the real “Blue Fairy” who can turn him into a real boy.

Aside from the obvious influences of Kubrick and Disney, Spielberg brings in the classic Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline as well; like E.T., this mission is driven by children, but the consequences are far more serious if the mission fails. As always, Hitchcockian suspense plays into several tense scenes, most notably a terrifying sequence in which David and others are rounded up by a group of technology-fearing humans and put in a “Flesh Fair”, where mechas are destroyed for entertainment. Spielberg shows several horrifying scenes in which mechas are burned with acid, shot out of cannons, and torn apart as David waits in a cage with others; David is only saved when his “human” looks and cries for help convince the audience and set him free.

Kubrick argued that A.I. was closer to Spielberg’s sensibilities than his; the fairy tale retelling is a major argument as to why. Spielberg had already effectively remade Peter Pan with his masterful modern fairy tale E.T. (and somewhat less successfully with Hook). The Peter Pan angle is replayed here, with David as the greatest of Spielberg’s several “lost boys” wandering a fallen world (see also: Jim of Empire of the Sun, the children of Schindler’s List, the titular Private Ryan). The film also includes allusions to other classic fairy tales and Disney classics, from Sleeping Beauty/Snow White (Martin is in a coma, enclosed in a glass case) to Robin Hood (Monica reads the story to Martin). Ben Kingsley’s narration only adds to the storybook feel.

A.I. is, however, a retelling of Pinocchio. David is an artificial boy, created to please an effectively childless parent. He yearns to be a real boy, and when Monica abandons him he sets out to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio story. He wanders a vast and frightening city. He is caught in a garish circus (the Flesh Fair), where the ringleader (Brendan Gleeson) exploits him and others like him for entertainment. Added to that are two guides: Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), a robotic teddy bear given to him by Monica, and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a “lover bot” on the run from the law for a murder he didn’t commit, a bizarre protector to the na├»ve David. These two serve as odd Jiminy Cricket figures for David.

Kubrickian themes and shots are all interspersed throughout A.I., from the omniscient narrator (Kingsley) to odd, initially unexplained images that plague the central characters (a birdlike figure). There are unconventional parent-child relationships (a la Lolita, The Shining, or A Clockwork Orange), the possibility that one can meet “God” (2001), and a fascination with doubles of characters (The Shining, Dr. Strangelove).  John Williams’ terrific score (his best in recent memory) often quotes musical numbers from famous Kubrick films, from odd electronic moments (A Clockwork Orange) to creepy ambient moments (Gyorgi Ligeti’s contributions to 2001 or The Shining) to gorgeous waltzes (2001). Several shots are Kubrickian, from the long hallways or tracking shots to the famous “Kubrickian glare” David gives. Rouge City, one of the film’s big set-pieces, looks as frightening and garish as something out of A Clockwork Orange.

One Kubrick theme is central to A.I.: dehumanization. Kubrick’s films often dealt with worlds where humans became more and more like machines (2001, Full Metal Jacket); Spielberg had worked with this theme before (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List), but never to this degree. The humans in A.I. are clinical, often capable of terrifying things (Flesh Fair). What’s more frightening is that David, a mecha, has become (to borrow a phrase from Blade Runner) “more human than human”; however off he seems, his reactions are genuine, motivated by emotion far more than logic. David and Gigolo Joe operate out of fear: that they’ll be caught or unloved. Joe is more world-wise and cynical than David, willing to bet that all humans are against mechas. He believes it is because at the end, only mechas will remain when humans are wiped out; Joe leaves David with the modicum “I am. I was.”. He does not want to be forgotten. That’s far more human than any of man’s actions in the movie.

Spielberg also deals with the classic Kubrickian theme of the dark side of technology, but by now this is a familiar Spielbergian trope. Hobby and his scientists create a mecha that can love, not because they should, but because they could. The early stretches present David as an oddity that could go off on his family at any moment. Man’s distrust of technology motivates their condemnation of what they created; it is also horrifying technology that allows them to destroy mechas. The film also presents the question of whether or not can love a machine, and if he can, can he love it too much? Here lies another modern Spielberg theme: how selfishness blinds man. Hobby considers only what he can do, not what he should do, and the drastic consequences. He marvels at his invention, but he doesn’t consider the difficulties David might have in the world. Monica’s love for David is questionable, but her affection for him is clear; when it comes time to protect her real son, she can’t have him destroyed. And yet that may have been the more humane thing to do; abandoning him in the woods won’t make him give up, and it only leads to him wandering the world, looking for a way to find her approval.

Selfishness plays into the Spielbergian theme of the dark side of childhood. Like Kubrick, Spielberg has tremendous affection for children, but he also recognizes what narcissistic little monsters they can be. When Martin awakes from his coma, he immediately begins a competition with David. They both look to each other as the unwanted younger brother. Martin makes Monica read Pinocchio around David; David gives the Kubrickian glare to Martin. More importantly, the film taps into childhood fears, from the fear of a parent’s death to a child’s view of horrifying events. The phrase “the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” is featured in the film; it couldn’t be more appropriate.

David is an unwanted child from the very beginning. Monica isn’t particularly warm or friendly to him, and she uses him mostly to fill a void. When Martin returns, he’s no longer the favorite. When he’s abandoned, he can’t deal with the world. The realization that one’s mother doesn’t want them is as heartbreaking a feeling as there as, and David is far too young to deal with it. David believes that he is special and unique; it turns out he’s the first of his kind. When he reaches his destination, he finds not the Blue Fairy but Professor Hobby, who explains that he is a success, modeled after Hobby’s dead son. This is only after his encounter with another “David” model, which he destroys ina a terrifying act of anger and self-preservation. Then, in a chilling scene, he wanders into an assembly room, where hundreds of “Davids” are waiting to be shipped out. When he can no longer take this, he jumps from the top of a building into the sea. The film doesn’t end there, but more on that later.

A.I., more than any other Spielberg film, doubles as a subversion of his previous work. Aside from a darker take on the fairy tale motif, there is also an exploration not only that childhood can be terrifying, but that the classic absent parent could intentionally abandon a child. There are faces of wonder and awe at David’s existence, but their marvel seems ill-placed and exploitative of his feelings. There is a scene in which a giant ship, shaped like a moon, rounds up mechas for the Flesh Fair (a shade darker than E.T.’s moon). The Flesh Fair itself contains horrors straight out of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that history repeats itself.

Spielberg indicts his own showmanship; Hobby’s actions are less admirable than John Hammond’s in Jurassic Park. He works to build a monument to his child and to himself. The result is a creation not much more than a toy to preoccupy a grieving mother. He has the ability to make “real” love; except love designed artificially cannot be real, but advanced programming. Meanwhile, David’s “mother” often gives her children toys to watch them (Teddy), not realizing that they’re dealing with real problems. She doesn’t prepare her “child” for the horrors of the world, and he’s put through hell as a result. He learns too well that fairy tales aren’t real (analogy for popcorn movies, anyone?). He can’t chase down his dreams; they will only ring hollow. When Kubrick said that the film was closer to Spielberg’s sensibilities, he clearly meant it in a more meaningful way than “pandering kiddie crap”.

And yet that charge remains for the film’s ending, one of the most polarizing and highly debated final thirty minutes of a film in recent memory. Many argue that Spielberg lost his nerve and tacked on a happy ending to placate any uneasy audience members. But the scene is hardly the sentimental claptrap it’s frequently misrepresented as, but rather the darkest and most thought-provoking sequence in Spielberg’s impressive filmography. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, it would be best to stop reading here and see the film, for no discussion of A.I. is complete without tackling the ending. SPOILERS AHEAD

Joe is gone, taken away to be destroyed. David and Teddy have “found” the Blue Fairy; she is a stone statue in a crumbling amusement park, but she is as real to him as can be. David and Teddy’s ship is trapped underwater as David spends several millennia begging the Blue Fairy to make him a real boy. Many have theorized that Kubrick would have cut the ending for a more chilling finale of David at the bottom of the ocean for all eternity, despite the claims from all involved that the film’s original intended ending remains intact. That would be incomplete for what the two filmmakers were trying to do: a dark retelling of Pinocchio. David’s near-eternity under the sea serves as an event analogous to the famous puppet being trapped in the giant whale Monstro, and his story cannot end there. It is as follows.

Thousands of years pass. In a bit of Kubrickian third-act weirdness, a bizarre spaceship races along an icy tundra in a manner reminiscent of 2001’s stargate sequence. David is discovered, frozen in the ice, by a group of advanced mecha (not aliens, as many have strangely guessed). These are the only beings left on earth. Humanity is dead. The fear of humanity’s end pervades the work of Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001) and Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). After years of preserving the human race, the two finally see an inevitable end to humankind. Hardly kiddie territory, here.

What’s more, these mecha have no real emotion. They are cold, clinical, and have little understanding of “dreams” or “spirit”. The lead mecha (Kingsley again) sees David as the only sign of “humanity” left. He may only be an imitation, but he knew humans, and he has emotions. He finally is unique. The mechas read David’s mind and try to recreate his old home, but it’s a hollow imitation itself. The colors are off, the set fake (film analogy again). A clearly fake “moon” shines in the background (E.T. again). “Blue Fairy” appears, and she’s the least realistic effect in a film full of some of the most stunning CGI around. David begs her for a chance to see Monica, but the “Blue Fairy” cannot recreate Monica without a sample of her DNA. Just when all seems to be lost, Teddy remembers an earlier episode when David took some of Monica’s hair. Teddy has that lock of hair, and now Monica can be recreated. The fairy tale is soon to be complete. But it’s a hollow victory.

Here, Spielberg quotes E.T. again, showing that death is not the end, and that it can be reversed through the power of love. The mecha warn David that Monica will only be back for a day before she dies again, but he doesn’t care. His dream is about to be a reality. The film then progresses to an unsettling and heartbreaking sequence in which a creepy oedipal fantasy plays out: David and Monica spend a day together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. They only want to spend time with each other. The recreation of Monica is based on David’s memories of her, but the memories are false. Monica was never this affectionate to David; he has essentially turned her into a toy, just the same as she was to him. These are two creations who love each other only because they’ve been told to.

David is now more of a parent; he even tucks Monica in at the end of the night. She tells him that she loves him, and always has (not true). With this, David’s life goal is complete. Monica dies, and David lies down next to her. He smiles, closes his eyes, and goes to sleep “where dreams are born”. Only robots don’t sleep. They can’t sleep. This has been made clear. His life is ending, but he doesn’t care. It’s complete. The lights in the house go out, along with the only remaining sign of love, happiness, and humanity in the world. Only Teddy, a toy, remains.

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