A.I.
Starring:
  • Little Forrest
  • A Ken Doll Named Jude Law
  • The Promise of the SKG Partnership

 

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Directed By Steven Spielberg   "That dead person over there?  I see him."

 

The Passing of the Guardian Torch Of American Cinema:  Steven Spielberg Interprets Stanley Kubrick

As long as I live, I will be indebted to Steven Spielberg.  I remember my first time being at the movies; it was the summer of 1982, and I was all of six years old.  All we had in our town was a tiny, two screen theater just off the town square.  It was, and still is, one of those cozy, small-town theaters where one can only see the biggest of blockbusters or months-old prints of mid-size films.  The first time I cried uncontrollable sobs was in that theater.

I remember E.T.’s spaceship returning to Earth.  I remember it landing.  I remember knowing that E.T. was going to leave his friend Elliot.  I didn’t care.  I wanted their friendship to last forever.  My mommy tried to explain to me that E.T. had to go home because his mommy needed him and he kept getting sick on Earth.  I understood that.  I wouldn't want to be separated from my mommy, either.  Then it came time for E.T. to actually get on the spaceship.  I retreated to the bathroom—that white-tiled, chlorine-scented bathroom—and bawled my eyes out.  I remember not being sure quite why:  everything worked out for the best, didn’t it?  But it was still so sad, so hard to swallow.   I was confused--but I felt something--these complex, foreign emotions.  I was in there so long my mommy had to come in and rescue me and convince me that everything was ok.  Even at six years old, I remember trying to hide my embarrassment from being so emotional because of E.T. and Elliot, but Mommy said it was ok...just go ahead and cry...as we walked out of the theater.  At that moment, I unwittingly gave my heart to Steven Spielberg and my mommy.  It’s with this memory that I contemplate A.I.

My discussion of the film is spoiler-riddled, so please be warned.  I could go on and on about the visual artistry of this film, but that would do it no justice.  I could go on about the amazing things Spielberg does with the camera, but you should see that for yourself in the theater.  We could hunt and peck through particular scenes, separating what's Kubrick's from what's Spielberg's, but A.I. shouldn't be treated like a divorce; instead, it should be treated as a marriage, a marriage of ideas in conflict, but with a profound respect for their ability to be articulated--perhaps a bit like the bond that keeps Mary Matalin and James Carville together, but less obstreperous, more beautiful.   There are a lot of things amiss in A.I., but it's a film whose time has not yet come, and be not forgotten, few knew quite what to make of HAL back in 1969.   As a child I gave my heart to Steven Spielberg--despite an intense dislike for Saving Private Ryan--and as an adult, I gave my brain to Stanley Kubrick, so I think the proper way to treat A.I. is as a metaphysical science project that attempts to marry the syllogistics of scientific ethics and the veracity of the corresponding human morality.

According to Ben Kingsley's opening narration, the liberals were right; large coastal cities are now underwater due to melting ice caps and strict guidelines on pregnancies have been instituted to protect resources.  Energy-efficient machines now fulfill human functions, which we find has benefited megalomaniacal corporations.  We then cut to a lecture by Professor Hobby (William Hurt), who tells us that he wishes to make a robot that, out of its own independent reasoning, can feel the love a child has for his mother.   This requires advancement beyond mere "sensuality simulators," which can duplicate the physiology of emotion, but something more.  We are never told what that is or how it's achieved, but we are presented with a more potent question:  Can a human ever love a robot that (who?) is not flesh and blood?

From here, A.I. turns into Pinocchio as if told by Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke.   I'm not familiar with Brian Aldiss, the author of the short story from which A.I. is based, but this version contains many of the moral and ethical conflicts tackled by twentieth-century American and British science fiction writers.  What the creators have done is add an additional dimension to the old fairy tale.  Pinocchio wishes to be a real boy, and he has unconditional love for his father, for whom he eventually sacrifices and saves, thus having his eternal wish granted.  Pinocchio is tempted with fame and fortune and the like; he's a sinner--his nose grows, he hatches donkey ears, but he exercises his free will to make compassionate, self-less decisions that earn his humanity.  David wishes the same, but he's been programmed for unconditional love.  It's not David who is the sinner, it's his mom who leaves him forlorn in the woods like an unwanted puppy.  The second half of the movie is David's execution of his programming, to earn a reciprocation of love from his mommy, thus saving her, if only for a day.  David is really never tempted; he doesn't have to make any decisions--he just has this tunnel-vision of finding his mommy, which according to the filmmakers, is a pre-wired response in humans.  Dr. Hobby speaks of this desire; Monica is reading Freud's Women while sitting on the toilet, for goodness' sakes.   Now an interesting question arises:  What is the essence of humanity?  Is it the ability to love?  But this can be programmed into robots...so is the story bestowing upon humans the same lack of free will of machines--that if Freud, et al, are correct, then humans are little more than programmed beings who can love, but this love is a function of the neuronic transfers and chemical reactions in the brain and not a volitional act of the soul?   

Ouch, my brain hurts.  To explore further, if that's your thing, Hobbes covers the principle of artificial life and absurdity of free will in the introduction to Leviathan, and the works of Socrates cover the pro-free will argument.  I still contend with Spielberg's (and Dr. Hobby's) notion that this robot developed the ability to reason and exercise free will--to rip off Pelagius, he never sins, so how can he be free?  I'd better cut this out before I get in too far over my head.  But do you see how this story takes one of the most basic arguments of philosophers and places it in a future that may not be too far away?  For instance, earlier this year some neurologists from the West Coast hooked up some electrodes to meditating monks and praying nuns, thus proving that "religious experiences" are merely just moments when certain circuits of the brain have been shut off.  It begs the question:  Were we wired like that by God, or do we believe in God because of our wiring?  What makes A.I. so fascinating and confusing is that both arguments are being made at the same time.  Are we the David of Dr. Hobby's invention, programmed to love our creator as God created Adam to love Him?  Or is our nature like that of David caged at the bottom of the ocean, foglights pointed at a Blue Fairy, facing an eternity of praying to a goddess who doesn't really exist?          

One other thing I want to cover is the disturbing exhibition called "Flesh Fair," which resembles a Marilyn Manson concert bred with Wrestlemania.  This, apparently, is Kubrick's vision of the White Trash of the Future:  salivating, over-all wearing, beer-soaked masses cheering the mutilation of the mechanical beings that threaten to replace them.  The Fair is fueled by vengeance, the same type of fear that motivated John Henry's death after his contest with the spike-driving machine, or in a more human sense, the same fury that accompanies the desperate automotive strikers of Flint, Michigan, fearful of the same fate befallen their futuristic counterparts:  being replaced and rendered inconsequential.  So not only has the working class been stripped of their human dignity by having their emotions mirrored by machines, their dignity as a living creature has been stripped from them by the criminalization of procreating the species, and now they are stripped of even the dignity of a hard day's labor.  The scene draws a clear parallel, especially in its particularly harrowing intro with a dumptruck of robot parts dumped into an Auschwitz-ian burial ground, between the mob-madness of fascism and the very human fear of irrelevance.  That's why I also think that the Chris Rock cameo is an even more exacting touch:  the ruling race, in the fear of losing its power, exterminates minorities in an effort to keep grasp of its power--so what we have with the Flesh Fair is a futuristic vision of the KKK (notice the ruralness of the people even amongst the industrial roar of Ministry) or Nazi mentality.   But Spielberg, not surprisingly, refuses to completely apologize for the fascists while defining the human characteristics of their cruelty.  He offers them an empathetic humanity, an ironic redemption, when the ringmaster offers David as a sacrifice to the mob.  He gives a rousing speech, one that almost persuades you to take up the ethnic-cleansing cause, like the peptalk Ed Norton delivers in American History X, but the crowd denies him because the kid is so darned cute.  A cruel joke, perhaps, but it's the same ironic logic that gives us dolphin-safe tuna, or to be more literary, the Colonel Sherburn scene in Huck Finn where Twain calls the circus mob a bunch of cowards.  The difference is this:  the more satirical Twain asks the crowd to cast stones, but they retreat like fools; Spielberg's mob redeems itself by casting stones at its accuser.  It's an emotionally disconcerting, complex scene, but it contains emotional truth--can you imagine the crowd reaction in the BattleBots arena if Dissector pleaded for his life as Vlad the Impaler dragged him toward the Kill Saws?

So of all the intellectual schizonphrenicness of the film, I choose to forgive it on the bases of thought-provocation and virtuoso stylistics.  I especially enjoyed the early scenes before the encryption of David.  The film positions robots as created in the image of man, with man being created in the image of God.  So Spielberg films David from creative angles, capturing his reflections in brass mobiles and picture frames, and through round holes.  I also enjoyed Monica's fright at the sight of David mirroring her every move, as if she was too frightened to look at herself outside of her own body.   And let's not forget Jude Law, who steals his every scene as Gigolo Joe, a robot prostitute who prances through love-making like Fred Astaire.  He gets some fantastic lines, especially when explaining why the humans hate the mechas, and a make-up job that renders him virtually plasticine--as real-looking as the cluckers from Chicken Run.  

And as for Haley Joel Osment...the kid is a real genius.  Look at this kid's body of work over the past three years:  he's dealt with two emotionally unstable single moms, one a loving but closed-off mess, the other an alcoholic with self-esteem problems.  Pay It Forward sucked, but Osment did tackle a question emotionally-sensitive kids are struggling with these days:  What's the use of compassion in a world this screwed up?  And here he plays a kid whose world is so confusing that he doesn't feel real, like he's not a part of it.  If that doesn't define his generation, I don't know what does--maybe he's The Voice of the Children of the Revolution.  But I doubt A.I. will do very well at the box office because the ending falls a little flat.  John Williams, increasingly lazy in the last few years, really fails Spielberg here.  Spielberg needs some help--he's trying to wring blood from a silicon heart--and the score completely fails him.  Williams' strength is his familiar and dramatic hooks that, when employed early, really hit hard when returned to.  Here, Williams' score is almost completely generic.  Lately, he's been uninspired, like with his "Duel of the Fates," which was little more than a minor melodic line of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony cranked up to 11.  I remember when I got my Best of John Williams' Film Scores CD--"The Flying Theme" still chokes me up.  I can't help it.   The circuitry of my brain has produced a physiological condition of tears for E.T., and so I'll forgive Spielberg's sentimentality because he displays the wisdom and artistry of a master--namely, Stanley Kubrick.  A.I. is a masterpiece ahead of it's time, like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, so on that basis, I offer the following pitch:

The Pitch:
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E.T.:  The Extra-Terrestrial
+
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3 Stanley Kubrick
Equals
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A.I.
See It For:
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Kubrick's idea of a kids movie:  A boy and his teddy bear standing outside a brothel with Jude Law.