by Jon Bastian
Perhaps those initials should stand for almost incredible…
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A.I. is a very difficult film to approach critically because of its unique pedigree. Originally conceived by Stanley Kubrick, it was one of his never-got-around-to-it dream projects that he kept putting on hold because he didn’t think film effects had reached the level necessary to bring his vision to the screen. Eventually, he decided that Steven Spielberg was the right person to direct the film, and then Stanley Kubrick died. The end result though, and especially for a rabid Kubrick fan such as myself, is to have a rather schizo take on the whole thing. It’s a Spielberg Film. It’s a Kubrick Film. It has many of the strengths of everything the latter man did. It has some of the weaknesses the former is still prone to. Overall, though, it does feel more Kubrick than Spielberg, which I think will leave everyone who’s expecting E.T. or Schindler’s List a little mystified. A.I. tackles the big philosophical questions that have plagued mankind for ages. In many respects, it picks up some issues that were never resolved in Kubrick’s own 2001, as we move a few generations beyond the HAL 9000. As if to acknowledge this, there are several subtle visual references to 2001 hidden throughout A.I..
A.I. begins as Professor Hobby (William Hurt) cajoles his team of mecha designers to move on to the next phase. They’ve created simulations of humans, but these robots, or mecha, lack feelings, especially love. We jump forward twenty months (in an audio-visual 2001 homage) and meet the Swintons, Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose own son, Martin (Jake Thomas), is in cryogenic suspension, pending some solution to the never-described medical condition that has put him there. Henry works for the company that has designed the first child A.I., and, because of the family tragedy, he and his wife are chosen to be the experimental parents. It’s a decision that Monica cannot live with — at first. She won’t accept their new “child,” David (Haley Joel Osment) as anything other than a very expensive toy. Eventually, though, she does adapt, and activates the imprinting program that is both Pandora’s Box and the Rubicon. Once she’s done this, David will focus all of his love on her, unconditionally, but it comes with a price. If the Swintons ever change their mind thereafter about keeping David, their only option is to return him to his makers to be destroyed.
Needless to say, they are confronted with this decision, but instead of taking him back to the factory, Monica dumps David in the woods with his supertoy bear, Teddy (Jack Angel). It’s one of those bizarre “cruel to be kind” acts. Imprinted with both his undying love for “mommy” and fairy tale promises from Pinocchio, David is determined to find the Blue Fairy so he can be turned into a real boy and return to his mother.
The rest of the film concerns David’s quest, but is not without its fascinating detours, and it’s from the point he’s left in the forest onward that the sheer imagination and originality of the world of A.I. bursts forth. David is soon swept up in a raid by humans and finds himself in a cage at a Flesh Fair, slated for destruction along with all the other hapless mechas in exceedingly nasty ways. You see, despite having created them, humans hate mechas, looking upon them with contempt. It’s at the Flesh Fair that David meets up with a character who owes quite a lot (visually and functionally) to the fox from Pinocchio, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a professional love-bot. Joe becomes David’s protector and guide in the search for the Blue Fairy.
Without doubt, this is Osment’s film, and he carries it. The more I see of his acting, the more I think he really is a robot. Nobody could have the craft, technique and emotional range that he does at his age. It’s particularly obvious in several scenes with other child actors that Osment is in an entirely different league, kind of like watching Shaq play one-on-one at an elementary school. Maybe his performance here will nab him the Oscar that Michael Caine walked away with. In any case, it’s pretty obvious that The Sixth Sense was no fluke. This kid is good, period.
Also remarkable in the film is Jude Law, who manages to be a robot without being mechanical. Frances O’Connor is perfectly cast as David’s adoptive mother, one of those actresses who looks familiar without being recognizable, and embodies, I think, everyone’s early childhood memories of a perfect mother. The supporting cast, playing mostly mechas, are frequently unrecognizable but bring the spirit of a Commedia dell’Arte troupe to their roles. And listen for cameos by Chris Rock, sounding exactly like himself, and Robin Williams, not sounding like himself at all.
The overall design is quite impressive, and avoids any obvious CGI fakiness. It looks like most of the mechas were animatronic, rather than digital, with the exception of their human faces, which lends realism to the unreal. The Swinton’s home is heavily courtesy of Ikea, and if you shop there, you’ll probably notice a utensil or a lamp or something else you own on screen. (For me, it was their water glasses.) But this choice lends itself to a clean and spartan future, in stark contrast to the messy world outside. Also nice is the “moon’s a balloon” vehicle from which the Flesh Fair operators do their mecha hunting, something that feels simultaneously very futuristic and very Jules Verne. The real design highlight, though, is Rouge City, which looks like Universal City Walk recreated by an architect who had constraints on neither space nor budget. Nor neon tubing.
What makes David’s journey through this well designed world so interesting, though, is the philosophical undertone that is entirely Kubrick, but also brings to mind thoughts of the medieval Jewish legend of the Golem. At its core, A.I. is a musing on the existential state of human kind. David, like Adam, is created for the sole purpose of loving his creator. At the same time, those creators are busy destroying David’s ilk in a monster truck rallyesque bash-fest. It doesn’t take a great leap to see the metaphor being played out here. If mankind were created by a benevolent and loving creator, then why is there pain and suffering in the world? Yes, in a sense, we have a hint of original sin in the actions that cause the Swintons to reject David. However, David does what he does because he was created to do what he did — the blame for his transgression belongs with his makers, not him. (Hint: if the mechas represent mankind and the humans represent angels and deities, then the character who tempts David toward his downfall is…? To answer that question would give away too much of the early plot, but the answer is quite illuminating.)
Now, having said all of that, here’s where the schizo Spielberg-Kubrick tug comes in. I have no doubt that Kubrick’s intent was to question the nature of being human, while Spielberg’s question was, “Can a robot become human?” They’re almost the same thing, but not quite, with the discrepancy being nowhere more apparent than in the final section of the film, wherein, I think, Spielberg veers a little bit too much toward the sentimental answer, belying many of the metaphors set up along the way. He glosses over the big, obvious and nasty existential truth that Kubrick plants right in the final moments of the story, aiming for the happy ending without realizing that he’s actually been making a tragedy. In fact, this is where Spielberg’s screenplay most differs from Kubrick’s reported finale. I won’t give either away here, but suffice it to say that Kubrick took a dimmer and more cynical view of affairs.
It’s a shame because, no matter how compelling and wonderful the beginning of a film is, if it veers off course at the end, that’s what the audience is going to remember and talk about. It doesn’t help that one particular design element in the final section can easily mislead your typical attention deficit audience. (No, folks — they were robots, too.) And, while great chunks of this sequence bring to mind both the moon bus and the white hotel room from 2001, it’s still the kind of thing that can completely alienate the viewer. I can’t help but think that Kubrick would have pulled it off, but Spielberg didn’t quite, because his ultimate payoff is a lot smaller than all the questions he’s been asking throughout the film.
Still, if you like an expansive, epic, beautifully shot, visually stunning, imaginative and unique film that tackles big questions, A.I. is most definitely for you. I was surprised at how much the usually very commercial Spielberg did not pander to his audience, and at how far he has come as a filmmaker since the days of Close Encounters and E.T.. It’s just that deep down at heart, I think he’s still a big kid, while A.I. was trying to show us how to grow up. That mismatch, more than anything else, mars what was almost an excellent movie, but still leaves me asking my own paraphrase of that famous fundamentalist question: “What Would Stanley Do?”
The answer to that is something we will never know.
Jon Bastian is a stage, screen and TV writer and a resident and native of Los Angeles.
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