Thursday, April 28, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXV: I am! I was...


The collision of two of cinema's all-time greatest artists results in a strange but intoxicating blend of aesthetics and attitudes, and as obnoxiously mixed-up as it sometimes gets, Spielberg pulls off something unique and wonderful and timeless.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Ian Watson, Brian Aldiss, and Steven Spielberg (based on the short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss)
With Haley Joel Osment (David), Jack Angel (Teddy), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), Frances O'Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Brendan Gleeson (Lord Johnson-Johnson), William Hurt (Prof. Allen Hobby), and Ben Kingsley (Narrationbot 4000)

As the millennium turns, we get to grapple with Steven Spielberg's other big authorship controversy.  And A.I., of course, has been chewed even more thoroughly than Poltergeist has.  For while not too many care about rehabilitating poor old Tobe Hooper, A.I. began its life as the inspiration of Stanley Kubrick—whose gargantuan reputation, I  must assume, precedes him.

So: A.I.'s roots grow all the way back to the 1980s, when Kubrick was conceiving many projects that he'd ultimately abandon (truly, this is the story of much of Kubrick's five-decade career).  But one of those projects eventually did find its cinematic expression: an adaptation of Brian Aldiss' short story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," a Serlingesque shocker with a solid, albeit predictable, twist ending.  Things simmered on low heat for a long time.  Then, in the 1990s, the adaptation at last went into pre-production, in coalition with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, under the working title Pinocchio.  However, since Kubrick thought it simply couldn't be done with a human actor in the lead role, he shrugged his shoulders and dumped the whole thing into the lap of his production partner and pal, while he went off to do Eyes Wide Shut, the masterpiece he almost managed to finish, before he died.

Nevertheless, Spielberg—who shared many of Kubrick's concerns, and kept putting Pinocchio off while his friend was still alive—took the filmmaker's death as a clarion call to at last finish Kubrick's film.  He renamed it A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, no doubt for the resonance the title would have against his E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, for A.I. is the earlier film's darkest possible mirror. It is the alien being who won't go away; the child who can't grow up; and if what A.I. says about the nature of love is the truth, then it is our doomed species' most frightening trait of all.

This is the blunt fact of the matter: despite all of that, there isn't any real controversy at all about who actually made this damn movie.  No, if you need to find a single author for A.I., as many apparently do, then personally I suggest focusing upon the director who was actually breathing when it entered production.

Yet A.I. remains so infused with Kubrick's spirit, that even though I know that he necessarily had very little to do with the final form it took, it's awfully hard to fight the impulse to call it an equal collaboration.  Indeed, a mere glance confirms that Spielberg knew the director's style and temperament very well, even if it does remain rather trivial to determine which parts that Kubrick had more-or-less finished planning, and which Spielberg came up with entirely by himself.  And that's why it's so fucking strange that so many people could not identify the parts that were Kubrick-born.

Now, you'd have to be completely blind not to recognize the beginning as indebted to Kubrick, and so most folks got that part right...

(Though the echoing motif of A.I.'s creepy Giacometti figures is pure Spielberg.)

...However, when it comes to that deeply-divisive ending—which is not merely straight from the 2001 style guide, but terrifyingly cruel in its implications, to boot—everyone thought Spielberg had just tacked this part on.  In fact, however, Spielberg had but slightly mishandled it.

"Mishandling" is a word that can be applied to much of the film, I'm afraid, right down to the basics of its quest plot.  Honestly, the film's a mess—a glorious, gorgeous mess, but one serious mess indeed.  For that, Spielberg is to blame: why, when A.I. was being rewritten, it was Spielberg himself doing the rewriting.  But I'm being fair when I blame him for the failures, because the lion's share of credit has to go to him, too.

A.I. is the story of a future that is more-or-less inevitable now, though perhaps you could call it prescient.  In the late 21st century, global warming has overtaken our old Earth.  The seas have risen and flooded the coastal cities, and, although the developing world has been essentially destroyed by this apocalypse, the rich North has perservered, owing to its superiority in robotic technologies—but not without  any sacrifice.  In this future, the single greatest luxury you can have is a child.

So it comes as an even bitterer blow to the Swinton family, when their son is stricken by a mysterious ailment, and put in cryonic suspension awaiting a cure that may never come.  Henry Swinton's job, however, provides the prospect of relief, when he and his wife Monica are chosen to be the beta testers for a new line of robots (or, in A.I.'s mildly tedious parlance, "mechas").  These are the robots that the maddened scientist Professor Allen Hobby was ruminating about in the film's prologue—machines that can love.  Thus does Henry bring home Hobby's newest innovation, an entity named "David," that—once activated—will love Monica forever.

And ever, and ever.

In retrospect, it seems foolish, but in her grief, and despite her vague aversion to this strange little creature, Monica soon activates her toy-boy's love circuits.  Unfortunately, it is not long before her biological son makes a full recovery.  Now, David is pushed into competition with the human child; and the Swintons, naturally, push him out.  Monica leaves him on the side of the road—not exactly like garbage, though there is hardly any substantive difference.

But David cannot not love her, and, fixed upon the tale of Pinocchio—specifically the Blue Fairy, who granted that puppet his wish to be a flesh-and-blood boy—David sets upon his mission, to find the Blue Fairy, and beg her to make him real, too, so that Monica will love him again.  In his adventures, he makes the acquaintance of other mechas, including the sexbot Gigolo Joe, and he also makes the acquaintance of other humans, who are mostly varying degrees of monstrous toward him.  But he survives, and travels to the very ends of the Earth, and it is here he at last finds what appears to be a sort of Blue Fairy, after all—his creator.  But his dream cannot be fulfilled by human hands; and thus does David's story seem to come to an end, at the bottom of a drowned Coney Island, where David sits patiently before a statue of the Blue Fairy for two thousand years, until he freezes along with the rest of the world, and all his functions collapse.

It is, above all, the most potent metaphor Spielberg has ever delivered about the unquenchable pain of the unloved child—and, in the context of Spielberg's career, that is saying something, since almost every film he ever made revolves around the unquenchable pain of the unloved child (that he, of course, had always perceived himself to be).  But there's Kubrickian predelictions here, too: his traditional subject, the human flaws in human systems that lead, inexorably, to breakdown, finds a new expression in the nuclear family itself—the one that Spielberg is always breaking apart, putting back together in different ways, and the one that Kubrick apparently thought was a machine made for killing souls.

But, in that chilliness, A.I. remains suspicious of David, too—indeed, even somewhat contemptuous of his undying neediness, and (frankly) of his dire stupidity, as well.  Yet it recognizes that David is more like us than we'd really prefer to believe.  The fears his "parents" bear toward him are the same worries you could have about any "real" human being.  Yes, there's the suggestion that they find it relatively easy to dispose of him because he's so thoroughly Othered; but, of course, it's really much worse than that.  Humans can dispose of anybody they don't need.

David is thus immeasurably tragic—what kind of fucked-up Creator would ever design a Creation that required another being's love to feel complete, the film asks, with the wink thoroughly implied.  It's still Spielberg, you see, and A.I. bears its greatest sympathy for David, however mingled it is with all that Kubrickian condescension.  Yet, in the end, David will deny the humanity of the one he says he loves, when he at last turns her into a toy, too.

(Yeah, that's where that messiness really hits hard.)

If you section it off, A.I. is perfect for its first hour, which adapts Aldiss' very short story and gives it a lot more room to breathe.  It is the most formally perfect part of the film, resurrecting Kubrick outright in its cold, objective style; but it's every bit Spielberg, too, with John Williams' uncharacteristically weird score a-blarin', while Spielberg lets the images do most of the talking, closing this long first act with one of the most heartending scenes in his whole heartrending filmography. (Yet not, somehow, the most heartening scene of this movie.)  "If you let me, I'll be so real for you," David cries, as if not being real, as opposed to not being her son, was what drove Monica to abandon him.  (She acknowledges his realness, after all, by not turning him in for destruction.  Her problem, to the extent it's ever her problem, is that she does not grasp that David's programming will never let him forget her; his problem, and he will never overcome it, is that he does not grasp that her programming will never let her love him back.)

Anyway, the tale's in the telling, and Spielberg tells it so well, with hardly a shot going by that isn't meticulously composed and beautifully lit.  (Indeed: I think it might well be cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's very best work, for it sees him rein in his worst excesses in favor of reproducing the Laser Age House Style that Kubrick essentially invented, and all that's left is Kaminski's underlying brilliance.)  Likewise, hardly an image goes by that isn't driven by Spielberg and Kubrick's wonderfully compulsive need to underline David's reproducibility—that is, the value he lacks amongst humans, by virtue of being made rather than born—and the separation this occasions, between him and everyone else:

And that's before we even get into the sheer virtuosity of A.I.'s vision.  It's one iconic sight after another (and, this being Spielberg, this is a quality you'll find in the whole film, not just the first hour).

...Even if not all of them are actually worth the price of the celluloid they were printed on.

Yet, God, it cannot be emphasized how good the opening is. We could stick with just the most salient aspects, like the Greatest Child Performance of All Time.  Benefiting from Spielberg's experience directing children, Haley Joel Osment is, in his way, Spielberg's gentle "take that" to his departed colleague, proving that a kid could play a robot, if they were talented enough, and if you only taught them how.  (And if Osment needed to be taught how to be obvious, obsessive, and a little mechanical yet still genuine in his emotions, well, he came to the right guy.)

But we could give some praise for the less-noticeable things, too—especially when that praise is overdue, like giving Jack Angel and Jake Thomas the Goddamned credit they deserve for being such good scene partners for Osment, as Teddy and young Martin Swinton respectively.  Teddy is fantastic, obviously.  But I never see anyone talk about Thomas, who plays his diabolical little shithead with the precisely correct mixture of valid jealousy, sadistic cunning, legitimate curiosity, and even a faded version of the angry affection that often characterizes the relationship between full-blooded human siblings.  (Indeed, I adore the attention to detail when it comes to Martin Swinton's pool party, where all his old friends, presently four years older due to Martin's sleep, tower menacingly over both Osment and Thomas; if you needed any further convincing that the Swintons are bad parents, this scene will do it, since there's essentially no other way it could have turned out.)  The problems with this miraculous first hour, such as they are, are the smallest things: a less-than-ideal framing job on a shot of Monica and David that cuts off the top of her head, and almost right at the eyes—the only really bad shot in the whole movie, assuming we overlook the Kaminski Glare bouncing off an apparently grease-covered tabletop in the film's first proper shot—or A.I.'s most subtly dubious notion, the idea that autonomous androids have been around for years, but cars are still steered by hand.  (Minority Report would correct this silly oversight.)

I also can't explain how eating greens breaks David, but sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool is fine.  Seriously, think about it.

Things only start to get crumbly the moment David recedes in Monica's rear-view mirror—and, technically speaking, we're never to see David's erstwhile "mother" again.  So we turn to Gigolo Joe, a rather great character within Jude Law's performance, albeit tricked out with goofier bits like his built-in speaker system.  (Presumably, this existed in the Kubrick drafts.)  Things remain smooth enough until we hit the Flesh Fair,  a Trumpian anti-robot pogrom that is a fantastic idea (and all Spielberg's) but, sadly, larded up with some of the most unacceptable imagery in the Spielberg canon—his dark recasting of the Amblin logo as a "camouflaged" balloon, those horror-inflected TRON lightbikers, and neither capable of being taken remotely seriously.  Annoyingly, these ideas stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the perfectly-lurid material of Spielberg's robot holocaust, thus undercutting the gravity of the scene's central thrust, namely that the human capacity for empathy is despicably skin-deep.  (This is a fact we learn when the Flesh Fair crowd demands that David be set free—but only after they've cheered on the mutilation and execution of the less-humanoid mechas who were thrown into the ring before him.)

Incidentally, can we just face the fact that the primary market for these robot kids is going to be pedophiles?  I mean, that marketing slogan ain't even subtle.

But, if things were faltering, they almost fall apart completely as David and Joe trek across the Future of New Jersey to find the Blue Fairy.  It's a preoccupation that demands we consider David not just as a child, but as an especially dim-witted one—whereas Joe, though clearly wiser, is oddly unconcerned with the fictional nature of their mission.  (Meanwhile, that Dr. Know scene is flabbergastingly awful, on every level, but especially for a movie rewritten in 2001, when the Internet had existed for years, yet which plays no part in this film, even though it had figured into the original storypublished in 1969.)

Indeed, the whole edifice of their sojourn in Rouge City—Atlantic City, only rebuilt even sleazier—is troublesome.  Brilliantly-drafted by conceptual artist Chris Baker back in the Kubrick days, and well-realized by actual production designer Rick Carter, it feels like a noble attempt to separate A.I. from Blade Runner and its ilk.  It winds up edging into Flash Gordon territory instead: terrifically striking—and totally disparate in tone.  (Who even built these Gates of Fellatio?  Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair.)  Then again, after this, the idea that Professor Hobby's headquarters is in the top floors of a half-submerged Manhattan skyscraper doesn't seem quite as stupid.

(But it all looks so cool.)

Happily, it's right about here that the film regains total coherence, smashing into its first emotional crescendo: David's destruction of his mold-mate; Joe's declaration of his existence (not to mention Joe's acceptance of the brutal fact that any existence must, one day, come to an end); and, at last, David's pursuit of his obsession into the outer reaches of eternity.

Then the film makes its ballsiest move, and potentially its best, as the aliens come—

Just kidding. Yet plenty of idiots made that exact mistake back in 2001.  (And considering I was one of those idiots, I was rather hoping that their nature would remain just as bizarrely enigmatic as it seemed when I was 19.  It isn't.  They are very obviously highly-advanced mechas.)

But at least I had the excuse of not having a fully-formed prefrontal cortex at the time.

These robots of A.D. 4000 are the sole survivors of the Anthropocene—and, moreover, they're archaeologists.  Thus they uncover David, and reactivate him, and use him for their purposes.  In return, they give him a gift.

It is a very difficult scene to parse.  It cracks under the weight of the pseudoscientific explanations that rudely interrupt the mystical confluence of Close Encounters and 2001 that this scene, quite awesomely, represents.  But this vomited-out exposition is read most easily as an outright fucking lie—a lie the Future Ones tell this easily-gulled primitive, in order to ease his transition into what appears to be nothing less than a mercy killing, which they undertake the moment he's been given his wish.  (It is notable that the only acts of true kindness in the film belong to its most-avowedly robotic characters: Joe's self-sacrificing rescue of David, and the boon granted to the android child by his distant kin.)

But it's beyond clear to me that this final scene take place solely within David's cybernetic brain, and there we find ourselves confronted with his transparently false image of his long-dead mommy, who possesses neither an objective reality outside of David's metal skull nor even so much as a cursory relationship to the personality of the original model.  Indeed, she's been created to serve David's whim—just as he was once created, to serve hers.  Soon he drifts into oblivion, crying tears that he, like Joe, could not before.  He is finally at peace.  (And in case it wasn't punching you in the face with its subjectivity already, the ratcheted-up grain and contrast of Kaminski's photography will.)

But David is not so different from us, is he?  Merely less complicated, less intelligent, and therefore that much more easily satisfied in his simplicity.  David's denouement is delivered within extraordinary mawkishness: it offers a happy ending for our psychotic hero.  But it is too strange (and too strained) in its raw sentiment—even for Spielberg, this brand of near-oedipalism is beyond the pale.  We can still perceive the terror that underlies it.  Just like David, all we ever know is what we see, what we're told, and what we feel.  And Spielberg, for all his power, still can't tell us how to feel about that.

A.I. requires an enormous amount of work to love.  It is far from perfect.  Yet its combination of Spielbergian emotionalism and Kubrickian pessimism is nevertheless a triumphant one.  Spielberg, after all, was in the early years of the 21st century inching toward a vastly more cynical attitude himself.  It could be better; it could be much easier; but it's more than worth the effort it takes to cut through A.I.'s bullshit, however thick one may find it.  Indeed, its rehabilitated reputation—as an unsung classic—could scarcely be more deserved.

Score:  9/10


  1. A.I just gets better over the years. Gigolo Joe's final words as he's magnetically hauled away by the police copter: "I am. I was" just staggers me. I wonder if Spielberg wrote that.

    1. Seems reasonable. I should watch this again sometime soon, it's been a while. (Weirdly, I've been itching to rewatch The Terminal for, like, months.)

  2. Always fair. Personally speaking, I'd be splitting hairs to even call him overrated (though he probably kind of is because nobody's as good as the god that decades of film writing has made him out to be), because I do outright love more than half his filmography, and I at least like everything, maybe excepting Killer's Kiss, with the proviso that I've never bothered watching Fear and Desire. I am tickled by the prospect that it would probably annoy Kubrick that my third favorite Kubrick movie is Spartacus, though.