Poetry. It’s missing poetry.
Why we live and why we love are the most important issues out there, and A.I. — as written and directed by Steven Spielberg after years discussing it with Stanley Kubrick — wants, wants, wants to explore them. It wants to blow our minds with its insight into what makes us tick, by giving us a robot that can love and setting it/him loose in a world that doesn’t love him. “Oh, the humanity” is what we should think; that seemed to be Spielberg’s hope.
In the end, A.I. is frustrating, uncomfortable and unsatisfying. It is a collision of hard SF, rarely seen on film, and fairy tale. The two coexist uncomfortably, twining around each other but never mixing, never coming together coherently.
Over 100 years in the future, after Earth has been reshaped by massive technological leaps and a 200-foot rise in ocean levels, the well-off but emotionally stunted Swinton family starts an experiment: raising a robot child. He is David (Haley Joel Osment, perhaps Oscar-worthy here), a prototype robot built to feel emotion, to dream, to love. David doesn’t know it, though, but the Swintons were chosen to raise him partly because their one son, Martin, lies in suspended animation, near death from a fatal disease. After the deep discomfort Monica Swinton (Frances O’Conner) feels during David’s first few days at home — a sequence scored jauntily by John Williams as if he’s channeling the synth-happy Jerry Goldsmith of the mid-1980s — she and he settle into a comfortable, increasingly happy routine, and start to bond.
Until Martin comes home, cured.
And Monica abandons David like a now-unloved toy.
Problems follow and increase — Martin goads David into doing bad deeds that endanger his family — until, torn, Monica almost sends David back to his manufacturer to be destroyed. She is too weak to raise him, but at the last moment she can’t end him either…so she abandons him in the woods.
Soon, David finds the robot underground, where abandoned and fugitive “mechas” scavenge for replacement parts (a striking scene) and flee the hunters who harvest robots (in, sadly, a less striking scene) for the Flesh Fairs, where humans seek public revenge against the machines they built.
The one other robot David bonds with is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a prostitute framed for murder and who knows that few humans will care about injustice done to a robot. The three survive a Flesh Fair — a demolition derby destroying not cars, but robots — and reach another world of flesh, the island of Rouge City, teeming with robot prostitutes and the humans who hire them.
Here, David earnestly begins a quest: if he can become a real boy, perhaps Mommy will take him back. (Martin had made sure David heard, and took literally, the story of Pinocchio, complete with its Blue Fairy who can transform the puppet into a child.) A trip to “Dr. Know” — a sort of McDonalds’ for information — gives David an unexpected clue where to go: the flooded ruins of Manhattan.
This is a sequence I have literally waited years to see; you can imagine the weight of expectation. I love ruined worlds: the abandoned, snowed-in Philadelphia of the lovely and sad Twelve Monkeys, the clever work showing the utterly flooded Denver in Waterworld, the “desert of the real” in The Matrix, the reshaped Americas of such novels as Stephen King’s The Stand and J.G. Ballard’s Hello America…hell, even the film The Postman, a movie I indeed defend. It’s natural, me being me, that I want to see more of this Manhattan, flooded yet still a home to some sort of society (barely glimpsed, unfortunately... but the film has other fish to fry).
Manhattan is the home of Prof. Hobby (William Hurt), David’s creator, who has watched him from afar and guided him; as one Internet writer pointed out, he’s practically the Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”). Here, through cruel twists, Hobby shows his true colors: he’s a Dr. Frankenstein without the painful pangs of conscience that humanized the doctor in Mary Shelley’s novel (considered, by the way, one of the earliest modern science fiction works). Hobby created David as a selfish act, his attempt to regain the son he had lost. But follow through and love this duplicate? At best, Hobby admires his own craftsmanship, not the living/loving entity in front of him.
And as Monica abandoned him before, Prof. Hobby abandons him now, leaving David to absorb the impact of seeing dozens of duplicate Davids ready to go to families. Dejected, he attempts suicide (which now reminds me of the spate of suicides in the Spielberg-produced Deep Impact) — but, due to Joe’s last act as a free robot, he gets one more chance to continue his quest.
The ending is an ongoing, jarring exercise in showing too much and explaining too much. Everything that happens (which I don’t want to describe) is a little too convenient, and the contrivances are poorly hidden by the technobabble a character uses to explain things to David. Awkward.
Visually, Spielberg is a poet. No denying that. The shot late in Schindler’s List, where Oskar Schindler drives past the rows and rows of people he’s saved, has the impact that the contrived and fake “I could have done more” speech from that same scene lacks. There’s humanity there, adding up to an impact, the knowledge that this man saved lives. The opening of Saving Private Ryan is, no contest, both appalling and extraordinary, a rare case of a deservedly instant classic. Even his pulp can be brilliant pulp: Raiders of the Lost Ark remains one of the most fun pure entertainments I’ve ever seen, with true conviction even amongst the humor. Note the human failings of Indiana Jones, a hero who, in fact, keeps losing, and making massive mistakes. Think about that: would Jones lose anything, screw up in any way, if they made Raiders today? The film is just a little subversive that way, given an extra layer to make us think and smile.
So much of what Steven Spielberg has done makes me smile. Not this time. It’s happened before; The Color Purple remains, for me, a distinctly uncomfortable and disjointed work: good moments, but not enough that’s good, a film about humanity that’s ultimately distant from it.
Sometimes distance can be a good thing. Author Harlan Ellison once called Stanley Kubrick’s work so distant as to be almost alien, but Kubrick films were so determinedly KUBRICK FILMS — made with an obsessive level of craft and full of manipulated music, otherworldly camera moves (he was brilliant with the Steadicam) and images both nightmarish and dreamlike—that they commanded, and deserved, attention. You felt a Kubrick film, sometimes violently. (Listen to the chorus of people who called Eyes Wide Shut horrible, or the legions who get mad at and blow off 2001: A Space Odyssey because they don’t understand it.)
And Kubrick did warm to the world, in a way. I saw a surprising level of humanity to Eyes Wide Shut amidst all its kink; I wrote at the time, “This is the strangest ode to marriage that I’ve ever seen,” and added that the film seemed the work of someone who’s been married a long time and who understood that relationship (as I hope to understand that relationship). There was always more to think about with a Kubrick film, once you connected with it.
That could be the most important impact of A.I., flaws and all: You feel the film. You may not exactly leave the theatre happy — I left with the emotions listed in the start of this review — but The Shining, for one, had the same effect.
It’s powerful, dissatisfaction. It drives people to argue passionately about this film and drives them to do more just on general principles.
Still, I’m left thinking about missteps, moments of illogic and oddness, the parts of A.I. that don’t add up to much of anything that we can discern.
* David’s design flaws: as El Cosmico points out at Ain’t It Cool News, would a multi-billion-dollar robot damage vital circuits by eating? The scene exists just to show David breaking down, but makes you think of the various shocks to the system David’s likely to suffer if he’s not well designed. (The food also made me think of the better use of a similar idea in Kevin Smith’s Dogma: angels can’t digest food, so they chew it and spit it out to at least savor the taste.) El Cosmico adds that it’s a conceptual flaw to David that a person of a more scientific/technical bent would have recognized. Spielberg seems not to.
* The film’s sights and sounds are science fiction-al, but most all of the performances seem straight out of TV’s prime-time dramas. Think about this: How much has societal behavior changed in the last 50 years? How much would it change in the next 150? Attack Titanic if you want, but that film did try to show how people behaved in 1912, and that — surprise! — was different than how we behave now. A.I. makes almost no attempt to create the people of this future society with any sort of verisimilitude.
* The Flesh Fair moon ship. Huh? A striking image, nothing more — or, at least, its significance as a symbol is not at all explained.
* Humor is forced, and jarring, particularly the vocal cameos by two well-known comedians. Only once is the humor vital, in an early scene where David tries laughing…and does it too suddenly and too hard, making Monica jump from shock. But it breaks the ice, and shows David finally growing into a part of the Swinton family, even if only for a brief time.
* One line in particular: “Ow.” The wrong time to be cute.
* Imagine the sort of America that actually would build something like Rouge City. Yes, it’s the future, and yes many of the world’s great cities were flooded after the melting of the polar ice caps, and yes the world has Artificial Intelligence and mass starvations, and there have been many other massive changes and shocks to the system…but a Sex City? It’s a leap I have trouble making, though, to be fair, the city is cleverly designed, and seems fantastically kinky without really showing much (A.I. is PG-13, after all).
The overall problem is this: not digging deeply enough to give this story the depth and weight it deserves. Spielberg himself wrote the script, consulting first with Kubrick and then with others. The film’s maddening lack of poetry has a huge amount to do with his largely self-penned screenplay. It doesn’t help that, as far as I’m concerned, Spielberg has never really understood science fiction. He didn’t encourage truly science fictional thinking on the ill-conceived sci-fi series he produced, “Seaquest” and “Earth 2”; his E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial is far more a fairy tale than SF; and I have personal issues with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that has bothered me more throughout the years. (Simply put, I find CE3K to be a film that doesn’t trust humanity at all, and in fact assaults it.)
Here, dialogue is clunky, harping on ideas and not explaining them well. It’s a standard problem in much written SF. Spielberg comes off best mainly in his writing for child characters [Here, I tailed off and never completed the thought; as I will do minimal if any editing to these pieces, I’ll leave this as-is, and go on to the next thoughts:]
Script-wise, the film needed a surer hand. In my heart of hearts I wish the aforementioned Harlan Ellison had had the script duties; he’s a walking encyclopedia of science fiction (and literature in general) and why it connects to the big issues of why we live and why we love. He’s even scripted the unproduced Isaac Asimov film I, Robot [present-day note: not to be confused with the Will Smith film of the same title from 2004]. A more populist, and also strong, choice would have been Frank Darabont, of The Shawshank Redemption; not only is he an SF fan (not really evidenced in his film work yet), but he had a major hand in writing and shaping Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene. He’s added something to Spielberg’s work before; what could he have added here?
I can justify things, and several details I really like. Rouge City, a funhouse version of sex (almost literally Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island), could represent the future society’s massive retreat from the reality of a drastically changed Earth.
Gigolo Joe is a vivid walking demonstration of how we view the world in personal patterns; to him, everything relates to sex, since that’s his sole and exact reason to exist, and he’s almost comically naïve in other matters (as when he says, “I am in very bad trouble”).
The film is full of signs of the sick society of the 22nd century (an era where a father feels no qualms about taking his young daughter with him to work at the Flesh Fair), as dark and as casually cruel as anything Spielberg has committed to film. Are there truly any good guys left in this future? David never really meets one. There’s no escape from the cruelty, and that was a bold choice for Spielberg.
There is a nanny-robot, beautiful and comforting (she tells David “I can take care of you. I have very good references.”), who stays pleasant and smiling right up to the moment she’s doused with acid at the Flesh Fair.
In the music for David’s first abandonment, John Williams goes successfully into Philip Glass territory, his music building into a painful ostinato as Monica does something horrible.
The special effects are utterly seamless. No flaws.
The bridge and tunnel into Rouge City gives us perhaps the most Kubrick-like visual of the entire film.
My problems with the ending aside, the final sequence begins with a long, long effects shot that finally (finally) makes the film almost epic, almost exhilarating. And all I’ll say is that it involves ice. Lots and lots of ice. I can’t think of any film that has had a shot remotely like it. [Again, I tailed off.]