DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards


By Alan Bacchus

After the untimely death of Stanley Kubrick in 1999, Spielberg was given this project as a gift to adapt into his own film as his expression of his 20-year friendship with the master. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t work. Sure, as the stories recounted by Spielberg and Jan Harlan on the DVD featurettes say, it fit the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg better than Kubrick, but an intriguing concept is bungled by Spielberg’s aging tin ear for subtext.

I admire the all ‘round good intentions, the idea of two completely opposite but equally great cinema masters collaborating on one film. All roads are paved with good intentions, but this road wanders around aimlessly en route to its destination.

There’s a terrific idea at the core. And it’s probably Brian Aldiss’s, the author of the sci-fi story upon which this film is based. The moral question asks what the human responsibility is to a robot that is made to be just like humans. If a robot can love like a human and thus feel the pain of love as a human, are we obliged to treat him or her like one?

Unfortunately, Spielberg articulates this moral question with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head in the opening scene. It comes in the form of William Hurt’s speech declaring his intention to create a robot boy who can love, and in the counter-argument from his articulate female associate (April Grace), the ethical conundrum of such a venture. It’s a particularly awful and shameless speech written by Spielberg, depriving us of the ability to infer the theme based on what’s said between the lines. This is called subtext, a fundamental necessity for good cinema. And how Mr. Spielberg forgot this is astonishing.

This is not thinking man’s science fiction. This is children’s storybook entertainment. Even less so, because even when we do tell our kids the moral of our bedtime stories, it’s always done AFTER the story is over, not before.

It’s a shame because discarding this opening scene would make the experience of A.I. completely different. Of course, we would also have to get rid of the blockhead Pinocchio metaphors that continually hammer us with the subtext front and centre. So maybe this film with Spielberg at the helm was doomed from the start.

Along the way, we can appreciate the craft of many of the set pieces. Janusz Kaminski’s superlative lighting, for instance, creates an interesting sci-fi look combining the neon-drenched slop of 80s cyberpunk with the blinding backlit look usually seen in Spielberg’s pictures. And whether or not you find the Flesh Fare scene grossly juvenile, the explosion of light and colour is spellbinding.

Same with most of the performances, particularly Jude Law as the dervish lover robot who talks like he’s Fred Astaire singing and dancing his dialogue in an MGM musical. And Haley Osment's gradual arc from monotone robotic articulations to full fledged human emotions is deft and effectively subtle.The second act road trip and male bonding of boy and gigolo is enjoyable and adequately distracts from how far off the rails this film goes.

Even with the opening scene and the Pinocchio nonsense included, the film could have been salvageable if the third act wasn’t an hour long. This film just keeps going and going, one climax after another and doesn’t want to stop. Ultimately, I think the failure of this film is a product of Spielberg's age. The attempt to bring back that 'Spielberg magic' of his youth fails, as it has disappeared. As such, A.I. feels like a sad knockoff of his earlier work.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.


Anonymous said...

"Blockhead Pinocchio metaphors" tells me that A. Spielberg messed this movie up more then I thought possible, and B. That you have no idea what Kubrick was doing with this film. The point of the story is for it to be an existential meditation on the ramifications (mental) of meeting your maker.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks for your comment Anon. But i'm not sure what you mean by point B. "You" have no idea what Kubrick was doing with this film. Who is the 'you' you're referring to? Me?
if so, indeed I don't know what Kubrick was doing because I don't know what his intentions were, nor have I read his original treatment from which Spielberg wrote his script from.

Hunter Furnish said...

I'm a fan of Spielberg so saying I agree with two stars makes me feel bad, but I honestly can't bump it up to three. Can we go for a 2.5 here? I don't know... It's been a little while since I saw it, and I'm not really begging to bump it to the top of my Netflix.

I moderately agree with your thoughts on A.I. It does in many moments seem like a project forced into reality due to Kubrick's last wishes, Spielberg desires, so on. Law was definitely a high point. I will say that when I watched it (on DVD a few years ago), when Haley's character goes undersea and has that whole shutdown in the cold water scene, I was happy. It faded to black. I thought the movie was over, and I was actually satisfied with the philosophy of it and the character arc of the boy.

Like you mentioned, though, the movie isn't over. And as I slugged through the final forty minutes or so of futuristic aliens, whatever that was, I liked it less and less. I'm with you on the third act... way too much.

Still, you describe ** as "Bad" and I wouldn't call A.I. a "bad" movie. It's just one with a mixed focus and maybe somewhat rushed attitude behind it. Which is ironic considering how long it was in development hell.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks Hunter for your comment. I think we're in the same opinion. I've seen the picture a number of times since it was first released hoping it would 'grow' on me. It hasn't. I would have given it 2.5 stars a few years ago, but this recent viewing convinced me otherwise. It's a very ambitious film, and Spielberg should not be faulted for trying. Maybe I was a little hard on him. Oh well, I'm sure he can take it.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

It's hard to reconcile Kubrick's intellectual cynicism with Spielberg's emotional optimism. Both filmmakers are great at their respective corners but it really clashes in AI. Spielberg's strength and intelligence is in emotion. I'm not sure of anyone who said that they cried at a Kubrick film. E.T. had them weeping in the seats (myself included).
In my imagination Kubrick would have ended the film with the boy jumping into oblivion. Spielberg would never accept such cynicism. Oscar Schindler apologizes to the Jews at the end of Schindler's List for god's sake! He can't accept that there is a grey area. There is good or bad and he sides with the good. It's his handicap as a 'dramatic' filmmaker. Drama lives in the grey areas - the moral dilemmas - there is no solution that goes one way or the other. Kieslowski was a master at this. Minghella understood it as well. Coppola and Scorcese. God love Spielberg and I know I do. He's at his best when he's not doing this kind of film. Jurassic Park and Jaws, Raiders and Close Encounters. Good guys and bad guys are defined and there isn't a need for the grey parts of our world.

'Empire of the Sun' might be his greatest exception. Malkovich's character is gold. Warm one minute, cold the next.