Tuesday, January 18, 2011
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) A Film by Stephen Spielberg
(This is a belated contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine and Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies. I tend to always fall behind on these things, but, hey, I've been away for a week and a half.)
During the pivotal “Flesh Fair” sequence of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. a human makes a remark about the film’s central character, the robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment): “they say originality without purpose is a white elephant.” Well-read cinephiles will recognize this as a paraphrase of the words of seminal American critic Manny Farber, who discussed the superiority of "termite art" (economical, raw, B-grade work) to "white elephant art" (overwrought, condescending, slick studio product masquerading as original work with grand statements). Because the line arrives in a scene that is likely the closest the director ever came to provocative self-referentiality (artificiality is destroyed willy-nilly, analogous to Spielberg's perceived destruction of his own commercialized artifice), and because David "survives" beyond the initial threats of extermination, it can be inferred that Spielberg is consciously attempting to position A.I. in opposition to the so-called "white elephant art", to make a case for his film as something greater than sheer invention and spectacle. It's a rather interesting bit of self-assurance for a film that constantly seems to be at odds with itself, committing equally to both sappy Hollywood sentimentality and penetrating inquiries into the nature and future of the human race, commercialism, and the all-consuming desire for love.
Frankly, A.I. possesses qualities of the termite and the elephant: on the one hand, there is the haphazard, messy presentation in service of a scatterbrained script that bursts with potentially intriguing ideas, and on the other, there is the superficial slickness, the empty-headed spectacle, and the ultimately watered-down substance. The tension makes for an experience that is profoundly aggravating during the fact and somewhat of a growing curiosity after. The aggravation met its pinnacle for me in the much-discussed "double ending" of the film, in which Spielberg almost concludes with a succinct and affecting summation of the film's thematic preoccupations only to burst into an outrageously didactic and less satisfying coda. One of the most revelatory images in all of Spielberg's career is that of David in his sunken futuristic cargo staring straight ahead at a glowing blue fairy while trapped inside a Coney Island Ferris wheel. Not only is it visually thrilling but it also presents a rather penetrating and accurate insight into the state of the human race: we are constantly looking ahead to our goals, believing in the unreachable, and even if we are trapped in a fundamental way, unable to fully enlighten ourselves, it doesn't make the experience of searching any less fulfilling. Never mind Spielberg's irksome tendency to dilute the simple power of his images in this scene (David's stuffed bear sidekick's reiteration of "we're trapped") and in the scene directly prior (William Hurt's spelling out of this very philosophy) - this is thoughtful filmmaking at a blockbuster level.
But, just as Spielberg's omniscient camera is performing a grandiose movement away from the spectacle, gradually dwarfing the protagonist as his themes suggest, a cloying narration intrudes, immediately suffocating what was otherwise a pretty magical moment. The voice presenting the information is of the most sappy and sentimental variety, and although one could argue this as an extension and reflection of David's fascination with a childhood narrative (his search for his mother is structured around Pinocchio's quest to be a real boy), it's nonetheless an incoherent and tonally disjunctive element, coming across as gently destructive to the mood instead of thematically satisfying. What follows is even more problematic: an extensive wish fulfillment sequence that is - with its soft lighting and decidedly artificial sets - stylized less like the dreamy reintegration of motherly love it is clearly intended to be and more like a creepy, phony commercial overemphasizing the Oedipal complex. It's a deeply bizarre denouement (complete with voyeuristic Mecha robots) whose last narrated line - "and for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born" - is among the vaguest, most superficial and faux-philosophical pieces of bullshit I've ever heard.
These are the kinds of ping pong matches the film endures between its great and abysmal moments throughout, a never-ending sense of contradiction that tears at the heart of the material even as it enriches it in rare instances. The film's in great need of an emotional shift after its drawn-out first act in which David gets acquainted with and is ultimately abandoned by his first "family", a married couple grieving about the cryogenic freezing of their seemingly incurable son (Jake Thomas), yet it still manages to feel jolting when the tragic, harrowing, and, quite frankly, overacted separation of David and his "mother" Monica (Frances O'Connor) suddenly transitions into the hysterical introductory sequences of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a charismatic and thoroughly sentient Mecha working with more sexualized mojo than anyone in his over-saturated field. A.I.'s jarring shifts in style and tone contribute to the overall episodic quality of the film, and more often than not feel slapdash rather than fluid and assured, attributable to the kind of false "renewal" of viewer interest Spielberg seems to think he has to indulge in to maintain a wide audience.
Perhaps this is all inevitable given the dual authorial nature of the project. Half the time one senses Spielberg dutifully paying homage to Stanley Kubrick - who conceived the initial story idea before his death - with some of the darkest and most cerebral scenes he's ever shot (the scene that strands David at the bottom of the pool while a group of people try to resuscitate a human, or the moment when David realizes in his creator's office that he's just one in a mass of commercially duplicated figurines) and the other half of the time Spielberg spends watering down his chilly implications with cutesy subplots and juvenile spectacle (the cartoon Robin Williams thing is the most gratuitous standout). To lazily proclaim that A.I. makes a daring statement about what it means to be human is disingenuous, because it doesn't fully engage with its own philosophical insights, doesn't naturally gyrate between darkness and optimism. It almost has a lot to say, but because Spielberg doesn't seem fully convinced, it has a tendency to fall back into phoniness. Yet at the same time, a sloppy, ambitious, half-realized A.I. is more intriguing than the standard Hollywood fare, and in its own way occupies an uncharted middle ground between the termite and the elephant.