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.


Jake said...

I think that this film, along with maybe Gangs of New York, is perhaps the most instructive in dividing white elephant from termite art, because it exemplifies the potential of both. As you say, it has the messy but intelligent eccentricity of termite art but the grand spectacle and occasional obviousness of W.E. art (the development of its themes is handled with surprising subtlety, but the what the themes are is broadcast in spotlights and neon). But it's also proof that white elephant art can produce its masterpieces, and that the line between it and termite art is not so distinct as Farber might have indicated. It may well be my favorite of Spielberg's corpus, and I think it's one of the great masterpieces of the last decade, partially because it can be so frustrating. It has a sloppiness one does not expect in Spielberg's immaculate, audience-targeted work (and I think it's somewhat hypocritical for him to be constantly attacked for making movies for the crowd); that sloppiness makes it more human than some of his more sincere dramas. After all, I think this is more moving than Schindler's List.

Carson Lund said...

I agree that it's more moving than Schindler's List, as well as comparatively more subtle, but I'm still curious about what you mean when you say the film develops its themes subtly but doesn't broadcast them subtly. Is there a difference? For the record, a Spielberg movie that's more subtle than most of his is still a bit like a rock to the head.

Interesting points about Farber. I also think that his theory, though important and well argued, is rather reductive and overly dichotomous. Films can very well exemplify both, and it's often likely for so-called indie films to be more white elephant than Hollywood blockbusters. On this line of thought, I must confess I find Gangs of New York to be the better, more interesting work, while A.I. too often strikes me as phony and tasteless. But, that's ignoring the fact that both films are really intriguing mass media products.

Jake said...

I mean that the what the themes are meant to examine -- the difference between mankind and machine and related queries -- is obvious: William Hurt's character opens the film by speaking on the nature of love and the soul. But the film's actual examination of those themes through David, Gigolo Joe et al. is much cleverer and not immediately apparent, all the way to the most misunderstood ending of the decade. I suppose I should phrase it like this: the question (What separates us from our creations?) is obvious, but the answer is not.

Carson Lund said...

Ok, interesting. I can agree that Gigolo Joe and David have their ambiguities, and Joe's final line ("I am. I was.") is tantalizingly vague.

You say the ending is misunderstood. I'm curious: how so? Did I misunderstand it? I hope I'm not coming across as argumentative, it's just that this is such a problematic film.

Stephen said...


I'm not going to say that the ending is misunderstood because that's wrong - there's no definitive 'correct' reading. All I can say is that I saw it differently.

I felt the end, though sentimental, was necessarily sentimental. That was the motivation - to create an illusion of love, of a breakthrough between 'mother' and robot son. We need tears and a sunrise for this ending, deemed perfect in the mechas' eyes.

What the ending in truth is is terribly sad and rather disturbing. The scenes after the amphibicopter are meant to close the circle - she wanted him created to love and then he creates her yet none of it is properly real. It's a mirage, as is the idea of a 'happy' ending.

I hope that makes sense(!)

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the review. It's a film I like a lot but I like too the way you formulate your arguments / point of view.

Loren Rosson III said...

I hated the film, but then I don't like much of anything from Spielberg. I remember hoping to be pleasantly surprised, given the Kubrick basis, but no such luck.

The friendship between the two directors must have been a curious one. If you've seen the interview with Spielberg on the Eyes Wide Shut DVD, he relates fond memories of Kubrick challenging him to be more innovative and less boring. Regretfully, A.I. bored me to tears.

StephenM said...

Sorry to comment so long after the original posting, but I thought you might like to read this article. It examines the film in detail, treating it as a philosophically powerful masterpiece, and I think it makes a very good case at answering some of your questions. http://www.reverseshot.com/article/6_ai_artificial_intelligence

I felt much the same as you after the first time I watched it, and after the second time I still don't think it completely works. The tone and emotionally demanding story is exhausting and it's overlong. Certain scenes work better than others, and overall I do find it rather frustrating. But at the same time, I now think it is a really daring and important work, perhaps Spielberg's most mature and innovative masterpiece, and a movie I will have to return to repeatedly in the future and wrestle with.

As to your comment about the Robin Williams thing: As I understand it, and I could be wrong, the many celebrities who voice robots/toys/computers/etc, including Williams and Chris Rock as the two most distracting, were actually recorded by Stanley Kubrick for the parts before Spielberg became the official director. I agree that they're annoying, but I guess the blame should go to Kubrick, not Spielberg.

Carson Lund said...

StephenM, Thanks for the comment. It's funny you mention all this, because I seem to be in the same boat as you. My initial reaction to the film was that it's a profoundly uneven, awkward work, but since seeing it my affection for it has grown somewhat, thanks to articles like the one you sent me and Stephen's wonderful essay at Checking On My Sausages. Though my piece would say otherwise, I do rank it among Spielberg's best. It's so forwardly philosophical, and its gaping flaws only make it more interesting, to me at least.

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