A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.
Writer and director – Steven Spielberg; based on the screen story by Ian Watson and the short story ”Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss; director of photography – Janusz Kaminski; editor – Michael Kahn; music – John Williams; production designer – Rick Carter; costumes – Bob Ringwood; make-up effects – Stan Winston; visual effects – Dennis Muren and Scott Farrar; practical effects – Michael Lantieri; conceptual art – Christopher Baker; producers – Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg and Bonnie Curtis; executive producers – Jan Harlan and Walter F. Parkes. Starring – Haley Joel Osment (David), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), Frances O’Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Brendan Gleeson (Lord Johnson-Johnson), William Hurt (Professor Hobby), Jack Angel (voice of Teddy), Robin Williams (voice of Dr. Know) and Ben Kingsley (narrator). Warner Brothers Pictures. 140 minutes. Rated PG-13.
For two full hours, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) is a work of art, in which director Steven Spielberg proves that Stanley Kubrick was right to entrust him with this, the science fiction epic that Kubrick had once hoped to deliver himself.
Unfortunately, the movie is much longer than two hours.
Stanley Kubrick, director of such artful classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove, developed the ideas for A.I. for years, and died before he could bring his vision for it to the screen. He had suggested that the story about a misunderstood boy-robot would be right up Spielberg’s alley, and indeed, it seems that way at first. Had Spielberg maintained the masterful control that he exhibits through the film’s first three acts, letting the story unveil itself in all of its horrific glory from beginning to end, this would have been very likely one of the year’s finest films. Alas, the strengths of Kubrick are undone by Spielberg’s sentimentality.
Act One tells us of David, a manufactured robot child. David—played with Oscar-worthy skill by Haley Joel Osment—is told he is a unique “mecha” (robot), designed with the ability to “love” his owner. He is given to the Swintons, a married couple whose real son is in a sort of coma. David’s purpose is to fill the psychological void… to be an artificial son.
Monica (Frances O’Connor), the grieving mother, is hesitant at first to become attached to a fake child. But David is so convincing and real that Monica’s weary defenses are dropped. Mother and robot bond, powerfully, and she chooses to “activate” the “mecha” child’s ability to love. David starts to call her “Mommy”, and we watch as he begins to feel happiness, need, and a sense of belonging.
When a competitor for Mommy’s affections arrives, jealousy and all sorts of troubles set in. Dad, worried that he has made a mistake by bringing home a “mecha” in the first place, talks about taking David back to the store, so to speak. But we, the audience, realize just what a terrible situation this is: this family owes the robot something. They created him. He depends on them. How can they betray him? What a wonderful way to illustrate the problem of parental irresponsibility in today’s world, and the contemporary attitude toward the “inconvenience” of children.
In Act Two, David is outraged to find himself taking second-place in the heart of the mother he loves. The real son is still #1. David becomes terribly lonely, patronized by his human brother, persecuted by other children for his strangeness. He feels threatened, and his responses grow frightening. His love is real, but is it generous enough to share Monica with others?
When David finds himself lost in a dark woods, his desperation increases. He stumbles into the dark places of the world, trying to understand why his love has been rejected. He is accompanied only by a lesser “toy”, a temperamental teddy-bear that really looks like Teddy Roosevelt. (Teddy nearly steals the show, with his expressiveness and his temper.)
They get help from a robot prostitute called Gigolo Joe, who views love merely as a business transaction. (Joe is played with pizzazz by Jude Law, who recalls no one more than Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.) Joe tells David that he shouldn’t expect more from than he’s received. But David won’t give up. Unable to tell fantasy from reality, he trudges on in search of “the Blue Fairy” from Pinnochio, who can make him a real boy.
Fairy tale elements pop up throughout: the dangerous forest is the clearest example. There is also a beautiful lady who loses a shoe on her way to the ball. You’ll be reminded of The Velveteen Rabbit who wants to be made real by love. A Sleeping Beauty just might awaken. Baby Bear might find somebody “sitting in his chair.” Someone similar to Robin Hood is hiding in the woods while the oppressive authorities hunt for him and other “merry men”.
Act Three takes David to Manhattan, and the final stage of his quest. Here, he stumbles into horrifying revelations that threaten his sense of being unique, of being loved, of being special. It leads to a dark and deeply troubling sequence that leads to an entire-audience gasp of surprise and dread, not to mention what may be the single most awe-inspiring visual image that Steven Spielberg has ever created: it involves a ferris wheel, but that’s all that I will tell you.
In Act Four, the movie collapses. All of this spectacular character development, this Oscar-worthy cinematography, this sublime acting, and this impressively restrained John Williams music—it all grows impatient and turns to treacle, rushing headlong into an ending as artificial as its central character.
[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
Spielberg is responsible for several of my favorites: Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I consider the finest adventure film ever made; Jaws, arguably the best suspense-horror film of all time; the double-whammy of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, which, while sorely flawed, illustrate powerfully and passionately just how evil can lead humankind into ruin, and how one person’s bravery and love can make all the difference in the world.
But A.I. makes me think back to what I believe is his most sorely underrated film: Empire of the Sun. Empire gives us the most incredible performance by a young boy (Christian Bale) I’ve ever seen on the big screen. He starts the film as a kid full of dreams; he ends it a weather-beaten young man who has seen more evil than most human beings do in a whole lifetime.
While the movie shows us the ending we hoped for, it is clear from the look on the hero’s face that he is not happy… in fact, he cannot even relate to his old life now that he has seen the world’s dark side. Spielberg’s strengths—his childlike imagination and sympathy for the plight of children—give us a window on what we have done to the world. He also portrays just how powerfully a child can dream, and just how strong is that child’s need for good parents and good role models. Empire shows us a Spielberg who can lead an audience into difficult situations and let them think for themselves.
A.I. travels a path similar to Empire‘s, thematically and in its basic outline: a boy, separated from the parents he loves, struggles with abandonment issues, tries to make sense of the world, watches as grownups ruin everything around him, staggers home bleary-eyed and shaken. But A.I. cops out.
While it is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, A.I. marks the first time Spielberg has written his own screenplay since Close Encounters (and he had several other uncredited writers help him with that one.) He’s out of practice. A.I.‘s dialogue is flat as a rough-draft treatment. It constantly gives us information where a simple picture would do the job more powerfully.
Many will argue that A.I. should have ended before Act Four even starts, leaving David miserable and lost. It might indeed have been a better ending than the one we do, in the end, receive. But I think that would have been a pessimistic ending, even cruel. We should not have suffered all of this story’s tragedies only to be abandoned, bewildered, sad, and without any answers. Maybe Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) would abuse an audience like that, but Kubrick was that heartless. Steven Spielberg certainly needed to write a Fourth Act. But not this one.
Remember how James Cameron’s The Abyss was great, until that ending when it suddenly turned into a dumb sermon about how “People Should Stop Having Wars”? Remember in Contact, when Jodie Foster lands on the alien world, meets her dead father, then finds out its not her father but only a boring, long-winded alien in disguise… and we were all supposed to feel good about it?
A.I.’s ending is much much more dissatisfying. I can think of five reasons why:
1. First, Spielberg makes a mistake with special effects. The digital effects and animated characters that dominate the last stretch seemed jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the film, which has until then been so realistic and impressive as to leave us gasping for air. The advanced robots at the end of the movie look silly, cartoony, and unconvincing, in my opinion. Not only that, but they don’t make sense.
2. Spielberg uses formulaic, implausible, even laughable contrivances to give David the hero what he wants so that we can all go home happy. One surprise twist involves Teddy, and it caused a groan from several in the theatre around me. Another involves a “miracle” that conveniently excuses our young hero from the hard work of learning life’s lessons and growing up; it shows that he should just insist on getting what he wants. And that “miracle” itself makes no sense at all. Sure, they explain it scientifically, but the character it concerns behaves in a bizarre and inexplicable manner.
3. Spielberg fills the screen with our teary-eyed heroes experiencing one emotional catharsis after another. The movie works so hard on our emotions that we don’t have enough room to think… and thinking is the best way to arrive at our own genuine emotional responses. Thinking allows us to respond with emotion, while sentimentality provokes us to react emotionally and irrationally. Spielberg wants us to feel what he wants to feel. He shows us people crying—a giant cue card that says “Time to Cry!” This approach turns the film into a cousin of his own ambitious but overly sentimental Hook.
4. Spielberg’s conclusion shows that he misinterprets what the story can teach us. A.I. is, above all, a horror story about how arrogant, heartless, and self-destructive human beings can be. Like Jurassic Park, it shows humans overstepping their moral bounds and acting irresponsibly through science.
Professor Hobby (William Hurt) is the representative of men who need someone to serve them. These robots might represent humanity’s need to subject their own kind to torment and slavery. The “orgas” (humans) in the film become as “gods” in their own minds. One conscientious objector in the film questions humanity’s moral right to do this. And Hobby says, “God created Adam to love him, didn’t he?” Well… not exactly. The Bible clearly shows that while man’s love has failed miserably, God’s goes on, faithful to the end. God is nothing like the human beings in A.I., who abuse the love of their “subjects” and creations.
Spielberg, however, doesn’t see that this his story ends with “the horror, the horror”. He tries to convince us that the ending of this Apocalypse Now is a happy one. Instead of leaving us, as he did in Empire, looking at the damage done and realizing how true to life this story is, he forces a fairy tale ending that rings false, seems thoroughly artificial, and frankly just doesn’t make sense. He has characters at the end looking back at human history and speaking with reverence about humankind as being “geniuses”. There’s a speech about the glories of the human race, accompanied by triumphant and sentimental music, even as and all who were with me were still horrorstricken at what humans had done to themselves and the world in the movie.
5. Handled properly, this could have become a story about the definition of love. We could have seen the frightful mistake of David’s “love” – and that is that his programmed need to bond with his mother cannot change. Human beings, designed by God, can grow and change and mature, so that our love can expand to others; our relationships with our mothers and fathers become relationships between grownups. David the robot’s little boy love does not… will not… change as long as he exists. The problems that arise from this are clear. Mother is not immortal. What will David do when mother is gone but his need remains? Spielberg sees David as a champion of love, and that changes everything.
But even more troubling is the fact that David’s “love” has nothing to do with selfless giving. David’s love is all about receiving. So, frankly, his love is not real… his need is. Before his “love” is activated, he is acting out electronic commands, but when his “love” is turned on, his actions become motivated by need and by fear—fear of losing Mother’s love, instead of acting out of generosity or sacrifice. Spielberg coaxes David’s “love” for his mother will give child psychologists a Freudian field day. David’s love has overtones of an obsessed and unhealthy Oedipus complex at the end. That would be fine… indeed, he is programmed to love only one person. But the music celebrates this as beautiful, when I found it frightening and deeply disturbing. In the end, David’s overpowering desire and his grief are resolved in a way that seems, well, artificial. This is a movie that champions the cause of guys who never leave home, who love mom too much to ever consider dating. And who view love as currency… something you give in order to receive.
While Kubrick and Spielberg are two of my favorite directors, their styles are like oil and water. Both powerful, both necessary, but when you put the two together, they just refuse to blend. They may have been friends, and Kubrick may have indeed indicated that he thought Spielberg would do a good job with A.I., an epic he had been developing for years. But the demands of the story would have been better served by Kubrick. His strength was to illustrate Big Ideas in a way that allowed his audiences to think about them and debate them afterwards. Art invites you to figure out for yourself what it means. It’s an invitation to discovery, to discussion, to debate. Sure, it may point in the direction of the answer, but there’s more to see and discover every time you return.
Spielberg is primarily an entertainer. Only twice has he sent me out of the theatre thinking about the film’s central questions instead of thrilling to his masterful crowdpleasing spectacles—the mysterious, largely visual adventure Close Encounters of a Third Kind; the puzzling, challenging, exhausting epic of youth in wartime called Empire of the Sun; and the exploration of a challenging political and ethical dilemma in Munich. His important “issue” movies—Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan—close with sermons that clear up any ambiguities. They tell us what they mean (“If I can save one life, I can save the world.” “Because brave men died for us, we should live well.”) and send us home feeling righteous because we agree with the movie’s message. That’s all fine and good for entertainment, but not for art.
If you go to A.I. wanting to see incredible effects, fine performances, and intense entertainment, you won’t be disappointed by those things. But if you go wanting to see a work of art, you may well have a similar experience to me. I was distraught by the film’s conclusion, as though I had seen something beautiful created before my eyes and then destroyed by its own creator.
SEVERE SPOILERS ahead.
A group of robots that speak with subtitles suddenly start addressing each other in English when no one else is around. Why? Are audiences so impatient with subtitles? (Not only that, but several people thought those were ALIENS at the end. No, the whole movie has promised us that the machines will outlast and improve after humans are gone. In fact, our first glimpse of David is a blurred shadow EXACTLY in the shape of those future super-robots.)
Why doesn’t mom wonder where her husband and son are? We’re told David couldn’t tell her about the end of humanity, or about her pending death, so as not to frighten her. Shouldn’t she see all sorts of strange things about her empty house?
WHAT IT SAYS:
If David is really able to love, then he should be able to do more than just obsess and demand what he wants.
Throughout the movie we are shown human beings who want what they want, and then deny any responsibility when they get it. Thus, people are hurt, children are abandoned. There is only one hopeful moment: when the crowd feels sympathy for the robot child and refuses to destroy David. Otherwise, humans are clearly headed to self-destruction.
But at the end, when David is stuck at the bottom of the sea, praying to the “Blue Fairy”, we see his love becoming psychopathic. He wants what he wants, at all costs. And when the robots arrive at the end, (they’re not aliens, folks, they’re the latest stage of earthbound robots, who continue to evolve long after humans are dead) David bargains with them and demands to get his own way. While the whole human race has destroyed itself, and this very reality should be chilling us to the bone, we are instead given soaring sentimental scenes of a robot demanding to get what he wants, refusing to accept the natural cycle of life, refusing to come to grips with death and time. Spielberg wants us to feel happy for the child at the end. But all I wanted to do was grieve for what we had done to the world, and how criminal we had been to create David and program him into this miserable place.
Finally, am I to believe that, after 2000 years have passed, with robots still thriving in the world, that David is the only mechanical or electronic testimony of life with human beings? Is he really their “only connection” to the world of the humans? Weren’t we shown a room full of Davids? Shouldn’t some of them have lasted? That’s just a nagging question I can’t seem to shake.