Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Year of Release  2001
Country  USA
Length  146 min.
Director  Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter  Steven Spielberg (adapted from the short story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss)
Cinematographer  Janusz Kaminski
Editor  Michael Kahn
Set Design Rick Carter
Visual Effects  Stan Winston
Score  John Williams
Cast  Haley Joel Osment,  Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson

A.I. Artificial Intelligence had one of the most unique inceptions of any project in the history of cinema.  Initially the film was developed by Stanley Kubrick, who hired a small army of screenwriters and storyboard artists to help him adapt a Brian Aldiss story called “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.”  At various stages of the project’s three-decade development, the plan was for Steven Spielberg to produce while Kubrick directed, or vice versa.  After Kubrick passed away in 1999, shortly before the completion of post-production on Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Spielberg crafted his own screenplay based on the mountain of A.I. preparatory work completed by Kubrick and his collaborators.  Working with his usual ace technical team (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, special effects wizard Stan Winston, composer John Williams), Spielberg managed to film the elaborate, decades-in-gestation production in a handful of months.

There has been relatively little collaboration between name-brand directors in the history of cinema, and fewer still made on a blockbuster scale.  Certainly there have been cases of filmmakers picking up where others left off, as when Claude Chabrol filmed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unrealized script for Inferno as L’enfer (1994) or when Tom Tykwer took over the Krzysztof Kieslowski project Heaven (2002).  The closest comparison to Kubrick and Spielberg’s collaboration of A.I. is probably Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s co-development of Tabu (1931), though Flaherty left that project fairly early on after a number of disagreements with Murnau, and few traces of the pioneering documentarian’s aesthetic remain in Murnau’s final product.
 The oddest thing about the collaboration between Kubrick and Spielberg is not simply that two massively renowned directors worked together (and separately) on the same film, but that the two filmmakers in question seem completely at odds ideologically.  Kubrick and Spielberg’s films do share some common superficial traits, such as a virtuosic mastery of the technical side of filmmaking and a predilection for science fiction and military settings.  But the attitude that the two filmmakers have about those settings, and the way that they approach “perfectionism,” could not be more different.  Kubrick’s films are all, on some fundamental level, about complicated flaws in human nature, which ironically prevent “foolproof” plans (the heist in 1956’s The Killing, HAL in 1968’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the rules of society in 1975’s Barry Lyndon, the family unit in 1980’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut) from working despite the protagonists’ best intentions.  Spielberg’s films tend to be reassuring statements about man’s importance in relation to awe-inspiring nature (the shark in 1975’s Jaws, the aliens in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1982’s E.T., the dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park), in which the audience surrogates are either able to conquer or befriend the forces of an unruly world.  Where Kubrick’s films deal with emotions so convoluted and discomfiting that we don’t have names for them, Spielberg’s works tend to be nakedly sentimental and comforting even when he is dealing with ostensibly heavy subject matter.  While 2001’s narrative structure pointedly (and reasonably) posits the human race as a mere “missing link” in an ongoing evolution, E.T. is a celebration of human compassion, with its titular alien functioning as a sort of pet/kid-brother hybrid. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about A.I. is that it consistently carries simultaneous traces of both Kubrick and Spielberg’s opposing aesthetics while maintaining a mostly coherent point of view that isn’t obviously the product of either individual.  Anyone hoping that A.I. would simply be another Kubrick or another Spielberg film would undoubtedly be disappointed – which probably accounts for the mixed reaction that the film received from critics upon its release, and the ambivalent stature that the film holds over a decade later – but the hybrid of two very different aesthetics creates an utterly distinctive tone that neither individual could’ve created on their own.  This makes A.I. difficult to analyze in some ways; with the idea of artistic intentionality thrown out the window (or at least made highly speculative), the film can’t be reviewed under traditional auteurist guidelines.  But the best works of art always make their own rules, and being confounded by complicated ideas is the first step to understanding them.  Whether the fusion of competing ideologies was part of either director’s intentions for A.I., the awkwardness that results registers, for the most part, as a purposeful and pointed embodiment of the film’s ambivalent and questioning attitude toward the philosophical and moral quandaries it proposes.
The odd clash of tonalities in A.I. aesthetic creates a unique tension not unlike that experienced by the people forced to deal with David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic boy programmed to feel human emotions.  David is a walking contradiction; an unlikely cross between 2001’s HAL 9000 and E.T.’s titular alien, he is able to feel a superhuman amount of love for the human beings he worships, but is dangerous and destructive when he’s confronted by anything that confuses his basic emotional programming.  In the first act of the film, David is adopted by a couple (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards) who are using him to compensate for the void left by their comatose son (Jake Thomas).  During the early scenes where the Swinton family is struggling to get used to their new living situation, David is consistently filmed in ways that emphasize his alien nature.  But after the robotic boy gains the trust of his mother, and undergoes an “imprinting” process that forces him to love her forever, the cute little boy half of his personality is brought to the fore, making it easy for the Swintons (and the audience) to perceive the protagonist as human.   This idealized vision of the nuclear family is frequently brought back to reality by startling flashes of David’s mechanical nature, such as when he holds a laugh for an uncomfortably long time at the dinner table. 
The complicated tone that the film establishes in its early scenes suggests a sentimental Spielberg film being interrupted with jarring frequency by the icy creepiness of a Kubrick film (or vice versa), and the unbalanced feeling that this creates in the viewer makes the Swintons’ ambivalence toward their robot son palpable.  It is unlikely that either director could have achieved this bizarre tenor – which might be referred to as “visceral ambiguity” – on their own.  Kubrick likely would have kept emphasizing David’s strangeness, while Spielberg would probably have humanized the character to the point that his robotic background would seem moot.  The once-in-a-lifetime combination of the two approaches is perfect for the character and for the film’s complex moral inquiry, because it destabilizes any attempts to read the character as obviously robotic or obviously human.  It should also be stressed that Osment’s outstanding performance is consistently tuned into the disturbing contradictions inherent in his character.  Osment’s portrayal of David is one of the most impressive child performances in all of cinema.

Of course, great science fiction is never merely about robots.  The genre’s great strength is its ability to defamiliarize certain aspects of humanity in order to tell us something about ourselves that we couldn’t learn from a more conventionally “realistic” story.  A.I.’s view of us is very dark indeed.  The film presents a disturbing vision of a human race desperate to receive love but categorically incapable of giving it.  Almost all of the human characters are defined by their pathological (though distressingly understandable) need to hang onto the feeling that somebody cares about them.  It is revealed in one scene that David’s creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), modeled the robot boy after his own deceased son, a plot point that simultaneously makes it easier to understand and harder to accept his smug joy in discovering that his experiment in emotional robotics was successful.  The toy boxes of the David model and his female equivalent feature the tagline “at last a love of your own,” a slogan that sums up the sadness that drives the characters to pursue a destructive form of one-sided love that backfires when the creature providing the affection becomes inconvenient. David’s relentless, unblinking affection is a nightmare version of the undying devotion that all of us want to feel from our loved ones, even though that type of obsessive love would inevitably prove untenable and insufferable.   
 Much of A.I.’s plot is set in motion when David’s mother/owner abandons him in the woods (in a wrenching, frightening scene that probably would’ve been too emotionally distanced in a Kubrick solo project, and too watered-down and sappy in a standard Spielberg film).  David’s quest to reunite with his mommy leads the film into a series of episodes that are admittedly a bit uneven, and sometimes awkward in unproductive ways.  A lengthy sequence devoted to a “flesh fair,” an elaborate carnival event where human/robot hybrids are tortured and destroyed for the amusement of an enthusiastic audience, is a didactic and garish blemish on an otherwise poetic and visually stunning film.  There are also a few distracting voice cameos by famous people (such as Chris Rock and Robin Williams) and a few uninspired visual homages to films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968).  At times, the film’s clash of ideologies produces out of place moments such as the one where an advanced alien species tells David that “humanity must be the key to the universe,” a sentiment that certainly doesn’t belong in a film with such a bleak view of the human race.
Ultimately, A.I.’s flawed moments are forgivable, and heavily outweighed by its many brilliant scenes.  Certain allowances need to be made for the film’s unusual production history, and the utterly distinctive tone that results from the partnership of two very different directors is more than fair compensation for the inevitable handful of incongruous bits.  The film works on a number of different emotional and intellectual levels simultaneously, combining traces of Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s very distinct aesthetics to create something that neither director could have made on their own.  This is the most emotionally visceral film in Kubrick’s oeuvre, and the most thoughtful and moral one in Spielberg’s filmography.  Spielberg’s gift for smooth blockbuster pacing allows the film to temporarily gloss over certain disturbing thematic suggestions that nonetheless are so heavily ingrained in the film’s very design that they inevitably surface when one thinks about the film later, in much the same way that David’s convincing boyish appearance can never entirely conceal his true nature. 
 The odd clash between Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s aesthetics reaches its height in A.I.’s controversial finale, which has the exact feel and appearance of a typically sappy Spielberg ending, and an undercurrent of the intense and uncomfortable ambiguity of a Kubrick climax.  David fails to reunite with his mother, and is trapped underwater for many years before being discovered by an advanced alien race.  The aliens explain that an ice age has killed off all of humanity, and that David’s memory banks provide the only remaining evidence of the human races existence.  The aliens grant David one wish, which of course is to be with his mother.  Naturally, David’s mother isn’t the real Monica Swinton, who died along with everyone else in the ice age, but a projection based on data retrieved from David’s memory.  David now has his own super-toy, an idealized version of his mother who exists solely to love him.  Monica and David lie in bed together, and the robot boy is able to shut his eyes for the first time.  The implication is that David has finally become a “real boy,” which would seem to be a happy fairy tale ending.  Except that the film’s suggestion of what a real boy is – obsessive, self-involved, wanting to be loved at all costs while being oblivious to the desires of others, full of raging and frustrated Oedipal desires – is not so sunny.  The ending of A.I. is all the more subversive because it isn’t even clear whether the film’s credited director understands its full, dark implications.

A.I. passes the Masterpiece Test

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