Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Underrated AND Misinterpreted: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

          People often unfairly criticize Steven Spielberg for "changing" Stanley Kubrick's original vision of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I've even said this myself. For years, I thought that A.I. was an almost-masterpiece. That it was just a few tweaks away from being one of the great science fiction films. As I've gotten older, I am realizing more and more that A.I. is not only a great movie, but it is one of the most horrifying, non-sentimental films Steven Spielberg has ever made. And it is certainly, in my opinion, his finest foray into "serious" filmmaking.

          I know what you're thinking. Plenty of you probably saw the title and slapped your foreheads. "No, Cameron. No. That's the movie where Spielberg raped Stanley Kubrick."

          Actually, Kubrick always intended for Spielberg to direct the film. The two were very close and they admired one another's work. Kubrick always saw Spielberg as the perfect fit for this film because of his gift with effects and child actors. And, as Kubrick got older, he shied further and further away from taking directing gigs for fear he'd take too long setting up shots of people walking through doors. He acknowledged Spielberg as the populist, and he knew the film needed to run through a filter before entering the world. Even Kubrick found the subject matter a little too dark for his own sensibilities.

          In his last years of life, Kubrick labored over robot designs, conceived of what future America would look like, and sketched storyboards for the most crucial scenes. He also developed several drafts of the script that Spielberg would eventually take over.

           After Kubrick's death, Spielberg decided that he would make A.I. his next project in order to honor his good friend. He set out to find the perfect David. Of course, he didn't have to look very hard, because Haley Joel Osment was the most profitable child actor in the world at that time. He was also quite talented, and had already shown an amazing ability to take on a serious role without a hint of youthful irony or sentiment. Just what the doctor ordered.

         Photography began in early 2000, and teaser trailers and websites were already making their rounds. Finally, people were saying, Spielberg is making another whimsical fairy tale for children. He's making an E.T. for the new generation! It's even got an acronym title! The problem with this theory is that the movie is about death, disappointment, and the hatred and selfishness that lies inside all of us. The movie is about loss and pain. It's about companionship, and how some things were made to be broken.

        This is powerful (and, admittedly, kind of emo) stuff for a kid's film. I guess that's why it isn't a kid's film. It just has kids in it. You know, like KIDS. So, to everybody's surprise, A.I. turned out to be a rather nihilistic portrait of America gone wrong, and parents everywhere swore to never trust a trailer with whimsical guitar ever again. Look at that logo. The boy is looking up, as if there's hope.

         But this isn't Spartacus or Paths of Glory we're talking about here. This is late Kubrick. This is Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick. He has seen the joy and love that people share. He's here to show us why that's so important. He's here to show us what happens when that goes away.

        A.I. tells the story of a mother, Monica, whose son is dying of a rare disease with no cure. Every morning, she goes to the boy's cryogenically frozen body and reads books to it. She spends her days folding and washing his clothes. Wishing he were around.

       One day, her husband comes home with a surprise. There's a new kind of robot, a boy robot, that has a software that enables him to love. All she has to do is activate the software, and the immortal robot boy will love her, unconditionally, forever. Monica is outraged by the very thought of replacing her son. Besides, the robot, named David, will never feel genuine. What good is love if you've had it programmed? But what is motherhood anyway, if not a love you yourself have created?

       Before long, Monica decides she'll accept the offer. She programs David to love her, and he is immediately obsessed with his mother. He follows her all around the house. He helps her with her chores. He gives her constant care and validation. Monica is appropriately freaked out.

      What is so fascinating about this movie is the way that it understands love. In the film, love is not companionship or respect or trust. It is obsession. David is obsessed with his mother. Everything he does is somehow a reflection of his obsession with her. For David, love is a disease. And there's no cure.

      And just when Monica was starting to come around to the idea of loving David back, her son is miraculously cured and sent home. This shatters David's world. Why would Monica love David, her replacement son, when she's got the real son all to herself? Besides, he's a real person who can grow old, reproduce, and eventually die. He is not immortal. He is not a constant reminder that one day all of us will die.

     This is really heavy stuff for Spielberg, who even ended his Holocaust movie with a triumphant rescue scene. In A.I., we have to watch a child's (albeit a synthetic child) arbitrary quest to find a way to become a real boy so that his mother can love him.

     After a few misunderstandings, David is abandoned in the woods by Monica, where he meets a fugitive robot who was designed as a male prostitute. From this point on, the two robots go on a mission to find the Blue Fairy (as seen in a Pinnochio picture-book his mother so indiscreetly read to him), and, by extension, a way for his mother to love him again.

     We know the entire time that David's journey is ridiculous. There is no blue fairy. It is impossible for him to become a real boy. And as we see him travel further and further into this dystopian America, the more we realize that the human race is completely falling apart. Robots live forever. Their energy sources never die. And, as Jude Law's Gigolo Joe tells David, "When the dust settles and the fire goes out, all that will be left is us. And they hate us for it."

      Entire game shows are dedicated to the destruction of robots. This is not because humans hate robots, but because they fear their own mortality. People get older. People die. These robots aren't natural because they don't age. They don't change. They are forever. This isn't a story about a robot becoming a real boy, but of a robot coming to terms with the mortality of those around him. He has to learn to accept that death is natural, and that he is not of the natural world.


          And this is why the ending is so necessary. The theme of the movie is that we can't stop death. That everything must, one day, come to an end. When David is stuck in front of the Blue Fairy statue, what we see is a young boy who is still full of hope. He still believes in magic. He is still a child. However, 2,000 years later, David is unearthed by highly advanced robots (yes, those are robots--they have digital faces, and they have lived longer than humans, just as Gigolo Joe predicted they would), he is given the chance to spend one more day with Monica.

          When I first saw the film, I was very upset with this ending. Why wouldn't they end it with a shot of the Blue Fairy, wooden and inanimate at the bottom of the ocean? It fit better with the hopelessness of the film. I thought, jeeze Spielberg, way to schmalz it up for us. But now, I see this as a much more horrifying conclusion. He does not get to spend the rest of his days with Monica. No. He gets to spend one day with her. And he can live forever.

           So what do they do? He makes her coffee and they read together. And then she goes to sleep. That's when she dies. David will wake up next to Monica, who is dead, and he'll spend the rest of eternity with faceless robots that only care about using David like he's a museum artifact. The robots are merely replacing the humans in his situation. He is still being objectified by the very beings that allow him to live. He was created to fulfill a curiosity. He was built as a substitute for grieving parents to cope with. Now he's a substitute for the entire human race, which ceases to exist at this point in the future.

          A.I. is a daring, high-budget concept film that analyzes the darkest depths of the human soul. It shows us death and suffering and fear, and it does this through the lens of a beautiful retelling of Pinnochio, only, without that happy ending where he becomes a real boy. It's not a perfect film. There are pacing issues and sometimes it's a little too on-the-nose with its message, but I greatly admire Spielberg's work, here. This is some of the most interesting material he has ever worked with, and probably the last movie he'll ever take a real risk with, considering the reviews and box office returns.

        If you saw this movie years ago and didn't like it. Try it out again. If anything, it's a bizarre relic of Hollywood squeezing out a sad, nihilistic movie about death marketed for children.

I give A.I. Artificial Intelligence an 8 out of 10 annoying Clockwork Orange fans.