Monday, October 5, 2009

The Movie of the Decade


"A.I."
• Written and directed by Steven Spielberg
• Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, William Hurt, and Brendan Gleeson; with the voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Robin Williams and Meryl Streep
• Released June 21, 2001

Stanley Kubrick died March 7, 1999, just four months before his final directorial effort, "Eyes Wide Shut," was released to theaters. He didn't live to see the 21st century and, consequently, the year 2001, which is an awful shame. Kubrick's work often seemed ahead of its time, even when it was telling stories about the present.

"A.I." was so far ahead of our time that even Kubrick failed to bring it to fruition. Based upon a short story by Brian Aldiss, "A.I." required visual effects that no one thought possible until Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" appeared in 1993. And even then, Kubrick felt that Spielberg himself would be a better director for the project, that it was more attuned to his sensibilities. By this, I imagine Kubrick simply meant that Steven could work better with children and visual effects, for the subject matter was certainly no lighter than what Kubrick was accustomed to.

So Spielberg did direct "A.I.," and adapted the screenplay himself from a screen story by Ian Watson. The result is his darkest and arguably most daring film, and one that began the most interesting string of films in his legendary career.


There's no use in dancing around it, so let's cut right to it: That third act. It has become de rigueur to criticize how Spielberg ends his films, and seemingly everyone hates the ending of "A.I." Many people still think the beings David (Haley Joel Osment) encounters at the end of the film are aliens, when they are clearly advanced mechas -- robots, just like him. They are identical in form to the statue we see at the Cybertronics building where David was built, the one David draws from memory for his "mother," Monica (Frances O'Connor).

Another common misconception is that Kubrick intended the film to end with David trapped at the bottom of the sea, staring into the face of the blue fairy statue that he thinks will make him a real boy. Spielberg has insisted this isn't the case, that the third act was there all along, but he has never helped his case by explaining the intentions behind that third act. Spielberg has never recorded a DVD commentary, and doesn't tell the audience what he thinks they should get out of the movie.

But audiences know what they think they should get out of a Spielberg movie, and that leads to the biggest misconception of them all: that "A.I." has a sappy, happy ending. John Williams' score -- which until the end is ominous and mechanical, not unlike something Philip Glass might write -- certainly does nothing to discourage such an idea. But I find the ending of "A.I.," in which the future mecha resurrect Monica for one perfect day of happiness with David before both go to sleep forever, to be as emotionally, psychologically and existentially devastating as any I've seen.

And here's why.

Monica never loved David. Most of the time she feared David. Upon first viewing, it's easy to identify with Monica and her husband, Henry (Sam Robards), because we are more than a little afraid of David ourselves. But none of David's actions come from a place of malice -- his intentions are pure, and direct: he wants Monica to love him. Any accidents along the way are just that.

Would a mother who loved her son abandon him in the woods? Monica cries when she does just that to David, but one gets the sense she's more horrified with the idea of what she's doing than with the consequences. After all, he's just a robot. A toy. (And a toy who emptied her last bottle of Chanel No. 5, at that.) The crowd at the Flesh Fair, where robots are destroyed for entertainment, is more forgiving than David's mother.


When the future mechas discover David, the de facto leader (voiced by Ben Kingsley) explicitly tells his counterparts to "give him what he wants." And so David is given a fantasy in which the animated statue of the blue fairy (voiced by Meryl Streep) grants him his day with Monica, who is no longer the self-absorbed, materialistic person we saw in the first act. The mechas have created a Monica that is every bit as fictional as the blue fairy, a pipe dream that provides David with closure and happiness just before his "death." The suggestion is that it doesn't matter if David's happiness was false; at least he "died" happy.

There is a parallel here that should be obvious to an atheist -- the blue fairy and the resurrected Monica are fictions, just as God is fiction. We are fed the lie that there is a benevolent being who loves us despite all our faults, and who will protect us as long as we return that love. If that is indeed a lie, it is perhaps the most cruel, and it is the same lie that David believed. And perhaps that is what ultimately humanizes him, what ultimately forces the tear from his robotic eye in the final scene. David has finally abandoned his last scrap of rationality and become just as irrational and stupid as any human.

That's pretty grim stuff. While Spielberg's sometimes-horrifying war films offer hope and belief in the human spirit, "A.I." offers tragedy, and posits that even humanity's capacity for love can be used for evil. It has far more in common with "A Clockwork Orange" than "E.T."

Aside from the film's existential ruminations, "A.I." is of course a technically perfect movie, with seamless visuals and a CGI character that has few equals. (I'm referring, of course, to David's companion Teddy, who may be even creepier than David.) The second act, in which David learns about the outside world from the sexbot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), draws us deeper into David's personal mystery. For a while, we actually believe in the blue fairy, which I suppose is entirely the point. The "Pinocchio" parallel is pushed to the limit in the Rouge City sequence, where David the puppet visits Dr. Know (voiced by Robin Williams), a holographic search engine that looks and sounds like a cross between Einstein and Geppetto, and seems to have been plucked from Epcot Center.

The seeds of "A.I." can be seen in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," my favorite of Spielberg's films, which was released in 1977. Steven's fascination with "Pinocchio" is all over that film, from Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) enthusiasm for it in the beginning of the film, to John Williams' repurposing of "When You Wish Upon a Star" at the end. "Close Encounters" is all about a man abandoning everything to follow his dream, and he achieves it; by the time Spielberg made "A.I.," perhaps he realized that the dream doesn't exist.



If you fall into the "'A.I.' sucks" camp, which I suspect most of you do, I implore you to watch it again, and to truly see it through David's eyes, not through the eyes of a filmgoer who expects Steven Spielberg to give you another happy ending.

I truly believe "A.I." is the best film of this past decade, a criticism of the human condition disguised as a feel-good, special effects extravaganza. I seriously doubt that the Steven Spielberg who last gave us "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will ever top it.

• • •

Did you miss the rest of the 10 Years, 100 Movies series? Start here and work backward. Thanks to all for reading, and I really hope this list, while full of popular films, leads you to reconsider, rewatch and re-enjoy some of the great movies of the past 10 years.

2 comments:

  1. I'm in that "AI sucks" camp, and I'll disagree with you for one particular reason, although this isn't the only reason I dislike this movie.

    If you watch it through the third act, you have to basically accept that humanity has failed and there really wasn't a point to us being around in the first place: that we had no redeeming qualities except possibly for our hand in the creation of the mecha-aliens (they are, IMO, too dissimilar to anything human made to not consider them at least partly alien). Even then, they've basically moved past us and beyond even remembering us.

    After all, the movie goes into explicit detail about the things that we've failed about. We fail in love (Monica), we fail at work (the AI corporation), we fail at empathy (the flesh fair), we fail at pleasure (Rouge city), we fail even in bringing justice (Joe's reason for running). But, sitting in the helicopter at the bottom of the sea there is still hope, even frozen, that something good will come out of us and that someday the humans (and humanity) that find him will love him.

    But no, when he gets out, it is explicitly pointed out by an apparently omniscient being that we're all dead. Humanity has failed and only the machine-aliens are left. No possibility of redemption there. The only piece of us remaining lives for 24 hours in an admitted fantasy world, and then we're gone again.

    For a human film goer, there's really nothing for me to hold onto. Even David's 24 hours are sort of ridiculous in the context of knowing that the rest of humanity is dead and gone and beyond having any hope for. Why am I supposed to feel good about a final note where everything is explicitly over for us? No more hope remaining.

    You have to remember that almost all post-apocalyptic films show exactly that: something post apocalypse, that some strand of humanity will survive and continue and find something good in what remains. AI doesn't do that. It takes us past that horizon, looks around and says "nope, nothing left" and then points out that the only good thing about us is our fading memory.

    So, that's why I don't think that AI is one of the best movies of the decade, nor do I even particularly like it that much. These days, when I'm in control of the remote, I stop it at the blue fairy, where I can still hold onto a bit of hope, thin though it may be.

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