Thursday, October 26, 2017

Robot child

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

Steven Spielberg’s first film in four years, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, takes place in a depleted future world where mankind is physically and emotionally dependent on robotic technology; they cook, they clean, they even have sex with us. It’s about a robotic child (Haley Joel Osment) so perfectly engineered that he’s virtually indistinguishable from a real boy. When he’s rejected by his human family, he wanders for some time on the fringes of society, accompanied by another android (Jude Law) and a robotic bear called Teddy, obsessed with the idea that the story of Pinocchio – particularly the Blue Fairy that transformed that wooden boy into flesh and blood – can be made real, allowing him to become human and attain the bond he craves with his owner/mother. The movie’s final section, following this quest as far as it can go, entails a huge change in his and the film’s frames of reference.

Stanley Kubrick (again!)

As everyone knows by now, A.I. was largely developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, who passed it on to Spielberg with his blessing, apparently judging it more fitting to the other man’s sensibility than his own. Maybe it’s a mistake to dwell too much on the Kubrick connection. A. O. Scott in his New York Times review mentioned Kubrick only in a single paragraph, noting the differences in the two men’s sensibilities but not dwelling much on how the finished film might reflect these. Maybe it’s not coincidental that Scott gave the film one of its most enthusiastic write-ups, considering it “the best fairy tale – the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story – Mr. Spielberg has made.” But most of the reviews I read concentrated much more, sometimes to an almost forensic extent, on doing a Kubrick-centered autopsy of the movie, generally to A.I.’s detriment in one way or another.

It’s certainly not hard to draw parallels between A.I. and Kubrick’s work – in particular, the middle section has a resemblance to A Clockwork Orange and some aspects of the ending evoke that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I can’t imagine the film would have been very similar in Kubrick’s hands. Whether or not you view it in terms of the difference between Kubrick’s analytical instincts and Spielberg’s supposedly greater sentimentality, Kubrick’s version would surely have avoided the over-determination and intellectual timidity that drags down Spielberg’s.

Cold and warm

Kubrick’s films deliberately resist easy identification with the characters: Spielberg invites it, but not always effectively. No actor has ever won an Oscar in a Spielberg film – relatively few have been nominated. His films are so structurally and technically seamless that the actors seem almost like afterthoughts. Kubrick was famous for filming dozens of takes of a scene and then selecting a version that showed the actors at their least naturalistic. But at least this evidenced a fascination with human mystery and with how that behaviour would be intercepted by the viewer.

Films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut certainly elide some of the narrative that we might have expected from other directors, and they’re problematic for numerous reasons, but they also contain utterly distinctive characters that resist easy (if not any sort of) summary. There’s certainly nothing of Kubrick left in this aspect of A.I. I’m hard-pressed to name a single surprising or intriguing moment by any of its actors. This isn’t to say they’re not adept: Osment and Law in particular are both note-perfect, but it’s a boring perfection of a boring note.

Still, this in itself wouldn’t have ruled out A.I. from comparison with 2001. The greater disappointment for me is how linear Spielberg’s film turns out to be. Maybe there’s some mild innovation in the way it splits into three quite distinct sections. But Kubrick’s films do much more than that – they play with our sense of time (both our own and the characters’), they offer apparent closure that isn’t really so, bizarrely extend certain scenes while omitting others that ought to have been there, they double back on themselves, they start right in the middle of something and end just as abruptly. The thrill of his films is often in something as basic as figuring out what they’re really about.

Spielberg’s film is full of memorable compositions or moments of emotional underlining. But when it starts off with a voice over explaining the state of the planet, followed by a long scene in which professor William Hurt portentously sets out for his students the key questions in robot ethics, you immediately realize how little genuine mystery the film will be allowed to contain.

Definition of the human

A.I. is like this throughout, but especially at the end, where some of the stuff that’s put before us (for example, about the rules of the “space time continuum”) is ridiculously contrived. Even if the film’s ideas seemed profound, I doubt that they’d be best communicated in such a way (which I think borders on the condescending). But what are those ideas anyway? The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a surprisingly positive review, said: “It’s hard to think of a more important theme than the definition and survival (or nonsurvival) of the human.” Sure, but the film seems to me more like a statement of that theme than a consideration of it. Obviously, if robots are so much like people that no one can tell the difference, then it poses a question over what it means to be human. But I just told you that much in one sentence, and A.I. can take it no further. Time and time again, it reminded me not of Kubrick but of Chris Columbus’ sappy Bicentennial Man, which also dealt with an emotionally precocious robot aspiring to the condition of humanity.

To sum it up then, I was intrigued but  not particularly excited by the delicate handling of the opening domestic section, I was disappointed by Spielberg’s failure to punch home the middle big bad world section, and I found the final chapter by far the weakest of the three. The film works best as a pure fairy tale, but even on that level it’s diminished by the over-explicit evocation of Pinocchio. As a creation that might be satisfying to adults, it’s severely compromised. Some of the potentially darkest strands (there’s something more than a little creepy about the robot kid’s growing obsession with his mother) are treated so lackadaisically that it’s hard to know if Spielberg’s even aware of them. We can’t know where Kubrick’s version would have ended up, but for good or bad, it’s inconceivable it would have left us so little to think about afterwards.

No comments:

Post a Comment