31 Years at the Movies, Part 6

31 Years at the Movies, Part 6

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 06/28/2010 - 21:41

I started (and abandoned) a series last year called "30 Years at the Movies." I wrote five of them, which you'll find links to at the bottom of this entry. I also started (and abandoned) a second blog that ultimately proved to be unnecessary; I should have posted all that stuff right here.

So I'm reviving and renaming that occasional series of essays on films important to me, and I'm doing it with an updated version of something I wrote for that other blog. (You'll notice my profile to the right insists I am 29 years old, but I assure you I am 31. I've been asking the webmaster to update that thing for months.) Today's entry is about the much-maligned film I consider to be the best of the past decade. Here goes.

• • •

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg
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.

Originally his project, "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 Spielberg 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).

Would "A.I." be a better film if it ended here? I don't think so,
though many others do.

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, and often similar to 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.

The scene where Monica abandons David is accompanied by this
typically fabulous cue from John Williams.

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 for atheists like me: 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. And that's after David has watched his fellow mechas be tortured and dismantled. Oh, and don't forget the scene where David attempts suicide by jumping from the Cybertronics building after discovering he's not the only David that Prof. Hobby (William Hurt) has constructed.

Spielberg has shown us the worst of humanity in films like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," but neither of those dead-serious war films offers the tragedy of "A.I." From a certain point of view (mine), the film shows 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.," that's for sure.

Steven Spielberg defended "A.I." in this 2007 documentary on TCM.

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 to David's companion Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), 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, a souped-up puppet of sorts, 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 Disney's Epcot.

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. Spielberg'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 not through the eyes of a filmgoer who expects Steven Spielberg to give you another happy ending. I truly believe it 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, but I hope he tries.

• • •

Previous entries in this series:
"Back to the Future"
"The Fifth Element"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
"Pulp Fiction"

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