Friday, June 15, 2012

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: AI, USA, 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, Steven Spielberg
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Al Jourgensen

An interesting project would be to go through A.I. and catalog all uses of the word "real"—and its counterpart, "artificial," which is in the title two ways. The boy-robot David (played brilliantly in an unsettling performance by Haley Joel Osment) is constantly reminded by others that he is "not real." When he is abandoned in the woods by Monica Swinton (played by Frances O'Connor), in one of the most wrenching scenes in a picture full of them, he shamelessly pleads and grovels, drawing on his understanding of the Pinocchio story to ask if he can come home again if he is a real boy. "That's just a story," Monica says. "But a story tells what happens," David responds. "Stories are not real," she says. "You're not real."

The story of this film is well known and fascinating, involving a collaboration that seemed unlikely at the time between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Starting in 1984 they traded notes, design ideas, and suggestions back and forth, riffing on a Brian Aldiss story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long." But as with so many movie projects it never came to be. After Kubrick's death Spielberg took it up again. The result is a formal collaboration that feels at once like both of them—and a little strange and disorienting at that, because directors with such distinctive visions so rarely collaborate. In the end it feels more like a Spielberg project (with some admixture of Gene Roddenberry's optimism in there as well), concerned with families and impossible love lost and found, and unafraid of the heartwarming gesture. But the ghost of Kubrick definitely hovers over it in its visual schematics, in the ways it so freely philosophizes and addresses its largest issues, and in its clinical precisions.

A.I. is practically a blueprint in how to put together a science fiction film, with fully developed set pieces that sound the themes and advance the story and entertain hugely all at once. An early sequence in which visionary robot inventor Professor Allen Hobby (played by William Hurt) holds court with his students in a musty library setting is a great example. "I propose that we build a robot who can love," he declares in suitably stentorian tones. "But can we find human beings to love it back?" one of his students asks, which of course is what the whole movie is about.

It breaks down into three parts, each between 30 minutes and an hour. The family drama of the Swintons is first. They are required like all other families of this unspecified future time to obtain a license to bear children, and now their only son, Martin, is hospitalized in a cryogenic coma because of a debilitating condition. That is the situation into which David steps. When Martin unexpectedly recovers and comes home again, sibling rivalry between David and Martin erupts and fast grows toxic. Spielberg, who not only directed but wrote the screenplay, is clearly in his element here, moving naturally in and around family dynamics and staging scenes that feel utterly natural to anyone living in post-WWII 20th-century America.

In the second section, David is left to fend for himself in a world where humans and machines are very nearly coequal, and the humans revile the machines. This is the long dystopic passage of the picture, the nightmare carnival ride, all jarring noise, glaring light, special effects, and sudden, swift violence. David teams with lover-robot Gigolo Joe (played by Jude Law) and travels to the hallucinatory Rouge City, a kind of Emerald City cum New Orleans French Quarter (and yet another 2019 Los Angeles), and across the sea to the underwater city at the end of the world, Man-hattan, pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, because robots that go there don't come back.

The third section takes place far in the future. It's the shortest of the three sections and also the most controversial; its critics argue against it as a massive self-indulgence on Spielberg's part. Kubrick would be spinning in his grave, etc.

It's impossible to understate Osment's performance. He is a preternatural presence, staying within himself and yet obviously capable of taking direction. One distracting detail I picked out of a special feature is that he never blinks on-camera. I can thus become conscious of my own blinking when he is in the frame—it takes some effort not to, and yet there is 12-year-old Osment managing it in performance, on top of frequently bizarre and usually riveting turns. The trajectory of his development from herky-jerk robotic tics to more natural boyishness is so subtle one never notices it until the early scenes are seen again. David is also, even at his most winning, always slightly creepy—that sense of him never goes away.

Osment's performance, Spielberg's script, and the conceptual underpinning worked out so painstakingly between Kubrick and Spielberg altogether produce such a powerful sense of situation that there are any number of paths it could have been taken down. Interestingly, Spielberg chooses a fairy-tale place of infinite sadness. This truly is one of the saddest movies I know. Its sadness is there every step of the way once David has attached himself so fiercely to the Pinocchio story—which is set up perfectly, growing out of the sibling rivalry with Martin—and it just becomes more and more heartbreaking. Even when David is in the most outrageous danger, all he thinks about is his plan: find the Blue Fairy and she will make him a real boy, then he can go home again.

And look, about the third section, obviously I must have unresolved mother issues if I can find so many ways to connect with it. But to me it is way beyond cheap sentiment and into some other realm entirely, and not an easy feel-good one by any means. (Also, for that matter, who among us does not have unresolved mother issues? Isn't that part of the human condition?) It's often when the best directors are absolutely overreaching themselves—I think of Hitchcock with Vertigo, for example—that the strangest good things happen, and that's how I read the end of A.I. It's the center of gravity of the whole thing, taking its position in the philosopher-like, plain 19th-century structure of the picture, as synthesis. If it also happens to be a fucking KO punch to the head, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I think the ability to do that, in fact, might have been the very quality Kubrick most admired in Spielberg, which thus makes it appropriate.

Top 10 of 2001
I think this was one of the better years of the decade, maybe second only to 2007 (2000, as we'll see, is the only other competition I think). All of the first four are favorites I have spent a good deal of time living with. I came to The Lord of the Rings very recently, just earlier this year (after seeing the first in the theater), and it could well go high in another round. It was certainly impressive my first time through, and I will be going back to it again. The rest are various infatuations, most of them seen in theaters at the time. Also, I just saw The Fast Runner (aka Atanarjuat) last night and thought it was excellent.
1. Mulholland Dr.
2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
3. Ghost World
4. Gosford Park
5. Y tu mama tambien
6. The Lord of the Rings
7. Donnie Darko
8. Spirited Away
9. Das Experiment
10. Birthday Girl

Didn't like so much: A Beautiful Mind, The Piano Teacher, Rivers and Tides, The Royal Tenenbaums, Winged Migration

Gaps: Lagaan; Late Marriage; Millennium Mambo; No Man's Land; Oui, mais

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