BFI Spielberg Season – A.I. (2001)
Like most, I was frustrated with A.I. when it first assimilated into multiplexes during those ominous, dust choked final months of 2001. For reasons I can’t quite recall I was in a terrible mood when I went to see it at my then local multiplex on Harrow high street, despite eagerly following it’s long and unusual marketing campaign which featured such innovative elements as alt-reality interfaces and a revolutionary cluster of on-line, world building IP instruments. Kubrick’s death was still woundingly recent, making Spielberg’s inheritance of the project something of a bittersweet boon, the chance to see shards of what could have been filtered through the lens of a close colleague whose artistic instincts seem to divert at an almost molecular level. Kubrick was the cold remote nihilist, performing his autopsy on our species foibles with a detached and uncaring gaze. Spielberg was the warm humanist, celebrating the fragments of wonder and solidarity that can emerge in even the darkest corners of human experience. The melding of these two streams forged an odd elixir of form and frame, with the cloying, sentimental finale particularly derided as Spielberg suffocating Kubrick’s artistic affectations. In the intervening years however what was regarded as a mysterious misfire has coalesced into one of Spielberg’s oddest additions to his canon, some even cite it as his most misunderstood and maligned masterpiece, perverting some of the common themes that dominate his work – the bittersweet structures of family, the dark margins of wonder and adventure, our spatial relations to how the future is influenced by the past. I am in concert with these reassessments, I think through his historical films of the late 1980’s and 1990’s he matured from the blockbuster manipulation to a more serious and somber storyteller, heck I’d even posit that you could see A.I. as the central in a trilogy encompassing Minority Report and War of The Worlds, but that is a thesis for another time. It is a film which operates on a number of levels, oscillating the instincts of two great American legends, with more depth and digitized disquiet swirling helplessly like that scattered corporate paperwork tumbling over that bright, September Manhattan skyline.
For a fifteen year old film it could have made last year, it has dated exceptionally well in terms of design and SFX, which perhaps speaks for the quality of the work that Denis Muren and the ILM illusionist commissioned back at the turn of the millennium. Structurally it concertina’s out in incrementally wider sectors before deflating to a bittersweet climax, moving from the opening contextual vision of a climate change depleted future world where man has advanced artificial mechanics to a remarkable, near human sophistication via the genius of pioneering Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt). The scene forebodingly set the narrative moves on to our initial meeting with David (Haley Joel Osment), a new model of artificial child or ‘mecha’ that has been commissioned by two bereaved parents, Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Conner) after their biological son was committed to a cryogenic chamber due to a fatally incurable condition. After activation and bonding to his mother an increasingly haunting deconstruction of nurturing bonds is explored by Spielberg, as David behaves with an uncanny cherubic innocence, masking his pre-programmed precision perfected interior. A miracle sours to disaster for David when his surrogate is cured and returns to the family home, rendering him obsolete as his behaviors fails to gel with the meatbag family unit. In one of Spielberg’s cruelest ever scenes David is abandoned with his only ally, a diminutive cybernetic talking Teddy-Bear with whom he embarks on a fairy tale odyssey through the nocturnal netherworld of his binary brethren, whether as discarded slaves, sexual surrogates (in the form of Gigolo Joe, Jude Law’s male mecha escort) or cannon fodder entertainment in the ferociously cruel flesh-fair. Finally, in a truly Kubrickian disregard for narrative comfort the plot accelerates thousands of years ahead into an ice age future, where an advanced descendant of the primitive automatons resurrect David as a historical curiosity, and grant him his final fairy tale wish to be reunited with Monica in an eternal and infinite mirror of the human cage apex of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, that’s one way to read it but we’ll come back to that……..
Reaching for the cinematic shorthand stylus Spielberg litters the frame with symbolic reflections and distortions, indicating the murky masquerade of an artificial boy with a false algorithmic empathy, while John Williams mournful score lacquers another coating of questionable reality, a futurist fairy tale made flesh. It used to be that I wasn’t enamored with the plot of A.I. but if you approach it as a mood piece, as a feeling rather than a story the film is quite the disquieting experience, with a devilish final feint which inverts Spielberg’s entire career as a sentimental, treacle coated humanist. The world building is organic and measured, from earlier iterations of so-called ‘super-toys’ in the form of Teddy leading to advanced models such as David, like some ancient ipod (the first of which was released four months after the films release) prefiguring the powerful latest generation of iphone, a single device with more computing power than the entire NASA space programme of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like Minority Report some of the tech has already been superseded, touch screen and voice activated mechanics are presented as vaguely revolutionary in the film, yet now commonplace and accelerating with the cool precision of Moore’s law. At its nucleus the film harbors a cold artificiality which collides with a vision of humanity which is consistently unsympathetic, detailing our greed, cruelty, hubris and selfishness across almost every speaking part in the film. Despite some of the obvious Kubrick homage reverse zooms and long dollys Spielberg’s style is also in the antecedent, those long establishing movements and temporal editing ellipses that he’s so affectionate for, in a film which is curiously diluted and drained of emotion. After the exposition set up the suburban sequence is a self-contained silo, just slightly tilted off kilter as unreal and manufactured, an almost grotesque parody of an ideal WASP nuclear family sharing idyllic summer days and bountiful mealtimes, tainted with an ignored and denied falsehood. It’s difficult to discern how much of this was Steven or Stanley and his decades of shaping the script, but it does feel like the like the best of Kubrick observing the techniques of these holy symbols – family, marriage, nature versus nurture – with his usual contemptuous silence.
After the claustrophobic interiors of the home the narrative and space opens up as David embarks on his journey, his interactions and observations detailing a proto-catastrophic future world with humans writhing in their final extinction spasms, abandoned to an uncertain fate with all the remorse of unwanted Xmas puppy. Through this section some of those recent questions that SF cinema has probed in media such as Moon, A Clockwork Orange, entire swathes of Star Trek:The Next Generation, more recently Ex Machina, and of course Blade Runner percolate to the surface, what does it mean to be human, how do you judge what is human and where is that imaginary line to be drawn? Is it empathy and sympathy, two qualities that the mecha emit but the humans do not – that cradles the soul? Osment encapsulates this in a studiously manufactured performance, a boy playing a boy playing a boy, another unearthly juvenile performance to rival Spielberg’s discreet direction in those 1980’s family favorites. With his usual DP Janusz Kaminski the shadows coil and the palette descends through layers of oozing obsidian as David’s search for the mythical wish-granting Blue Fairy gains traction, through the lurid neon of Rogue City or the carnival cruelty of the Flesh Fair the film adopts an episodic structure so beloved of Kubrick and his ‘non-submersible units’, a programmed Pinocchio searching for a hollow dream which is fearsome in its futility.
So the story shifts fully to the mechas, their childlike yearnings and inquisitive lack of self safety again signalling the fairy tale tenacity of the tale, with specific visual and character references moving from Pinocchio to The Wizard of Oz. One observation I excavated for this section is a stretch but amusing, during the capture of the mechas the activities are spearheaded by a fellow in a leather jacket and fedora riding around in a hot-air balloon moulded to look like a full moon – or is it a Indiana Jones proxy astride the Amblin logo which in turn was yielded from one of his most favorite icons – the full moon flying shot from E.T.? What is the purpose of this directorial self-insertion from Spielberg? Well, played by a perennial gruff Brendan Gleeson this future pundit then goes on to rather pointedly explain that you shouldn’t trust any of the ’emotions’ of the robots, because the entire thing is an illusion, they aren’t real, they’re shallow simulacra designed to manipulate our own feelings. One may be able to level this charge at the forced emotional manipulation of the entire blockbuster model, programming its audience in how to feel through sound, spectacle and SFX rather than allowing any organic reactions to such old-fashioned techniques such as characters, situations, drama and plot. Speaking of ugly manipulation the flesh fair itself is reminiscent of a Roman collesium and a Trump rally, although the ugly, jeering crowds turn to pillory the ringleader does seem a little trite, once they appreciate that David may be an android but his appearance as an anthropomorphised child activates some dormant mothering instinct in them all.
The A.I. of the title is portrayed throughout this section of the film in its primitive infancy, as homo-sapien was to Homo habilis before we divined tools and fire, as Davids encounter with his maker Dr. Hobby prologues the narrative leap forward in one of the more audacious jump cuts, since, well you know what. In this dystopian twilight the automatons have been used by humans as slave labor, as simple to discard tools with the same attachment than you would have for your toaster or lawn mower, or rather more predictably used as sexual instruments in the form of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) who betrays a glimmerings of self-awareness and curiosity beyond his seductive programming, an inquisitive adolescent to David’s single driven juvenile. Like the great sexual chronicler William Burrows said, the first thing human beings do with technology is to weaponize it in a sexual fashion, from the car and its attendant advertising industry to the heavy breathers on the phone, to the cinema immediately generating nudie and stag films all the way through to the chaste and discrete, vast pornographic canyons of the internet.
In that light the two mechas oscillate between David and his Grimm fairy tale guidance and a simple fu*k machine, a species trapped between adolescence and maturity in a short evolutionary glitch. Perhaps by this stage there are too many half expressed and seered situations which visually slam metaphors into the narrative, there is a myriad of ideas percolating through the subsequent 9/11 imagery and climate change chin-stroking, which blends directly into Minority Report’s political pre-cog (we must pre-empt and neutralise threats before we are attacked), and The War of the Worlds dust choked, obliterated landscapes under the thrall of an implacable terror, forcing our every-men to contemplate the worst acts to defend their families. Trapped in the shadow of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel – a location noted for its frivolous childhood escapism – David almost pathetically prays to a silent and implacable idol to realise his dreams, before the most ambitious time shift in Stephen’s entire cinematic canon.
When I first saw A.I. the sheer gusto of this narrative shift caught me like a crystalline chainsaw to the cerebral cortex, the leap to David and Joe’s brethren some thousands of years hence obliterated all expectations, even as this final sequence is allegedly then poisoned by that final, saccharine seizure inducing finale of resurrection and renewal. How many films even remotely attempt to leap forward in their time frame across such vast distances and truly speculate on our and our offsprings species capacity for evolution and transcendence, heck even today films of any genre rarely trade in those intellectual infrastructures, as the shift in SF cinema has warped from intellectual curiosity or social metaphor to simple, action framed pyrotechnics. The misunderstood finale still gets written off as typical Spielberg whimsy, but I’d charge that there is something far more disturbing squirming under the surface. The entire film has been formed around a cascading narrative of sequences moving from David’s activation to decommission, seeing our species final dwindling fall through the animatronics sensors of an artificial boy. Through this vessel we witness the last ember of human life, simulated and simulacra, a not ironic Moebius strip to the film’s artificial opening and the establishment of the family unit, the supposed cradle of nurturing and evolving civilisation. Through its fairy tale logic the film engineers our quiet withdrawal from existence into the dim halls of infinity, the lock of hair a final totem of the organic and ‘real’ framed in the grasp of a artificial creature and his childlike companion. The playing of the scene makes me uncomfortable, Kinglsey’s narration in both dialogue and intonation is ugly to me, a single day of pre-augmented reality that chimes with some of the contemporary warnings of the like of Elon Musk. As has been confirmed the finale was Kubrick’s, it was always there in the pre-production storyboards, not in fact a terrible contamination of Spielberg’s instincts scattering against the bulwark of Kubrick’s nihilism. It’s nothing less than one final bitter shroud to shawl our entire civilisation, built on a artificial engineered lie, all or struggles and suffering rendered as a infinite sick joke – how Kubrickian is that?
Nevertheless, Stanley always held the view that technology would be the next phase of sentience if you’ve done your research around his discussions with his development screenwriters Brian Aldis whose novella Supertoy’s Last All Summer Long served as a main inspiration, before exhausted and leeched of ideas Kubrick fired his husk and moved onto the Ian Watson phase of development. This is a flawed film, a deeply flawed piece one could argue, but it at least reaches for something further than most films attempt and like the truly memorable pictures holds resonance and echoes today. It’s sentimental carapace shields a quite horrific core, a fantasy, an unreality which like all the immortal fairy tale story nags and nuzzles at deeply suppressed truths and terrors. It’s appearance on the recently published 100 greatest films of the century didn’t particularly surprise me, as even like Kubrick’s most maligned films they have matured and grown into the culture in which they were expressed, a feature, not a bug it seems of the associated projects when he wasn’t frenziedly harnessing the electrons in the CPU. What is human? Where does sentience begin and moral agency end? What is to become of these initial promethean tamperings with sentience beyond our carbon based stardust? Whatever the questions no-one has the answers, as this rather bizarre hybrid of two of the most influential post-war American filmmakers attests, in one of Spielberg’s strangest and richest films;