A.I. Artificial Intelligence
dir.: Steven Spielberg
PG-13, 145 min.
Now playing at area theaters
According to the water-cooler history of cinema, Stanley Kubrick was a cold, emotionless technocrat who cared more for machines than men. And Steven Spielberg is supposedly the new Walt Disney, the movies’ poet of suburban wonder, a master peddler of shameless sentiment. As with most hand-me-down descriptions, neither holds up to much scrutiny. Spielberg, after all, is the one who started with cars and robot sharks and moved on to digitized dinosaurs. Kubrick, meanwhile, ended his career with a painfully intimate examination of temptation and sexual insecurity.
Thus one of the fascinating things about A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the longtime Kubrick project that Spielberg took on after the director’s death, is the way it challenges the conventional wisdom about both filmmakers. Responses to the movie so far have tended to fall into two camps: that sappy Spielberg screwed up Kubrick’s last nightmarish vision, or that clammy Kubrick robbed Spielberg of his usual warmth. In both cases, viewers are likely blaming one director’s ideas on the other.
A.I. takes place in a waterlogged future where food is scarce and breeding is limited. (At this point, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and see it first.) For grieving parents who lose their one permitted child, a robotics corporation devises a substitute: a mechanized boy who doesn’t eat or consume valuable resources, yet who has been “imprinted” with the capacity to love. The story of Pinocchio, the wooden boy who dreams of being real, becomes a textual thread winding through the movie. I’ve heard this cited as proof of Spielberg’s sentimental meddling, and it certainly seems Spielbergianhis novelization of Close Encounters does end with a character humming “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But the detail, apparently, was Kubrick’s. It was introduced in his early planning stagesback when the director had his interest in sci-fi rekindled by E.T.
As it turns out, it’s the combination, and the subversion, of Kubrick’s “darkness” and Spielberg’s “warmth” that complicates A.I. in haunting ways. The main character, David (Haley Joel Osment), is a synthesis of Spielberg’s E.T. and Kubrick’s HAL 9000part wonderstruck alien, part machine with the torments of an evolving soul. David has entered into a world where there are two castes: “orgas,” organically reproduced humans, and “mechas,” the mechanized underclass that caters to the orgas’ emotional needs. As a mecha, he will feel an emotional bond only with the person who fully activates hima bond that will assimilate more and more human attributes. For a short time, this is enough for the Swintons, the mother (Frances O’Connor) and father (Sam Robards) of a comatose boy. David’s creepy clinginess becomes adorable when he’s satisfying their needs.
For years, people cracked that HAL, the sentient computer who develops a lethal self-preservation instinct, was the most human character in 2001as if that weren’t the point of the movie. If by “human” we mean acting humanely and rationally, David is more human than any of the orgas in A.I.the father who views him with suspicion, the new brother (Jake Thomas) who wakes up from his coma and sees David only as a rival for his parents’ affection. It is the brother who coldly engineers David’s removal from the family, an act more machine-like than the robotic boy’s clunky attempts at assimilation. The first real sign of David’s synthetically evolving humanity isn’t his mouthing of the word “mommy”; it’s his jealousy and irrational fear. Acquiring these human traits earns him nothing but abandonment and ostracism from the human world.
Much has been made of the darkness of the movie’s plot, as if this were alien terrain for Spielberg. But A.I. heightens a sinister undertone that’s present even in seemingly benign Spielberg visions like Close Encounters and E.T.that the family unit is always in peril, that a parent’s love and protection are illusory. Broken homes are the norm for Spielberg, and even without David, the nuclear family of A.I. is the most artificial family unit yet in the director’s movies. The scene in which dad Henry brings David home is typically odd: He greets his wife by saying “Don’t kill me,” then coerces her into taking the synthetic child because of pressure at work. Her equally neurotic reaction is to gawk at the child in horror, scream at her husband, then decide shortly thereafter that she needs a dose of unconditional love. There’s a Close Encounters-style tension throughout the early scenes, as if the characters felt they had to meet an exacting outside standard of family life. Intriguingly, it’s the same tension felt in the harrowing husband-and-wife confrontations in Eyes Wide Shut.
A.I. cuts to the heart of one of science fiction’s great themes, and one that will become more relevant with each passing year: whether the soul is merely a trick of sentience, whether believing oneself human is enough to be human. As David, led by dreams of Pinocchio, goes on a journey to become a real boy, he enters a netherworld of scrapped mechas who no longer fulfill their intended needs. These outcast machines, with their torn faces and exposed wiring, resemble the packs of discarded house pets that scavenge Dumpsters. In a ghastly sequence, the unusable ’bots are herded into a combination sideshow/concentration camp and destroyed with acid and propeller blades while begging for their lives. Spielberg, who has always had a gift for personifying machinesthink of the auto ballets in Duel and The Sugarland Expressstages the slaughter with steadily mounting horror. But the scene also illustrates a recurring Kubrick themethat human beings will always find someone less powerful to tormentwhile painting the relationship between creator and creation in stark pets-or-meat terms.
The imagery of Spielberg and Kubrick’s movies recombines in fascinating ways while you’re watching A.I. At one point, a moon that resembles Spielberg’s Amblin logo appears on the horizon, above what looks like the Close Encounters chandelier starship; it turns out to be a zeppelin full of robot killers, who turn loose mechanical “hounds.” They’re one of the movie’s many synthetic replications of natural thingsclockwork oranges. Yet the times when Spielberg’s style radically diverges from Kubrick’s storyboards are just as fascinating. The movie’s worst scene has David and a robo-gigolo (a natty Jude Law) seeking clues from an animated Einstein voiced by Robin Williams, and it’s bad on so many levelsthe jarring intrusion of celebrity wackiness, the clumsy exposition, the overbearing animationthat it seems like self-parody.
The plot of A.I. hinges upon the attempt to reproduce humans from the fragments they leave behind. For movie lovers, there’s an added pang of poignancy in watching Spielberg marshal his formidable artistry to approximate and shape Kubrick’s vision. He recreates the dense texture of light in Kubrick’s late movies, but if he can’t imitate Kubrick’s style to the letter, and if the tension between their talents raises questions the movie can’t answerwell, score one for humanity.
Young and not-so-innocent
Back in the summer of 1991, writer-director John Singleton made a splashy debut with Boyz N the Hood, a melodrama about life on the periphery of L.A. gangs, and about the internal and external pressures that were decimating the African American community. The film hasn’t aged particularly well. Many of the characters who once seemed fresh now look more stock; the story’s march to a violent climax feels less inevitable than sensationalized; and the hip-hop style that suffused every aspect of the picture, right down to the spelling of the title, has become a lampoon-able cliché.
But Singleton’s skill with actors and with naturalistic scenes of conversation was impressive in Boyz N the Hood, and remained so in his next few films. Even if 1993’s Poetic Justice and 1995’s Higher Learning were less successful efforts, the scenes in which people sit and talk about their lives burned through the writer-director’s creaky plots and heavy-handed political messages.
Singleton wrapped up his first decade of filmmaking with 1997’s action-heavy Rosewood and last year’s bloody Shaft remake, which seemed to indicate that he was done with the rhythms of everyday life and was ready to blow stuff up. What a surprise, then, to see Singleton’s new film Baby Boy return to the black neighborhoods of L.A. that he mapped so boldly 10 years ago. And what a surprise thatdespite a rambling structure and a muddled climaxBaby Boy largely consists of the sort of meaningful exchanges that have always been Singleton’s strength.
Male model Tyrese Gibson stars as Jody, a small-time crook who splits his time between his mother’s house and the bedrooms of his two girlfriends (each of whom has a child by him). As the film opens, Jody is trying to dream up a new money-making scheme while dealing with the unwanted advice of his mother’s new live-in boyfriend, Melvin (Ving Rhames), and the nagging of his best girl, Yvette (Taraji Henson), who’s about to receive a visit from her ex-con ex-boyfriend (Snoop Dogg). Jody has mostly stayed clear of the hard-core thug life that killed his older brother, but his idle days and thoughtless womanizing are symptomatic of his inability to grow up and take responsibility.
Singleton places the blame for Jody’s character flaws on a trend toward infantilism in certain segments of African American culture, and Baby Boy is fairly brutal in its depiction of that trend. The film has been cast so that parents and their children appear to be about the same age, the protagonists spend much of their time building model cars and playing video games, and Jody and Yvette are constantly consuming strawberry sodas and strawberry shakes. Singleton even takes Jody’s car away halfway through the film and reduces him to riding around town in a ridiculous-looking low-rider bicycle.
As often happens in Singleton’s films, Baby Boy builds to a forceful confrontation that’s both disturbing and unnecessary, and even before it reaches that point, the recurring cycle of arguments and explicit sex scenes becomes a little wearisome. But Singleton has developed an ability to express ideas through images alone, and his gift for slice-of-life exchanges is still extraordinary. Whatever its failings, Baby Boy offers something that few other American films have this summer: real people talking.
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