Artificial maturity

In "A.I.," Steven Spielberg continues his quest to be a real live adult. He was far greater as a real live boy.

Published June 29, 2001 7:26PM (EDT)

There's a small, little-remarked-on scene in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" that could stand as a symbol for Steven Spielberg's career. Just after E.T. has seemingly died, we see little Elliot's teenage brother (Robert MacNaughton) hiding in his bedroom closet, weeping. This is the boy's first encounter with the adult feelings of grief; his instinct is to retreat to a place where he's surrounded by the toys and clothes that are the comforting artifacts of childhood.

That's the metaphorical closet that Steven Spielberg has been trying to emerge from for the last 16 years, first with "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun," and then with "Schindler's List," "Amistad" and "Saving Private Ryan." Spielberg has been determined to prove himself a grown-up who has left childish things behind.

Watching an entertaining but essentially soulless enterprise like "Jurassic Park," which showed none of the wit, inventiveness or cunning that was so astonishing in "Jaws," it seemed like a good thing for Spielberg to move beyond the type of ready-made wonderment that he could apparently toss off at will. But with the exception of "Schindler's List," the first 45 minutes of "Empire of the Sun" and the opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan," his "adult" work has been stiff and unconvincing. They were as much products of Hollywood as his fantasy films, serious in the manner of top-heavy prestige productions of the '50s and '60s, worthy and faintly anonymous. And watching the failed seriousness of "Amistad" or most of "Saving Private Ryan," you began to wonder if we'd ever again see the director who, at his best, is one of the greatest and most emotionally direct and generous popular entertainers the movies have ever produced.

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"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is Spielberg's attempt to unite those two strains, the showman and the adult filmmaker. It's a wildly problematic movie: ambitious on a scale that few filmmakers can even contemplate, daring in its attempt to make a break with its director's past work even as it extends the themes of that work, gutsy in its willingness to alienate audiences. It is also a mess of jarring impulses and tones that leaves viewers stranded, with no access to the film that makes emotional sense. Spielberg clearly wants to bring a new element of darkness and pessimism to his work but he's also wary of losing his audience -- and perhaps not even philosophically comfortable with pessimism in the first place.

"A.I." contains scenes darker than any he has put on screen, but in the end Spielberg reverts to what has worked for him before and the film winds up pulling our heartstrings in a manner that requires us to ignore what has come before. Spielberg desperately wants a heart-rending finale, even at the expense of coherence. The result is some sort of anti-achievement: a cold fairy tale, a procession of wonders from which we have been deliberately, even ruthlessly, distanced.

Part of that distance comes from Spielberg's wish to stay true to the director who initiated the project. By now, there's no one who doesn't know that "A.I." began in the late '80s as a Stanley Kubrick project. Kubrick, who died two years ago, had been intrigued by the prospect of turning Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" into a film. But one of the obstacles, even apart from the years Kubrick typically took on every project, was that the technology simply did not exist for the movie that Kubrick envisioned. Eventually he moved on to other projects. But then, reportedly intrigued by the CGI advances of Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" in 1993, he allowed Warner Bros. to announce that "A.I." would be his next movie. Two years later, however, the studio said that Kubrick would direct "A.I." after he completed "Eyes Wide Shut," the film that proved to be his last.

During this time Kubrick had begun a friendship with Spielberg, with whom he consulted about the project over the years, at one point even proposing that he produce and Spielberg direct his script. After Kubrick's death, the project passed to Spielberg, who, working from a screen story by Ian Watson, wrote a new screenplay, his first since 1982's "Poltergeist." ("A.I." is ultimately credited as an Amblin/Stanley Kubrick Production.)

At 2,000 words, the Aldiss story is a slim, dark parable about the melding of human and machine. It concerns a boy desperate to obtain his mother's love, a love she is unable to give. That the child is a robot is withheld until Aldiss' O. Henry-style kicker. It's easy to see why that subject would attract the director of "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange." But I don't think anyone could have predicted the direction in which (at least in the first hour) Spielberg takes this material.

More than any other filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has presented childhood as an almost sacred concept, a province of innocence and imagination that he has devoted his considerable technological, narrative and emotional gifts to celebrating. The shock of "A.I." is that Spielberg, at least in the first section, has chosen to make a film about the monstrousness of childhood or, specifically, about the monstrousness of children's emotional dependence on adults. The second part, a journey through a nighttime future-world that bears more than a passing resemblance to that in "A Clockwork Orange," and the final sci-fi storybook coda, feel like different movies altogether.

"A.I." is set in a future dystopia. The polar ice caps have melted, flooding coastal cities and killing millions. Pregnancy is now licensed by the government and to fill the human void robots have been designed to take the place of everything from servant to lover to child. That's where Haley Joel Osment's David comes in. David is the creation of a scientist (William Hurt) who has envisioned robots that will not just perform tasks but that will feel human emotion. Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), who works for the company that created David, brings a prototype robot child home to his wife, Monica (Frances O'Connor), hoping that the robot will be a substitute for their own child, who's been cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found for his terminal disease.

Henry's impulse to offer a machine to a grieving mother as a substitute for her child is, on the surface, horribly callous. But you understand how Henry could be driven to it by the way O'Connor captures Monica's neurotic need to fill the void in her life. This woman (and, we can presume, her marriage) has been so devastated by the loss of her son that her gradual acceptance of David manages to be both horrifying and to make complete emotional sense. There's no getting around the fact that David is creepy, artificially chipper and obedient. His robot version of being a good "son" is to brightly ask docile little questions like "Would you like me to go to sleep now?"

Unable to eat food, he nonetheless sits at the table at mealtimes, miming Henry and Monica's motions. When he sees Monica with some spaghetti hanging out of her mouth he points and breaks into a forced, artificial laugh that's frightening precisely because there's nothing spontaneous in it. It's a machine's attempt to ingratiate itself with humans, and it's off-putting, even sinister. All during these scenes, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keep shooting David through distorting glass, breaking up Osment's beatific face into a fractured design that looks like the mating of high-tech and cubism.

In some ways, David is even creepier after Monica, deciding she wants to keep David, "imprints" him with the words that will make him bond with her. Osment does a lightning shift from his initial eager-to-please robotic affect to his preprogrammed idea of what a child should be: adorable and adoring, playing with a robotic teddy bear (which, in a morbid twist, has been given a gruff adult voice, supplied by Jack Angel), suffused with the uncontrollable emotions of childhood and above all clinging, his every action demanding "love me." These scenes wouldn't work if it weren't for Osment, who's phenomenal. It was obvious he was talented from his performance in "The Sixth Sense," but he shows a complexity and subtlety here that would be astonishing in a far more experienced actor. Osment isn't just a cute kid, he's an actor projecting an idealized and artificial image of what a cute child is supposed to be.

It's here that the tensions that finally undo the movie start. Spielberg directs these early scenes as a black-humored parody of child-rearing and of the loving family life he has always exalted. He is not working so much from the point of view of the child as from the point of view of the beleaguered adult. Just like a real child, David has been created to give love, but as with any child, that love constantly threatens to become a burden to his parents. We see how his unquestioning devotion to his "Mommy" both fulfills a longing in Monica and becomes a trap for her (in one scene, an almost lethal one). She simply doesn't have the love or energy or attention to answer his incessant need -- no one could. And it becomes even harder after her real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), is finally awakened from his frozen sleep.

Spielberg and Kaminski shoot these scenes in cold blues and grays; the small pockets of visual warmth -- like the snug little bedchamber in which David sleeps, decorated with paintings of the sky -- are made to look as artificial as the robot child's love. I think some viewers may make the mistake of thinking that Spielberg is falling back on the cozy, heartwarming imagery he has specialized in. But the emotional distance he maintains encourages us to see that imagery as artificial. In one scene, Monica and the two boys glide down a sunlit river in a canopied boat as she reads them "Pinocchio"; the placid, safe feel of the scene, and the honeyed sunlight, are so close to perfection that instead of surrendering to the moment we see it as part of a world where happiness has been constructed.

That distance is clearly what Spielberg intends, and yet it's a problem, keeping us outside the film, comprehending the meanings but never feeling them. (Part of the problem is Spielberg's screenplay. Oddly for such a visual director, Spielberg lays out the themes in clumsy, expository dialogue instead of showing us.) Clearly this wouldn't have been a problem for Stanley Kubrick, who was at home with coldness. And yet you may feel grateful that we were spared Kubrick's "A.I." How could Kubrick even begin to address the mixed emotions arising from the intermingling of human and machine when, from "2001" on, there were no human beings in his movies? In film after film, Kubrick's overlord misanthropy, the magisterial technique that reduced the actors in his films to stick figures carrying out his bidding, represented the triumph of the mechanical over the human. (What do you remember most from "2001" -- Keir Dullea or the mellifluous voice of Douglas Rain as HAL?) With the exception of Malcolm McDowell's Alex and Vanessa Shaw in a bit part as a prostitute in "Eyes Wide Shut," they were all clockwork oranges. The people in Kubrick's films are either zombies or rats; in his view, machines' taking over would be an improvement.

But how can a filmmaker as openly emotional as Spielberg ever be at home in a world where emotion has become an entirely synthetic thing? A more introspective filmmaker might have related that world to the dilemma facing moviemakers who, like the robot technicians here, attempt to make created beings indistinguishable from real ones. The irony of "A.I." -- and it's an irony Kubrick would have been comfortable with -- is that the robots are more human than the humans. The film is full of examples of reprehensible human behavior. David's "brother" Martin plots to destroy David; Martin's friends, with the cruelty that is natural to all children, attempt to hurt David to see how he'll react.

We feel no sympathy for the humans here (except perhaps O'Connor), but Osment's performance makes you feel the limitations and the artificiality of robot emotions, so you can't exactly warm up to him either. So when the film takes a turn and Monica, unable to divide her love between David and her real son, abandons David and Teddy, it's nearly impossible to know how to react. Essentially, we're watching a screaming, confused child abandoned in the forest by his "mother." While Spielberg's distance keeps the scene from being as manipulative as it might be, it's distressing to watch and not be able to fully sympathize with either character (or to feel divided against ourselves as we might be if we were made to sympathize with both).

As the movie moves into its second part, "A.I." becomes even more emotionally divisive and confusing when it turns into the abandoned David's quest to turn himself into a real live boy by finding the Blue Fairy, from the story of "Pinocchio," who can grant his wish. In this section of the film, David hooks up with a lover-robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), who's on the lam after being framed for murder -- a garish, clumsily staged one -- by a jealous husband. This should be the place where the emotional distance between David and the audience dissolves. We're conscious of the poignant irony of a pretend child acting on the faith that a pretend story is real, of the heart tugging in the story of a child who just wants to earn his mother's love. But Spielberg has left out a step. The "imprinted" David seems as artificial as the robot David. If Spielberg is saying that he is transformed into a real being by emotions, then (through no fault of Osment, who is superb throughout) we need to see that evolution, we need to give ourselves over to the notion that a machine can take the place of a human.

Given that David never becomes the little love Spielberg intends him to be, it's very hard to have any emotional reaction to watching the child-robot in peril during the assaultive showmanship of the Flesh Fair sequence. Set to pounding heavy-metal music, the Flesh Fair is a spectacle (presided over by Brendan Gleeson) that's part WWF match, part demolition derby. In the name of championing the organic over the mechanical, cheering humans assemble to watch captured robots tortured and destroyed in all sorts of flamboyant ways. The sequence makes its point -- by knocking you over the head. Spielberg does capture one moving, magical moment earlier when fugitive robots gather in the woods behind the factory that manufactures them, poring over the discarded machinery to provide themselves with new parts. For a moment, it feels as if Spielberg is right on top of his game.

It's the robots who have the personality in "A.I.," like Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, whose duty is to be the perfect lover to the women who avail themselves of his services. Law, his face made up to waxy, pretty-boy perfection, tries to bring some joie de vivre into the film with his slick patter and knife-sharp movements. (He even pays homage to Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain.") In his first scene he tries to persuade a shy, hesitant woman to allow him to be her lover and when we see the signs of abuse on her body ("Are these the marks of love?" Joe asks in robot innocence) the idea of robots' being better than humans seems, as Kubrick would have made it seem, not so awful.

The section of David and Joe making their way through Rouge City, the futuristic red-light district, is certainly seedier than anything Spielberg has put on film before. But the real drama is the one taking place in the director's head. Essentially Spielberg is trying to meld Kubrick's misanthropic vision of a technologically dominated future with his own vision about the transformative power of emotion. He's trying to be true to his idol and be true to himself, but he can't do one without going against the grain of the other. So the film winds up feeling less an emotionally and intellectually unified vision than a series of -- sometimes spectacular -- sequences.

As much as his instincts are at war with Kubrick's, Spielberg is also at war with his own instincts. Something in Spielberg balks when he tries to address the darker aspects of childhood. "A.I." is as audacious and technologically breathtaking as was Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," and emotionally it's just as muddled, just as heavy-spirited, just as off-putting. Had Spielberg ended "A.I." 20 minutes earlier, during an eerie, becalmed undersea sequence, as conflicted as the film is he might have given it the narratively satisfying shape of a tragic fairy tale. But there's a coda, set an additional 2,000 years in the future, in which Spielberg's worst heartwarming instincts take over. The coda might have worked if it acknowledged the echoes of the themes in the first part of the film. (Without giving anything away, I can say that the sequence features ample proof of David's obliviousness to anything but his own emotional needs.) But you can scarcely hear those echoes amidst the weeping Spielberg elicits for his little robot boy lost.

For everything wrong with it, "A.I." is not a dismissible film. It's too richly imagined, too accomplished. Even as he botches the emotions and the issues he raises, Spielberg goes headlong into them, wrestles with the picture's conflicting impulses. It's the kind of screwup you get only from a master filmmaker. I can imagine audiences becoming puzzled and maybe even hostile to its tone shifts, its unresolved mixture of bathos and coldness, the way it keeps going on after it appears to be finished. It may be that Kubrick acolytes will point to the film's sentimental passages as proof that Spielberg was unworthy of taking over from Kubrick, or that, as some early reviews have already shown, critics who were never particularly fond of Spielberg will hail a new dimension in his work. Or it may be that "A.I." becomes one of those failed Hollywood films whose faults are overlooked by champions who claim that audiences weren't prepared for the chances it took.

Whatever the fate of "A.I." the question it leaves open is where Steven Spielberg goes from here. It's understandable that, having mastered fantasy filmmaking (and been branded a juvenile filmmaker because of it), he would want to make himself over as a mature director. But Spielberg is caught between the genuine wish to evolve and the impulse to cancel out the warmth and desire to please that made him a wonderful filmmaker in the first place -- even though he returns to those gifts when he is unsure of his material, whether they are suited to the projects he is making or not. "A.I.," the story of a robot child who wants to be human, is also the story of a filmmaker who wants to be accepted as a real live adult. It's Spielberg's search for his own Blue Fairy. Be careful what you wish for. Spielberg is a far greater filmmaker than he realizes when he's a real live boy.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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