Without Kubrick, "A.I." receives artificial treatment

· Jul 3, 2001 Tweet

When friend and fellow cinematic genius Stanley Kubrick passed away without having finished a project tentatively called “A. I.”, director Steven Spielberg had some pretty big shoes to fill. They were just a ratty old pair of loafers, but he decided to try them on anyway. However, instead of quietly slipping them on and going about his business, Spielberg ran through a mud puddle, broke a lace and ripped out the tongues so that the shoes barely resembled Kubrick’s any longer. This is beside the point. The shoes never fit Spielberg in the first place.


Confused? Frustrated? Annoyed? If you answered yes to all three questions, you feel the same way about the analogy as you will after having watched “A. I.” Much was made over the style clash of collaborators Kubrick and Spielberg and rightfully so. For a reference point, try to imagine the Pope and the Dalai Llama getting together to agree on a higher power everyone can worship. Same thing.


Kubrick was the most introspective of directors — dark, misanthropic, but always fascinating. Spielberg is and will likely remain Kubrick’s polar opposite, a director who embraces Hollywood for all of her glamour and excess. Why Kubrick asked Spielberg to direct his swan song, and why Spielberg didn’t have the common sense to decline is a question that remains painfully unresolved in “A. I.”


Part “Pinocchio” knockoff (a fact which it shamelessly exploits again and again), part “Blade Runner” and part ABC Sunday Night Movie, “A. I.” tells the story of an android boy named David (Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense”), the first of his kind with the ability to love. He is adopted by a couple with a son teetering on the edge of death, but when the son pulls through and becomes jealous of his new brother, David is literally thrown by the wayside. Abandoned and facing “death” at the Flesh Fair (picture Mad Max’s Thunderdome through the eyes of Tim Burton), David escapes with fellow android Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). Confused and relying on the old Disney fairy tale, the two attempt to seek out Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy so that she may turn David into a real boy, capable of being loved by his estranged mother.


The film’s true saving grace comes in the performances of Osment and Law. Osment, still only 13, is wise beyond his years and already on his way to mastering skills that have eluded countless others. Although Law’s character is terribly underwritten, he and Osment form an eerie fraternal bond that is remarkable to watch develop. In Kubrick’s R-rated version, however, Gigolo Joe was to be much more manipulative and licentious, which may have made for a more interesting character.


From here on, the Spielbergisms are piled on so fast that you’ll barely have time to reach for the Kleenex.


Directing without any sense of moral ambiguity, Spielberg coerces the viewer into sympathizing with whomever happens to be crying onscreen at that moment. At its best, this results in truly touching moments, as when David’s “mother” caresses the back of his neck while reading him an activation code. At its worst, Spielberg ends up force feeding viewers his sociopolitical whims. The Flesh Fair scene has him drawing parallels between the plight of the androids and the Holocaust as David and Joe are nearly tortured and killed so that humans can maintain “numerical superiority.”


Furthermore, Spielberg’s script is laden with unearned pathos and characters who where their hearts on their sleeves. The film hits so many emotional climaxes that the viewer can’t help but become apathetic by the time the drawn out, anticlimactic finale rolls around.


Perhaps the most frustrating thing about “A. I.” is thinking about what it could have been with Kubrick at the helm. His dark sense of humor and subtle visuals would have lent more gravity to the material, instead of making it the glorified Disney flick it turned out to be under Spielberg. Spielberg refuses to confront any of the existentialist conundrums Kubrick would’ve sunk his teeth into. Instead of profundities and revelations about what it means to be a human being (a la “2001”), we instead get an all-too-familiar story about a boy who simply misses his mommy.

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This article was published Jul 3, 2001 at 12:00 pm and last updated Jul 3, 2001 at 12:00 pm

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