Thursday, October 15, 2015

Theory Thursday: "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" is Spielberg's Worst Film

Left to right: Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Director Steven Spielberg releases Bridges of Spies on Friday
Theory: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is Spielberg's worst movie

If I can be honest, Steven Spielberg may be one of the greatest directors currently working. No, this doesn't mean that I prefer him over specific directors (consult The Directors Project for more information). I simply mean that his impact on cinema is one that will be felt by the time he retires or dies, for very obvious reasons. As it stands, the highest grossing film of Summer 2015 is a sequel to a film that he directed back in the early 90's. Even if he's not directing, we're always aware of his impact due to how he helped to create a vast and wonderful scope over the course of over 40 years. His films feel pure whereas other blockbusters feel soulless. You can name a dozen movies that he's directed, and all would be valid career highlights that any other director would be proud to have. There's a reason that Spielberg is still relevant. It's in his passion.

In order to find a point of comparison, I think that Spielberg would have to be compared to Alfred Hitchcock. While he was arguably more limited in themes, he innovated cinema into a populous art form as well, famously creating hype by saying that nobody would be allowed into theater showings of Psycho after the first 10 minutes. If anything, Hitchcock was more a master of advertising, but the comparison still stands. Spielberg feels like the successor who will be talked about long after he dies. What gives him the slight edge is that he was so great in varying genres, including adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark), drama (Schindler's List), sci-fi (Jurassic Park), and horror (Jaws). He was versatile, creating some of the most powerful images of the 20th and 21st century.

Like most directors, however, he also has made a few clunkers. Most people will argue that his low point was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in which beloved character Indiana Jones is met with aliens and a poorly cast son, played by Shia LeBouf. There's those that argue that The Terminal is the weakest of his collaborations with actor Tom Hanks, choosing to be overly sentimental. The general consensus however is that 1941 is his worst film for its bloated scope and racism. Much like director Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York, I think of it more as a flawed masterpiece in which you can see great ideas next to the parts that didn't work. Also, the scale is just astounding and unique for a Spielberg movie. They actually did make a Ferris wheel roll down the street. It's special because it's exploitation of what a cocky Spielberg would've been. 

For all of the faults of these films, I still cannot call him the worst of his career. To me, those aforementioned three have passion and heart behind them, even if they're not the best. If I had to give a vote for Spielberg's worst movie, it would have to be A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The general consensus is that this is his misunderstood masterpiece; with critics such as Roger Ebert placing among his Greatest Movies list despite an initial 2.5/4 star rating. It was a film that he had worked on with the recently deceased Stanley Kubrick, who had worked on the screenplay for decades. As history shows, Kubrick's last film was Eyes Wide Shut, released in 1999 and was just as cryptic and strange as he got. It's bleak and rich with subtext. To see him team up with Spielberg, who was coming off of a strong period with 1998's Saving Private Ryan, meant that something great had to come from it. Right? Right? Nope.

You could make the argument that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is more sophisticated than meets the eye. You can say that it goes for something more highbrow than what 1941 or The Terminal attempted, thus making it theoretically better. While this is true, I do think that it is also reflective of how different Spielberg and Kubrick were by nature. To a large extent, Spielberg is the eternal optimist, finding any excuse to give his characters a happy ending. Kubrick was melancholic, choosing to end his last movie with a cryptic message that involved characters wanting to have sex just to find out if they loved each other after an affair. Kubrick was adult. Spielberg is family friendly, even when he's making R-Rated Holocaust dramas or war epics. In Spielberg's world, there's almost nothing that's frustrating.

It does make sense why Spielberg would take on the project. Beyond the honor of producing a Kubrick screenplay, the director was also keen on making stories with children protagonists. With the recent turn of the millennium and the technophobia of Y2K, A.I. is a film that felt prescient to the modern culture. Arguably, it still does in 2015 with films like Ex-Machina and The Avengers: Age of Ultron being made about the same subject. Even casting The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment in the lead was a smart call. He has a creepy, robotic presence that carries the film just fine when it's a simple drama about a family adopting a robot kid. In fact, it's almost wholesome for most of the first half hour. 

Then, the film wants to get complicated. Osment's David almost drowns a kid, and is thus abandoned in the woods. From there, David goes on the run with help from Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and a talking teddy bear. It's a bleak universe full of deformed, rejected robots that are mauled to death before a live audience - with an intermission from metal band Ministry. It's a bleak turn that kind of works, but is inevitably where things start to fall apart. As David's life is spared, he goes on a journey to find the answer to why he cannot be a real boy. 

If that sounds familiar, I'll tell you why. This whole film just turned into a scene-by scene allegory for the 21st century Pinocchio. There's even direct references to the mythology, including a Blue Fairy and an entire display in an underwater Coney Island exhibit. To update the subject matter is fine. However, I think that Spielberg doesn't feel confident with how best to present the information and ends up directly telling us "This is a Pinocchio story" over and over without providing any deeper subtext. I won't go through all of the similarities, but along with a misfit island motif, this is where the film is borderline obnoxious. It doesn't own its mythology, instead choosing to wear it like a t-shirt that is two sizes too big.

You can argue that this adds to a richer subtext about human life and longing for acceptance. It's fine if you can find that. However, the Pinocchio culture feels like the most explicit pandering that Spielberg has ever done. We didn't need to be reminded of Indiana Jones being based off of old serials every five minutes. Why do we need a film about artificial intelligence to tells us about a story that's not so archaic thanks to Disney's classic adaptation? It would be fine if this was an occasional reference, but it's so deliberate and frequent that it distracts from any deeper and more meaningful story. The scene in which he travels through a sunken Coney Island and saw the various sets telling the story was also too much, especially in a film that is 146 minutes long.

By comparison, the story that evolves from there is quaint and hard-nosed. For whatever reason, David stays underwater looking at a Blue Fairy (Meryl Streep) for centuries. When he finally emerges, aliens study him as the last conscious thing on Earth. He gets a wish to be with his "mother," or the woman who initially adopted him. It's sweet in a lot of ways, even if he's just a robot hallucinating a vision. Speaking as robots should never be empathetic due to their lack of emotional resonance, this is manipulation in the wheelhouse of Spielberg. Where it could end with him looking into the Blue Fairy's eyes, it decides to go for something happier. I have no recollection on Kubrick's final draft, but the remainder of the film definitely feels tacked on to give Spielberg that sigh of relief. Everyone's dead, but he needs to have that happy ending, anyways.

I understand its status as a "misunderstood" masterpiece among various circles. I even understand that there's films regarded as far worse. Technically, they can be. Yet here is why A.I. always struck me as being the worst: it feels too crowded. You get the intriguing concepts of Kubrick, but there's A.D.H.D.-riddled Spielberg wanting to throw in big visuals and give the audience a sense of faux-intelligence by throwing in Pinocchio references nonstop. It's too many ideas in one place, and they all build to something that feels squandered. Maybe it is that Spielberg wanted to be faithful to Kubrick, but had last second guilt. Maybe this was a few drafts short of brilliance. I don't know. I don't even know if I would want to see Kubrick's take if he had time to flesh it out. 

Try as I might, A.I. just feels like pandering to overcompensate for lack of intelligence. This isn't a commentary on the deeper themes that are presumably somewhere in the film. This is mostly about the execution as entertainment. In order to appreciate its value, one must first be able to enjoy it. Considering that Spielberg has done impressive work within sci-fi before and since, it's strange that this film feels greatly void of confidence. I do think that it's entire problem comes in the form of overuse of Pinocchio iconography instead of creating its own. This may make me sound ignorant, or even wrong, but it's largely why I can't think of much positive to say about it. His other films were aware enough of what they wanted to be and just came up short. This one feels like a collaboration gone wrong. It doesn't mean he's a bad director. It just means he's not great at hefty themes.

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