Published at: June 21, 2001, 8:50 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I couldn’t wait any longer.
That’s my only defense for my actions.
To those two perfectly lovely people in the parking garage at the DGA Theater tonight in Hollywood, I apologize. I didn’t think Henchman Mongo would hit you so hard, and I had no idea he’d undress you and do... that to you if we left him watching you. One thing to keep in mind... that means he likes you.
I had no choice, though. We were getting reviews for A.I. left and right, and my priority was clear: see the movie before Harry. No matter who else had seen it, I knew I needed to go before Harry. He saw the LOTR footage at Cannes. He gloats about this. GLOATS. Lords it over me. So there was no “maybe” about it. I needed to see the film first. To that end, I had my henchmen go out and procure and time and location for me of a screening for international press, using whatever force they had to. Robie and I unleashed Mongo on the aforementioned unsuspecting saps and then headed upstairs, A.I. invitations in hand.
And now I’m sitting here, deflated, on the other end of things, and I’m left with one thought above all the rest:
It wasn’t worth the effort. My effort. Robie’s effort. Mongo’s effort. Kubrick’s effort. Osment’s effort. ANYONE’s effort.
Yes, folks, it’s true. I am here today to tell you there is no Santa Claus. I have to be the bad guy. Many of you are going to hate me after this review, and you may never get over it. I’m that car coming down the long private drive in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, carrying that letter, the last thing any film fan wants to see coming. But the dream’s over. Kubrick’s really gone. And A.I. is a disappointment of unsuspected proportions.
Let us define things very clearly before we continue: A.I. is not “a piece of shit.” It is not “a disaster.” It is not “gay” or “an abortion” or any of the two dozen other terms our TalkBackers use to disparage anything that isn’t transcendent. A.I. is a disappointment. It is frustrating. It is deeply flawed. It is ultimately unsatisfying. It is a failure, but an interesting one, and it is worth discussion if only to try and understand how such provocative material could be such a heartbreak when you actually see it. And you will see it. It’s inevitable. In fact, it should be required for any film fan, if only to see how far off the mark it really is.
I think “heartbreak” is the perfect term, actually. When John Robie and I walked out of the theater, we couldn’t look at each other. In the elevator on the way down to the lobby, we couldn’t look at each other. As we drove back to the Labs, we couldn’t look at each other. Neither one of us wanted to say it first. The longer we didn’t talk about it, the more it sunk in. The movie doesn’t work. The movie doesn’t work. Dear, sweet god... the movie doesn’t work.
There’s really only one way to accurately discuss this film, and that’s to go into some degree of spoilers. Yes, I’m going to talk about the ending. I’m going to talk about a lot of things before the ending, too. And the worst part is that I can’t really spoil it, since nothing much happens. If you want to go in clean, without knowing anything, then go ahead and split now. I understand. This review is for those who have seen it, even if that means they read it later, and who are looking to dissect the corpse of this heavily-anticipated dud.
From the film’s opening frames, something is wrong. Something is off. Spielberg’s celebrity fetish is turned all the way up in this movie, meaning we get Ben Kingsley narrating, William Hurt playing a background role, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, and Meryl Streep contributing voices... and every single one of them is distracting. He couldn’t have reminded me any more emphatically that what I was watching was just another Hollywood movie. Remember back in the ‘70s when Spielberg used to cast those amazing faces, like in JAWS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or SUGARLAND EXPRESS? What happened? Is he afraid of real people now? Or just too insulated to remember they exist?
See, I grew up on Steven Spielberg movies, and I’m not ashamed to say it. There seems to be a general feeling today that it’s not “hip” to like Spielberg, but it’s not a choice in my case. I was hardwired to his rhythms as a filmmaker as I was growing up. His films are among my earliest, most vivid memories as a filmgoer, and I hold much of his work very dear to my heart. I adore CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, as pure and beautiful a “real-world” sci-fi story as I’ve ever seen on film. I love JAWS and remember first feeling real terror in a theater when seeing that film, and I revere RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK above all other adventure movies. I have written before on this site of my love for SCHINDLER’S LIST. I plan to write about why AMISTAD is underrated when I finish that damn ‘90s list albatross at some point. I think EMPIRE OF THE SUN is poetry. I think THE COLOR PURPLE is a remarkably humanistic accomplishment. I think ALWAYS is a sweet throwback to the spirit of ‘40s films and beats GHOST at its own game. All of this is my way of saying that there are Spielberg bashers in the world. I am not one of them.
There was a point in time when I felt like he was the best American director of children ever, second in the world only to Francois Truffaut. Henry Thomas, Christian Bale, Carey Guffey, Joey Mazello, Justin Dreyfuss, Drew Barrymore... they all did exemplary work under his watchful eye, and there was a sense of real magic at work in their performances. When he chose Haley Joel Osment to play the lead role in A.I., I heard a number of complaints from people that it was an easy choice, that he should have found a new face, that Haley was nothing but technique without a soul. I was intrigued, though, having heard the rumors that Spielberg refused to commit to HARRY POTTER because he couldn’t hire Osment to play the role. He obviously saw something in Osment that inspired him, and I was curious to see what it was.
Indeed, if anyone survives A.I. unscathed, it’s Haley Joel, playing a fairly unlikeable role. Those expecting a sentimental ride in the typical Spielberg mode will be bitterly disappointed here, and despite the PG-13, this is not a film that families should see together. David, the robot child at the center of the film, is fairly unsympathetic, despite Spielberg’s deliberate attempts to set him up as a figure to be pitied.
Part of the problem here is the schizophrenic nature of the material. Kubrick was one of the masters (along with the Coen Bros) of making films that force you to have a genuine emotional reaction because they are so careful to leave easy sentiment and forced emotion out. Kubrick’s films were like movie screens with one corner left blank, asking you to project something of yourself in order to complete the picture. Spielberg has never been one for ambiguity, though, and his attempts to tell a story in the Kubrick vein while still retaining his own personal stamp on the material results in some of the strangest logic issues and emotional missteps I’ve ever seen in a movie.
When we meet Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor), they are visiting their son Martin (Jake Thomas), who has been stricken with a terrible, incurable disease and placed in suspended animation to keep him from dying. It’s been five years, and they’re unable to grieve, unable to maintain hope. They are trapped in an emotional limbo. Or at least, that’s what we’re told. This entire film is one of the most painful examples of telling us things instead of showing us things that I’ve witnessed. Time after time, information is given to us verbally that we should see and feel instead. As a result, it’s an oddly passive experience. Scenes race by, giving us information rather than experience. It doesn’t help that Robards and O’Connor are almost wholly unwatchable in their roles. He’s a blank and she’s a cypher. We don’t care about their relationship with David because we don’t care about them or David in any way. Okay, fine, their child is frozen. Still, having learned in the opening frames that much of the world is underwater and “millions starved,” I can’t work up a lot of sympathy for a couple who is still affluent enough to have a house in the country with all the amenities, including the very first advanced robot child. They’re living in the same kind of bubble that Spielberg himself lives in at this point, removed from any sort of real difficulties or hardships, imbued instead with a sort of ennui that is next to impossible to feel pity towards. O’Connor’s reactions aren’t realistic at all. Instead, they’re all just convenience, story points designed to drive the thing forward. Her gradual thawing towards David, this strange thing that looks like a boy, is presented in a couple of quick cuts, none of which offers any convincing explanation for her feelings to change.
When David is brought home, Monica is told that there is a protocol she must observe if she wants David to imprint on her and activate his love circuitry. It’s seven words, seemingly random, that she reads while they look into each other’s eyes. This is one of the few truly great scenes in the film, and if it had been earned, built up to properly, it would have been devastating. As it is, my respect for Osment’s abilities was cemented by his subtle shift upon hearing the words. It’s almost imperceptible, a turn of the head and a widening of the eyes, but it’s a sledgehammer, and when he curls into her embrace, calling her “mommy” for the first time, I felt like the film was finally getting underway.
Spielberg just can’t find his rhythm, though. He’s hampered by his own efforts as a writer time and time again. And before the debate gets underway in the Talk Back about who “really” wrote A.I., let me weigh in with my theory. As we’ve been told ad infinitum now, this is the first script Spielberg has written since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Except he didn’t write that film any more than he wrote the novelization for it, which also bears his name. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was worked on by at least eight writers I know of: John Hill, Paul Schrader, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, David Giler and Walter Hill, Jerry Belson, and the ubiquitous John Milius. And although A.I. went through the hands of writers like Ian Watson (who is given a “screen story by” credit in the film) and Sarah Maitland, I’ve heard from reliable sources that Spielberg did indeed sit down and write this one himself, using earlier treatments and notes as a guide. I’d believe it, too. This is the work of a novice writer, someone who isn’t used to working a story out on paper or trying to give voice to characters. No two people in this film have anything unique about the way they talk. Characters are given tics and mannerisms instead of personality. Everything’s overexplained and the technical jargon is thick and stunningly dull. It’s a script that wouldn’t have sold to any studio in town if it had been written by an unknown, and although I admire Spielberg’s desire to push himself further as an artist at this late date in his career, it’s awfully late to just pick up a pen and assume he can deliver a satisfying screenplay, especially when dealing with ideas and emotions as complex as this. To illustrate how clearly he missed the mark, let’s compare this film and E.T., which was scripted by Melissa (KUNDUN) Mathison.
E.T. contains a few references to PETER PAN, and the way it’s textured in as a background to the story being told is sweet, and when it pays off, it’s remarkably effective. For those of you who were raised only on the Disney version and not J.M. Barrie’s original, there’s a pivotal sequence near the end where Tinker Bell is killed, and it’s only the applause of the children listening to the story that brings her back to life. It’s the love of a child that revives her. By having Dee Wallace Stone read that part of the story to Gertie (Drew Barrymore) early on in the film, Mathison gives herself permission to do something that I normally hate in movies: she brings E.T. back from the dead, and it works. Of course, a big part of why it works is the absolute conviction of the child actors in the scene. It’s beautiful stuff, and it still holds up today.
And then there’s A.I. and the much-discussed PINOCCHIO connection. At first, I thought it was almost an exact lift of the method from E.T. The first time any reference is made to Carlo Collodi’s classic story is when Martin wakes up and is brought back into the Swinton house. He’s not pleased with having to share his mother with David, and he begins to exercise his malice in small, measured ways. He picks PINOCCHIO one day and asks her to read it to the both of them, and again, Osment plays just the right notes as he listens with dawning wonder to the story.
But then Spielberg makes a spectacular blunder, and here’s where the film really falls apart. He makes the subtext text continuously for the entire running time. Try and count how many times Osment says “Blue Fairy” or “I wish I was a real boy” in this film. Sarah Maitland and Ian Watson both implored Kubrick not to literally include The Blue Fairy as part of the story, and for a while, Watson was able to steer him in other directions, but Kubrick kept bringing it back to PINOCCHIO and kept insisting on an actual encounter with The Blue Fairy. Spielberg has kept this part of the story front and center, and it goes way beyond grating. By the time Haley Joel finds the Blue Fairy for the third time (yes, the THIRD time), I was bored out of my mind. The film doesn’t work as a fairy tale or a science fiction story, and whatever impact Spielberg was hoping for with these images never materializes.
In fact, there’s no sense of wonder to this film at all, and that may be the most confounding thing about it. This is Steven Spielberg. Working from material by Stanley Kubrick. Both of these men showed us things no other filmmaker could. Reading about the development of the film and the work done by Chris Cunningham (which you can glimpse in the astonishing, ghostly Bjork video “All Is Full Of Love” if you want), it’s apparent that at least at some stage Kubrick toyed with the idea of having a real robot play the lead, and if any director could have pulled that off, it would have been Spielberg. After all, he broke America’s hearts when E.T. died. He could very well have given us an indelible creation in an artificial David that, over the course of the film, became more real than any of the human characters, and that would have paid off thematically in a way that Osment’s performance really can’t. He’s good, but as he becomes more human, I’m not surprised, because he is human. It’s just a matter of scaling back the more mechanical affectations of his performance. It’s not a transformation that we find surprising. If Spielberg and Winston and ILM had worked together to give us a central character who didn’t exist, but who became absolutely real to us by the end of the film, the impact would have been multiplied exponentially. Maybe then this would have been the masterpiece that Spielberg is so obviously reaching for here. Instead, a music video for a Bjork song ends up being the more haunting statement about the potential for real love even among artificial beings, and it manages to top Spielberg in three minutes without any spoken dialogue.
Eventually, David becomes more of a threat then a member of the family. He and Martin are not able to bond at all, competing instead for Monica’s attention and affection. It’s no contest. David is little more to her than an emotional vibrator, a substitute until her real son comes home. She’s casually cruel to David from that point on in a way that children will find deeply distressing to watch. Despite the PG-13, this is not a family-safe film. As an adult, you can watch this and tell yourself that you’re watching a child actor playing a robot character. But for children, all they’re going to really know is that for some reason, everyone is terrible to Haley Joel, and there’s never any reason given. As the cruelty stacks up, it will overwhelm young viewers, and parents should be warned.
I’ll admit that I also find this sequence harrowing because I was adopted. Never knew my birth parents. Don’t know a thing about them. What I do know is this: my parents, the people who adopted me, opened their home and their hearts in equal measure to me, and I was extraordinarily lucky to have that happen. This section of the movie plays like a nightmare version of what it’s like to be adopted into a family where there’s also a biological child present. David sits at the table and watches them eat, something he can’t do. During story time, Martin cuddles with his mother while David sits on the floor across the room. In scene after scene, he is treated terribly. Even so, we understand. He’s never given any real personality. He’s a machine, a wind-up doll that’s been keyed to say “I love you, mommy” and “I’m a boy.” His emotional responses are sudden and random and rarely seem to make sense. When he’s provoked by Martin’s friends at a pool party, he accidentally drags the still-recovering Martin into the deep end of the pool, his arms locked around him, almost drowning Martin.
We’re then given our one glimpse of material directly from the original Brian Aldiss story that started this whole unseemly thing down the road to release, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Here’s an excerpt from that story:
Monica Swinton was up in the nursery. She called to her son once and then stood there, undecided. All was silent.
Crayons lay on his desk. Obeying a sudden impulse, she went over to the desk and opened it. Dozens of pieces of paper lay inside. Many of them were written in crayon in David's clumsy writing, with each letter picked out in a color different from the letter preceding it. None of the messages was finished.
"My dear Mummy, How are you really, do you love me as much -"
"Dear Mummy, I love you and Daddy and the sun is shining -"
"Dear dear Mummy, Teddy's helping me write to you. I love you and Teddy -"
"Darling Mummy, I'm your one and only son and I love you so much that some times -"
"Dear Mummy, you're really my Mummy and I hate Teddy -"
"Darling Mummy, guess how much I love -"
"Dear Mummy, I'm your little boy not Teddy and I love you but Teddy -"
"Dear Mummy, this is a letter to you just to say how much how ever so much -"
Monica dropped the pieces of paper and burst out crying. In their gay inaccurate colors, the letters fanned out and settled on the floor.
Oddly, Spielberg’s inclusion of that moment in the film only underscores how much he seems to have missed the point of the original material. In the story, the nature of David is a mystery to the reader. There’s strong implications as to what he is, but it’s not spelled out. David himself is confused, asking Teddy over and over if he’s real. Those notes to his mother are the halting attempts at expressing something that may not even exist: his love. In Spielberg’s film, Monica reacts with horror to the notes, but there’s no indication as to why. It seems like it’s related more to her sudden decision to take David back to the company that created him so he can be destroyed.
She can’t do it, though. She takes him right up to the driveway of the company, then turns and drives into the woods instead. Here’s the second scene in the film that I feel really did something great, even if it’s contextually unsupported. David is delighted to have his mother to himself for an afternoon, and he begins to play, setting up a blanket for a picnic, getting tangled in it as he tries. He’s just a normal little boy, playing, enjoying, and Monica can’t take it. She tells him that she is leaving him. At first David doesn’t understand, but when he realizes what’s happening, he freaks out.
If there is any one image that will stick with me from A.I., it is David clawing desperately at his mother’s arm, begging her not to leave him. “I’ll love you better!” he says. “I’ll be good! Please, mommy, don’t leave me! I love you! I love you!” It’s as black an image as Spielberg has ever conjured up, and there’s something about it that resonates not with one specific fairy tale, but with all of them. This is Snow White being told by the Huntsman to run. This is Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their father with no way to get home. It’s the archetypical representation of that moment when we step away from our parents, out into the world, terrified. She finally has to throw David down to get him to let go, and she hurries into her car and drives away, ending the film’s first act and setting us off in a whole new direction.
And then Spielberg makes an awkward decision in the script that underscores again just how unsure he is about what story he’s telling. We cut away from David and the Swintons and Teddy and that whole story to meet Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) at work. He’s dealing with a woman who is obviously involved in a rough physical relationship, her bruises visible around her neck. He says all the right things to her, does all the right things to her. Even so, it’s a PG-13 seduction, and there’s really no reason for us to spend time with Joe on the job. He goes for a stroll, and we see a few other robots in a small, inspecific backlot setting. This is where the alluring Ashley Scott shows up in the outfit that’s had Robogeek drooling for a month or more now, and all she does is walk past the camera. She’s not a character, Robo. Sorry. That photo’s gonna have to be enough for you. Jude goes to another appointment and finds his customer dead. Her jealous boyfriend is in the room, outraged that she had sex with a robot, and I found myself distracted by the casting, thinking, “Hey, that’s that guy from JUST SHOOT ME and GALAXY QUEST. Boy, Dreamworks must like him. He was good in GALAXY QUEST. In fact, GALAXY QUEST is a good little movie. Hey, where’s he going?” Once again, the use of a familiar face makes you think a role is going to add up to something or be a bigger part of the picture, and it’s just not the case. Joe has to go on the run from the law, and he flees into the woods, where he finds David and a number of other robots that have been abandoned, discarded, many of them broken and in pieces. It’s no big deal, the lot of them all hanging out together, until The Moon arrives in the sky overhead.
The Moon is actually a dirigible piloted by Brendan Gleeson as a character I would call The Guy Who Hates Robots. There’s no reason given. The little bit of empty rhetoric he spouts is incredibly vague and unfocused. He just seems to hate robots because they are robots. The robots try to run from The Moon, but it’s too late. He’s brought his neon outfitted TRON/STARLIGHT EXPRESS motorcycle thugs with him, and they ride around for a few minutes in a truly lifeless chase scene that I can’t believe came from the same director as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and DUEL. There’s not a moment of real tension here. It’s just sound and fury and overdesigned everything. Eventually, they’re all herded up and taken to The Flesh Fair.
Spoilers started leaking about this sequence before anything else, and it’s got to be one of the worst in the film. Ugly, poorly lit, confusingly staged, and pointless, The Flesh Fair is a set piece that goes nowhere. I don’t believe a second of it. Why do the humans hate the machines? Why are so many machines left out in the forest like David was if only David imprints on people with love? Wouldn’t the rest be able to be recycled? Do you take your vacuum cleaner out to the woods and abandon it when you don’t use it anymore? Why is Ministry playing? Why are there TV cameras? Why would anyone need to shoot a robot out of a cannon, and why would anyone want to watch? Why did Chris Rock agree to give voice to the Mr. Jigaboo3000 robot, an ugly Sambo-like thing that seems, like most of the robots we see, to have no practical purpose whatsoever except to let Winston and Ve Neill and Michael Lantieri and the rest of the FX crew show off different designs? Why does one of the technicians conveniently grown a conscience when he meets David? Why does David attach himself to Gigolo Joe? Why do the humans suddenly turn against Brendan Gleeson just because one of the robots looks like a boy? If David’s that powerful a symbol, why isn’t he more famous? Again, there’s a good idea here or there in this scene, like the Nanny bot who responds to the sight of David, offering to take care of him because that’s all she knows how to do, but the entire scene is such a garish cacophany of bad ideas and poor execution that those decent moments are lost. There’s no resolution here, either. David and Joe just get untied from an impossible moment and run off with Teddy in tow.
Oh, yeah... if someone tells you that Teddy is “remarkable” or “hysterical,” they’re overselling you. He is a totally convincing blend of practical and digital effects, seamlessly integrated into the film, and there are a few nice moments with him, but like everything else, Teddy is an idea that Spielberg didn’t know what to do with. He seems like an afterthought in most scenes, a device. He never affects the outcome of the film in any meaningful way (except one, and we’ll get there later), and he doesn’t really interact with David in a way that suggests any bond to us as viewers. He’s a hold-over from the Aldiss story, one that Spielberg doesn’t utilize, and as much as I was impressed by him technically, I would have cut the character from the script.
David continues his techno remix relentless rant about “The Blue Fairy” and “I want to be a real boy” to Joe, and Joe decides that they need to go to Universal Citywalk. I’m sorry... I mean, they need to go to Rouge City, which I gather is supposed to be decadent and dangerous, the perfect place for a sex robot like Joe. There’s nothing decadent or dangerous about Rick Carter’s design of the place, though. It’s just another garish neon nightmare, like a mix of the future Hill Valley and the alternate Hell Valley that Carter designed for BACK TO THE FUTURE 2. It really does look almost exactly like Universal Citywalk, an outdoor tourist mall that’s adjoined to the Universal Studios park here in Los Angeles, but it’s cleaner and nicer, and there’s just a splash more purple and blue light. Again, it’s an opportunity to impress us, and instead Spielberg dwells on lame jokes like having the milk bar from CLOCKWORK ORANGE or a shop called STRANGELOVE’S show up in the background.
Joe and David go to a Dr. Know kiosk, a sort of informational McDonald’s, where Robin Williams does the very annoying voice of an Albert Einstein-ish cartoon character while CGI words swoop around the room. David says “Blue Fairy” about a thousand more times before Dr. Know spits out a poem that Gigolo Joe deciphers, even though there’s no logical way for him to do so. The poem steers them to a submerged Manhattan, where David is convinced he will find the answers and the absolution he seeks. After a pointless little action scene involving an “amphibicopter,” a word I remember because it’s said 50 times in the film, they’re off.
The shots we see of the underwater New York are fairly grand, but we barely see it. Spielberg dwells on the faces of his actors as they overreact in awe to all the amazing greenscreens around them. By now, this shot is one of the Spielberg staples, but I can’t recall another film where he abused it as much as he does here. Both David and Joe sit around slack-jawed as they fly through the city just long enough to show us how goooooood ILM is. Then they solve the riddle with no effort and David goes into a building where he hopes to finally find his answers. He finds the offices of the company that made him, even though I can’t imagine why anyone would have offices in a city that is mostly underwater and cut off from all infrastructure. Inside, he finds another version of himself reading a book, and he goes crazy, screaming, “I’m David! I’m special! I’m unique!” as he smashes his own face in with a lamp. Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) reappears here to tell David that he has passed a wonderful test, and now he is home, and everything is going to be okay.
Wait... actually, there’s another scene of Hobby between the film’s opening, where he proposes building David, and this reunion scene. For some reason, Spielberg feels the need to cut to Hobby for one scene, just to show that he lost his own son, and his son was the obvious physical model that David is based on. It doesn’t pay off, it doesn’t add anything to the film, it doesn’t make us care about Hobby or Osment anymore than we already do (or don’t, as the case may be), so why put it in?
As soon as Hobby finishes telling David how happy he is to have him back, he leaves David alone, and David goes wandering, finding a whole room full of duplicates of himself, already boxed and ready to ship. There are some visual grace notes here, but the scene goes nowhere. Despondent over not being a beautiful and unique snowflake, David decides to blow up some credit card companies... oh, no... wait... getting confused now. David essentially tries to kill himself by dropping from the ledge of the building into the tidal waters below, sinking down into the underwater Manhattan. Some of ILM’s most striking work happens here, but it’s still not really something I’d call new. For all the talk about how the filmmakers had to wait for technology to catch up to this amazing story, there seems to be a shocking paucity of visual imagination on display.
David finally finds his Blue Fairy underwater, a statue at the PINOCCHIO display in a sunken Coney Island fairway, and he takes his amphibicopter (which he makes sure to call an amphibicopter) down to park in front of The Blue Fairy. He sits there, facing the Blue Fairy, in his amphibicopter, and he asks her to make him a real boy.
For 2000 years.
An entire Ice Age happens, and David’s still there, as Ben Kingsley tells us in the painfully expository narration. David just sits in his amphibicopter, staring at the Blue Fairy, wishing to be a real boy. What finally interrupts this meeting of the minds is the arrival of what every other reviewer has called “the aliens.”
But they’re not aliens.
I don’t know this based on the film, even though there is one quick semi-reference if you listen closely. I know this because I’ve been reading articles for the past 12 hours about the development of this film, and the ending always involved highly developed machines, the descendents of David, coming back to find him and rescue him and study him to see where it was they began.
Never mind the fact that they look like the middle ground between the MISSION TO MARS aliens, the ABYSS glowing angels, and the long-necked “parent alien” at the end of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. They are supposed to be highly advanced A.I.s themselves, and Spielberg fails on any level to communicate this clearly. Many audiences will have no idea what to make of what’s happening, even with the kick-you-in-the-adam’s-apple narration and the barrage of technobabble that would embarrass even the most hardened of STAR TREK nerds. This isn’t like 2001, though, where Kubrick trusted the audience to find their own interpretation of events, keeping his own editorial hand fairly invisible. Instead, this is just bad storytelling, with Spielberg allowing some truly majestic FX shots to try and do the job he was unable to do as a director, hoping to smother us in awe since he can’t win us over with what he’s saying. The robots dig David out of the ice, and after he spends another five or ten minutes touching The Blue Fairy, they take him to his house.
The movie comes full circle for this closing section, and there’s no doubt about it: this is one of the worst segments of film in Spielberg’s entire career. Knowing that Dustin Hoffman commandeered large sections of HOOK, driving Spielberg off his own set, I find it hard to blame the horror of that film on him. This time out, there’s no one else you could remotely pin this on. The robots start out talking in subtitled tones that aren’t even words, but that’s abandoned two lines into it as they just start speaking English. David runs around his house for a few minutes yelling “MOMMY?!” before running into... brace yourselves... The Blue Fairy, with a voice by Meryl Streep. She tells him he can’t ever be a real boy, but that they can make anyone come back from the dead if they have hair or fingernails or anything. Teddy conveniently still has a lock of hair from Monica (2000 years earlier) and gives it up so that David can have one last day with his mother.
David’s told that she will only live as long as she stays awake, and that the first time she goes to sleep, she’ll disappear again. The robots talk to him about space-time pathways and limited time and a lot of hooey that is all a distraction from what should be our focus: David and the end of his emotional arc. In the end, they resurrect David’s mother, and they spend a day together. She says “I love you” before going to sleep, so he curls up in bed with her, and all the lights in the house go out. The end. It’s over. And that’s all we get.
”Oooh,” I can hear some of you saying already. “It’s ambiguous. It’s mysterious. Levels of meaning.” Nonsense. It’s a non-ending. It’s bereft of anything like a resolution. And it’s not a brain teaser like 2001 was. That ending, one of my very favorite in all of film history, makes perfect sense, and even the first time I saw it, I got the general beats even though I was nine years old. With this film, there’s nothing to get. David’s story doesn’t end with him having some creepy Oedipal fling with his mother for just one afternoon. That’s not a conclusion. That’s not “about” anything. Despite the best efforts of John “wall to wall” Williams and his insistently overbloated score, we don’t feel anything about that last image. It is, like this movie, adrift without any idea as to its own meaning.
If you want to play the comparison game of what is versus what might have been, you can find a fair amount of good A.I. information out there online. Hell, this month’s PLAYBOY features two new stories by Brian Aldiss that expand upon his classic original “Supertoys.”
Let me warn you, though, that comparing what might have been to what is will only leave you depressed. This has been one of the least enjoyable reviews I’ve ever had to write, for the very simple reason that I wanted this movie to be special. I walked in with faith in my heart and as little advance knowledge as possible in my head. I opened myself up wide to the experience, trusting in Spielberg, and I feel like I got kicked in the teeth for my efforts. This film will be defended by the blindly faithful this summer, those who are unwilling to admit that such talented people are capable of such collossal missteps, but it’s important to remember that it’s only when you aim for something amazing that you can miss this completely. I do not fault Spielberg one bit for his ambition in approaching this film.