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The Fifty Percent Solution

One of the bees in my bonnet is the virtual death of the intelligent SF movie since 1977. The classic pre-77 SF film would probably be something like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a rigorously cerebral, rather coldly intellectual masterpiece that is clearly about important themes without feeling the need to spoon-feed them to the viewer. Post-77, we're into the era of the SF-movie-as-summer-blockbuster, dumbed down to appeal to the multiplex audience1. I know The Matrix had all that clever epistemological stuff in it, but the reason people went to the theatre was to watch Keanu shooting up the place. The arch-progenitors of this sort of thing are, of course, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg's ET is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about, a fairly intellectually bankrupt movie that lives and dies by its' ability to brazenly manipulate the emotions of the audience. Kubrick and Spielberg - both great SF directors, but operating at utterly different ends of the spectrum.

So the new movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, written and directed by Spielberg from Kubrick's own extensive work on the project (and loosely based on an obscure short story by UK New Wave SF patriarch Brian Aldiss) is an interesting prospect. Can the sensibilities of both men be accommodated - will this be a fifty-fifty fusion? Or will Spielberg's natural tendencies to drench the audience in cheap sentiment win out?

The movie's set in a future world where rising water level have forced the abandonment of coastal cities and populations are strictly controlled. A robotic workforce has been created to keep things running as population levels are strictly controlled. The young son of Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor, probably best known for TV's bodice-ripping Madame Bovary and last years' Bedazzled ) has been cryogenically frozen as he's supposedly terminally ill. But luckily for her, her husband Henry (Sam Robards, probably best known, let's face it, for being Jason Robards' son) works for a robotics manufacturer looking to test out a new type of robot child, designed to give unconditional love to its' human owners and thus replace the real children they're not allowed to have. The Swintons agree to test the prototype, David (played, as if you need telling, by Haley Joel Osment, probably best known for being a freaky little kid). Anyway, after a few hiccoughs to start with, all is lovely for the trio. But an unexpected twist of fate (that you will undoubtedly see coming) eventually leads to David being abandoned by his mother in the forest, with only his robotic Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel, who sounds rather like HAL 9000 after too many cigarettes). Believing Monica will only truly love him if he somehow becomes human, David and Teddy start searching for the mythical Blue Fairy whom he believes can grant his wish.

That last paragraph doesn't seem at all promising, does it? It all sounds a bit twee and cloying and cringingly sentimental. And this is to some extent true, though Osment gives an impressively creepy performance as the android boy, non-blinking in the style of true movie superstars like Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog. This section of the movie goes on a bit too long. Spielberg can't resist trying to overdo the 'aaah' factor in every scene, a good case in point being the sequence where Monica abandons David. Just showing the events would be effective enough but Spielberg can't help indulging in fairly cheap histrionics that are definitely counterproductive.

But stick with it because from this point on the film improves tremendously. It's a vision of a world shared by organic and mechanical beings, not quite like any other you'll have seen before. There are the obligatory visual cues derived from Star Wars and Blade Runner, yes, but for the most part this is wholly original, frequently breathtakingly so. Jude Law gives an effectively quirky performance as an android love machine, Gigolo Joe, who becomes David's guide and protector. (Any suggestions that this is because playing a blandly goodlooking but rather shallow non-entity isn't much of a stretch for Law are, of course, slanderous and will not be tolerated in this column.) Robin Williams pops up to do a cameo voice, too, but grit your teeth and persevere, it's over quite soon. Eventually the story moves onto a third and final act of which I will say little more, as I can't possibly do it justice.

But is this a Kubrick film or a Spielberg movie? Well, incredibly enough, it somehow manages to be both - almost. It has an episodic storyline typical of Kubrick's work, and it concerns itself with big themes about what it means to be human. In places Spielberg achieves an uncanny impersonation of his friend's visual style, all sedate camera movements and immaculate compositions. Stunning images occur throughout the movie (some rather too reminiscent of recent tragic real-life events for comfort). It even attempts the notoriously difficult 2001-style 'inscrutably ambiguous yet profound' ending so beloved of bad SF movies with pretentious aspirations, and pretty much gets away with it. To begin with, it has the familiar frosty emotional detachment that was Stanley Kubrick's great weakness - but here it's a strength, as it just manages to keep the opening section from overdoing the schmaltz.

As the movie goes on, Spielberg stops trying to tug the audience's heartstrings and gets on with telling the story. He manages to invest it with real emotion and a sense of wonder - this is an astonishingly beautiful film, with images and sequences that you'll remember for a long time. The price for this is that it lacks Kubrick's intellectual rigour and detachment. We're blatantly told very early on what the topic for today will be, and that's the nature of love and the question of human-android relationships. But this isn't really touched upon in very much depth, as Spielberg's much more interested in David's quest for humanity (and Osment's performance gets much better as the film proceeds). The fact that David and Joe were both built to love humans - in their own way - was clearly significant to Kubrick but it's barely mentioned here.

This isn't quite a fifty percent solution, though - ultimately Spielberg is dominant. The message of Kubrick's best films was that what makes us truly human is our predisposition towards killing and cruelty. There are hints that this would have been AI's theme as well, but the message we eventually get is that the essence of humanity is the ability to love and dream. Which is nice, but even so...

Quibbles aside, this movie gets my highest recommendation (like that means anything...). It's a beautiful, moving, thoughtful, powerful work of art. Here we are in the year 2001 and Stanley Kubrick's name is on the best SF movie in years. How utterly appropriate.

Samuel Z Arkoff

Recent events, for obvious reasons, overshadowed the death of the movie producer Samuel Z Arkoff on the 16th of September. You may not have known his name or seen any of his films, but the company he headed, American International, gave Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Roeg and many others their first breaks in the movie business. Anyone interested in American cinema over the last 30 years should raise a glass in memoriam.


04.10.01. Front Page

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1Just see the difference between the 1968 Planet of the Apes and the 2001 version.

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