A.I. Artificial Intelligence: “Throw Me Over The Propeller”
I always heard this movie was Steven Spielberg trying to be Stanley Kubrick and falling flat on his face, so I admit I had some low expectations. I was anticipating something like Bicentennial Man, and at the movie’s very beginning (after all those fucking weird rounds of laughing in the robot company meeting) that seemed like what I was going to get.
But almost immediately the story demanded more fortitude from me than that film did or even most movies do.The turning point was early, when Monica is crying and yelling at her husband for trying to bring home a plastic replacement, named David, for their long coma-stricken son. The reaction is so raw and human, and things only get tougher when the original son comes home and the parents feel David might be becoming a threat to their real son. Monica, though, is unable to bring herself to bring David to the factory to be destroyed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world,” are his mother’s last words to David, before kicking his tin can ass into the woods like John Lithgow and the Bigfoot in Harry and the Hendersons.
I know it’s an esoteric reference. Just watch the clip.
This completely innocent looking robot kid is suddenly out wandering through roiling, writhing humanity. What’s crazy is that he never understands a bit of it. He stays a kid in mind as well as in body, with references to lust, hate, and progress all passing well over his head. He can’t be bothered; he’s too intent on finding the Blue Fairy from the story of Pinocchio. David believes that she’ll turn him into a real boy, and his mother will love him if he’ll grow up like other boys.
Even the kids, a demo of characters usually portrayed either as sanguine dolls if they’re good or unwashed brats or bullies if they’re bad, struck me as very true-to-life and reminded me of my own childhood.
Also how ingenious was it to design a movie around a child actor’s natural stiffness? Once you’ve let the audience know that the child is a robot, every failure to emote actually enhances the movie by becoming another reminder of his inhumanity. If only the kids in Hook had been robots.
Jude Law fucking shines as “Gigolo Joe,” his every movement a fascinating facsimile of artificial action. If his part had been played by a giant wooden marionette animated by The Jim Henson Company’s best team of puppeteers, it still couldn’t have been as robotic or as energetic.
It’s the mother, of course, who in the movie’s first act has the most complex set of emotions. And I was completely on that ride with her, feeling those emotions as she grappled with her sense of loss and her sense of unease at their odd robot child. By the time she is faced with the impossible task of giving him up, I felt like I was climbing a sheer cliff watching her every reaction.
The special effects were something else. We may have surpassed the technological limitations of CGI in 2001, but I think few movies have been able to match A.I.’s careful, artistic use of it. It’s all so purposeful. And there is such a strong style to the movie’s look, it reminds me overwhelmingly of Tron, The Terminator, RoboCop, and other 80’s dystopian sci-fi’s.
In fact, it’s an 80’s sci-fi future dystopia movie with a 90’s kid adventure structure made with 00’s technology. It’s an unsettling mashup of decade-specific filmmaking tropes that, like the special effects in Tron, defies the time in which it was made, in character if not always in technique. In other words, the movie often looks older than it is but it rarely looks faker than anything made since after it was released (and I say “rarely” instead of “never” because man was that Albert Einstein piece painful).
But I nearly fell off the couch when I saw John Williams did the scoring for this movie, because I rarely noticed the meandering, characterless music except for those times I was hoping it would shut up. Like mold, it creeps insistently into every corner of the film, threatening to suffocate performances, cinematography, really all other elements. I’ve left DVD menus on that were less droning or unwelcome.
I realized at about the halfway point that this was a fairy tale, or at least Stanley Kubrick’s idea of one. Though the setting is saturated with mature themes, they really only exist on the story’s edges. The plot is simple and occurs in discrete stages, with most characters and settings discarded utterly at a stage’s completion – just like in a child’s storybook. It was because of this storybook-like feel that despite everything’s transience, nothing felt wasted. And though David exists in a world where husbands murder their wives for perceived unfaithfulness and hicks tear apart intelligent machines in a perverse celebration of organic life, rarely is he affected by it. The character takes no damage and endures little growth, merely surviving one stage so he can make it to the next.
I’ve read some people call the ending overly sentimental. Is it? In my opinion, yes. The writing quite frankly falls apart. “I don’t know what’s come over me,” a supposedly real woman says near the very end. It’s also very creepy how his mother is dragged through this “perfect day” less than lucid. It’s all meant to seem dreamlike but Monica wanders through these last scenes like a lobotomy patient, and in her vacant eyes there is a struggle to recover her memory and put things into place. The creepiness of the situation overwhelms its fairy-tale ending qualities, so the final note of the thing is shatteringly discordant.
But here’s the thing: that kind of works for me. Every scene in the movie is creepy, and for its entire runtime the movie never lets the audience relax. I sat patiently waiting for either clever fairy-tale closure or the emergence of a bleak adult awareness in a coming-of-age style, so when Spielberg (or Kubrick?) tries for the first and slips and lands on his ass in a puddle of the same unsettling, morally vague feel from the rest of the film…that’s kind of just right. If only the future robots could decide what language they wanted to talk to each other in, it’d be perfect.
The movie absolutely took me on a journey. I really feel like I’ve been someplace and back. Also, I did not expect David to become Ultron at the end. That was a huge twist.
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