Why A.I. Sucks

The movie's called A.I., but I've found myself following the lead of a friend and calling it A.I.EEEE! This is a terrible movie, made all the more frustrating by the fact that it had everything going for it to be a great one. I found myself wondering what would have happened if Stanley Kubrick had actually directed it. Failing that, I wish that someone--anyone--other than Steven Spielberg had taken on the job. Someone like Tim Burton or Barry Sonnenfeld, or even Ridley Scott--someone who can direct with an edge, someone who can show the true evil of banality, someone who understands sleaze.

There are two Steven Spielbergs. There's the guy who can do amazing combinations of character and plot (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan); then there's the guy who has no self-control, lets his own self-indulgence run away with him, has no conception of story structure, and who gets so easily overcome by schmaltz (Always, 1941, Hook, The Color Purple). A.I. is directed by the latter.

This is actually three different movies, each one a bigger failure than the previous part, but all abject failures in different ways. It was based on a good Brian Aldiss story--but it dispenses with the Aldiss tale by the end of the first half of the movie. (Kubrick has had this problem before, viz. 2001 taking care of "The Sentinel" by midpoint.)

First we have a movie that wants to be some weird combination of Edward Scissorhands and E.T., but Spielberg doesn't have Burton's ability to show the underside of suburban life. He makes the parents (especially the mother) too nice to be the almost criminally neglectful parents they truly are, but too criminally neglectful to be in any way respected as characters. He makes Martin, the "real" son of the parents, too scummy to be sympathetic, yet too sympathetic with his frailty to be really despised.

And he can't strike any kind of balance with David, the mecha boy protagonist played by Haley Joel Osment. He starts out as a nightmare child, then becomes cute. The mother's transition from not wanting him to falling in love with him is never properly chronicled, and therefore totally unconvincing. Spielberg seems constitutionally incapable of portraying upper-middle-class white people as anything other than inherently good, so he refuses to go all the way with what truly wretched parents they are, even though they show no redeeming value as parents--and the mother is later on held up as some kind of paragon of virtue in David's mind, unsupported by any onscreen evidence.

The only compelling character in the entire movie is the animatronic teddy bear, who is more expressive than either Frances O'Connor or Sam Robards as the parents. Perhaps the saddest possible commentary on this movie is that the most interesting character is the teddy bear.

After the parents abandon David in the woods, the movie tries to be Blade Runner, and fails at that, too. Here, in particular, one desperately wants a director who understands how to do sleaze. The red-light district of Philadelphia (sorry, "Rouge City") cries out for the decadence of Blade Runner's Los Angeles or the Gothic-architecture-on-speed of Batman's Gotham City or the eerie creepiness of The Addams Family's home. Instead we get a semi-comic sanitized locale of ill-repute, followed by the "Flesh Fair," which wants to be the Roman Collosseum via the Tittie Twister from From Dusk Till Dawn, but feels like a lightweight tractor pull show in Western New Jersey, only without the broad appeal.

Then, after a completely unconvincing escape from this circus, we have the fairy tale pursuit that leads Our Hero to a flooded Manhattan and his maker, and the movie tries to be 2001. (Maybe if he'd brought in some monkeys...?)

At this point, the movie really starts to overstay its welcome. You keep thinking (hoping) that it's finally over, but it goes on just a bit longer and gets worse. Then you think it's really over, but it goes on even longer and gets much worse. Then you think the nightmare has finally come to an end, but it goes on even longer and is infinitely worse than you could possibly imagine. Each ending is lamer, schmaltzier, and stupider than the previous one, and you're crying out in agony for this nonsense to stop as the absurdities are piled on each other.

Not that the earlier parts of the movie aren't equally laden with absurdities. So let me get this straight: David has been programmed to be the perfect kid, the prime substitute for a real child, so much so that they programmed him with working tear ducts and with the ability to mimic breathing (this based on his crying and blowing out candles toward the end of the film)--yet, somehow, it didn't occur to anyone to program him with the capacity for eating and drinking. This is a major component of human behavior, yet this supposed substitute for a real boy can't even do that. This is compounded by the fact that these two moron parents have him sit at the table with a place setting at mealtimes, even though he neither eats nor drinks. This is healthy?

We're supposed to buy the fact that David is heavy enough not to float in salt water, yet light enough to be carried along by a school of fish. Why on Earth does the company have their main lab for mass-producing Davids in the middle of a flooded Manhattan? Why does William Hurt, after saying he wants David to meet his creators, go off and leave David alone in the lab for what appears to be fifteen to twenty minutes or so (long enough for him to suffer major existential angst and decide to commit suicide)? How did David and Gigolo Joe escape the Flesh Fare so easily? They were tied up in the middle of it, and then they were in the heart of an angry mob, yet they somehow managed to walk out (and find the teddy bear in the crowd) without any difficulty.

Oh yeah, Gigolo Joe. This is Jude Law's character, who is simultaneously the most interesting character played by a human in the movie and also the most utterly superfluous one. He serves a minor expository function at best, and he could be removed from the "plot" without any major loss. A pity, as Law is one of the finest actors working today, as is Osment, actually, and they both deserve much better than this twaddle.

This is a classic case of A-list talent being used on a B-list movie. Or maybe a Z-list movie. This is utter crap.

[First posted on sff.people.krad at SFF.net on 4 July 2001.]

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