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AIeeeeeeeeeeeee!
by Lucius Shepard
July 11, 2001

At the end of AI, Steven Spielberg’s filmic molestation of the Pinocchio story, after the credits have rolled, there is a final black frame on which the words “For Stanley Kubrick” are imprinted. If this exercise in manipulative ineptitude is to be viewed as a tribute to Kubrick, we must then consider every beer fart ever loosed to be a tribute to the Big Bang. True, Spielberg does incorporate elements of Kubrick’s original script, and these are nice to look at. But they stand out like islands in a river of pink ooze, and serve merely to point up the overall impotence of the piece.

The most astonishing thing about AI is how uninvolving it is. Spielberg’s work generally achieves a level of competence that enlists tearful reactions even from those who have no sympathy for what he is trying to do. But AI’s characters are so crudely drawn, so ploddingly stated, it is impossible to identify with them, despite Spielberg’s thoroughly unsubtle use of somber light and misted eyes and a multitude of other tricks designed to pluck at our heartstrings. The situation of the film is this: Martin (Jake Thomas), the only son of Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), has been afflicted with an incurable disease and is now in cryo-sleep awaiting a cure that may never come. To ameliorate Monica’s despondency, Henry brings home a robot child, David (Haley Joel Osment), who is the first robot ever programmed to love, the creation of Professor Alan Hobby (William Hurt). Monica is at first horrified, but gradually comes to love David. However, when a miracle cure is found for Martin’s affliction and he returns home, he becomes jealous of David and through lies and subterfuge manages to convince Henry that David is dangerous and must be returned to the manufacturer, where he will be destroyed. Monica, unable to bring herself to kill her ersatz son, drops David off in the woods along with his teddy bear, a Supertoy capable of movement, speech, and a wisdom more soulful and profound than that of any human being (or robot, for that matter) in the movie. David almost immediately is captured by the agents of a Flesh Fair—an entertainment spectacle in which robots are destroyed in a variety of colorful ways all in the name of human supremacy. After a thoroughly unlikely escape, off David goes in the company of another escapee, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a love robot who has been framed for murder by the husband of one of the women he services.

To this point, Spielberg has been rather ineffectually aping Kubrick’s cold style of cinematography, but once Joe and David get together, we’re in another movie, a very familiar one—it’s The Wizard of Oz, with Joe playing Tin Man to David’s Dorothy, as they and the teddy bear search for the Blue Fairy who—according to the Pinocchio text David has read—will make him a real boy. Their journey leads them to Rouge City, a future Las Vegas which seems somewhat less futuristic in design than its 21st Century counterpart. There David consults Dr. Know, a cartoonish hologram that represents a data bank, and is told that he must journey “to the end of the world where the lions weep.” He and Joe steal a police jetcopter and off they go to a nearly submerged Manhattan (the ice caps have melted and the stone lions in Fun City do, indeed, weep), where David learns that the information he gained from Dr. Know was planted by his creator, Professor Hobby, in order to lure him back (why they didn’t simply retrieve him themselves is not quite clear). Depressed on learning from Professor Hobby that there is no Blue Fairy, David throws himself into the sea and winds up in the submerged ruins of Coney Island. He is rescued by Joe, who is subsequently captured by the police and whisked away to his judgment. David thereupon takes the copter and, with Teddy in the passenger seat, goes back down underwater and eventually finds a statue of the Blue Fairy. Shortly after he comes upon the statue, David and Teddy are trapped when a submerged steel structure collapses, pinning the copter.

If Spielberg had chosen to end the movie at this point, with David staring gloomily at his eidolon, his dream of real boyhood forever unattainable and his hoped-for miracle maker a few feet away, I would be inclined to rate AI as just another lame sci-fi movie with wonderful special effects (courtesy of Stan Winston). But in his wisdom, our boy Steve has tacked on a thirty-four-minute-long ending involving the freezing-over of the entire planet in 2000 years, the extinction of humanity, a visitation of saintly elongated aliens who love love love our music and our art (Sheesh!), resurrection for David and his moms, and a denouement whose maudlin excess is so execrable that it nearly blinds one to its underlying message, which appears to be a resounding endorsement of child suicide. “Lame” does not apply here. Nor does bad, shitty, unpalatable, disgusting, excremental, or any other deprecating word or term of which I can think. AI demands an entire new vocabulary of vilification to adequately sum up its primal lousiness. One wonders how even cheerleader-type review services such as Sixty Second Previews could lap up this puddle of Technicolor barf and spit forth a nugget of praise. One has to wonder even more what could possibly have induced relatively credible critics in national publications to lavish praise upon it. Perhaps the studio arranged for happy dust to be slipped into their popcorn.

Or something.

Over the next months we will have two further offerings from Le Gran Steve to consider, two more tasteless pasteurizations of the human experience. Steve’s take on Harry Potter will be out before Christmas—the mind quails when presented with the prospect of the rampant cuteness that will eventuate from this union of giants. And following that, the Stevenator will perform yet another cinematic autopsy on the life’s work of Philip K. Dick and thereafter spread some thin pink residue of the man’s creativity over a two-hour-long flimsy contrived of explosions and the nonpareil acting talent of Tom Cruise, who—now that he has slipped the surly bonds of Nicole Kidman—is free to bob for apples anywhere he chooses along Gender Boulevard. With the release of these two future classics, Spielberg’s name will take its place (if it hasn’t already done) not with those of the great American directors—Welles, Huston, and so on—but rather alongside names such as Velveeta, McDonald’s, Jello, Swansons, and all the other great purveyors of bland processed cheapness, products designed to fill a void, to (perhaps) sustain life though certainly not to enrich it.

As horrible as it is, when you look at AI in context with the other summer movies that have thus far flickered across American screens, it seems only slightly substandard. Take Pearl Harbor, wherein Michael Bay transforms geopolitical tragedy into a video game and a love story involving the indescribably affectless Ben Affleck; or Swordfish, John Travolta’s latest step downward from his career peak; or any number of other instantly forgettable films with eight- and nine-figure budgets. I have long resisted the temptation to hop on board the bandwagon of those who seek to impose restraints on Hollywood, because I believe that the things targeted by these folks—excessive violence and too-explicit sex—are minor symptoms of the real disease. The corporate recognition that packaging is everything, that the multi-billion-eyed beast of the consumer will buy anything if they are told to do so with sufficient persuasiveness and repetitiveness . . . this recognition and its manifestation in every form of entertainment has come to hang cloudlike over the culture and threatens never to leave, but to grow denser, darker, until it succeeds in bringing about an intellectual nuclear winter. There seems to be no contrary force that will dispel it short of an extinction event.

Violence and sex have always been the subject of art, and even of good movies. Polanksi’s Chinatown, for instance. If this film were remade today, Chinatown 2001 would feature a detective who, unlike Jack Nicholson’s character Jake Gittes, would not be in any way ambivalent about his career or his goals and instead of using his wits would be busting down walls and breaking bones and engaging in car chases with Schwarzeneggerian abandon in his pursuit of a villain who would sit like the head of Spectre behind a wall of pony-tailed assassins armed with Uzis, and project a far-less-menacing figure than did John Huston’s perverted old man. He, the detective, would engage in hot monkey love with the Faye Dunaway character and have an amusing sidekick (Tom Arnold? Rob Schneider?). The ending, of course, would have to go. Can’t have the bad guys win, nosir! That might strike the groundings as being too negative, it might make them uneasy and thus they wouldn’t consume as many packets of Goobers as otherwise they might. Naturally we would have to change the title, throw out all those less-than-politically-correct references to Chinatown and the Chinese. And who the hell would care about a film concerning a battle over water rights? Naw, what we need is something sexy. Nuclear triggers. Stolen plutonium. A magical computer chip. There you go. We’ll call it Silicon Jake, attach Matt Damon and Sarah Michelle Gellar (“in her first dramatic role”), and funnel it down the throats of enough clots of flesh to bring in a thirty-million-buck opening. If you doubt the accuracy of this presumption, I refer you to the remakes of Get Carter starring Sly Stallone and Point Blank, which was turned into Payback starring Mel Gibson. Both originals were excellent gangster films with interesting leads played respectively by Michael Caine and Lee Marvin. The leads in the remakes were modeled after Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character, unfaceted, single-minded men who ate steel and crapped bullets and shtupped a few blondes along the way. The process is one of simplification, of erasing every least deviation from the formulaic, and—to put it bluntly—that process is killing our minds, reducing us from being an actual audience to organs that require frequent pyrotechnic doses of crude visual stimuli. Though Spielberg is not entirely responsible for this state of affairs, it will nonetheless determine the shape of his legacy.

When at life’s end Steven Spielberg looks back upon his days of nature, I’m quite certain he will be pleased with what he has wrought. He will see no admirable films but a long line of bloated highly colored visions before which billions of ex-people have genuflected and that they have celebrated with uncounted trillions of wasted breaths. He will see shelves of trophies bestowed in the name of artistic achievement but given in the hyperbolic spirit of financial success. And he will very likely see a world in which functional literacy is defined by whether or not one can read the big print on a Kellog’s box. He will then smile and allow the technicians who surround his bed to assist him into a cryogenic unit where he will gaze up yearningly into white light for a moment before he begins to sleep away the centuries. Thousands of years hence he will wake to find himself surrounded by saintly elongated aliens who love love love our art and music, and who think his work is the acme of human achievement (like most aliens we have known, they are not terribly bright). But rebirth and the adulation of these godlike beings will not be sufficient for little Steven. His heart’s wish will not have been granted, and in order to pursue that wish, he will escape the aliens’ loving confine and journey to the ends of the earth, prone to the vicissitudes of a harsh unfeeling world. He will be accompanied by an amusing sidekick, perhaps a little animatronic buddy. Together they will steal an ancient jetcopter and sink beneath the waters of a submerged LA and search the drowned city until at last they will happen upon the ruins of a film museum. They will explore the ruins and eventually reach the display for which they have been searching. But just as they reach it, a steel structure will collapse, pinning the copter, and so Stevie will sit there for a long, long time, a period that will seem every bit as unending as those final thirty-four minutes of AI, staring out at the pantheon of great men, at statues of Kurosawa and Huston and da Sica and Welles and all the rest, his dream of being a real director just out of reach, forever unattainable.

This is, at least, my fond hope.