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Close Encounters of the Disappointing Kind

"A.I." a muddled, tedious affair

Plus: V conquers DVD!

An Aisle Seat Entry By Andy Dursin

Another lukewarm box-office weekend found A.I. opening at #1 with a okay gross over $30 million, but yet again, its performance was nowhere near the juggernaut that some were expecting. Certainly Warner Bros. is in tough shape -- despite Steven Spielberg's name -- with a movie not suitable for kids (despite their deceptive marketing), but yet not as sophisticated for adults as you might have thought. I think the movie is going to be hard-pressed to make much over $100 million, with word-of-mouth taking business away from the film in upcoming weekends (similar to what Warner witnessed with "Eyes Wide Shut" a couple of years ago).

Of course, some will say "some people just won't get it," but is there really more to A.I. than meets the eye? My review follows below, and feel free to send off your two-cents to me at dursina@att.net with your own reaction...


In Theaters

A.I. ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE (**): Too Stanley Kubrick for Steven Spielberg fans and too Spielberg for Kubrick aficionados, A.I. is a bleak, alternately compelling and muddled movie that stays with you long after it's over for all the wrong reasons.

Like the old saying "you can't go home again," the movie is unfortunate proof that the once-master genre filmmaker has lost touch with where he came from. Not even a marvelous score by John Williams can bail out Spielberg from one of the most disorganized and under-developed films he's ever produced.

The story is a loose, electronic version of PINOCCHIO, based on a Brian Aldiss work that was initiated by Stanley Kubrick years ago, before Spielberg picked up the reigns after his death in 1999. Haley Joel Osment, who showed remarkable restraint and depth as a child performer in "The Sixth Sense," has an even more difficult task at hand here: having to carry the film as David, the first prototype android child with the capacity to show genuine human warmth and love.

His human parents (Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards) try to love him, but after their own son -- hospitalized at the start of the film -- is restored to health, a series of accidents leaves them wanting to abandon David despite his programmed love for them.

An agonized O'Connor opts to leave the "mecha" in a forest (for no apparent reason, she does it in a location nearby the factory where he was created), but David -- inspired by "Pinocchio" -- decides to start out on a journey to find the "Blue Fairy" that will change him into a real boy, in order to prove his love for his mommy.

It all sounds like vintage Spielberg, but what follows from that point on is very much a Kubrick piece. This future -- where the polar ice caps have melted and flooded major cities like Manhattan -- is a dark and dreary place: broken-down androids are hunted down and destroyed in so-called "Flesh Fairs," other machines (like Jude Law's woefully under-utilized Gigolo Joe) are used for pleasure, all the while humans seem to be dwindling in numbers (though this is never clearly explained in the film).

Spielberg, working from his first self-authored screenplay since "Close Encounters," has used a three-act structure here that hammers home the same themes over and over again -- life is tough, humans don't treat each other properly, the world is a big, dark place -- but does so without elaborating upon countless important issues in the story. The intellectual level of the various robots is never addressed (David's teddy bear seems like Teddy Ruxpin one moment and a knowing sage the next), while the motivation of O'Connor and her husband is never fully delineated. Ditto for William Hurt's "Geppetto," whose scientific genius suffers from the same, thinly-drawn motivations that plagued Richard Attenborough's role in "Jurassic Park."

Each act of A.I. has its own problems, making one constantly feel that Spielberg isn't entirely comfortable working within a story framework that is as much Kubrick-esque as it is his own. What he's made is a wildly uneven picture that's never boring, but ultimately never really engaging, either.

The first part puts David through a torturous series of sequences designed to make us see in the inhumanity in humanity -- but the scenes often come off like Spielberg trying desperately to distance himself from the kinds of "happy suburbia" pictures he became renowned for.

The movie's second half -- particularly disappointing from a visual standpoint -- resembles, of all things, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME with its carnival-like freakshow of the robots being mauled and ripped apart for the pleasure of beer-guzzling audiences. Again, Spielberg shows he's lost his touch in staging such elaborate sequences, with the neon-lit bikers in pursuit of David baring more than a passing resemblance to the light cycles of TRON and Janusz Kaminski's cinematography failing to bring anything to the table that we haven't seen before.

What follows thereafter is puzzling to an extreme. Spielberg caps his uneven tale with a bizarre salute to 2001's trippy climax, with Earth encountering another Ice Age while David sits and waits for the resolution to his fate. The conclusion is best left unspoken, but it's a somewhat ambiguous finale that's part fairy-tale, part maudlin sentimentality, implying a spiritual resolution that it hasn't come close to achieving.

And maybe that's the most distressing thing about A.I. -- the picture misses every opportunity it has to elaborate upon the themes of human and android interaction, what lies beyond this plain of existence, and the entire question of what constitutes love. Spielberg rarely addresses these issues in a larger sense during the film, and it shows: the movie is all surface, artifice, as unreal as the title character itself.

And, for all of the fine work of Osment, Spielberg never gives us a reason to care about the android-child since, simply, he isn't human. Law gives a colorful performance but he's not given enough to do, while O'Connor comes off as an icy opposite of a typical parent in a Spielberg film (whether that was the intention or not is another matter). Hurt's role veers from mad scientist to sympathetic parent, and Spielberg never has an answer as to what his role should be in relation to David's quest.

The film's saving grace, then, is John Williams' score. Williams has assisted Spielberg so many times in the past that most viewers have lost count of their classic collaborations. A.I. will likely not be viewed as one of Spielberg's best films (indeed, you can sense that many viewers will feel betrayed by the studio's deceptive, E.T.-like marketing of the film to family audiences), but Williams' score -- marked by a haunting, gorgeous theme that's heartbreaking and lyrical -- sings with conflict, tension, emotion, and love. His music provides the movie, its protagonist, and its problematic structure with a presence that A.I. as a film never comes close to matching.

But why should we surprised that a "collaboration" between Kubrick and Spielberg resulted in a mixed-up movie filled with conflicting emotions and messages? Spielberg's best movies are about real people. Kubrick's films are often about machines and the world surrounding them -- or at least not human beings in the traditional definition of the word. Spielberg said that he felt Kubrick guiding him through production, but the movie only ends up combining the problems that have plagued both filmmakers throughout their respective careers. If Spielberg had gone out and made HIS film, or Kubrick shot the picture himself, perhaps A.I. would have had a unique, consistent vision. (It's also hard to understand why Kubrick held out from making the movie for years, citing that the effects would have cost too much. Despite some "Mission to Mars"-like pseudo-beings that appear at the end, there isn't much in the way of innovative CGI here that couldn't have been pulled off to an effective degree over a decade ago).

A.I.'s moving final shot is a heartbreaker not only in its relation to the story but also in that Spielberg, after nearly 140 minutes, finally found a moment he felt comfortable in filming here. It's just unfortunate that it had to be the last one. (PG-13)


On DVD

V: THE ORIGINAL MINI-SERIES (Warner, $19.98): A lot of us growing up in the early '80s found the ideal outlet for our earlier STAR WARS fixation by gravitating towards the "V" franchise -- a tale of an extraterrestrial race that lands on Earth pretending to be friendly, but really is out to steal our water for their barren planet and bring all of us back to their home as food! Implementing a fascist rule over Earth, the Visitors conspire to cover up their deadly deeds through the manipulation of media and propaganda, creating some none-too-subtle comparisons to Nazisms in the process.

Fortunately enough for us, a growing resistance movement offers some hope for humanity, even if it's in the form of a TV camerman (BEASTMASTER's Marc Singer), a med student (Faye Grant, then hot from THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), and a collection of folks from all walks of life, not to mention a sympathist alien played by Robert "pre-Freddy Kruger" Englund. Together, the resistance takes on the conniving, rodent-consuming lizards, led by the seductive Diana (Jane Badler), a sexy, slinky villainess who wolfs down a full-sized gerbil in one of the program's most memorable moments.

The original V was one of the top-rated mini-series of its day when it aired in the Spring of 1983. INCREDIBLE HULK series creator Kenneth Johnson wrote and directed the two-part, 205 minute telefilm, which moves at an almost-too-breakneck pace (commercial breaks may have actually helped to slow down the action) and features an abundance of then-excellent special effects work. It's clear from watching Johnson's effort -- which does an outstanding job setting up the various characters and then, as the first part progresses, shows us how clearly their lives are intertwined -- that a great deal of time and effort was taken to establish the scenario as a horrifying parallel to all forms of fascism, though some heavy-handed moments do ensue at various points.

Joe Harnell's orchestral score is more than a little reminiscent of NORTH BY NORTHWEST (and a seemingly dozen classical works) but it works, as do the engaging performances. V may not be as elaborate as INDEPENDENCE DAY, but it's more thoughtful and is beginning to stand the test of time better than Roland Emmerich's 1996 box-office blockbuster.

I first revisited V a couple of years ago when Image released both this mini-series and its hastily-produced, inferior 1984 sequel ("V: The Final Battle") on laserdisc. Warner's new DVD proves to be an appreciable improvement over the laser presentation, since it includes both a new, 1.85 transfer from superior source material and the first-ever stereo re-mix of the soundtrack.

The DVD transfer is brighter and sharper than the LD, though there are times when the 1.85 framing feels too cramped in relation to its original TV aspect ratio (some information is added to the sides on the DVD, with picture information matted out on the top and bottom). The Dolby Surround mix provides a good soundstage for Harnell's music, though the dialogue could have been given a bit more oomph.

Warner has also included a 25-minute behind-the-scenes documentary from 1983, plus a new commentary with Johnson that runs throughout both parts of the mini-series. Surprisingly, Johnson doesn't have any problem filling up 200 minutes of air time here -- in fact, he gives an almost clinical blow-by-blow of where each and every shot of V was filmed!

After a while, Johnson's interplay becomes tedious, and you'd wish he would spend more time discussing working with the studio, stars, and network, not to mention detail more about the tragic death of Dominique Dunne, who originally played Robin (and, as Johnson points out, can still be glimpsed in a fleeting back shot) before being murdered four weeks into shooting.

One thing you do learn from Johnson's play-by-play: his fetish for naming characters after friends and family is the reason why Bruce Banner was inexplicably re-named DAVID Banner in Johnson's INCREDIBLE HULK series! (He named the Bill Bixby role after his son).

Warner has done an excellent job bringing V to DVD, hopefully paving the way for both deserving ("The Shining") and undeserving-but-still-compelling mini-series (like "V: The Final Battle") to be released in the future. And for more on my reviews of V and V: THE FINAL BATTLE, click here.


New From Anchor Bay

One of the '80s better horror-comedy hybrids was HOUSE, Sean S. Cunningham's goofy haunted house thriller that met with solid box-office returns and even a few critical kudos when the original was released in 1985. Anchor Bay's new DVD features not only audio commentary, a nice 1.85 transfer, still gallery and featurette, but also -- at least for the first 20,000 copies -- an entire second disc devoted to the underrated 1987 sequel, HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY, which also features a commentary track!

William Katt, our favorite "Greatest American Hero," stars in Steve Miner's original HOUSE as Roger Cobb, a horror novelist and Vietnam vet who experiences all sorts of weird visions when he moves into his new home -- from slimy creatures to the ghost of then "Night Court"-star Richard Moll. Kay Lenz and George Wednt (who would be the first of the "Cheers" gang to make a token appearance in the original two films) co-star in this entertaining ride, which has held up better than virtually any of the other New World genre films from the same period.

Writer Ethan Wiley took over the directorial reigns for the PG-13 rated sequel, HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY, and it's an in-name-only follow-up with Arye Gross finding a whole slew of worlds packed into the mansion he now occupies. With as much fantasy adventure mixed in with horror, this amiable feature is in some ways fresher and more fun than its predecessor, and features an offbeat cast including "Cheers" alum John Ratzenberger, current "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, and genre vet Royal Dano.

Cunningham and Wiley provide a terrific commentary track on both discs, and are joined by Steve Miner for the original HOUSE. Poster reproduction inserts are provided for both films.

Anchor Bay has also dusted off another mid '80s New World title: Gary Sherman's fun, over-the-top actioner WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE ($24.98), starring Rutger Hauer as the nephew of Steve McQueen's character from the fondly-remembered TV series. Gene Simmons, fresh off the comic-book nonsense that was Michael Chrichton's "Runaway," appears as a ruthless terrorist whom Hauer has to track down in a entertaining pic that will provide a blast of nostalgia for '80s aficionados. Anchor Bay's DVD features a solid 1.85 transfer and 2.0 audio for the movie's ULTRA Stereo mix! (Didn't you just love the days when studios would try and get out of paying the Dolby licensing fee by creating brand names like "Ultra Stereo" and "Eagle Stereo," which was used for the Stallone epic "Cobra.")

Sci-fi/thriller genre fans will appreciate two more, recent Anchor Bay titles: Val Guest's highly acclaimed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a 1961 British doomsday thriller, has been given a thoroughly remastered, 2.35 transfer (with the movie's original color-tinted sequences restored), new audio commentary with director Guest accompanied by journalist Ted Newsom, a trailer, TV and radio spots, and a bio of the director. The movie, which chronicles what happens when nuclear explosions knock Earth off its axis and sent it spiraling towards the sun, is a rewarding, thoughtful picture that many -- from Guest himself to Renny Harlin -- have tried unsuccessfully to remake over the years. The film's moving conclusion is open-ended but shot in such a way that no other ending could have been as satisfying.

Finally, Anchor Bay has released another entry in their popular "Dario Argento Collection" -- 1970's THE CAT O'NINE TAILS ($29.98), with James Fransiscus and Karl Marlden in a Hitchcockian thriller that most Argento fans rate as one of the director's lesser films. However, its straightforward plot and use of 2.35 widescreen may make it more accessible for those not fully immersed in Italian cinema. I even recall seeing the movie on a local station's "Dialing for Dollars Afternoon Movie" in a horribly dark, cropped TV print in the early '80s, which made watching the 2.35 transfer of Anchor Bay's new DVD a revelation. The company has included recent interviews with Argento, writer Dardano Sacchetti, and composer Ennio Morricone (who provides a typically off-the-wall, early '70s score), along with trailers for various international versions of the film, TV spots, and radio commercials featuring interviews with the American stars.


NEXT TIME: A blast of DVD excitement with the new Special Editions of DIE HARD, plus your comments on A.I., which can be sent to me at dursina@att.net. Excelsior!


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