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Aisle Seat A.I. Showdown!

Mail Bag reaction from last week's column (SPOILER ALERT!!)

By Andy Dursin

Reaction has been pouring in about A.I., and seemed to be split into two camps: those who thought I totally missed the boat, and more who disliked it even more than I did!

Not that anyone's counting, but the movie fell to #3 over the three-day weekend, and was beaten soundly by "Scary Movie 2" and "Cats & Dogs" during the July 4th holiday. It will be interesting to see if A.I. can recoup its budget domestically, but it doesn't seem as if the picture will prove in any way to be the gigantic blockbuster -- to say nothing of the critical darling -- that Warner Bros. and Dreamworks were anticipating.

At any rate, here's a sampling of the reaction, and click here for my review from last week...

From Jeff Bond:
[Excerpted from my column]: "Kubrick's films are often about machines and the world surrounding them--or at least not humans in the traditional sense of the word." what part of the Kubrick ouevre would you be referring to here? The Killing? Paths of Glory? Spartacus? Lolita? Dr. Strangelove? A Clockwork Orange? Barry Lyndon? Full Metal Jacket?

OH...that's right, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess the other eight movies, which are about avarice, war, betrayal, slavery, lust, stupidity, violence and the struggle to fit into a rigid society are the ones that are not about humans "in the traditional sense of the word."

Kubrick continues to be one of the most misconstrued directors around, even when he's not around any longer. And the lynching of A.I., particularly on the Internet, seems to me an ironic reflection of the original reception given to 2001. In 1968 it was adults who were confounded by Kubrick's film while younger audiences embraced it; A.I. has been lambasted by AICN and others for not being "cool" enough, for not showcasing Spielberg's ability to direct a chase sequence, for not being "Spielberg" enough (yet being TOO Spielbergian for a Kubrick movie), for being too "surface" and over-explained and yet for raising more questions than it answers.

Yet I think many older viewers, myself included, found the film deeply disturbing and moving, albeit not in the traditional, expected, manipulative way normally attributed to Spielberg. This was reinforced the second time I saw the movie, when a lot of the pieces I thought didn't fit suddenly fell into place. This movie is nowhere near as random and ill-considered as it's being accused of. I know I'll be pilloried for suggesting that it may take more than one viewing to "get" A.I., because we all know that if we don't walk out of the theater having fully processed and reduced the experience to a two-word sound bite than the filmmaker has failed to effectively cram the meaning down our throats. And I know people who saw it a second time and didn't like it any better. But it made me think about some terrible questions that I'm still thinking about.

I don't think we're going to know what to make of A.I. for a number of years. But I don't think the easy dismissal (i.e., "Spielberg has lost it" and "Kubrick has always been overrated") the film's been getting is going to be the final answer. The more I think about it the more I think the movie is a perfect fusion of Kubrick's and Spielberg's concerns...and that's exactly why it's so disturbing.

Jeff and I then traded emails for the better part of last Tuesday (naturally a slow day at work for both of us!).

I agree the movie has plenty of food for thought and it's refreshing to have a debate about the themes (or lack thereof) in the film, but my problem is that, simply because a movie raises a debate doesn't mean it's a "good" or satisfying film.

I have been a Spielberg fan all of my life and I wasn't expecting uplift, E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, or even a traditional Kubrick film like EYES WIDE SHUT. I didn't mind where Spielberg took me with his plot -- I just never cared about the journey itself.

It may be "thoughtful" science fiction, but I was disappointed with numerous aspects of the film; the visuals that never captivated me (the picture has that claustrophobic, studio-bound look and feel that has marred many of Spielberg's works since HOOK), the second part of the picture didn't sustain my interest, I found some of the performances creaky (especially from O'Connor and Hurt), and found the bratty human son of the family to be unbelievably portrayed, especially his laughable delivery of the line "I'm real!" (With all the outstanding work Spielberg has done with child actors in the past, I was surprised at how "Hollywood" the other children were, outside of Haley Joel Osment, in the film's first half).

I also didn't find the picture to be anywhere near as complicated or disturbing as the film's admirers do. Jeff and others talk about how the movie "isn't a boy who's separated from his mother, who dreams a dream about being reunited with her by a Blue Fairy and finally achieves that dream." To quote one of Jeff's impassioned arguments currently running on our message board, the ending was one of the "most chilling apocalyptic images" he's ever seen in a movie.

Yet, that wasn't what I got out of it -- in fact, I detected a strong, pseudo-religious feeling during the narration at the end. Spielberg himself has said that the movie is "dark but redemptive," going so far as to say he would watch A.I. with his nine-year-old-son. How many disturbing themes are actually present in a movie that is having its "Teddy" bear character marketed by Hasbro Toys -- clearly towards children -- is questionable as well.
At any rate, I'd print all of emails Jeff and I fired back at each other but space considerations have put the kibosh on that. Instead, you'll be able to read our letters in INCOMMUNICADO: THE BOND-DURSIN "A.I." CORRESPONDENCE, which we hope will be published by Random House later this year.

From Peter Randall:
Hello Andy,

I enjoyed your review - which I read after seeing the film Tuesday night. I too had a similar reaction to the film, and understood from the beginning that such a collaboration seemed impossible to sustain - Kubrick and Spielberg are as opposite as filmmakers can be. I enjoyed the "Kubrick-esque" scenes the best, but was frustrated by the film's inability to fully realize what was being said. However, I did react to Osment's portrayal of David and felt that the character was developed enough to truly believe what he was going through - his genuine plunge into confusion upon finding he was not "the only one - unique - no one else like me" when he arrives at the Mecha factory in Manhattan being the climax of David's development.
The 'Flesh Fair' scene seemed obviously out of place, and like you I felt it was poorly done - What was the point, and why even have the scene - it had no bearing on the story, nor did it give us any development of David. And what was up with Teddy? I enjoyed him initially, even up to the point where the 2 boys were trying to get him to come to them and Teddy opts for Mommy -- but after that, how does Teddy know so much?
One minor point in your review that I wanted to mention was "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" - It seemed clear to me that David was left there initally because she changed her mind at the last minute - She was most definitely taking him back to the factory to be destroyed, but couldn't bring herself to do it, so she dumped him there. Later, however, Hurt's character tells David after he finds Hurt at the factory, and Hurt explains that all was an experiment to see if David could follow his dreams. Perhaps the entire thing was a setup to see if David could actually 'love' his parents and try to return to them, but David went a step further in trying to understand what it was about him that his Mom didn't like about him.
A final note to mention was I am in complete agreement with your comments about the score - one of Williams' best as of late, but even that was out of place in this film - I can only wonder how great this film might have been had this just been a straight Kubrick film - the science fiction genre really needs more cerebral films (has there been one since Star Wars?) and I think this would have been a great one without Spielbergs touch. Don't get me wrong - Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of my favorites, and I think Speilberg has made some great films - but a true Science Fiction film (read - without a solid stream of Action) would be a breath of fresh air.
Thanks for the reviews and the DVD column - like you I've enjoyed laserdiscs for years, and made the switch to DVD's early on. I think the format still has a lot of room to grow, and finally the public seems to dig digital video, so onward and upward. Keep up the great work!

From John Maher <>
Well, Andy, it appears that you liked the film even more than I did. I thought it was truly one of the worst "A" pictures that I have ever seen. I would give it one star. Not for its score; but for the presence of Haley Joel Osment, who proves he can really act! This film made $30 million more than it should have.

From Michael Karoly:
In regards to A.I., I just wanted to say that, despite a few criticisms, I really enjoyed the film. Yes, Spielberg isn't as "dark" as Kubrick, he tends to back off of dark topics in a way that Kubrick never would, and he filters those darker themes and violence through his film technique and idioms, but this is probably Spielberg's most interesting film in some time (as far as subject matter goes). When was the last time a protagonist in his film tried to commit "suicide"? And the ending, while very emotional in a Spielberg way, didn't get as crazy as it could have. What won me over was the theme that, despite technological advances and evolution, we are not God, and some things just aren't possible as a result of being "mortal".

The more I think of this film, the more I like it. I stopped trying to look at it as "...if KUBRICK had made it...."; it's counter-productive, as Kubrick can't make it. I commend Spielberg for trying to address the subject matter in a more challenging way for him, and I will defend the effort. With SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, I would say that this is his best film since SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Michael, you make a good point on the end of the film. The theme of religion is subtly placed in the backdrop but IS there to a degree, from Jude Law's brief mention of robots being "unable to comprehend the supernatural" to the final narration by Kingsley, which tells us David has gone to where dreams are made -- a place that only humans could go to (has he gone beyond this plain of existence? Is he indeed dead?). That doesn't leave me with the disturbed feeling some felt at the end of the picture, but I wish this idea, as well, could have been elaborated upon further in the script.

From Austin Wintory:
I just read your online article in which your reviewed AI. I agree with many of your points, although, the more I thought about the movie, the deeper I felt it went. This was likely aided by the fact that I was convinced to see it a second time. The morality issues the movie brought I thought were fantastic ideas to ponder, although I would consent that it didn't elaborate on them as much as it could have. The main theme I'm speaking of is: what morality exists in creating something that's not a simulator of love, but rather actually DOES love? The cruelty that could be so easily cast upon such a being is enormous, and phenomenally easy.
Like I said, the more I thought about the movie, the more I found I was able to get into it. As to your reference to John Williams (who is my all time favorite film composer [trite, I know]), I did fully enjoy his score, but I had one question about it for you. His score was excellent all around, but there was one cue where I can say with moderate authority (simply because it doesn't make sense), that Williams didn't write. That is the scene where the demon-ish biker gang, rounding up 'mechas' for the Flesh Fair, is firing their little magnetized darts at the fleeing robots. A techno beat, more like the works of Paul Oakenfold, is playing during most of the pursuit, and I seem to recall hearing fades of Williams music coming through periodically. Do you have any insight as to the source of that music? It's possible that it's source scoring that Williams selected, I suppose, but I'm not familiar enough with techno to distinguish any one song from another.
Thanks for the well-written article.

Austin, thanks for your comments. I'm not sure about the cue in question in here; it sounded like Williams may have experimented and written his own cue to me (I haven't listened to the CD yet; I'm sure someone reading this can clear it up!).

From Karl Scott:
Andy, I found your review of AI very interesting. Two stars was pretty generous for a film that is primarily dull no matter what deep meanings were intended. I think WB's is in big trouble financially with $30 million opening to reduce itself to zip quickly with word of mouth. I've heard the budget was $100 million and it looked like it. I can't think of any films I look forward to more than the bi-annual Spielberg opus but what a major disappointment this time out. As much as I love John Williams, I thought his main early theme when the robot kid was acting spooky was a Jerry Goldsmith Alien clone. A lot of the later music reminded me of the principal themes from Always. Sounds like you heard a little more than I did unless you actually had the soundtrack CD.

This movie could benefit from a lot of editing but the whole film seemed so totally pointless that I don't think further editing would matter. Spielberg is probably too busy in any case reediting another version of CC3K.

From Dennis Cannon:
I saw this movie over the weekend with four other people and we all came out not liking it. I had no feeling whatsoever towards the boy robot, though I thought Haley Joel Osment tried very hard to make him real -- but it did not transfer to me. I had read that the ending is a tearjerker and those movies always get me but not this one. The only one in the movie which all of us liked was the teddy bear -- now they should make a movie about his adventures that would have been something.

I went in to see a Spielberg movie and expected to be overwhelmed but came out empty.

NEXT TIME: New flicks, UNBREAKABLE and THE LAST DRAGON on DVD, plus more of your comments, which can be sent off to Take care and have a great week!

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