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5.0 out of 5 stars Der Mechakavalier, December 2, 2005
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This review is from: A.I. - Artificial Intelligence (Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition) (DVD)
Even though I haven't seen "A.I." in a long time, its futuristic fantasia of sight and sound, as well as its moral, philosophical, and emotional undertones, have occasionally crept into my thoughts since the last time I saw it. I have also pondered what to write about the film, which I perceive as a haunting meditation on human nature. Oddly enough, its protagonist is a robot named David (Haley Joel Osment), who is made to resemble a boy. As the first robot programmed to feel love, he develops a bond with his human mother Monica (Frances O'Conner).

As one can glean from a number of reviews, whether on Amazon or elsewhere, people have either praised or scorned the film. Much of the scorn comes from those who believe that the late Stanley Kubrick envisioned "AI" as a stereotypically unsentimental tale, and that director Steven Spielberg turned it into something syrupy. Even some who generally praise "AI" still shame Spielberg for giving in to his relatively more sentimental worldview towards the end, and ruining what may have been a "masterpiece."

As for myself, I belong to the crowd that sees "AI" as a well-crafted film in its entirety. If Kubrick had lived to direct it, I have little doubt that he would have made an excellent film. However, for whatever reason, Kubrick believed that Spielberg could also do justice to the story, even believing that it suited Spielberg better than him. Perhaps Kubrick paid Spielberg a backhanded compliment because he considered "AI" too potentially sentimental for his liking, but that sounds rather implausible; I have little doubt that Kubrick could have removed sentimental sheen from a Hallmark Movie of the Week.

Despite the differing worldviews of their films, Spielberg obviously has a deep respect for Kubrick. Several shots seem reminiscent of Kubrick's own films, including "Strangelove," "2001," and "Clockwork." Most of the film deals with Kubrickian themes of human folly and meanness, especially in the cavalier way with which humans treat the almost humanlike robots. David's "family" treats him like a toy, and Monica ultimately abandons him in the woods, though for more complex reasons. Also, during the subsequent scene at the "Flesh Faire," humans watch abandoned robots get destroyed for entertainment; perhaps humans have transcended racism in this futuristic dystopia, but its vestiges are manifested all too clearly in this sequence. All this disappears in the film's "final act," after humans have become extinct.

Kubrick also respected Spielberg's filmmaking skills, and he believed that the younger director would do something wonderful with "AI." Although Spielberg attempted to remain faithful to Kubrick's style, one could still play a parlor game speculating on the elements that would have appeared in a pure Kubrick version of "AI." It probably would have been R-Rated, with more scenes portraying the exploits of the pleasure robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), as well as some more graphic activities and images in the adult playland Rouge City. Kubrick likely would have included a more extensive sequence in Rouge City with the waltz melody from Richard Strauss' opera "Der Rosenkavalier," which John Williams transformed into a brief ethereal snippet.

As Williams mentions in the featurette about the music from "AI," Kubrick specifically requested that the film include the waltz melody from "Der Rosenkavalier." However, he apparently did not give specifics about its use. Williams decided to have the reconstituted excerpt accompany David's and Gigolo Joe's hitched ride into Rouge City, which seems apt since "Der Rosenkavalier" could be summarized superficially as a bedroom farce. However, both the opera and film have similar themes, including musings on the passage of time; the facades we use to fool others and ourselves; and trying desperately to hold on to someone we love before we have to let go. It even would have seemed appropriate to have the moving trio from the end of the opera at the conclusion of the film.

The "final act," set during an ice age 2,000 years after the other events in the film, remains controversial since it does not have the trademark cynicism of Kubrick's other work. I could never understand why some people believed that the movie should have ended when David fell into the water after being pursued by the authorities; such an ending would have seemed too abrupt. However, I finally realized upon reading a recent Amazon review that they might have been referring to his futile attempts to be turned into a "real boy" by the Blue Fairy statue at the underwater Coney Island. That ending does seem aptly Kubrickian, underscoring the impossibility of achieving many of our own grand dreams, even though we hope against hope that we will actually fulfill them.

Now that I realize the possibility of that ending, I suppose I should condemn Spielberg for not stopping at that point. However, in good conscience, I cannot deny that I was profoundly moved by the film's conclusion, where a team of robots finds David frozen in ice and reactivates him to learn about their predecessor's history. In an hommage to the recreation of a familiar environment for another David in another Kubrick film, the robots recreate the "AI" David's home from 2,000 years earlier. At David's request, they also resurrect a replica of his human mother Monica from a strand he kept of her hair. However, they tell David that she will live only one day. After spending a "perfect day" together as parent and child, Monica finally tells him before "going to sleep" that she loves him, reciprocating his own perfect (albeit programmed) love for her. Perhaps such a reunion is not a scientific possibility (Ist's ein Traum?), but it works at a level that transcends the rational. (And, yes, I also cried when Ellie Arroway met the extraterrestrial who appeared as her dead father in "Contact," and when Fox Mulder finally met his sister's "spirit" in the "Closure" episode of "The X-Files.") The conditions of the reunion stipulated by David's "descendants" makes the finale even more powerful, the camera fading out just before the sad finality that occurs beyond the confines of the film. Although David has another chance to be with Monica, which seems like a happy way to conclude the film, the ending reminds us of what we all need to confront as we go through life: saying goodbye permanently to those we love. For this reason, I disagree most strongly with those who claim that "AI" has a happy ending.

Unless we could somehow bring him back to life, we will never know Kubrick's opinion about Spielberg's treatment of "AI." Some will continue to shake their heads and remain convinced that Spielberg totally ruined Kubrick's vision. However, like a number of films that received mixed reviews and generated little box office revenue, "AI" may be re-evaluated and praised in the coming years by critics who do not believe that Spielberg betrayed the memory and trust of Kubrick. After all, Kubrick's own films did not receive "universal" critical acclaim immediately; time worked in favor of Kubrick's own movies, just as it may work for Spielberg's bittersweet tribute to Kubrick.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 2, 2008 7:45:43 PM PDT
P. Mukherjee says:
Awesome review. You did a great job in explaining the two school of thoughts.
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