This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I've been meaning to re-watch A.I. for quite a while now, having not seen it since it opened in theaters nearly 12 years ago. I wasn't terribly thrilled by it at the time, though I was of course much younger and less experienced then. It became more intriguing to me to revisit it once I had my breakthrough with Eyes Wide Shut, which I was also too young and inexperienced to properly appreciate at the time of its release.
Of course, A.I. was the film Stanley Kubrick had on deck to follow Eyes Wide Shut and was undertaken by Steven Spielberg. I don't know if I knew that at the time but even if I did, I didn't understand Kubrick enough to really get what difference it made.
Re-watching it this time, though, I can see both the Kubrick and Spielberg elements throughout the picture. There are some scenes that feel crafted by Kubrick even though he had nothing to do with the film Spielberg made. Some sequences show the Spielberg touch, and I found myself wondering how Kubrick might have shot them instead. It's particularly curious as Kubrick's storytelling aesthetic, though meticulous, was emotionally cold whereas Spielberg is synonymous with emotional manipulation.
Take, for instance, the scene where David witnesses the damaged Mechas scavenge for parts. It's easy to imagine Kubrick staging that in a distant way, the Mechas going about their business as a matter of fact with David perhaps taking a sort of indifferent pity on them. In Spielberg's hands, though, we're first intimidated by them. They're frightening, almost like cyborg zombies, before we see them for the pathetic wretches they really are.
Once we identify with the Mechas, we're invested enough in them that the ensuing passage of the film - the hunt through the woods, followed by the appalling Flesh Fair - is difficult to watch. We become aware of just what danger David really faces; how cruel his world truly is.
Kubrick, I think, would have presented it differently. His human antagonists would have been more cerebral, their war on Mechas more clinical. Spielberg reduces them to redneck caricatures. It's far less nuanced or high brow, but it's more emotionally affecting. Those people are a shorthand for an uncouth, thoughtless and superstitious mob and we immediately understand why there's no chance of appealing to them intellectually for a reprieve.
In the end, though, A.I. still suffers from the same basic issue I had with it in the first place: the story relies on David's desperation for the love of his mother but it isn't satisfactorily developed. Monica "imprints" on David after a single scene because the story needs her to; not because it makes sense.
Moreover, there's the curious passage of time. How long was David with the family before Martin was revived? How long was he with them after Martin returned? Long enough for us to see Martin progress from a wheelchair and an oxygen tank to exo-skeletal leg braces, to being able to walk and stand on his own at the pool party. Surely in all that time, enough happened for the family to learn to communicate more clearly?
How hard should it have really been for them to sit down and hear both sides of the story over the hair-cutting incident, or to even bother listening to what happened at the pool? Why didn't Martin speak up? He recognized that the other kid had frightened David, who hid behind him for protection. Yet, presumably, once he was fished out of the pool, he threw David under the bus entirely? No one bothered to even clear up what actually happened?
For that matter, why is it that David eats spinach and his face melts, but he can lie under water without so much as a glitch? That's some awfully selective cybernetic equipment.
Then there's the finale, which I never liked. I get that it takes the Pinocchio allegory to its farthest, saddest conclusion and how that all works as a commentary on the loneliness of eternal love and the human equation, etc. But it skips forward 2000 years just to get us to a point where David is special for having had contact with actual human beings again, because the story needs that to happen and not because there's any in-story reason for it. I never understood why the cybernetics company would have its HQ and lab in the half-drowned building in Manhattan anyway, but I can't comprehend that no one pieced together where David went or didn't go looking for him. What, not a single security camera to show him going into the water? He fell in basically within eyesight of where he wound up in the submerged police vehicle, which means he didn't get that far. He stayed there for two thousand years. How feeble a search did they conduct to find him?
I watched A.I. again in the context of the 2013 DVD Talk Academy Awards Challenge, so it's probably worth commenting on the elements that were nominated.
John Williams's score was actually one of two of his in the running for Best Music (Original Score), the other being his work for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. This is a different kind of score for Williams, bereft of the kinds of iconic themes that dominate the rest of his illustrious body of work. I noticed throughout the film tonight that my sub-woofer rumbled often, even in parts where the score itself wasn't particularly pronounced. It does feel like a more "mature" score than traditional Williams fare, but it also isn't particularly memorable. Williams lost to Howard Shore's score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and I'd say deservedly so.
The other Oscar nomination was for its visual effects, which also went to Fellowship. There's no shame having lost to Fellowship, but I do have to say that the visual effects have aged very well. A.I. doesn't look like a typical late-90's/early-00's production with the conspicuous exception of Dr. Know, which looks more like the Jaws 30 graphic in Back to the Future, Part II. The Mechas are really well crafted, and I have to give Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski credit for not allowing the camera to linger in an attempt to dazzle us with the Mecha effects. They're shot as though they were ordinary characters, though there is one glaring moment where the female nanny Mecha, running from pursuers, turns her head to the left and right, showing us that her head is mostly exposed between her face and the back of her head. It's an organic moment, though, as an ordinary character would also reasonably pause and look both ways at that moment so I forgive that shot.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#930/1469)
A.I. > Galaxy Quest --> #735
Despite my misgivings about A.I., after revisiting it for the first time since it played in theaters, I've found enough substance that I think it actually is stronger than Galaxy Quest is fun.
A.I. > Paranormal Activity --> #368
Paranormal Activity remains one of the best theater-going experiences I've ever had, but my appreciation for the film itself has diminished as it's become a franchise. Conversely, my feelings about A.I. have improved. It wins.
A.I. < Fat Girl --> #368
This would actually make for a really curious double feature, with Anaïs being a sort of anti-David but both in a similar situation. I'm not sure which ending is more horrific, though.
A.I. < Lone Star --> #368
I may have some newfound appreciation for A.I., but not enough to pick it over Lone Star.
A.I. < DC Showcase: Jonah Hex --> #368
Before re-watching A.I. just now, I'd have picked the Hex short easily but I had to actually stop and think about this match. I still have enough qualms with A.I. that I'm going with Jonah Hex this time, though.
A.I. < The 39 Steps --> #368
The best part about either film is Haley Joel Osment's performance in A.I., but I really dig a well-done spy story and The 39 Steps is an excellent one. It gets the nod.
A.I. > The Godfather --> #355
I respect The Godfather, but I just don't feel it. A.I. isn't as commanding a film and I have more problems with it, but it makes me want to connect with it and that's enough to win here.
A.I. < The Lady Vanishes --> #355
Unlike A.I., I haven't got a single complaint about The Lady Vanishes. It's fun, it's intriguing, briskly paced with a taut mystery and charismatic performances. It wins.
A.I. > The Dukes of Hazzard --> #352
I literally grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard from my playpen and I can only accept the 2005 film in the context of a Broken Lizard film (even if not produced by the troupe outright). Even at that, though, it's not satisfying enough to best even the problematic A.I.
A.I. > Jerry Maguire --> #351
Jerry Maguire has fewer flaws, but it also lacks the storytelling ambition of A.I. I'm giving the nod to A.I. despite its imperfection.
A.I. < The Lady Vanishes --> #351
Yep, I'm sure of this one. The Lady Vanishes wins again.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #351/1469