Saturday, October 30, 2010

AI and IWTB part 1

Back in 2001, I was involved in a fan site that was helping to promote Steven Spielberg’s new film, A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. I even went to Los Angeles, met the webmaster of this site, and got to check out a screening of the film, which left me floored, and satisfied, as the film was one of my most anticipated of that year. In some respects, 2008 felt like déjà vu, but on a larger scale, when I got to see the debut screening of The X-Files: I Want To Believe in Los Angeles, as well as The Lexicon’s behind the scenes participation with the Blu Ray disc. While following the public reaction to IWTB, I found myself having a feeling of déjà vu all over again.

While both films are very different, I found one parallel with A.I and IWTB; the public built up their anticipation for both films based on perceived assumptions, and when both films ended up being nothing like what the public expected, the reaction was indeed sour. Yet, to those segments within the public that were paying attention, there were ample clues that neither film was going meet assumed expectations. Both films had a marketing strategy that built up mystique, and both films had the baggage of a certain kind of history. In the case of I Want To Believe, it was the past history of The X-Files.
In the case of A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, it was the past history of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. In the case of A.I., the promotion strategy included an innovative on-line viral campaign independent of the film, with a complex narrative set fifty years after the domestic events depicted in the Spielberg film. The history of this viral campaign can be found here and here.

Another parallel could be found with the kind of films that were competing with. In 2008, I Want to Believe was competing with the juggernaut The Dark Knight, in 2001, A.I. was competing with two juggernauts, Jackson’s LOTR: The Fellowship Of The Ring, as well as the first Harry Potter film.

The astonishing teaser trailer can be seen here, a trailer that reminded me of the more abstract teaser trailers for Alien and The Exorcist in the 70s.

As well as the other trailer:

In the case of both films – they deconstruct past mythologies, and force us to look at parts of our human condition that we find uncomfortable to examine. I won’t go into a synopsis for ITWB, for which X-Philes are already well versed, but for anyone not familiar with the plot and background of A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, I will offer an analysis.


The origin of A.I can be found in a short story by novelist Brian Aldiss: “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” from 1969, concerning a robot child that doesn’t realize it isn’t human, and therefore, cannot connect with its mother. Director Stanley Kubrick liked the story and bought the rights to develop it in 1982. Brian Aldiss was brought in to adapt it into a screenplay, with the mutual hope the collaboration would be on par with Kubrick’s creative relationship with Arthur C. Clarke. While Kubrick and Aldiss had a friendly relationship, Aldiss had trouble developing the short story into something substantial, and wasn’t able to satisfy Kubrick’s intentions. From 1982 until the mid 90s, a number of writers were brought in: Bob Shaw, Sara Maitland, and primarily Ian Watson, who did the bulk of the work that Steven Spielberg used when he drafted his own script. At one point Warner Bros. was close to green lighting the project in the early 90s with the intent to cast Joseph Mazzello as the robot boy. During this same period, Kubrick dropped the project to work on Wartime Lies. In 1995, Kubrick handed the project to Spielberg with the feeling it was more in line with his sensibilities. The intention was for Kubrick to act as the producer, and Spielberg to direct it, but that was not to be. Kubrick died in 1999. In the 90s Kubrick brought in director Chris Cunningham to do some conceptual work on the project, and one can see his influence in this trailer:

After the director’s death, Jan Harlin and Christine Kubrick approached Spielberg to helm the director’s chair. By November 1999, Spielberg began to write own his script, based on a 90-page treatment by Ian Watson. Meanwhile, Brian Aldiss revisited his old story and wrote two sequels--Supertoys When Winter Comes and Supertoys In Other Seasons. Aldiss sold the rights to Warner Bros, and many of the plot points from these tales made it into Spielberg’s script. The film went into production August 2000, and was rounded out by a top tier cast. Child actor Haley Joel Osment as David Swinton, Francis O’Connor as Monica Swinton, Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, William Hurt as Professor Allen Hobby, Sam Robards as Henry Swinton, Jake Thomas as Martin Swinton, and Brendan Gleeson as Lord Johnson-Johnson. The voiceover talent was just as prodigious; Ben Kingsley as the voice narrator and advanced mecha leader, Jack Angel as David’s companion Teddy, Robin Williams as Dr. Know, Meryl Steep as the Blue Fairy, and Chris Rock as a mecha victim.

Many of the technicians involved with the film essentially brought their ‘A’ game. The musical score, written by John Williams, harkens back to his work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Others included were Editor Michael Kahn, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Costume Designer Bob Ringwood, Production Designer Rick Carter, and sound designer Gary Rydstrom. The visual effects were created by the Stan Winston Studios and ILM with Dennis Muren. Producers Katherine Kennedy and Bonnie Curtis were also on board.

The story, a post modern deconstructionist fable.

The story is set in the future, and the tale is narrated by Ben Kingsley explaining that catastrophic global warming-induced floods have ravaged the continents, and exacerbated population pressures. Millions have already died in the poorer countries. The Kingsley narration is key in understanding the context of the film, for the story is told as a fable from the far future, about our past. Couples are required to secure licenses to have children, and are allowed only one child. Professor Allen Hobby, the genius behind Cybertronic, a company that produces human-like robots, proposes a robot child that has unconditional love for its assigned parent, and has the capacity to transcend its initial programming, but a question is raised--a conundrum; could a human feel the same unconditional love? Twenty months later, an employee of Cybertronic, Henry Swinton, brings home the prototype, David. His wife, Monica, is reluctant to this arrangement, and is initially frightened of David. Henry and Monica have a son that is suffering from a rare disease, and has been placed into suspended animation until a cure can be found. Monica warms to David after activating his imprinting protocol, which irreversibly causes David to love her, as a child would have unconditional love for its mother. Monica reads to David The Adventures of Pinocchio, which includes a key plot point that will act as a catalyst for the rest of the film. As David continues to live in the Swinton home, he is introduced to Teddy, a supertoy, robotic bear who takes upon himself the responsibility of David’s well being.

Unexpectedly Martin is cured of his disease, although disabled, and is brought home. Triggering a sibling rivalry, and bringing about a series of taunts, one challenge by Martin is for David to cut a lock of Monica’s hair while sleeping, which will bring about a major future plot development, but Martin’s scheming behavior backfires, when Martin and his friends trigger David’s self protection programming at a pool party. While Martin is saved from drowning in the pool, it is decided for David to be sent back to the Cybertronic’s factory to be destroyed. But Monica, after arranging a ruse that David believes is an outdoor picnic, has a change of heart, and leaves David and Teddy in a forest. It is an emotionally harrowing scene, that has led to accusations of child abuse by the public. We are then introduced to Gigolo Joe, a male prostitute mecha, who is framed for murder by a jealous husband, and is left unregistered and on the run.

The Rising Moon sequence is the inverse of the light ships from “Close Encounters;” it’s not a harbinger of enlightenment, but destruction.

Joe and David converge, as David stumbles upon a village of abandoned mechas looking for scrap parts. But David, Joe, and others are captured by vigilante anti–mecha humans that run Flesh Fair events where abandoned, useless mechas, are destroyed in a coliseum / gladiator fashion. A technician at the event, believing David is human, realizes he is one of a kind, but the figurehead, Lord Johnson Johnson, wants to make David an example, arguing that this new mecha child is now supplanting their biological children. But the intent backfires. Just as David and Joe are about to be destroyed, David pleads for his life, and the public turns on the organizers. David, Joe, and Teddy escape. The trio set out to find The Blue Fairy, from the Pinocchio fable, with David making the intuitive connection that if he is made real, Monica will have to love him and take him back.

They travel to Rouge City, and extract information from a holographic volumetric display answer engine called “Dr. Know.” When David and Joe cross a flat fact with a fairy tale, they are given a cryptic clue, a quote from William Butler Yeats, that leads them to the flooded ruins of New York, Manhattan, using a stolen police amphibi-copter. Reaching the headquarters of Cybertronic, after David destroys a replica of himself that he fears will supplant him with Monica--another harrowing, disturbing scene--David meets his real father, Professor Hobby, whom through his detached, academic inclinations tells David he was tested to see where his leaps of faith would take him. We also learn that Professor Hobby had a son who died at a young age, and that David is modeled after the boy. But David learns, he is the first of many Davids. When the professor abandons him, David has a breakdown, and leaps off the top of Rockefeller Center on a ledge, where Cybertronic is headquartered, to the oceans below. But Joe, accompanied by Teddy, rescues him, just as David sees his objective, a sculpture of the Blue Fairy. Moments after Joe has saved David on the surface, the authorities capture Joe from another amphibi-copter using an electromagnet, but Joe programs the amphibi-copter to submerge, sparing David.

David and Tebby take the amphibi-copter to the Blue Fairy statue, which turns out to be an attraction from Coney Island, deep in the oceans. David becomes trapped when a rusted Wonder Wheel falls on their vehicle. Believing the statue to be real, David asks to be turned into a real boy, repeating this wish without end until the oceans freezes, and all remaining life dies.

Two thousand years pass, and Manhattan is buried under hundreds of feet of glacial ice, and humans are extinct. Mechas have evolved into an alien-humanoid form and silicone-based life has replaced carbon-based life. They find David and Teddy, the only two functioning mechas who knew living humans. After David is reactivated, he retrieves his memories, and touches the Blue Fairy statue. It crumbles and he realizes it was not real. But the advanced mechas reconstruct the Swinton home, and they explain, with their desire to do what is best for David, that while they have a way to create a clone of humans, their lifespan is only a day, and the process cannot be repeated. Using a lock of hair from Monica that Teddy had faithfully saved, a clone of her is made. David and Monica are together for a day, and it is the happiest day of his life. Monica tells David she loves him, and has always loved him as she drifts to sleep for the final time. This is the “everlasting moment” that David had always been looking for. As she drifts to sleep for the final time, he closes his eyes with her, and achieves his desire to be a real boy by finding the one common trait of all humans, our mortality. David simply chooses to cease to exist, and goes to that place where dreams are born. Teddy survives and becomes the keeper of David’s memory.

Direct and indirect themes of preservation, or being frozen in time, can be found in both films.

The film is propelled by human characters so doused in their own pain, that they are driven to make poor decisions. Professor Hobby acts as the great, passive protagonist in the film, and a truly tragic figure, one could liken to Victor Frankenstein. He is so deep in pain over the death of his son, he creates a living replica, yet is driven by so much hubris, he becomes too wrapped up in an intellectual exercise, and detached from all else, that he fails to see the tragic flaw. Monica is so driven by grief at the belief that her biological son is gone, she uses David as a surrogate, and Henry, is left trying to do his best to hang onto his wife. Lord Johnson-Johnson represents an unscrupulous opportunist, that is playing on the public’s fears.

As a side note, one should mention the visual design of the machines by the end of the film harkens back to the more stylized, surreal magazine cover art work of Science Fiction trades from the mid 1960s.

More examples of this sensibility can be seen in this astonishing fan video, that features segments from the ending. It is also fitting that the music used is Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” as Haley Joel Osment is known to be a fan of the band, it should be also noted this track was released within the same year of A.I.s release. One could view Radiohead as a band with a deconstuctionist approach.

Even the industrial band, Ministry, contributed a track for the film, "What About Us", The band also made a cameo in the Flesh Fair sequence. The video can be found here:

Ministry - What About Us
Uploaded by Pzychofreak. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

The Aftermath

A.I. is a complicated, layered, moving, poetic, yet disturbing film that doesn’t pander to genre movie conventions. A.I. works less as a linear film, but works more effectively as an episodic film. It is broken into four sections, and one could liken it to the four movements of a Symphony. The film is more concerned with exploring ideas than maintaining a perfectly threaded storyline, and one should bear that in mind when watching the film. There’s a bottomless sadness to the film, and I suspect there’s a thematic subtext that the public unconsciously picked up on, but couldn’t articulate, that helps to explain the strong reactions. The outlook concerning the human race is indeed, bleak, the film predates the growing concerns about climate change, and predates the popularist spectacle of The Day After Tomorrow, regarding the David and Monica relationship, the Oedipus complex themes are played out, and some have seen religious allegories regarding death, rebirth and transformation. While A.I. received a majority of positive reviews, some reactions were greatly divided, and most importantly, there was a sharp divide between the public’s reaction about the film, many holding a visceral dislike for it, while other’s praised, or appreciated it. The film’s gross revenue earned $235,925,552.

The mixed reactions were not at all surprising when you consider that the bulk of Stanley Kubrick’s films were often seen as polarizing for the public. But the reactions were based on certain assumptions; some key movie news fan sites were expecting another E.T. after the years of Spielberg producing more mature and grim dramas in the 90s, and this lament that the film wasn’t following the conventions of his 80s work, was a frequent mantra of the aforementioned fan sites. Spielberg commented on the public’s reaction to the end of the film in the TCM program "Spielberg on Spielberg" in 2007, and the assumptions of where Kubrick would have taken the film.

“People assume that Stanley ended A.I. with David and Teddy underwater trapped by the ferris wheel, and then end credits role, and they are going to be down there until their batteries run out. That's where they assume Stanley ended it, and I of course get criticized for carrying the film two thousand years into an advanced future where the robots that we created have replaced us, and super-mechas rule the world. It has become a silicon-based society, no longer a carbon-based society, and they certainly assume that's how I wrecked Stanley's movie. When in fact Stanley's treatment, along with Ian Watson, went right into the two thousand year future. This was where Stanley was going to take the movie had he lived to direct it. This is where I was obligated to take the picture, and even if I didn't feel such an obligation to fulfill Stanley's vision, that would have been my vision as well."

I would like to corroborate Mr. Spielberg’s above point, as I have seen many of the storyboards that Kubrick commissioned in the 90s, which does confirm that the ending with the advanced mechas was not a tagged-on afterthought, but very much a part of Kubrick’s intent. But most importantly, most of the key story elements were already sketched out by Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg merely filled in some gaps. Another key reason why many in the public failed to understand the intent of the ending, was perhaps because the intent was too subtle. Again, the Ben Kingsley narration is a key element, for he plays the advanced mecha we see at the end of the film. This film is a Fable, told from the point of view of this lead mecha. In fact, the film’s tale is directed at fellow machines; we the public, are merely eavesdropping, a rather disturbing conceit. We humans are a part of past history, and this makes the film truly a post modern, deconstructionist fable.

One key can be found with Kubrick’s interest in including the Pinocchio subplot; I suspect that Kubrick had a key interest in creating a deconstructionist fable, using Science Fiction as a means to an end. For Kubrick already understood that the Science Fiction genre had already supplanted itself from our classic fable, mythology archetype, and Kubrick saw Science Fiction as our contemporary fable, fairy tale, and mythology. Perhaps Kubrick recognized the limits of the Fable to address the human condition, and wanted to address it.

A second comment from the "Spielberg on Spielberg" program was of interest.

"I found when I looked at Stanley's two thousand storyboards on the unscripted part of that treatment he did, which was the Flesh Fair where David is abandoned by his mother and has to fend for himself, meets Gigolo Joe, and starts having a series of very dark Alice in Wonderland / Into the Looking Glass type adventures that Stanley Kubrick detailed the Flesh Fair. It looked like a concentration camp; it looked like a death camp with all the sub-human mechas being utterly destroyed by the bushel by a very terrified human race. It was so afraid of losing their identities and losing their jobs, first and foremost, to a race of serving men and women, that they just delighted in the inventiveness of decapitation, chainsaw massacring, draw-and-quartering, all of these poor helpless mecha. Stanley's storyboards did not disguise the fact that this all looked like a kind of 24th century holocaust."

This is a second interesting point. While the issue of the holocaust has always been a concern for Spielberg, when you consider his interest in Schindler’s List, as well as the use of Nazis in several Indiana Jones movies, the closest Kubrick ever came to addressing the issue from an official standpoint was the abandoned Wartime Lies project. Yet this correlation is not so far fetched, when you consider human nature. We have always used others as scapegoats for our problems, and unscrupulous figureheads and politicians have always used fear to distract from legitimate woes. It is interesting to note class issues are only passingly addressed in the film as an afterthought.

Regarding Chris Carter’s The X-Files: I Want To Believe, one must ask one’s self if this definition of a deconstructionist film applies to IWTB as well, and the answer is yes and no. Chris Knowles’ brilliant analysis of I Want To Believe, which can be found here, here and here, concluded that the film was exploring the key elements of the alien mythology, but was doing so in a symbolic, allegorical fashion. That the film was about aliens, but does a reversal of mythology and sets it back in the real world. The dying boy Christian Fearon, is a stand-in for their child, William, and Father Joe represents the state-sanctioned institutionalization of the mythology on one hand, as Chris Knowles argues, and the systematic perpetration of child abuse on the other. It is interesting to note that Father Joe and Gigolo Joe both have an odious background related to sex.

Both A.I. and I Want To Believe, thematically deal with abuse on a subconscious level, and to a certain degree.

Chris Carter is using classic myth archetypes, of the Eleusinian Mysteries – Persephone, Hades, Cerberus, and Demeter. Chris Carter might have been taking, to a degree, a deconstructionist approach to the known X-Files mythology narrative, as well as a sub textual approach to deeper belief systems. The problem with the Deconstructionist approach in film story telling, is that it tends to alienate the ticket paying public, further added by the fact that both films were so subtle in their approach that these key elements are missed in the public’s understanding, to help the public appreciate the overall intended context.

We will discuss this further, as well as Deconstructionism, and the Peter Pan Syndrome, in the next section.

Special beyond the call assistance from Xscribe, as well as some assistance from Chris Knowles.

Please check out the film: A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, highly recommended.