Hot from the Oven
David is a robot. He's been given to a needy family, the Swintons, to help them through a time of grieving and stress while their real son Martin lies comatose. He's considered a toy, but it quickly becomes apparent he's not just a plaything. At first, Monica Swinton feels insulted, and frightened too, to have such a strange "substitute son" in the house. But as little David's all-too-human charms go to work, she decides to flip the switch that makes him special. He's the first robot to be programmed to "love" his mother. When David's "love" begins, Monica begins to know joy and healing. But nobody, not even the robot makers, realize what they've done. And when such childlike love feels threatened, or learns about the reality of death, other lifelike qualities develop: jealousy, fear, and anger. Will David's new family persevere, and love him back? Or will he become "inconvenient," or perhaps too dangerous?
This is the premise of Steven Spielberg's new futuristic epic A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). The movie recalls Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, and many other fairy tales. The Swintons struggle over the responsibility we have for those we bring into the world. The dilemma of Cybertronics, the company that invents David, is part of a larger debate about science, technology, and our responsibility for the things we create. Above all, it is a cautionary tale about how our arrogance can set in motion things we cannot control. As Jeff Goldlbum's character said to the dinosaur makers in Jurassic Park, "You were so busy thinking about whether you could that you didn't stop think about if you should!"
For years, movie buffs have salivated at the thought of a Kubrick/Spielberg collaboration. And while Kubrick died two years ago, his vision is clearly woven throughout Spielberg's finished product. What a feast for the eyes! A.I. is gorgeously filmed by acclaimed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Three Colors: Red), and stars The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law from Enemy at the Gates, with a soundtrack by John Williams and cameos by Robin Williams and Chris Rock. The movie seems a guaranteed success. But judging from the wide array of critical reactions, it is safe to say the film will be remembered more for its controversial ending than for its technical quality. Parents are quickly finding out that this is not another E.T..
Most complaints from critics in the religious media targeted the uncharacteristic grimness of Spielberg's storytelling. Consider the reaction of The Movie Reporter's Phil Boatwright: "This is one dark, cold movie, with elements of cruelty and despair. This isn't just a depressing film, it literally grieves the spirit." Notice also the warning provided by Focus on the Family's Steven Isaac: "A heart-wrenching scene of abandonment will prove unsettling to almost everyone who watches it; a young child, however, could be deeply affected. Dark, sexual images and the ruthless killing of human-looking machines mar the simplicity and innocence of the story." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott writes, "What could have been an interesting and compelling examination into the nature of life and love … becomes a mediocre and maudlin sci-fi soap opera." Ted Baehr's Movieguide review claims the film "has a number of storytelling flaws … and a number of moral, philosophical and spiritual flaws." Preview's uncredited critic claims A.I. "propagates the disturbing science fiction idea that human emotions and even the soul are nothing more than electronic pulses on a microchip. While it does differentiate the emotion of love from sexual sensations, it misses the true source of love. And while man creates robots in his image, man's Creator is ignored."
What a difference between these reviews and the perspective of David Bruce at Hollywood Jesus. Bruce offers the most detailed look at the film yet from the religious media; in his chapter-by-chapter reflection on the entire film, he sees an abundance of profound truth at work in the story: "The robots … represent those we have been dehumanized for reasons of ethnicity, jealousy, and exploitation. Additionally, the robots represent the people we dispose of when they no longer have perceived usefulness and desirability. It is about the tragedy of disposable relationships, one night stands, family breakdown, the slave trade and human exploitation. It is about the necessity of hope, faith and love. Without which there is no survival."
Likewise, Carole McDonnell, a guest critic at Christian Spotlight on the Movies, says the film "asks several moral questions: Would humans be better if God had programmed [them] and without free will? Are we responsible to those who love us? Does someone's love for us make us responsible to them? Especially if we caused someone to love us because we needed love at a particular time? And should we drop someone out of our lives simply because they are no longer needed?"
In the mainstream press, only a few felt strongly enough to either entirely endorse or condemn the film. The New Yorker's David Denby found the movie to be "a ponderous, death-of-the-world fantasy, which leaves us with nothing but an Oedipal robot—hardly a redemption. That Kubrick gave up on the human race will not come as a surprise, but Spielberg is a different story." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, however, was dazzled: "There aren't many … like Spielberg and Kubrick, directors willing to lasso dreams (that's Steven) and nightmares (that's Stanley) or die trying. A.I. is a clash of the titans, a jumble, an oedipal drama, a carny act. I want to see it again." Most found it to be a fascinating mix of strengths and weaknesses. John Zebrowski ofThe Seattle Times raves, " For every moment it frustrates, there are a dozen that amaze and provoke us, asking us questions about the meanings of life and love. How many Hollywood movies can you say that about?" Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert declares it "audacious, technically masterful, challenging, sometimes moving, ceaselessly watchable. What holds it back from greatness is a failure to really engage the ideas that it introduces." Mr. Showbiz's Kevin Maynard cautions viewers expecting warm-hearted family fare, "It's a childhood A Clockwork Orange. If you're up for something as dark as the Brothers Grimm can truly be, A.I.'s a trip worth taking."
Maynard joins a debate over the film's controversial closure: "The film's sappy epilogue diminishes the impact of the sequence that precedes it: an eye-popping, nightmarish underwater voyage." Ebert, too, is dismayed: "The movie's conclusion is too facile and sentimental, given what has gone before. It has mastered the artificial, but not the intelligence." Personally, I agree with the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, who says, "This ending—the bleakest of any Spielberg movie and the sweetest and most sentimental of any Kubrick—strikes me as far from happy. Instead, it's chilling, almost annihilating." But A.O. Scott of The New York Times admires Spielberg's final gamble: "Mr. Spielberg, with breathtaking poise and heroic conviction, risks absurdity in the pursuit of sublimity. [He] locates the unspoken moral of all our fairy tales. To be real is to be mortal; to be human is to love, to dream and to perish."
But I would argue that fairy tales—as we discussed recently in relation to Shrek—speak to our longings and our innate trust that there is more to humanity than loving, dreaming, and perishing. Spielberg tries to wrap things up happily, but this world he has created is godless, with the burden of redemption and resurrection entirely on the shoulders of a greedy and wicked humankind. When robots offer high praise for their makers and the "genius" of the human race in the movie's final moments, I felt sick, for I had just seen two hours of evidence to the contrary. The end of David's quest may be a happy ending to its director, but it certainly isn't to me. And David's "unconditional love" in this film is more about possessiveness than selflessness. He will get his way, at all costs. Sure, we react emotionally when we see Haley Joel Osment crying as he is rejected. But this machine, as cute as it is, was "programmed" to love. Isn't "real" love an act of choice, an act of obedience, an act of self-denial rather than insisting on getting one's own way? Can't "real love" allow for change, for death, for disappointment? David's love is stuck at a childish level, and is not designed to mature. If Spielberg is suggesting that our technological achievements will take us to the next level of evolution, it is to all appearances a de-volution instead.
In an excellent, balanced examination at Salon.com, Charles Taylor argues that "In the end Spielberg reverts to what has worked for him before and the film winds up pulling our heartstrings in a manner that requires us to ignore what has come before. Spielberg desperately wants a heartrending finale, even at the expense of coherence." Yet, in spite of that bewildering last chapter, Taylor concludes, "For everything wrong with it, A.I. is not a dismissible film. It's too richly imagined, too accomplished. Even as he botches the emotions and the issues he raises, Spielberg goes headlong into them, wrestles with the picture's conflicting impulses. It's the kind of screw-up you get only from a master filmmaker."
Spielberg should indeed be commended for his accomplishments in the early chapters of the film, using Kubrick-esque control to draw us into the story and allowing us to think for ourselves. These scenes make the film a must-see for grownups, in my opinion. Parents especially will be compelled to go home, tuck in their kids, and treat them with tenderness. It's too bad that, in the end, he cops out and turns up the big emotional music, zooms in close on teary-eyed faces, and works overtime to make us smile. It is tragic that he does not see he has written himself into a corner, where there can be no happy ending, except in the delusions of robots that lack any freewill, and thus lack true love. Some of us, though, trust that there is a higher power that loves us faithfully, without abandoning his children, even if we ruin the world he has made, even if we destroy ourselves. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)
What do you think about the ending of A.I.?
Nicole is a beautiful but self-destructive teenager. Carlos is a hard-working boy who raises eyebrows when he tries to help—and falls in love with—Nicole. John Stockwell's crazy/beautiful reportedly avoids most teen romance conventions.
Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family compliments Kirsten Dunst, who played the little vampire in Interview with the Vampire and then grew up to play a sexy high-schooler in Bring It On and Get Over It. (She'll soon be a superstar, playing Mary Jane in next summer's Spider-man.) crazy/beautiful "fully showcases her ability. She's very good," Smithouser writes. He also says the film is better than the average teen romance, but concludes, "Cultural issues, family dynamics and the virtue of a solid work ethic are bathed in foul language and dashed by a casual attitude toward premarital sex. So much for the movie's ambition and insight."
"Kirsten Dunst gives an Oscar-worthy performance," agrees The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure. She is also pleased by the portrayal of the girl's father. "Rather than choosing the typical Hollywood scenario and making the dad look like an insensitive moron, this script gives us a father who's a hero and a satisfying ending that most teenagers will believe and applaud. The heavy complex differences and issues are what make this story stand apart from most teen dramas, but it's likewise what makes this movie worth seeing and work. It shows the negative consequences of a self-destructive person, the cultural conflicts teenagers undoubtedly face as they choose to date someone out of their social circle, and how important and integral parents are to their teenager's future."
Not all Christian critics are so impressed. "With a sweet ending, crazy/beautiful is going to grab some good reviews," predicts Movieguide, "even from some so-called family reviewers, but the message is that finding love and fornicating when you're in high school can solve your psychological problems. That is, love in the contemporary sense of sexual gratification, not in the biblical sense of mutual commitment and marriage. This message is packaged in an emotional, attractive package, which may just make this movie that much more dangerous." "The clumsy script follows a familiar 'clash-of-cultures' route, with unconvincing character transformations, and a contrived happy ending," say the critics at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But Michael Elliot (Movie Parables) argues that these problems "[don't] stop the positive messages from shining through, however: there are consequences to our actions; anything worth having is worth working for; friends are worth saving; children … need both love and discipline. The blunt warnings that Carlos receives regarding his relationship with Nicole are valid ones, supported by Scripture: 'Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character.'"
At the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert calls the flick "an unusually observant film about adolescence. The movie sets up real tension between Nicole's self-destructive behavior and Carlos' responsible nature. And because of the real conviction that Dunst and Hernandez bring to the roles, we care about them as people, not case studies." And at Entertainment Weekly, Owen Glieberman feels the film is "genuinely touching. Dunst, in her finest performance yet … is arguably the first actress of her generation poised to take on Gwyneth and Julia."
Writer/director John Singleton, who made a brilliant debut at the age of 23 with Boyz N the Hood and went on to direct last year's re-make of Shaft, returns to urban youth drama with his new film Baby Boy. Older and wiser, he draws attention to the trendy image of the young black male who treats women as commodities while relying on mother enough to avoid actually growing up. In the character of Jody (Tyrese Gibson) he gives us a young man whose world of fantasy, ego, and denial crumbles as the consequences of his actions come crashing in on him.
Michael Elliott, the only critic in the religious media to offer a review of the film so far, sees good intentions in Singleton's effort, but is not entirely happy with the result. "For all the references of 'keepin' it real,' there seems to be an awful lot of artifice injected into the script. The situations are exaggerated and many of the scenes are played for their comedy rather than their poignancy. As a result, Baby Boy is not that successful as the social commentary that … Singleton may have originally envisioned." The film's message, he argues, is certainly relevant and timely. "Our multicultural society would certainly benefit if more young men, of all races, would understand that maturity and the ability to accept responsibility are signs of great strength. They are qualities that not only bring respect, they bring a certain amount of power."
Mainstream critics also took note of the film's moral commentary. "Baby Boy is a bold criticism of young black men who carelessly father babies, live off their mothers and don't even think of looking for work," writes Roger Ebert. "It is also a criticism of the society that pushes them into that niche. There has never been a movie with this angle on the African-American experience. The movie's message to men like its hero is: yes, racism has contributed to your situation—but do you have to give it so much help with your own attitude?"
Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune has a few reservations. "Baby Boy is shockingly violent and defiantly incorrect, but some of that violence is also funny—which makes it even more affecting. The movie delivers its message—that urban families should stay together—but it also lets us enjoy Jody's irresponsibility, laugh at his casual brutality. Is it really an attack on the problems it shows, or a wallow in them? In a way, it's both things at the same time—which is the movie's most disturbing side of all."
"It's more rewarding than most of the other gangsta-rap-influenced films we've seen the past decade," writes The Houston Chronicle's Eric Harrison. "It's sometimes preachy, for one thing, and some characters undergo inexplicable changes or do foolish things for no better reason than to give Singleton something cool to shoot—but this is a bracing film, passionate, frightening, sobering and funny all at once. Baby Boy never loses sight of its characters' humanity."
Books and Culture contributor Peter T. Chattaway published a review in The Vancouvuer Courier of the Jonathan Glazer film Sexy Beast, which we covered in last week's Film Forum. Chattaway joined the chorus of critics praising the slick, stylish crime thriller. He writes, "Glazer … allows his striking visual style to support the story without overwhelming it. Although the film does eventually take us through the bank robbery and its aftermath—all of which is overseen by a cold-blooded criminal mastermind—Sexy Beast is, in some ways, more of a love story than a gangster movie. Everything [the hero] does is motivated by his unwavering love for his wife and friends. With the help of a very skilled cast, Glazer has produced one of the more intelligent and riveting films of the year."
Going Back for Seconds
What movie has given you a further revelation of God's truth? Film Forum readers have been writing in with their testimonies. You can too. What should we rent on the next video night?
Carene Cooper writes in with a suggestion: "When I think of inspirational movies, The Spitfire Grill is one of the first to come to mind. There are many Christian principles in the movie that just jump out at me: consequences for sin, redemption, forgiveness, self-sacrifice. Even in the face of 'persecution' because of her past, the lead character learns to be forgiven and to give of herself. I think it's a movie in which we all can relate to some character in one form or another and learn from it."
Charles Collins recommends the classic The Third Man, which was directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene. "Although not a beautiful picture, it is one that grapples with the truth of the human condition: Love, friendship, betrayal, the nature of evil, the search for justice."
Rich Kennedy, a critic at The Film Forum, offers films that have affected him profoundly. The Seventh Seal was a revelation to him about the reality of tribulation in human history. Pay It Forward reminded him that "We never really know how what we do affects others and the Lord's work." And he calls Ride the High Country "an extended meditation on the virtues of honor and honesty for their own sakes in the face of great temptation and grave danger."
Next week: A recent essay in Cornerstone raises a ruckus about The N Word: Nudity. The religious media usually cites nakedness as a reason to avoid a movie. Also: Is Cats and Dogs just another disposable talking animals movie? Is Kiss of the Dragon a bunch of hot air?
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See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Fast and the Furious, Dr. Dolittle 2, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Shrek, Pearl Harbor, and Swordfish.