Although one might be tempted to include Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in any look at Spielberg’s take on science fiction, I find those films very much grounded in their own present-day. On the other hand, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005) look ahead to an extremely grim future. Unfortunately, this future still seems to include The Gap, which you might think would give it more color, but alas no.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is probably Spielberg’s most controversial film. People either seem to love it or hate it, especially the ending. I can understand this reaction because it is a curious amalgam of the original Kubrick project and Spielberg’s own sensibilities (except, apparently, the parts that people usually think are Spielberg’s were Kubrick’s and vice versa). I thought I would hate it, but actually I think it’s one of Spielberg’s best.
Like many science fiction stories, A.I. concerns itself with larger philosophical questions about what makes us human, here, the capacity to love and be loved, and the ability to dream. Kubrick’s original concept for the film, based on a story by Brian Aldiss, was a futuristic Pinocchio, where a robot-boy longs to become “real” so that he can gain the love of his human mother. I usually love a re-contextualized fairytale and think that this one works particularly well. The fairytale theme is set up from the beginning, as Monica and Henry walk along hospital corridors lined with paintings of well-known stories. Later, Monica reads aloud from Pinocchio and David goes on a quest to find the Blue Fairy from the tale.
But this is no happily-ever-after story. It is very creepy in the beginning: the story itself is chilling, as is Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of David, and the jarring camera angles and ominous music only emphasize this aspect. So I was already quite disturbed when the bear came on the scene.
Oh, yeah, there’s a freak-ass robot bear in the movie. Think Teddy Ruxpin meets Talky Tina. At this point, I considered shutting the movie off completely. Luckily, I decided to stick with it and gradually I gained an enormous amount of sympathy for David, and even became extremely fond of Teddy, rooting for them to be reunited when they are separated. I didn’t quite get the point of Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe character, although I suppose every quest needs a sidekick and he certainly is entertaining.
About the ending: I found it exceptionally moving. And by moving, I mean I moved into a fetal position and began bawling like a baby. Both times.
I presume this ending seeks to get people thinking about the price one pays when one sacrifices the humanity of others to fulfill one’s own desires, or some other similar moral dilemma, but all I was thinking was WHERE IS THIS TECHNOLOGY?!? Because, having now lived on this earth longer without my mom than with her, there’s no question what I’d do.
I guess some people see this resolution as a typical Spielberg happy ending, but I didn’t view it that way at all. It was so full of melancholy. And, in the end, I think that is why it is so effective. Love it or hate it, I can’t imagine not being affected by this work. It posits complex moral questions, provides compelling drama and tense action sequences, and has more incredible frames than you can count.
If A.I.’s big question centers on love, then Minority Report (2002) looks at the question of free will. If you can see the future, and you are committing murder in that future, what do you do? Can you change your fate simply by knowing it?
In other words, this is one of those plots where the more you think about space-time logistics, the more your head feels like it’s going to explode. Or maybe that’s because I had just recently watched La Jetée. Better to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And it is quite a ride. I couldn’t really connect with this film and I think that had a lot to do with the digital production design and my lack of interest in the special effects. Plus, there was the whole thing with the eyeballs, which meant that it had a major squick factor for me. However, it is well-paced, with some interesting performances. There are a few killer shots, but nothing close to A.I. or some of Spielberg’s other films. However, like his more adventure-based stories, there was both a train and a sunset.
Train sighting: Tom Cruise in the metro when he first goes on the run.
Sunset shot: In the epilogue, with the pan out from the house.
If A.I. asks us to ponder love, and Minority Report to consider free will, War of the Worlds (2005) compels us to consider the vital question: “What would happen if aliens rode lightning down to earth and replaced Michael Bay with Steven Spielberg?”
Sadly, the answer to that question is nothing, you would still get the same crappy, nonsensical action movie. Probably the only redeeming thing about this movie is Tim Robbins portrayal of a crazy man. And surely one can get that elsewhere.
Train sighting: A runaway train on fire(!) in the Hudson Ferry sequence.
Sunset shot: The Arc de Triomphe in the “world” montage at the beginning.
I suppose it is only fitting that I end my Spielberg odyssey with War of the Worlds. Much like Tom Cruise in that film, I may be bruised and battered, but I live to fight another day.
For the complete Spielberg filmography and links to other posts in this series, click here.