A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

It’s a difficult era of my life to recall, but there was a time while I was alive when the internet was not a ubiquitous influence on pop culture & politics, but just something nerds in basements used to discuss nerd shit on nerdy message boards. Before the at-your-fingertips availability of sites like IMDb & Wikipedia, it was easier for false word-of-mouth information about movies to spread, which is how I heard weird urban legends about the production of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The lie I was told about A.I. as a kid was that it was a Stanley Kubrick film that the infamous auteur did not live to see completed, so it was taken over & “ruined” by populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I vaguely understand where this claim is coming from, as it’s difficult to reconcile the out-of-nowhere sweetness of A.I.‘s epilogue with the (out-of-character for Spielberg) brutally bitter, ice cold sci-fi masterpiece that precedes it. The truth, of course, is that Kubrick did not direct a frame of A.I. He held onto the rights for the project (an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story) for decades, but was frustrated with child acting & special effects limitations that made the task appear impossible. Kubrick essentially gave up on A.I., handing over the reins to Spielberg, who turned it into what I believe to be the most beautifully bonkers & traumatic work of his career. Kubrick’s influence certainly guided Spielberg’s hand through the project (with some spillover into his next project, Minority Report) and seemingly pushed him to creative heights as great as any of his earliest, most iconic blockbusters. The idea that Spielberg ruined the work of a deceased auteur is total bullshit, though, and I’m embarrassed that I initially believed it without seeing the picture for myself.

Watching A.I. now, well over a decade after the initial umbrage around its jarring epilogue, the film’s few faults seem microscopic in comparison with its towering ambition & technical achievements. What clicked most for me on my recent initiation to the film is in the tension between the warm Spielbergian concept & cold Kubrickian execution, which I suppose is what inspired the urban legend around its production history. It’s difficult to imagine a more Spielbergian narrative than a scientist (William Hurt in Icarus/Altered States mode) striving to “build a robot who can love” or “a robot who dreams.” Instead of filtering that concept through the childish, wide-eyed wonder of something like Hook or E.T., though, Spielberg leans into the scenario’s emotional terror. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a fairy tale about a machine who loves unconditionally, but receives nothing in return because he is considered a Thing, not a Person. Its many allusions to Pinocchio rely heavily on that tale’s horrors of body dysmorphia & crises of self, not its potential for storybook cuteness. Filtering that formula through a Blade Runner-inspired future of “real” people playing god with artificial minds & bodies opens the film up to a brutal adventure into philosophical dread & emotional torture. Spielberg is not at all afraid to twist the emotional screws here— stabbing, melting, dismantling, and psychologically torturing his robo-cast at every cruel twist in the story, a far cry from the “gee willikers!” sci-fi throwbacks of his 1980s work. He walks back those impulses somewhat in the epilogue, but the film has already dug too much of a wickedly cold groove at that point for the emotional damage to be undone. I’m always on the hook for Spielberg’s forays into sci-fi but I can’t remember a time a film of his has struck me more in its sheer audacity.

Haley Joel Osment delivers the performance of his career as the titular A.I. and the de facto Pinocchio— a childlike robot created to soothe parents traumatized by the declining health of their “real” son. When their human son snaps out of his life-threatening coma, their robo-boy no longer serves a purpose in the household and is essentially curbed as if he were a broken dishwasher. This sets off a never-ending quest to earn his “mother’s” love by becoming a “real boy,” something the audience knows is impossible, but the robot does not. Every line-reading of “I love you, Mommy. I hope you never die,” & “I’ll be so real for you,” is a stab to the audience’s heart, a feeling the film chooses to linger in at length. A.I. starts as a climate change parable, a traditional fairy tale set in a nightmarishly familiar near-future for yuppies. Once its central robo-boy is abandoned as obsolete technology, its vision shifts to a Blade Runner hellscape packed with a never-ending parade of sci-fi eccentricities: canine-shaped Tron bikes, an oversexed neon perversion of Atlantic City, a moon-shaped hot air balloon, a Ministry concert/right wing robo-torture rally, etc. Out poor, lost robo-boy is not built to survive these conditions, having been designed for intimate, domestic comfort. He finds comrades in fellow abandoned comfort appliances (most notably an animatronic teddy bear & a sex robot played a perfectly-cast Jude Law). Their help is mostly an empty gesture, though, as his ultimate goals of earning his “mother’s” love and becoming “real” are tragically unobtainable. Because of his programming, it’s a fact he never accepts and the audience has no choice but to watch him search in vain for peace that will never come.

There’s a clear sequence late in A.I. when the story logically comes to a (bottomlessly grim) conclusion and the movie seemingly ends. Everything after that moment has been picked apart & scrutinized for “ruining” the picture by so many people, to the point where its meaning has been widely misinterpreted & urban legends about its inclusion have muddled the film’s history. Personally, I think the ending is perfectly serviceable, even if mediocre; it only stands out like a sore thumb because of the near flawless 2+ hours that precedes it. Even on a technical level, A.I. is a modern wonder. Haley Joel Osment’s creepily convincing robotic acting digs under your skin, even as you feel deep empathy for his existential plight. The mixture of practical effects (including robotics work holdovers form the Jurassic Park crew) and CGI is remarkably seamless for a film this far in the past, amounting to an intoxicating visual experience. Even if the technical end were amateurish, though, I’d still be in amazement of how Spielberg can use his knack for emotional manipulation for evil here, creating a truly torturous experience out of his typical childlike wonder. The dismount may be subpar in comparison to the rest of the film, but the claim that the final ten minutes “ruins” everything that comes before it is ridiculous. Spielberg’s at his best when working in this rare mode of Not For Everyone sci-fi instead of his usual populist grooves. Claiming that he corrupted the genius work of another filmmaker is a disservice to what’s really going on here: a darkness & mastery of the form he’s not always willing to dwell in when afforded the chance. A.I. is a great glimpse at the genre-film master Spielberg could be if he weren’t so careful with his less emotionally complex crowd-pleasers. This is a work of obsessive, insular passion, even if it feels on the surface like Kubrickian coldness.

-Brandon Ledet

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet