Steven Spielberg wants to be a Real Boy

By Jonathan Wallace

I didn’t know he was a genius. Frankly, I didn’t know what the hell he was.-- Steven Spielberg's mother

This is the third essay I have written savagely criticizing Steven Spielberg. I have never written so much personally vituperative prose about anyone other than Newt Gingrich. Its reached a point where family members roll their eyes when I say I didn't like a Spielberg movie. Why do I do it? What makes him so important that he's worth this much space in the Spectacle?

Its mostly because he's a vastly over-inflated man of mediocre talent. He is in his person the very crystallization of the phenomenon I have written about frequently: the reason why Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars making very bad movies. He is an emperor without clothes, a huge opportunity cost; the money that went to make A.I. could have made fifty or even one hundred better movies.

Steven Spielberg also represents to me a sickness of the American soul: a belief in short-cuts and easy fixes, that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not exist, that anything is possible in a movie minute if you desire it enough. Your mom has been dead two thousand years? You can bring her back, if you want her badly enough.

A.I. is an extravagantly bad movie. Like Private Ryan. Like Schindler. Another reason that I can't stand Spielberg is that critics become vacuous around him, as if infected by his vacuity. His bad movies pass for good ones. In fact, the last good serious movie he made was Empire of the Sun, of which A.I. is essentially an inferior remake.

A.I. fails on every level: as hard science fiction (which it pretends to be but isn't). As satisfying fantasy. As fairy tale. As a drama. And it fails not as an honorable attempt but because of the easy fixes and short-cuts that have come to infect all Spielberg's movies.

First, nothing in A.I. makes any sense. At the center of the movie is David, a robotic child, played capably by Haley Joel Osment, who was excellent in The Sixth Sense and may be one of those child actors who comes along once in a generation. But there's no role here for him to play--no character to get inside, just a collection of attitudes. The robot child--"mecha", in the movie's trite attempt at hard sci fi lingo--is a new model, one capable of love. There is a password--a random collection of words. If you say them to David, he "imprints" on you (like a baby duck) and loves you forever. If you ever decide you don't want him, he will have to be destroyed, because he will not be able to adjust to love anyone else.

But of course no-one would ever incorporate such a ridiculous design element in a robot. There wouldn't be any reason to do it that way. Its a major waste of hardware. A better approach would be: say the password again later, imprint him on someone else.

Also, this new model will only imprint on one parent. There's another major design error--David adores his mommy and is only polite to his father. If you're manufacturing (as a commercial product, remember) a robot child for people who cannot have real ones, wouldn't you want it to be able to love both parents?

Finally, the concept of a robot child is rather strange. David can never grow. He appears to be about ten years old. Who would want to have a permanent ten year old? Why make him ten, rather than five or three? Perhaps it would have made more sense to design a series of mechas representing different ages. Every year or two, you would trade David in for a larger model, and transfer his memories over. Or perhaps (since in Spielberg-world, deus ex machina is not a problem) the company (Cybertronics, what an original name!) could have designed a mecha that actually grows.

David's parents acquire him because they live in a world where you have to be licensed to have a child; they already have one, who has an incurable disease and is in cold sleep. The father works for Cybertronics, and is picked to provide a beta test for the new model. His boss is Dr. Allen Hobby, played ably by William Hurt, who is good at this kind of role. In the opening moments, we see Hobby addressing a group of people, telling them that the new mecha will be capable of "dream and metaphor". For a moment, there hung lambent in the air the movie I really wanted to see. But "dream and metaphor" must have carried over from Kubrick's original concept; to Spielberg, dreams are only the blueprint for a reality that will manifest itself a moment later; and he wields metaphors like sledgehammers.

The little family drama, then, doesn't make sense--the heartbroken parents who receive this untested product, then don't love it-- but neither does the framework in which it hangs. The world is in trouble; an unusually hammy narrator tells us in the opening shot that the oceans have risen, that New York City has been drowned. But the Cybertronics facilty and the family home both appear to be in a tranquil Westchester.

Who rules this world? The police force needed to enforce a babies-by-license-only law would be immense, but we don't see them. If there's order, there must be a government involved in every detail; if New York was drowned only recently, there must be hordes of hungry Brooklynites encamped everywhere, presenting a real threat to peace. But when Monica, David's mother, sends him away, she takes him to the woods alone in her (trite) tricycle car, unafraid of desperate starving displaced human trash.

Spielberg hasn't given any thought to the social context of his story: he has it both ways. Some years ago, in an essay on the future, I wrote that science fiction movies present us with two irreconcilable futures: what I called the "World's Fair" version (everyone in white robes, happy clean and hygienic, flying personal helicopters) and the "Mad Max" version (everyone in leather, horses pulling cars because there is no gasoline). The world of A.I. portrays both: on this side of the woods into which Monica sends David, its the world portrayed in the GM Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, complete with the tricycle cars and the personal aircraft; on the other side of the woods, its Beyond Thunderdome. Sure, you could have a wealthy quiet world threatened by a chaotic one next door--but where are the troops to secure it, the electric fences, the ruffians slipping about in the woods? At this point, David simply walks out of one world into another.

Stanley Kubrick in conversation used to refer to this project, which he worked on, on and off for more than fifteen years, as "Pinocchio". But the fairy tale had much more development and transition than this version does. Pinocchio makes mistakes, learns, and is ultimately transformed into a real boy. David, in a surprising absence of judgement by Spielberg, changes only once: when Monica reads him the password. He has been very robotic (good strange performance by Osment), now (as determined by his programming) he becomes much more "human". But, after that, he never changes again. He doesn't learn, or respond to his circumstances, or adapt; he simply goes on a quest for Monica, while the evil around him seems to slide off his back. He's a little robot Andy Hardy.

In the woods, we have a few mildly enjoyable science fiction set pieces, except that we've seen them all before in better movies and even in better bad ones, going back to Westworld, Saturn Five, Blade Runner and the original Alien. Mechas scavenge a pile of junked mechas, looking for replacement parts. A nanny mecha attaches herself to David: she has a face but no head. A scary vehicle, which looks like the moon, comes and captures David. Afterwards, when David and his new friend, Gigolo Joe, have escaped again, they are frightened of the full moon. (From the recollections of Leah Adler, Spielberg's mother: "He used to stand outside [his sisters'] windows at night, howling, "I am the moon. I am the moon." They’re still scared of the moon.")

The captured mechas are taken to a "flesh fair", a barbaric demolition derby where they are shot from cannons or destroyed with acid. We are in full Mad Max world now, but only for a moment; when the crowd sees David pleading for his life, they start throwing vegetables at the master of ceremonies (fine spooky performance by Brendan Gleeson) and David and Gigolo Joe are set free. In Spielberg-world, people (even some of the Nazis in Schindler) are essentially good, and more than that, sentimental; a crowd that was just howling for the destruction of the very pretty and human looking nanny mecha is freeing David a moment later, with no transition.

By the way, was it necessary to have the tap-dancing black mecha, humorously pleading for his life as they put him into a cannon? "I think I'd like to be fired over the blades, not into them". Was it a tip of the hat to Spike Lee and Bamboozled? It came across more like a swing of the Spielberg sledgehammer.

Gigolo Joe is another really bad conception. At certain points in the movie, it may be Kubrick, not Spielberg, who is really at fault; Kubrick is another over-rated filmmaker, who made some extremely bad movies later in life. Anyway, someone thought that Gigolo Joe, with his plastic slicked back hair and his trick of playing corny old songs, would be attractive to young or even middle-aged women. For that matter, why would a robot have to slap himself in the head in order to play music?

Then we have the porn palace city, "Dr. Know" the world-wide database with the silly animation of Dr. Einstein as a front end, and the personal helicopter in which David and Joe escape to New York City. The scene where Dr. Know tells them to go to New York is a masterpiece of incoherence. The doctor's categories conveniently include "Plain Facts" and "Fairy Tales", and Joe (Spielberg giggling in the background at his own cleverness) tells the doctor to combine them.

Then we arrive in ruined New York, another good special effect that we've seen before (reminiscent of Planet of the Apes and the asteroid movies from two years ago). We meet Dr. Hobby, who tells David that the whole experience was a test. They wanted to see whether he had enough of that "dream and metaphor" programming to go off on a quest and find his way back, not to Monica, but to the Cybertronics office sticking above the waves in Manhattan. David kills a replica of himself, for no particular reason while waiting for Hobby--a scene Spielberg shows us without any comment as to its rather startling implications.

Because David is such a cipher, we understand very little about the way he works. Several times, when challenged by his new brother (Monica's real son, now cured and back from cold sleep) to commit wrong acts like breaking a toy, he hesitates and says, "I'd better not." What we are seeing here is, just possibly, a sophisticated computer reviewing a complex set of rules to make a decision--in other words, a portrayal of rules-based artificial intelligence as actually conceived in today's universities and laboratories. When the brother finally gets David to commit the act which ultimately leads to his exile--sneaking into Monica's room to clip a lock of her hair-- we get a hint of sophistic reasoning confusing the mecha intelligence (clipping her hair will show his love for Monica and will cause her to love him more, and therefore sneaking into her room at night with a scissors is not a bad thing to do.)

So there is possibly a little bit of a theme about the way mechas are programmed for morality, shades of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, and there would have been a good movie there. (2010 contained a rather interesting explanation of how conflicting instructions overcame HAL's restrictions against violence.) However, in Dr. Hobby's office, the David who wouldn't even break a toy picks up a lamp and smashes another David. Did his programming break down? Spielberg never explains, Dr. Hobby doesn't seem to care, and David immediately reverts to being cherubic.

By this point, we are inured to nothing in the movie making any sense, so we shouldn't be surprised when Dr. Hobby, after a dull explanatory conversation, leaves David alone long enough for David to jump from the ledge into the ocean. Gigolo Joe rescues him in the helicopter which (gee whiz) is also a submarine (shades of Tom Swift). A moment later, Gigolo Joe is abducted by a magnetic force which pulls him away into the sky but does not affect David. David, announcing he has "seen it", immediately drives the sub to Coney Island, where he finds an underwater replica of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio (the one who turned the puppet into a real boy).

David and Teddy, the robot teddy bear who has accompanied him through-out his adventures, settle down to stare at the Blue Fairy, which they do for two thousand years while the ocean turns to ice around them. During these two millenia, as we learn a few moments later, the human race also ceases to exist.

Here is where we learn that, in effect, there is no second law of thermodynamics. In fact, no laws of physics at all. The ice doesn't shift and crush the helicopter-sub, and there is no wear and tear on David or Teddy at all. When the silver beings dig them up two thousand years later, they are as fresh as the day they were canned!

These creatures are also a very familiar special effect, combining elements of the aliens from Close Encounters, E.T. and the "Russian water tentacle" from The Abyss. We are never told if they are a form of mecha or alien visitors from off-planet. They explain to David (in an incoherent passage worthy, as the Village Voice reporter pointed out, of the best ravings of Ed Wood in Plan 9 From Outer Space) that they can bring back people only if they have some DNA....and the returnees then have their original memories, grace of something about the space-time continuum....but they only live for one day, grace of something else about the space-time continuum. Golly gee, Teddy has kept the strand of hair David clipped! Monica is recreated, wakes up, spends a day playing with David, bakes him a birthday cake, falls asleep and expires....and David, who is incapable of sleep, closes his eyes, and returns (explains the plummy narrator from the movie's beginning) "to the place where all dreams begin."

Question for Mr. Spielberg: what the fuck does that mean? What is the place all dreams begin? The womb? Death? A place with red smoky light where the souls go to be reincarnated? The graveyard of bad new age movies like What Dreams May Come? The ghost's waiting room in Beetlejuice? Does Spielberg even know what he means?

And why is an experienced filmmaker using narration? The emotional impact of almost any scene is decreased one hundred fold by having someone with a hammy British accent tell us what to think. Films are about showing, not telling. Couldn't Spielberg think of a way to show us David shutting himself down? Couldn't he have communicated that the world is drowning at the beginning without using a narrator? Robocop gave us the social background with clips of television broadcasts, which were themselves fiendishly funny. Does Spielberg have a very low opinion of the intelligence of his audience? Has the average intelligence of the audience declined so much even since Robocop that we'll only get it if a narrator tells us?

The Brooklyn audience with whom I saw A.I. was laughing uncontrollably by the end--not the reaction Spielberg wanted, but one I wish he could have heard. "He's got that Kubrick pacing down perfectly," said one audience member as we left-- not a compliment.

What did I take away from this movie? Its hard when you feel marginal and your mommy doesn't love you. But if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen! This from a movie which The Times and many others called an adult movie, stirring with ideas.

I did a search on Altavista for "Spielberg's mother" and found an interview with her, Leah Adler. "Steven wasn’t exactly cuddly," she said. "What he was was scary. When Steven woke up from a nap, I shook." And, significantly: "Nobody ever said no to Steven. He gets what he wants, anyway, so the name of the game is to save your strength and say yes early." I think one of Spielberg's problems is that he has awarded himself the privilege reputedly given Shakespeare, but of which Shakespeare never availed himself: "Others abide our measure. Thou art free." Free to make a movie without logic or narrative, without character development or insight, because it expresses something he's carried within him his whole life. But not every such personal story is art. At some point along the arc the personal must become universal, must participate in the world as well as the author's psyche. Proust too had a terrible longing for his mother-- the first hundred pages or three of A La Recherche have to do with her refusal to come upstairs and kiss him one childhood night when he had misbehaved. But Proust told his story without sentimentality, overwhelming self-pity, or (most important) shortcuts. Four thousand pages later, his narrator has not succeeded in bending the time-space continuum to get back any of the people he had lost--not even for a day.

Last month I wrote about the phony idea of closure and Fred Fariss observed that the idea of closure is frequently a false direction: there is rarely any closure in life, and when we use the phrase, what we often really mean is only letting go. You can never make up for what you didn't have in early childhood, not by bending the laws of physics, or by making expensive, empty movies.

If Mr. Spielberg wants to be a real boy, my advice to him is: start by making a real movie.

1. Spend less than five million dollars, so the money doesn't warp the story out of shape.

2. Pick a realistic story with an unhappy ending and don't change it. I know how hard this will be for you but you will be a better--more genuine-- person for it, which is what you want, isn't it? I even have a suggestion: film Zola's L'Assommoir. It begins with Gervaise saying her expectations in life are modest: she wants a warm bed, a roof over her head, enough to eat, and a husband. All of which she has. By the end, because of alcoholism, she loses all of them. No-one rescues her! She dies!

3. No short-cuts, no gee golly moments, no "if you will it it is not a dream".

4. Some humility would help. Don't let the money and the adulation make you think that you can do no wrong. If you recognize you have made bad movies, you will be capable of making better ones. A.I. was piss-poor. That's all right! Use that. And don't assume that because a movie is about you, we will all find it as interesting as you do.

5. Use the information. Your best movie moments are when you are showing us something you have really studied--a World War II battle or the Holocaust. Those moments were set in a real social context, while A.I. is not. The movies which contained those scenes only failed when you stopped describing. Think about that.

Leah Adler told how one day she got a call from her son's assistant. "Steven is sick," she said, "and he wants you to make him a pot of chicken soup. We’ll send a limousine to get it." Just imagine if Leah were dead, and the limo had to cross two thousand years to pick up the soup that would make her boy better! A.I. should have been called Chicken Soup for the Soulless.