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VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Artificially Intelligent Cinema

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Its Friday! Which means it’s time once again for the weekly roundup of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining trainwrecks. This week’s theme: Artificially Intelligent Cinema.

Surrogates, a new action movie starring Bruce Willis, opens today. It’s hard to get too excited, though, considering the screenplay was written by the Michael Ferris, who we have to thank for The Net and Catwoman. Granted, it can be difficult to make a big budget, $100 million-grossing movie that’s also intelligent and thought-provoking, but still – so many seemingly interesting projects end up falling short of what they could have been. This is especially true of movies that present a dystopian future where technology has become dangerous to society. The idea is good, but somewhere in the production process it gets muddled–usually because profit and mainstream appeal become the priorities. The tagline for Surrogates is, “Human Perfection. What could go wrong?” In the case of movies about artificial intelligence: plenty.

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1. ‘BICENTENNIAL MAN’ (1999)

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Prolific sci-fi author Isaac Asimov‘s life was dedicated to his writing and he paid very little attention to Hollywood, sometimes granting film rights to his work for as little as $50. Following his death in 1992, his estate wasted little time in optioning many of his titles to the major studios. By the late 1990s, no less than four Asimov movies were in the works. The first one of these projects to go into production was Bicentennial Man. Published as a novella in 1973, it later became the basis for Asimov’s 1993 novel, The Positronic Man. It’s set in a world where robot laborers have become commonplace, focusing on one such robot, named Andrew, who gradually begins to take on human characteristics.

It remains relevant today in the way it examines the consequences of creating ever more sophisticated technology. Positronic was considered the perfect source material to create a big special effects blockbuster, which is exactly what Disney had in mind when they acquired the rights to it.

poster2Unfortunately, any chance that the film version would retain Asimov’s disturbing and prescient storyline was snuffed when Robin Williams was cast in the lead role and Chris Columbus was hired to direct.

Add to the mix Hallie Eisenberg, the cute kid from the Pepsi commercials, and a treacly, sentimental script from Nicholas Kazan, and voila – you have the recipe for a wannabe tearjerker that rivals Williams’ Patch Adams for cringe-worthiness. That fact was bemoaned by Stephen Holden in his review for The New York Times:

As befits a Robin Williams movie, the screenplay pours on the sentimentality in lumpy, mawkish speeches about freedom, the joys of sex and the meaning of life. Not even Williams, pulling out every moist, sad-clown expression in his bag of grimaces, can redeem these speeches from sappiness.

In Variety, Todd Mccarthy echoed those sentiments:

The same story could easily have been told so that its themes would have hit home in sharp and meaningful ways. But Columbus’ approach is intended to cloak such topics as mortality and human identity in the warm glow of greeting card sentiment, which renders the prescription palatable for mass consumption but hopelessly diluted.

That the trailer repeats ad nauseum that it’s, “From the creators of Mrs. Doubtfire,” is an indication of the movie’s tone and the audience that the producers were aiming for. They certainly weren’t going for the die hard Sci-Fi fanatics with this one.

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2. ‘A.I. : ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE’ (2001)

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Stanley Kubrick was notoriously obsessive about his films, spending years developing projects like The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. One of the ideas that he spent the most time developing was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, based on the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. The story had first come to his attention in the mid 70s, and after a long development period and several false starts, in December 1995, Warner Bros. announced that A.I. would go into production following the release of Eyes Wide Shut. However, the psycho-sexual thriller, starring then Hollywood power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, wouldn’t be completed for another four years and its theatrical release ultimately coincided with Kubrick’s untimely death. All that remained of his would be masterpiece were detailed storyboards, drawings, special effects test sequences and hundreds of pages of script treatments.

A.I. would have remained sitting on the shelf if Steven Spielberg hadn’t decided to bring the project to fruition. It was a decision that had ai15plagued him for years, when he finally found himself at a crossroads in 1999, having to choose whether to direct that, Minority Report or the first installment of the Harry Potter franchise. Spielberg’s longtime producer, Kathleen Kennedy, told Variety that Kubrick had first talked to the E.T. director about A.I. after a viewing of Jurassic Park in 1993. She said that Spielberg finally decided to go ahead with it after a visit with Christiane Kubrick, the late director’s widow. After the visit, Kennedy said:

Steven came to me and we decided to do it.

It was an unlikely collaboration and the end result served to illustrate just how wildly divergent the two auteurs were in their visions. When A.I. hit theaters in the summer of 2001, the oil-and-water mix of  Kubrick’s dark vision and Spielberg’s penchant for warm sentimentality polarized critics.

In his review for Salon, Charles Taylor wrote:

Spielberg clearly wants to bring a new element of darkness and pessimism to his work but he’s also wary of losing his audience — and perhaps not even philosophically comfortable with pessimism in the first place. A.I. contains scenes darker than any he has put on screen, but 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 heart-rending finale, even at the expense of coherence. The result is some sort of anti-achievement: a cold fairy tale, a procession of wonders from which we have been deliberately, even ruthlessly, distanced.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote:

Having Spielberg complete a film originated by Kubrick is like having Francis Coppola call in Ron Howard to collaborate on Apocalypse Now. It doesn’t compute.

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3. ‘SIMONE’ (2002)

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During a hot streak in the late 90s/early 2000′s, Andrew Niccol wrote and directed Gattaca, and wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show. He then followed up those movies with another tale about the ethical conflicts of modern technology. Once again, Niccol served as both writer and director for the project. Simone (aka S1m0ne) tells the story of an out-of-work film director who collaborates with a computer geek to create a “digital” actress that goes simone-movie-posteron to achieve fame and fortune the world over. Of course, this leads to complications when the actress is invited to awards shows, interviews and news conferences. To create buzz surrounding the movie’s release, New Line Cinema was coy about whether the character of Simone was digitally created or played by a flesh and blood actress. Dave Kehr mentions this in an article that appeared in the New York Times:

Is Simone a real fake or a fake fake? No one is saying, though the Internet movie chat rooms are full of unconfirmed reports that she’s played by a Canadian model whose initials are A. G. In the movie, set to open Aug. 16, Simone does have an intriguing half-real, half-hallucinatory quality. She’s there and not there, poised between dream and reality — just as, come to think of it, all the great stars are.

The truth, that Simone is played by an actual human being – an actress named Rachel Roberts was obviously much less intriguing than the pre-release hype. Even though Final Fantasy, the first movie to showcase an all digital cast came out in 2001, the technology that was available in 2002 wasn’t (and still isn’t) at a stage to convincingly replicate a human being. I suppose those nerds who were spreading the hype in the internet chatrooms should have known better.

The lack of technology was the least of Simone‘s problems. Once it reached theaters, it was met with indifferent reviews and box office. Salon‘s Andrew O’Heir wrote:

It’s not merely that these subjects have already been satirized to the point of ultimate tedium; more importantly, Simone just isn’t very funny.

In The Onion, Scott Tobias noted:

Pacino’s attempts to hide his creation grow more desperate, Niccol similarly starts to lose control, falling back on cheap gags and increasingly implausible plot turns in order to wrangle a story that gets away from him. Niccol has yet to make a film that follows through on his massive ambition.

And Simone has yet to find an audience.

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