movies: ai and chicago


Carina and I watched Chicago the other night, and AI last night. Here are my thoughts.

The story in Chicago bored me. I wasn’t really interested in the tale. And I grew violent when Richard Gere appeared. I didn’t know who was in it, so his presence came as a real shock and disappointment. The story-telling was quite good, though. It was a gimmick, certainly, to use the musical numbers to advance the story, but I found it very effective for fleshing out the characters. All too often a movie is mired down by explanation or narration attempting to explain a character’s feelings. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in books (as much) because the author can simply tell the reader how the character feels, or how they think. The medium of written story-telling allows this kind of internal view without disruption of the story (indeed, sometimes the story would not succeed without it). But movies are forced to rely on the quality of an actor’s performance to suggest nuance, or internal conflict. Chicago used the musical numbers to flesh out those flashes of emotion that we all have in certain situations. The best example of this was when John C. Riley as Amos Hart sang “Mr. Cellophane” as he was walking out of Richard Gere’s office. This scene succinctly conveys the depth of emotion felt by Amos in that one instant, and does so in a very gratifying way that doesn’t belabour the point or drag down the pace of the movie. All of the musical numbers were well executed, and fun to watch (even the abominable Richard Gere’s big number was satisfying). If the story were told any other way, I’m not sure I would have sat through it.

(I wonder if that’s true, actually. There haven’t been too many movies I’ve walked out of, or stopped part-way through never to see again. The only movie I ever walked out of the theatre from was My Cousin Vinny, which I later thoroughly enjoyed on video. And the only video I can remember not watching all the way through was Life is Beautiful, because I fell asleep. I almost stopped watching New Rose Hotel because it was so bad, but my undying appreciation of all things William Gibson kept it on.)

AI was a very different movie than I had expected. I avoided much of the hype around it when it was released, because I intended to see it in the theatre and form my own opinion. For various reasons, that never happened. I managed to avoid learning much about this in the intervening time, so the actual story was quite a surprise to me. My original desire to see this was simply because it was another Kubrick work, and I’ve loved almost all of them (Eyes Wide Shut being the only one I really don’t care for). Although Steven Speilberg finished AI, it still bears many of the hallmarks of Kubrick’s influence, I thought. Overall, I liked the film. I was extremely skeptical at first, because I thought the premise was poorly realized. I complained to Carina that the company would have (ought to have?) played a much larger role in David’s original integration with the family. The fact that David only “imprinted” on Monica was poorly developed, and the switch between Monica’s and Henry’s feelings for the boy was abrupt and glossed-over. The relationship between David and Martin was perfectly executed, and both actors did an outstanding job emoting. David’s neediness was believable enough, but his willingness to trust any adult in his search for Monica (and later the Blue Fairy) was rubbish. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief with this movie, which was odd. Maybe it was because zero effort was put into explaining how the robots’ emotions were created. Sure, it’s the future, and robots are walking about, but that’s not enough for me to buy into the prospect that a hardware/software platform can actually experience emotion. The simulation of emotion through programmed response is easy enough, as demonstrated in the opening lecture. But no effort went into the rest of the film to give us any indication that David really felt anything. Sure, he pleaded for his life at the Flesh Fair; he cried for his mommy; he was motivated by a desire to make his mommy love him more. Nothing in the film suggested that any of this was more than pre-programmed response, though. (The Flesh Fair was an interesting sub-plot going on in the world at large that was almost entirely brushed aside. It offered a (one-sided) glimpse of the conflict between Orga and Mecha, showed some atrocities, and then it was gone. I would have liked a better integration of these themes into the bulk of the story. And the Flesh Fair’s audience’s rallying defense of David was hogwash: their anti-robot frenzy – obviously a parallel to any modern-day totalitarian propoganda regime – wouldn’t so quickly diminish.) There were parts of the film that were a little heavy-handed in their treatment of the material. I can understand why so many people were disappointed with the movie, and I can also see why so many people liked it. I’m somewhere in the middle: I don’t mind a film that asks more questions than it answers, but I prefer that those questions be interesting and challenging. The questions presented in AI were largely unchallenging for me because the real moral dilemna was watered down so much: it’s far in the future, robots are prevelant anyway, there was nothing to suggest that real emotion was occuring, etc. Consider this: if robots are such a commonplace in the world (and the post-global warming world has enough wealth to support a robot diaspora), then many of the emotional questions hinted at would have long ago been dealt with by someone, somewhere. At some level, the robot reality would look much like our modern-day fascination with other technologies: the digital calculator, the digital watch, the personal computer. We have a deep affinity for these life-changing technologies when they are first released upon us, an affinity bordering on love for some people, but soon the technology becomes commonplace and we take it for granted. The robots were largely taken for granted, so the introduction of emotional responses – real or fake – is just one more gizmo in a gizmo filled world. Surely someone somewhere really developed an affection for their personal robot. Surely someone somewhere taught their robot to execute the same kinds of simulated responses that we’re supposed to believe that David did.

Maybe I’m just jaded to the whole robot thing. I’ve been reading sci-fi for so long that many of these “issues” have been presented already. I guess the movie is a good introduction to some of the moral elements for a more “mainstream” audience.

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