Reviews

'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence' Visually Balances a Futuristic Milieu with the Warmth of Home

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is responsible for adding beauty—wisps of fog, baths of light—to an otherwise relentlessly harsh story.


A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, William Hurt
Length: 145 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Year: 2001
Distributor: Dreamworks
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release date: 2011-04-05
"She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you David, she cannot love you. You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat, or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That's why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me."

-- Gigolo Joe

Since its release, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has been much like its protagonist, David. Both are considered replacements for something that looks far rosier in memory. And, as a result, both have been scorned and have to work harder to find love in this world.

Much of this has to do with the history of A.I. The story finds its origins with "Supertoys Last All Summer Long”, a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss. Stanley Kubrick first started adapting this story for film, but unfortunately died before he could see it through to completion. As an homage to his friend, Steven Spielberg picked up the project and finished it based on both his conversations with Kubrick and using Kubrick's copious notes and illustrations.

How much this actually changed Kubrick's intent for A.I., the film version, will never be known, but the switch from Kubrick to Spielberg forms the basis for almost every criticism of the film. In "Creating A.I.", one of the features on the new Blu-Ray edition of the film, Spielberg insists that it was Kubrick's intention to have Spielberg direct from very early in the process. Whether that fact is forgotten, intentionally ignored, or disbelieved, it hasn't stopped the wave of complaints: Spielberg is too treacly and sentimental for the material, Kubrick would have made it darker, the final film is too close to Spielberg's other movies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in particular) and, most emphatically, the ending was a tacked-on mistake to give the whole thing a happier ending.

Whether or not those arguments have merit—and, concerning the last one, Spielberg often claims in interviews that he only delivered on Kubrick's blueprint for an ending—so much about A.I. has to be ignored to have those criticisms create the lasting impression of the film. For starters, A.I. is a gorgeous movie, visually balancing a futuristic milieu with the warmth of home. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is responsible for adding beauty—wisps of fog, baths of light—to an otherwise relentlessly harsh story.

There is no better example than the first appearance of David (Haley Joel Osment), a robot who was programmed to feel and crave love. When he first arrives, the door to the family home slides open, and it's hard to get a clear picture of him. He looks distorted and misshapen, emphasizing his alienation from "real" humans. Then again, the reason for the visual distortion is not so inhuman—he's hard to make out because he's awash in an angelic white light. The moment is so nice, it's no wonder they find a way to work it into nearly every one of the Blu-Ray's extra features. Similarly, no one can find fault with Spielberg virtuosic camera movements -- who can remain so steely in the face of his lengthy tracking shots? -- or the seamless way that Industrial Light and Magic's special effects are woven into the tapestry of the filmmaking.

These images are used to service the best kind of possible sci-fi story—the kind that takes grand ideas about the future of society, but brings them from a theoretical to an emotional human level. David is created because of worldwide scarcities that result from a melting of the polar ice caps. In his society, parents are limited in the amount of children they can have. A company—Cybertronics of New Jersey—founded by David's creator, stepped in to make robots for couples like Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose flesh-and-blood son, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma. After all, robots don't eat or take up as many natural resources as organic humans do.

Problems arise when Martin awakens from his coma. David is cast out into the wilderness, where robot-hunters torture machines for sport. He befriends other robots—most notably Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), another robot programmed to love, but in a very different way—as he embarks on a quest to find Pinocchio's "Blue Fairy" and become a "real" boy so that he can win Monica's love again.

The plot raises many questions that sci-fi works often like to tackle: What happens to this world when we use up all of its resources? How closely should we relate to the machines that are essential to our daily lives? What are our responsibilities to these machines? At what point, if ever, is something artificial so lifelike that it finally becomes "real"? What is "real", anyway?

To the movie's credit, all of these problems are filtered through David's eyes. The worldwide scarcity of resources—what actually sets into motion the main conflict in the film—is pushed to the periphery of the story. Aside from some voiceover exposition (done by Ben Kingsley) and a few striking images of New York City submerged in water, the state of the world is just taken as matter-of-fact and left to the side. The movie isn't full of boardroom scenes where top scientific minds try to address society's fraught environmental situation. What matters is how all this affects David. It gives him his reason for being, which is, at its heart, unnatural.

The same goes true for the uneasy -- if not downright violent -- relations between humans and robots in the film. It makes sense that humans in David's world would feel tense at the number and intelligence of robots. But rather than understanding it on a rational level, Spielberg gets us to really feel it, through David's fear at a "Flesh Fair", a sadistic carnival where robots are degraded and dismantled for the delight of humans.

It's a grisly scene, and uncomfortable to watch, but its individuality is key. Choosing one robot to express the plight of them all is more effective than a movie -- I, Robot, for example -- refocused to be about struggles that humans as a race and robots as a whole face in the wake of their increasing dependence. (It's in this way that the ending of the film is not only earned, but essential -- but since this issue is only approached in the margin throughout David's story, there have been complaints of its superfluity. Those who are aggravated by its existence should remember that the main question -- "What happens after society builds too many, too smart robots?" -- is one that definitely deserves an answer.)

David's journey is fraught. It is frightening at times, and upsetting at others. Sure, it's even a little silly and, occasionally, heavy-handed and overwrought. But it's by hitting these emotions -- even if sometimes they're hit too hard -- that the movie is really able to get its ideas across.

The extra features on the new Blu-Ray release of the film -- many of which are carried over from the two-disc special-edition DVD -- try to keep focused on the positive, with only a touch of the content spent on refuting the critics. There are different features dedicated to the movie's design, costumes, lighting, effects, robots, music, and acting, with other features that allow Spielberg to offer his own take on things (as usual, he doesn't do a commentary). And really -- even without listening to the Blu-Ray's argument -- they're all superb, and it's a shame if you let a bit of sticky-sweet sentimentality ruin all of that for you.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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