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Critic Knows Best (Or Thinks They Do, Anyway)

Critic Knows Best (Or Thinks They Do, Anyway)

The following post contains spoilers for “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”

Film criticism, by its very nature, is a hubristic act.  When you get right down to it, the critic isn’t really talking about a film; he’s talking about his or her vision of a film.  To the critic, a director’s intentions matter less than a director’s execution.  A director might argue that he’s made a movie in favor of progressive politics; the critic might see the same film as a defense of conservatism.  In the eyes of the critic, it’s he or she — not the director, not the audience — who knows best.  “Here’s what I saw,” the critic says. “And here’s why that’s good or bad.”  

All criticism involves varying degrees of evaluation and interpretation.  That’s the job.  But here’s where it gets tricky: how much evaluation and interpretation?  If the critic knows best, how far should they take that critique?  Is it enough to say “Here’s what went wrong?”  Or should the critic say “Here’s what went wrong, and here’s how to fix it.”  Or is that going too far?

These questions came to mind as I read David Daw‘s piece on io9 entitled “How ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ ends in a different, better universe.”  The different, better universe in this case is one invented by Daw, who argues that the original ending of the film written and directed by Steven Spielberg is inferior to the one temporarily imposed on the film by a freak bolt of lightning at the author’s first viewing of “A.I.” a few weeks into its theatrical run back in 2001:

“After the permanently child-like robot David spends the entire film searching for the Blue Fairy he finally finds a statue of the fairy in a sunken Coney Island attraction and prays that “she” will turn him into a real boy. Then… KRAKA-THOOM.  A bolt of lightning hit the theater and the screen shut off… After the movie came back, ‘A.I.’ took a hard left turn into Spielbergian sentimentality as David is awoken 2,000 years in the future by advanced robots who clone his mother so she and David can spend a final, heartwarming day together. It was a bizarre shift made all the more bizarre by a thunderstorm that wanted to make sure I never saw it… I spent the next few days insisting to my friends that the ghost of Stanley Kubrick hit our theater with a bolt of lightning… The ambiguity of leaving David at the bottom of the sea wishing eternally for a life as a real boy doesn’t just avoid the weird far-future coda, it’s actually a stronger ending that resonates more with the film’s themes.”

Daw isn’t saying Spielberg’s ending is weak, he’s saying Spielberg’s ending is wrong.  In his mind, the right ending would fade to black after child robot David (Haley Joel Osment) gets trapped at the bottom of the ocean with the statue of the Blue Fairy he’s spent much of the film looking for.  David wants to become a real boy so his “mother” — a flesh and blood woman he’s been programmed to love, but who’s discarded him in favor of her biological son — will love him once more.  In Spielberg’s ending, after 2,000 years trapped under the Atlantic, David is discovered by a race of advanced mechas, who grant David’s wish: one more perfect day with his mother, temporarily recreated from a strand of DNA. “If you give David what he wants, then you defuse the drama of who he is,” Daw writes. “Instead, the best option is to leave him at the bottom of the ocean in a weirdly poignant program loop, trying forever to exceed the bounds of what he is without ever actually being able to.”

Now I could spent a couple hundred words explaining why I think Daw is wrong.  I could point out that despite Daw’s belief that Spielberg schmaltzed up a story by the icy, dispassionate Kubrick, the opposite appears to be true.  Or I could observe that for Kubrick, “A.I.” was ultimately a modern day retelling of “Pinocchio;” Pinocchio’s story ends with him becoming a real boy, therefore the same must happen to David.  Or I could note that the superficial sentimentality of Spielberg’s “happy” ending disguises bleaker undertones: humanity is dead, replaced by machines who give a robot a temporary moment of joy that will likely be followed by an eternity of obsolescence, if not outright decommissioning.

Now I could do that, but I won’t (okay, yes, I kind of just did anyway.  Let’s not dwell on semantics).  The point isn’t whether Daw is correct or not, but whether any critic has the right to re-edit a film, even in their own mind, to suit their interpretation.  After all, the critic doesn’t really care what the director wanted to make, only what the director actually made.  And in Daw’s opinion, the film Spielberg actually made is too maudlin.  I’m sure if we polled many “A.I.” viewers, a hefty percentage would agree with him.  But maybe others would disagree and claim that “A.I.” was too Kubrickian, and that except for that one scene, Spielberg lost himself in another filmmaker’s material.

It might be worth noting here that Spielberg has revised his films before — as when he removed the guns from “E.T.” or changed the title of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (or at least permitted the title to be changed on the DVD box) — and that when men like Spielberg or George Lucas do alter their movies, they typically receive more criticism, not less.  Critics often argue in favor of the changes they believe in while demanding other films remain preserved in their original form for posterity, like David frozen forever beneath the Wonder Wheel.  It seems somewhat hypocritical to want it both ways.  Now this is getting confusing.  Let’s not forget that all critics think they know best.  It’s just that they know best differently.

Daw’s approach is not all that dissimilar to the one employed a group of critics I greatly admire, who I dubbed a few months ago “film critic filmmakers.”  They are editors like Peet Gelderblom, who transformed Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” into “Raising Cain Re-Cut,” a version of the film that supposedly moves it closer to De Palma’s original vision of the project before he radically revised its structure during post-production.  Looking for the earliest progenitor of this wave of film critic filmmakers, I named Mike J. Nichols — better known by his nom de Avid, “The Phantom Editor” — who created the Gwyneth Paltrow in “Contagion” of Internet viral fan edits with his version of George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.”  So there’s a critic offering suggestions to a director who already had a reputation for revising his work.  I wonder if Nichols thought Lucas might actually take some of his critiques to heart.

So if I’m so inspired by the work of film critic filmmakers, why was I slightly troubled by Daw’s article?  Maybe the problem was Daw’s piece felt closer to telling me what’s wrong than showing me what’s wrong, and in movies you’re always supposed to show and not tell.  Maybe if he’d made a version of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” that removed the “Spielbergian sentimentality,” and I could consider it for myself, I might be more inclined to agree with him.  Or maybe I’d have to make my own version next.

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