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The movie winds toward a resolution that cannot possibly fulfill the needs of our young, young hero. As David, Ted, and Joe descend through their increasingly dark journey, we can feel it. The only door at the end of this path they stumble down is a fate akin to death — depressing, resolute, yet somehow worse, as even though we all die and that’s sad, we understand death. The end that slow approaches isn’t something David can understand.

Spielberg is responsible for some of the best science-fiction adventure films of all time. Jurassic Park is thematically dark — as a cautionary tale about man’s futility against powerful and ancient forces — but it’s infused by an inspiring sense of adventure that sees its heroes bound from set piece to set piece. There’s a great wonder in its world and its creatures; it brims with ideas as it does imagination. AI on the other hand is related on the surface to this earlier film, but is unremittingly bleak. I don’t understand how a filmmaker with such a filmography could make a movie without hope or any shred of light — I don’t understand why anyone would make a movie like this.

It tells the story of David, a robot programmed to love and designed to replace the son of a grieving mother. After the son comes back and David’s kicked to the curb at the one hour mark, the unblinking affection-droid stalks gloomily through an increasingly hostile and apocalyptic world on a quest to find the Blue Fairy. As the audience and everyone flesh-and-blood understands, David is chasing a delusion.

The sadness that drenches the film is a product of AI being pulled in two directions. Not Spielberg and Kubrick, but traditional drama and something… alien. Joe also believes David might find the Blue Fairy and turn into a real boy. Why would he think anything else? He’s a robot. They’re all robots, and that means that they’re damned to experience only a few things, think limited thoughts, and suffer the emotional toll. They themselves are being pulled in two directions: human and inhuman.

The movie required an eXistenZ moment, that brief flash that completely unsettles you — remember when Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) repeats dialogue in the same intonation to Jude Law’s character, as if trapped by the rules of the video-game and rendered momentarily inhuman? It throws your perception of reality off and that’s what Jude Law in this movie should have done. We should have been reminded that Joe and David are robots for the sake of compelling drama, but it seems that the writer is more interested in the generic.

Interest in the generic isn’t the issue here, but the cost of what generic requires — the weight on the story that keeps the characters from going anywhere. Or at least, going to a place that is, once again, a delusion. The movie wouldn’t be so bad if it was more of a cerebral story about robots searching for meaning, but it is instead a story about humans who are told they aren’t humans who can’t be humans but want desperately to be human.

AI operates on a broken premise of human drama with a question pervading every step of its narrative — the layers of unreality in this case add up to a disconcerting ending. The question dogs an audience sympathizing in David: Is he going to realize that his journey is futile? And if he does, is his face gonna fucking melt again? Here’s a fake person struggling against an impossible enemy, one manifesting as fake, artificial nothing.

The so-called aliens, as so many are enthusiastic to point out, give David a happy ending. His mother is alive for one day the last human on planet Earth after two thousand years. His mother is essentially programmed to love him, and he is programmed to love her, so it works out — a exercise in flailing. The aliens (the robots that constitute a generally very cool idea in SF, evolving into pure shapes after generations of human absence) don’t understand because they’re so removed from humanity. Here it is again — that as a science-fiction idea follow internal logic, but because the aliens conform to the lines of human drama, the whole thing is ridiculous. They may be executing correctly, but they operate on a confused premise.

The audience watches these fake things spinning out in their predetermined paths — this is what robots will do without humans. They’re like computers playing out computer business, but because this is an important drama by Steven Spielberg, it’s a clusterfuck.

Believe me, I hate the term clusterfuck. I don’t use it lightly. But AI is a horribly depressing movie that’s nearly offensive. It reaches but is constrained by its mainstream potential. It needed to commit to a style or genre, but didn’t. A good analogue in the film is the Flesh Fair. Good concept, but held back by cliches: the evil Christian shit, the Tron-reject motorcycles with neon dogheads mounted on the front, and the improperly motivated scene’s end. A movie likes this didn’t deserve to be another common denominator throwaway.

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Arthur C. Clarke is one of those guys that can spin the most fantastic tales in vibrant detail and searing energy – but good God does it take a long time to get there. Before we reach the ending segment that blazes with imaginative poetry, we must slog through the travels of one Dr. Heywood Floyd, and before that the hardships of ape-men, and after that, the day to day operations of the iconic spaceship, the Discovery. Forever. After only two novels I can say that Clarke has really turned me off from the hard science-fiction subgenre (cyberpunk was more my jam anyway), but – he hasn’t turned me off from Clarke. As long as we find reality-blasting scifi at the end, the first two-thirds of the novel will always have a grand payoff.

Anyone new to the 2001: A Space Odyssey novel in this day and age may already be familiar with the movie, whose ending dazzles and confuses – “can somebody tell me what the hell’s going on here?” or whatever that guy said – and be expecting the mindwarp through Jupiter, the bright white hotel suite, and the transformation into the Star Child. It hung over the narrative for… well, the narrative, and knowing it was coming did slow the less exciting moments of the book: I know this crazy shit’s going downs, but fuck me it’s taking forever. By God – Bowman and Poole’s segments before (and often during) HAL’s breakdown are very tedious. Technical details of the ship are abound, and they do seem convincing (hell, I’m no optometrist), but they’re no substitution for storytelling, or even plain exposition.

The frustrating nature of this story is inherent to its premise, and is very, very Arthur C. Clarke. Halfway through the novel we’re introduced to the Discovery mission, a manned voyage to Saturn – unprecedented even ten years after this odyssey was slated to occur. This outreach to the stars is going to take time, and if you’ve ever read a manual on science-fiction writing theory (er, this is purely speculation on my part), you’d know that those authors take to hard science-fiction like nothing else – here’s an excerpt from an essay by Poul Anderson, and note that the essay is titled, “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds”: “Remember, though, that this bit of arithmetic has taken no account of atmosphere or hydrosphere. I think they would smooth things out considerably. On the one hand, they do trap heat; on the other hand, clouds reflect a great deal of light, which thus never has a chance to reach the surface; and both gases and liquids blot up, or redistribute, what does get through.”

While I have yet to read Anderson, I acknowledge his high place in the science-fiction world. But Arthur C. Clarke was an early champion of the form, right up there with Asimov and Campbell, who balked at the sword-and-sandal-and-space stories of the television and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Clarke details his ship with a dedicated attention to detail – what the hell else is there to do on a spaceship to Saturn but walk about and muse over it? We learn so much about this damn ship that adds nothing to not just the story but the themes it’s like what people talk about when they talk about Michael Bay’s latest – he’s masturbating all over the screen with those fucking explosions. This is what Clarke does to get hard… science-fiction (boy that was… I’m sorry).

Doesn’t help that his two characters in this segment are astronauts – and let me tell you something: he loves the astronaut. In preparation for the collaborative 2001 project, a movie and novel in one go, Clarke visited the folks at NASA and I’m sure did extensive research (or just knew this stuff after years of reading), and his admiration and respect for the now-in-limbo space program shows through. Honestly, this is kind of a bad thing. Bowman and Poole aren’t really characters, but I didn’t expect them to be particularly stirring. That’s not it – they’re gods. Indeed astronauts need to be prime specimens in terms of physical ability and mental capacity but good lord from broad descriptions of these two to minor asides, it is pounded into our heads that these guys are the best at what they do and they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t and goddamn it they never screw up and wouldn’t even think about screwing up because it’d be a waste of that aforementioned mental capacity–

The application of this characterization actually does exist in the text, as once things start to fall apart for these guys, you know they’re in deep shit, because Christ – they don’t screw up. And boy do things go to shit… Pretty soon they grow suspicious of their shipboard AI, the famous HAL “Open the Pod Bay Doors HAL” 9000, that mild-mannered red eye that keeps the rig floating. Seems he sent Poole out on a maintenance mission, which requires dangerous and risky travel outside the ship. There was nothing to be fixed, and they get that uncomfortable feeling, that creeping suspicion like any minute now I’m getting knocked into space by my own runaway space-pod. Pretty soon Dave Bowman finds himself all alone on the ship (there were the scientists, but the cryo-pods were tampered with*, pretty much ensuring that the mission was a one-way ticket) with an A for asshole AI. His conflict with HAL is definitely a highlight of the novel.

The thought of wording every sentence carefully so as to not tip off the enemy in a battle with this all-powerful intelligence is a terrifying situation, one that isn’t nearly as effective in the film. Because of the narrative style employed in Kubrick’s movie, there are limits on its storytelling range; certain things must be explored less than others so as to not draw attention away from what’s most important. In the movie, the malfunction of HAL serves a specific narrative purpose in the discussion of humanity – here we have the bit about technology, a mirror intelligence that could pose a bevy of problems, namely murder. The main point of the movie is the ending, where Dave Bowman becomes the Star Child, his transcendent intelligence spelling out humanity’s future in space. To do this we must overcome our dependence on technology: A to B to C. In the novel, more attention can be paid to each scene, where such is not the case in a film of this classically minimalist style.

Bowman is eventually victorious, but the toll is almost too much to bear, especially when considering he’s got a few months left before Saturn. Seems like Jupiter, the planet he had to slingshot around** for speed, is still in the rear-view. Now we’re just waiting for something to happen, and only then does Bowman happen upon a gigantic monolith on the moon Japetus, delivering the famous line that I was waiting for the whole book, “My God – it’s full of stars!” From there, you know what happens.

He turns into a big ol’ baby, an astounding, mind-bending transformation. It’s the The Last Generation of 2001, and it’s just as incredible as it was in the movie, if not more so. It does also however, present a major issue I have. The romance of man’s vertical manifest destiny, as willed along by his best and brightest (descriptions of Poole and Bowman are like hero worship) is contradicted by the aliens’ predestination. Just as in Childhood’s End, these godliens watch over us and are described as farmers of the stars, where the crop is the mind, the dawning of intelligence. So what is being said here?

The movie on the whole makes a much stronger point, where the novel is somewhat muddled. Ambiguity is the name of the game for the film, where in the book we’re treated to one of the strangest chapters in the book, “Concerning ET’s,” which states definitively that the monolith was the work of super intelligence space ghost gods. Creatures so evolved they take to monitoring the development of intelligence in other worlds as a pastime, and eventually reach a stage where they no longer require their massive, synthetic spaceship bodies (wonder if Casey Hudson and co. ever read this one) to become part of the cosmos, something like what happened to the dude in Phoenix Vol. 2. This chapter is the perfectly analogous to the greater work; a survey of a textbook transplanted into a narrative, and here we delve into at first interesting territory, but soon declines and worships scientists again. By the time we get back to the cool stuff, he’s lost me again. Most stories take a break in the action to have character moments. 2001 breaks to engage in thoughtful and polite discourse on a range of science topics. Indeed, we go from aliens to space travel to Childhood’s End to Ghost in the Shell to God in a span of five or so pages.

So indeed there are alien gods out there, and they’ve set the monolith up on first the Earth and then under the Moon’s surface for us to find – a Sentinel, if you will – just waiting for the day when we reach Saturn and turn into space-babies. In the movie, it’s sort of ambiguous. Perhaps the monolith isn’t meant to be taken as reality, it’s just a cinematic manifestation of Intelligence, or maybe it’s just something left behind by a better civilization. I never got the idea that we were playing into a greater plan by doing these things. At the end of the day, getting to Saturn is great and all, but fuck – it was just a matter of time, according to these aliens.

2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t a perfect novel, and the film isn’t a perfect movie. They’re both highly enjoyable though, and offer brief moments of jaw-dropping science-fiction in between all the molasses.*** It’ll be awhile before I pick up another Clarke; I really got to psyche myself out because it can be quite the endurance test, like what David Bowman went through to reach that wonderful endgame. So watch out, Earthlight – you’d better have some fucking world-ending shit going on in you…

 

*This scene is so obnoxious in the movie. Those fucking alarm noises go on for way too long – so long that my father actually went into the room I was watching the thing in to see what was going on: “Oh, it’s the movie. … Yeah…”

**The visual reality of putting Saturn with its many, gloriously described rings on the silver screen was too much for even pros like Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull. Rather than slingshot around Jupiter, Bowman ended up there, but that slingshot idea would find its way into 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a surprisingly touching scene in a surprisingly touching movie.

***Molasses seems like a broken metaphor; sure, it means slow, but molasses is also sweet, correct? I wouldn’t know – I’m not from a hundred years ago, lol. See? I said lol.

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