Wendell Ottley over at Dell on Movies is hosting his annual Against the Crowd Blogathon. I have participated in this one before, and it's a great opportunity to share some of those feelings you have. The nature of the blogathon is pretty straight forward; as the name implies, it is all about those movies that you hate but everyone else loves for some reason, and the movies everyone else seems to hate but you love. The idea is to do one of each, and it just so happens I have something very special for this year, because this time it is all about Steven Spielberg. I happened to take a class on directors this year, and we spent several week studying his work, from which I have drawn the following statements.
Now, when it comes to Spielberg, there are a variety of directions I can go. His work is all over the place in terms of quality ranging from brilliant to awful. I am after all in the small group of people who found that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was actually a very weak film when you look past the then-revolutionary effects. The best part about that film is I've found that it makes a great drinking game (take a shot every time there is a random Star Wars-related inside joke). He has also made plenty of great films; I finally saw Schindler's List which proved to be a very interesting film if not entirely what I expected.
For the purposes of this activity, I have chosen to go all out. I will be defending one of Spielberg's most hated films, and deriding one of his most beloved.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Spielberg's tribute to Kubrick I found was actually not all that bad. Yes, as a Kubrick fan, I will admit that of course I would have wanted to see how the film would have turned out had he lived to see it finished, but for what Spielberg came up with, I think his interpretation is a pretty good one. It actually does feel very much like a Kubrick film, largely because Spielberg worked with the notes, storyboards, and early screen treatments that his friend had spent years assembling. It actually can be very difficult upon a close examination to tell where Kubrick's vision ends and Spielberg's begins (the apparently Spielbergian ending was actually Kubrick's idea). One can tell watching it that Spielberg really wanted to be show his respect for Kubrick, even if he could not perfectly replicate the director's ideas.
Even disregarding the obvious details about whether this is a Spielberg or Kubrick film, it is actually really well made in its own right. AI is surprisingly effective in exploring the age-old question of just what it means to be human (a subject that fascinated Kubrick). The androids we see actually do feel human, their emotions appear genuine even when balanced with their uncanny appearances. There is also a bitter sense of hopelessness that emerges throughout, as the viewer knows very well that David's goal of becoming a "real-live boy" is impossible, and yet they can easily relate to his struggle and desire to be loved. Haley Joe Osmond actually makes a very good android, balancing his uncanny appearance with emotional depth that is not immediately obvious.
Now for the really daring part that will no doubt get a lot of readers very angry with me because it relates to the final act of the film. This was of course the part where David is found buried in the ice after humanity's extinction; the part that gets the most flak. I felt this might have actually been the strongest part of the film. Of course, the idea behind it (which was Kubrick's, by the way) makes a lot more sense when you realize (as I did, thanks to class readings) that the beings who find David are not in fact aliens (as they are often mistakenly assumed), but extremely advanced robots searching for their own origins. It is here that David really gets to show his humanity, and where the film's themes of whether a machine can think or feel are resolved. The ending offers closure to David's story, but also allows David to "grow up" in a way (though he still looks like a child).
I really don't get what everyone else saw in this movie. To me, the plot amounted essentially to "some guys kill some other guys so Geoffrey Rush decides the logical response to run around Europe blowing up random Arabs." The film claims to be based on a true story, but the only part that I have been able to definitively verify actually happened was the mass murder of 11 Israeli athletes which sets the film in motion. After seeing it, I felt skeptical about how much of the rest of the film was real and a strong desire to get dirt on the movie. This is a strange reaction, I know, to such an acclaimed feature. Far from a tense thriller, Munich is nothing but a racist, sexist, and in general poorly executed film and a waste of time.
I found the movie frustrating and impossible to follow, and those were the parts that didn't seem racist or sexist (more on that later). There was a lot going on at once and it was never clear what was supposed to be happening at a given moment. I remember my professor mentioning in class some of the techniques Spielberg used to make the narrative easier to follow and I just wanted to blurt out "uh... did we see the same movie?" I found the main cast dull and unrelatable, and strangely enough, hard to tell apart. While it is true that they did look different, none of them really had anything to make them stand out in terms of personality. They were just a bunch of guys with a set of vaguely defined skills that were required to kill some people. There was a French guy, Louis, who apparently had detailed information on the terrorists, and absolutely no explanation is given for how or why he does this; especially given that the parts of the film which allegedly detail his operation instead opt to focus entirely on his father's cooking.
To bring up the film's racism, the same can be said for much of the cast. The "targets" are apparently supposed to be people involved with the terrorist operation, but it isn't made clear how they are involved. None of the men targeted are seen among the terrorists when they are shown at the beginning (or in later flashbacks), and beyond a few vague lines of dialogue it is not made clear why they are the targets. This gives the sense that the protagonists are not actually going after terrorists, but that they are just blowing up random people who happen to have an Arabic background. It almost seems like Spielberg is promoting the idea that being Middle Eastern is automatically linked to terrorism, especially as the viewer is meant to feel emotionally invested in the actions of the so-called protagonists.
Now we can get into the sexism that is prevalent throughout Munich. Throughout the movie, I remember wondering if it would really have hurt to have some female operatives in the team. Now one could argue that the reason the actual task force is all men has to do with the historical events that inspired the film, but that still does not excuse the poor treatment of the few women who do appear. For most of the film, there is only one woman who has any kind of role in the story; Daphna Kaufman, Avner's wife who serves mainly to motivate him. She is generally depicted as submissive towards him, making little in the way of her own choices or thinking for herself.
The real bit of wasted potential comes in the form of Jeanette, someone who could easily have had potential to be a very interesting and strong female role. Her character is that of an assassin apparently hired to kill the protagonists. She is built up as a professional who doesn't let her emotions get in the way. Now, if she had been introduced earlier in the film, she could have made for a very strong and memorable antagonist. We could have gotten to know her on a psychological level, and then she would become an interesting part of the movie. Maybe they could have even gotten into what makes her work and allow her to become somewhat relatable, adding to the moral ambiguity. Of course, Spielberg does none of these things. Instead, Jeanette is shoved into the end of the film where she ends up feeling very out of place, appears out of nowhere, and then gets killed. There is so much wasted potential here.