A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
(for some sexual content and violent images)
Released: June 29, 2001
Runtime: 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Jude Law, William Hurt, Sam Robards, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Kingsley
Steven Spielberg’s first film of the new century is also the late Stanley Kubrick’s last masterpiece.
Not to take anything away from Spielberg, who directs the film brilliantly from his first solo screenplay effort since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it’s the Kubrick DNA that makes A.I.: Artificial Intelligence one of the most insightful – and indicting – movies ever made about the fallen nature of Man.
Fittingly released in 2001, this mesmerizing Spielberg / Kubrick hybrid makes for one of the most unexpected and bewildering collaborations in film history. (More on how it came to be in the trivia section below.)
Based on a project developed for nearly twenty years by Stanley Kubrick before he passed away in 1999, A.I. takes place in a future where human-like androids – called Mecca – are part of the population and cultural fabric. A famed robotics scientist named Professor Hobby (a nod to Kubrick’s development company Hobby Films) has proposed a bold new evolution: program a humanoid A.I. to actually feel human emotions, not merely replicate them.
Specifically, his first case study would be an A.I. boy, named David, who would become a son for childless parents, fulfilling their emotional void while also meeting the A.I. boy’s own needs for love and acceptance; needs and emotions felt so strongly that the experience is as real, and rich, and deep for the A.I. as it is for us – thus allowing for true relationships to be formed, and possibly even Love itself to be shared.
A student asks Hobby (played by William Hurt), “If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that Mecca in return?” Hobby thinks. She adds, “It’s a moral question.” The professor’s response, though intended to be profound, reveals the narcissistic hubris that inevitably comes with human progress: “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love Him?”
Herein lies the ominous, unsettling power of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Yes, it’s certainly felt on the aesthetic surface, in Spielberg’s intentional, potent distortion of his own sentimental tendencies. Yet the true source of what should disturb and challenge us comes from Kubrick’s core central thesis:
Humans make for horrible gods.
We’ve seen this theme before in Frankenstein inspired sci-fi morality tales, but A.I. is distinctly different from them all because of how it flips that traditional motif on its head. Where past narratives would tackle this idea through stories of deformed, monstrous beings (whether physical or technological) that would turn on and terrorize the humans that made them, A.I. tells the story of innocent creations who are marginalized, abused, humiliated, and disposed of by their human creators.
Working like a prophetic warning (that comes closer to reality with each passing year), A.I. depicts an “advanced” society that discards the technology, er, made in its own image just as it would outdated iPhones. Sure, the A.I. androids can appear strange, weird, scary, even grotesque, but who’s fault is that? It’s a piercing conviction to realize that this callous future – where the humans are inhuman, not the technology – is much more plausible. The warning to be heeded here isn’t what horrors advanced technology may heap upon us; it’s what horrors our treatment of that technology will reveal about us, and what new cruelties we’ll justify committing.
As the student essentially asked Hobby, what is our responsibility as a god? The mere fact that we’re even compelled to ask such a question should, in itself, tell us just how incapable we are of being a god. Or, at least, of being a just one. It’s no accident, certainly, that the harrowing “Flesh Fair” sequence – sparked by the roundup of stray A.I. – plays like a sci-fi version of the Nazi liquidation of Jewish ghettos.
Visually, A.I. is a stunner, particularly as it leaves the sterilized suburbs for the dark, corrupt rural fringes and the decadent spectacle of Rouge City. It’s a bold aesthetic that is criminally forgotten (perhaps in part because it’s so off-kilter from what we expect from Spielberg, particularly in how seedy and sexualized it is at times).
There are also nice touches of iconic symbolism, such as placing David’s head within various “halos” (a kitchen light, an overhead dinner table lamp, and a full moon among others). Also, the abstract silhouette of David when he first appears (out of focus, against a blown out backlight) foreshadows the shape of future A.I. that will appear later in the film.
Tonally, A.I. is a bizarre marriage of sensibilities. Many critics (let alone audiences) didn’t even know what to make of it. Most saw it as a liability while others considered it a virtue; suffice it to say, A.I. is the most polarizing movie in Spielberg’s career. Yet it should come as no surprise that Spielberg was drawn to the material and compelled to make it, even beyond the desire to fulfill the request from Kubrick’s family to complete the project, and to honor his deceased friend.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is the most moral, and morally philosophical, Spielberg film this side of Schindler’s List (and should be required viewing in any ethics course – particularly now, as our technology advances). It’s about, as Spielberg himself put it, not only taking responsibility for the things we put on this planet but also for the things we take off.
Blatantly riffing off a Pinocchio construct in a dystopian future, David (given life through a superb, and tricky, performance by Haley Joel Osment, fresh off The Sixth Sense) is the toy that wants to become a real boy, and even sets out to find the Blue Fairy that would grant him this gift. William Hurt’s Professor Hobby is Geppetto with a dark side, and David’s Jiminy Cricket is an A.I. teddy bear “super toy” (named Teddy). He’s not exactly cute, and seems hardened by life experiences, yet he’s still David’s wise moral conscience and guardian angel.
The clever, inspired twist on Honest John (the hooligan fox) is Gigolo Joe, an A.I. male prostitute played by Jude Law (in possibly the most undervalued performance of his career); but here, Joe looks to guide David toward his goal, not lead him astray. Joe’s own plight is just as vital as David’s (and, for me, more fascinating) in serving as a cipher for the film’s themes. Each one, in their own ways, craft an existential crisis that elicits sympathy and compassion, even for beings made up of circuits and wires programmed by 1’s and 0’s. Osment, especially, digs to depths of anguish, rejection, and despair well beyond his years, all while needing to be eerily “not quite” human.
Where A.I. eventually lost a lot of critics was the last half hour. Many dismissed it as a sappy Spielberg wish fulfillment that betrayed Kubrick’s more intellectual cynicism, a bleakness that would’ve been achieved (it was argued) had the film ended where it appeared it was going to, just short of the two-hour mark. One problem (of a few) with that perspective: the fourth act leap forward wasn’t a Spielberg add-on. It was all Kubrick, written there from his original treatment. (It’s also similar in structure to where 2001: A Space Odyssey goes, a fact that seemed to be lost by those with an apparent impulse to take shots at Spielberg.)
The initial apparent ending at two hours is an intentional misdirect by Kubrick’s design, lulling us for a credit roll before jerking us toward something entirely unexpected. But it’s also Spielberg to his core. Consider what actor Richard Dreyfuss once said of Spielberg, referring to the song When You Wish Upon A Star: “If you ever need an insight into Steven, that song is it.” The classic tune doesn’t pop up in A.I., but it’s worth noting given the film’s blatant Pinocchio parallels. That song is, deep down, the insight into David, too:
If your heart is in your dream / No request is too extreme / When you wish upon a star / Like dreamers do…Fate is kind / She brings to those who love / The sweet fulfillment of / Their secret longing…Like a bolt out of the blue / Fate steps in and pulls you through / When you wish upon a star / Your dreams come true
These lyrics characterize what has been David’s heart, his dream, his wish. But contrary to oversimplified takes and readings on what this ending means or accomplishes, the “add on” actually doesn’t fulfill David’s wish. It’s granted, in a sense, but with qualifiers and limits. It’s what David asked for…and it isn’t. Spielbergian sentimentality, at its best, never ends with a happily ever after. Sure, the surface appearance of wish fulfillment is here but, underneath, it’s not pure; it’s bittersweet. Warm yet temporary, tinged by loss.
Experiencing these contradictions – not just joy or sadness alone (i.e. just Spielberg or Kubrick) – is the very ebb and flow of life itself. Learning to accept that things are temporal is a part of growing up. For David (as for any of us), it’s the only way to become truly human.
Creepy yet poignant, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is Spielberg and Kubrick all at the same time – with a sobering prophetic message for our culture, and where it’s going.
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
- A project that Kubrick developed throughout the 80s, he brought Spielberg into his development process early on as a creative confidante and sounding board, feeling that Spielberg’s sensibilities were better suited for this Pinocchio styled tale. At one point, Kubrick asked Spielberg to direct it instead, and Spielberg agreed. But Steven would ultimately renege, insisting Kubrick make it since so much of it was born from his vision. Spielberg agreed to stay on as producer, and it would be Kubrick’s follow-up to Eyes Wide Shut. But when Kubrick passed during post-production on that film, Spielberg took back the directorial reins without hesitation.
- As an actual producer, Spielberg spent months with Kubrick shortly before he died going over in detail everything Kubrick had developed for A.I.: storyboards, outlines, notes, treatments, concept art, and more. That experience not only helped Spielberg feel confident in being Kubrick’s posthumous replacement, it’s also what led him to feel a responsibility to write the screenplay himself (rather than trying to download everything to a hired writer).
- More subtle Spielberg Oners pop up here and there, starting as early as the first act domestic scenes, but perhaps most notably on a tracking shot near the beginning of the Flesh Fair.
- When John Williams’ initial composition for the final scenes of the film went much longer than the edit, Spielberg decided to re-edit the ending to fit Williams’ score. Spielberg did the same thing for the final 15 minutes of E.T.
- The voice performance by long-time Spielberg friend Robin Williams actually had nothing to do with Spielberg. Williams was cast, recorded and directed by Kubrick when he was still director for the project.
- The Twin Towers are a visible part of the New York City skyline in this film’s far-off future. It was released just 2 1/2 months prior to 9/11.