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 it brilliantly from his first solo screenplay 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 general population and cultural fabric.
A famed robotics scientist named Professor Hobby (William Hurt) has proposed a bold new evolution: program a humanoid A.I. that doesn’t simply replicate emotions but actually feels them.
Specifically, his first case study would be an A.I. boy, named David. He would become a son for childless parents, fulfilling their paternal void. They, in turn, would meet the A.I. boy’s emotional needs for love and acceptance as well.
David’s own needs and emotions would be felt so strongly by him that his experience would be as real, as rich, and as deep as it is for us, thus allowing for true relationships to be formed and, possibly, even Love itself to be shared.
During a class lecture, a student asks Hobby, “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 something more sinister: a narcissistic hubris that inevitably comes with human progress.
His reply? “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, especially in how Spielberg distorts his own sentimental tendencies into something darker, desperate, and tragic. 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 in a very provocative way: it flips that traditional motif on its head.
Similar parables have tackled this idea through stories of monstrous beings. Deformed (whether physically or technologically), these “creatures” would turn on and terrorize their humans creators.
A.I. is the exact opposite of that. It tells the story of innocent creations who are abused, humiliated, and disposed of by their human creators.
Working like a prophetic warning (one that comes closer to reality with each passing year), A.I. depicts an “advanced” society that discards the technology made in its own image, just as it would an outdated iPhone.
Sure, the A.I. androids can appear strange, weird, and 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 actually much more plausible.
The warning to be heeded here isn’t what horrors may come to us through advanced technology; it’s about what horrors may come to that technology through us. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence reveals sadistic new cruelties that we, as creators, may justify committing.
What is our responsibility as a god? That’s the root of the question by the student to Hobby. 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 (in which stray, homeless A.I. are systematically rounded up) plays like a sci-fi version of the Nazi liquidation of the Jewish ghettos.
Visually, A.I. is a stunner, particularly as it leaves the sterilized suburbs for the dark, corrupt culture of Rouge City. It’s a bold aesthetic of decadent spectacle, and one so off-kilter from what we expect from Spielberg (particularly in how seedy and sexualized it can be at times). As cinematic visions of the future go, this one is criminally forgotten.
There are also nice touches of iconic symbolism, such as:
- Placing David’s head within various “halos” (a kitchen light is one, an overhead dinner table lamp another, as well as a full moon).
- When David first appears, he does so in an abstract silhouette. His outline is out of focus, blown out by backlight. The form of his silhouette foreshadows the shape of future A.I. who will appear in the film’s final act.
Tonally, A.I. is a bizarre marriage of sensibilities.
Many critics didn’t even know what to make of it (let alone audiences). Some considered the Spielberg/Kubrick clash to be a virtue, but most saw it as a liability. Suffice it to say, A.I. is the probably the most polarizing movie of Spielberg’s career.
And yet, even beyond his desire to fulfill the request from Kubrick’s family to complete the project, it should come as no surprise that Spielberg was drawn to the material as a storyteller and felt personally compelled to make it.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is the most moral, and morally philosophical, Spielberg film this side of Schindler’s List. It should be required viewing in any ethics course, particularly now as our technology advances. As Spielberg himself put it, it’s about taking responsibility for the things we put on this planet and for the things we take off of it as well.
Blatantly riffing off a Pinocchio construct in a dystopian future, David is the toy that wants to become a real boy, so much so that (like Pinocchio) he even sets out to find the Blue Fairy that would grant him this gift. Fresh off The Sixth Sense, David is brought to life by Haley Joel Osment. It’s a superb, tricky performance that’s just off enough to be artificial yet so deeply felt to become heartbreaking and tragic.
William Hurt’s Professor Hobby is Geppetto with a dark side, while David’s Jiminy Cricket is an A.I. “super toy” teddy bear, named Teddy. The formal speaking Teddy isn’t not exactly cute, and seems hardened by life experiences, and yet he’s still David’s guardian angel and wise moral conscience.
The clever, inspired twist on Pinocchio‘s Honest John (a.k.a. the hooligan fox) is Gigolo Joe, an A.I. male prostitute played by Jude Law (in what has to be that actor’s most undervalued performance). But here, rather than looking to lead the artificial boy astray, Joe strives to guide David toward his goal. As compelling as David’s central plight is, I find Joe’s to be even more fascinating, especially in how it serves as a cipher for the film’s themes.
Both characters, in their own ways, craft an existential crisis that elicits sympathy and compassion; yes, even for beings made up of circuits and wires, and who are programmed by 0’s and 1’s. Osment, especially, digs deep to express feelings 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 sappy Spielberg “wish fulfillment”. Detractors felt that the last act betrayed Kubrick’s intellectual cynicism. Some argued that his signature bleakness would’ve been achieved had the film ended where it appeared it was going to, just short of the two-hour mark.
I have a few problems with that perspective, the primary one being factual: the leap forward in the fourth act wasn’t a Spielberg add-on. It was all Kubrick’s idea, written there in his original treatment.
(It’s also strikingly similar in structure to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fact that seemed to be lost by an apparent impulse to take shots at Spielberg.)
What appears to be an ending at the two-hour mark is an intentional misdirect by Kubrick’s design. It lulls us in for an end-credit roll to begin, but then jerks us toward something else that’s entirely unexpected. Now that’s Kubrick.
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.” That classic lullaby doesn’t pop up in A.I., but it is worth noting given the film’s blatant Pinocchio parallels.
Deep down, that song is the best 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
Those lyrics define what has been David’s heart, his dream, and his wish.
And yet, contrary to oversimplified takes on this so-called “add on” being wish fulfillment, it actually doesn’t fulfill David’s wish. It’s granted, yes, but only in a sense, and 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. In A.I., the surface appearance of wish fulfillment may be there but, underneath, it’s not pure. It’s bittersweet. It’s warm yet fleeting, tinged by loss.
We experience these contradictions. Joy and sadness are there at the same time, in tension (just as Spielberg and Kubrick are). We’re not just given one or the other; we have both.
That 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. Together, they deliver a sobering prophetic message for our culture…and where it’s going.
- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was a project that Kubrick developed throughout the 1980s. He brought Spielberg into his development process early, using him as a creative confidante and sounding board. Kubrick felt 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. Eventually, though, Steven reneged. He insisted to Kubrick that he had to make since so much of it was born from his vision. Kubrick agreed, Spielberg agreed to stay on as producer, and it would be Kubrick’s follow-up to Eyes Wide Shut. But when Kubrick passed away during post-production on that film, Spielberg took back the directorial reins without hesitation.
- As the film’s producer, Spielberg spent months with Kubrick shortly before he died. Together, they went over in detail everything that Kubrick had developed for A.I.: storyboards, outlines, notes, treatments, concept art, and more. That experience helped Spielberg to feel confident about being Kubrick’s posthumous replacement as director, but that would’ve been a lot to download to a screenwriter. Given that, Spielberg took on the responsibility of writing the screenplay himself.
- More subtle Spielberg Oners pop up here and there, starting as early as the domestic scenes of the first act. Later you see more notable ones, like the tracking shot near the beginning of the Flesh Fair.
- When John Williams’ initial music compositions for the final scenes of A.I. 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 name of the character Professor Hobby was Spielberg’s nod to Kubrick’s development company, Hobby Films.
- A.I. was released just two-and-a-half months prior to 9/11. As a result, The Twin Towers are a visible part of New York City’s skyline in this movie’s version of the far-off future.