A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg (based on a screen story by Ian Watson, based on the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss)
Stars: Haley Joel Osment (David Swinton), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), Frances O'Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Brendan Gleeson (Lord Johnson-Johnson), William Hurt (Professor Hobby), Jack Angel (Teddy)
MPAA Rating:PG-13
Year of Release: 2001
Country: USA
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a science-fiction parable that's hard to wrap your mind around, which is exactly as the late Stanley Kubrick would have wanted it. This project had been gestating in Kubrick's mind since the early 1970s when he first met with sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss, whose 2,800-word story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" was its genesis. Now, A.I. has finally reached screens after it was taken over, following Kubrick's untimely death in 1999, by Steven Spielberg, with whom Kubrick had shared thoughts and ideas since the mid-1980s.

The idea of Kubrick and Spielberg collaborating on a project is both hard and easy to imagine, although it was something both men wanted to do. On the one hand, one could not find two filmmakers with more different sensibilities and cinematic approaches. Kubrick, often described as a cold and meticulous filmmaker, grounded most of his career on stories about dehumanization that asked hard questions and often left uneasy answers, if any. Spielberg, on the other hand, has long been associated with warmth and humanity; despite the intense violence of some of his later films, he always has something good to say in the end. As Robert Kolker has argued in his book, A Cinema of Loneliness, in Spielberg's films "images and narratives speak of a place and a way of being in the world (indeed the universe) that viewers find more than just comfortable, but desirable and--with the films--available."

A.I., if it is anything, is fascinating because it exists in the space where these two distinctly different filmmakers could meet. Although Kubrick died before a final script had been written, his imprint on A.I. is unmistakable, in both how Spielberg incorporated his signature camerawork, as well as in the film's ideological positioning and its core question, which simply asks, "What does it mean to be human?," something that has always haunted Kubrick's work. Spielberg receives sole screenplay credit on the film (the first time since 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but the script is based on a 90-page treatment by Kubrick (though sci-fi writer Ian Watson, with whom Kubrick also worked, receives "screen story" credit).

There will be a tendency, I think, to attribute the first third of A.I. to Stanley Kubrick, the last third to Spielberg, and the middle portion to a kind of uneasy combination of the two. It's an easy mistake to make because, on the surface, it seems so obvious. The film begins slowly and methodically, establishing first the character of Professor Hobby (William Hurt), a brilliant scientist who develops a robotic boy programmed to love. The story takes place in the near future when the polar ice caps have melted, submerging coastal cities and forcing governments to take drastic measures like limiting childbirth. Thus, although it is a period of great technological development (robots with human-like artificial intelligence are de rigueur), there are thousands and thousands of couples forced to be childless.

Hobby develops a prototype named David, who is played by Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, Pay It Forward). David is given to a young couple, Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O'Connor) Swinton, whose only son is cyrogenically frozen until a cure can be found for his unnamed disease. At first, Monica rejects the robotic David as an inferior replacement for her flesh-and-blood son, angry at Henry for even suggesting the idea. These early scenes are all Kubrick as filtered through Spielberg's lens, as Monica slowly comes to appreciate David's presence, even if his responses and attitudes are unnervingly mechanical, a machine trying its best to imitate a child.

But, after a while, Monica decides to activate the program in David that allows him to love. This is an irreversible procedure, and if Monica were ever to decide she did not want him any more, he would have to be destroyed because, like human love, David's love for her could never be shut off. The scene in which Monica activates the program, seating the child robot on a kitchen chair and then reading a string of words while holding the back of his neck, is an incredible moment, both visually and emotionally. So simple and yet so profound as Spielberg starts the ball rolling in the film's humanist conundrum: What is love? Is David's love any different because it was hard-wired into his system by scientists? Why is human emotion different from mechanical emotion just because it springs from chemicals and brainwaves that we do not fully understand?

Everything is happy for a time, although Monica's growing attachment to David--who now calls her "Mommy"--does not sit well with Henry, even though he initially supported the idea. Then, the unthinkable happens: Monica and Henry's son, Martin (Jake Thomas), is cured and comes home. The parents are then caught in a perplexing situation, with two sons, one of whom is real and one of whom is not. Martin can only view David as a plaything, a "supertoy" like his animated, artificially intelligent teddy bear, aptly named Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel). David tries to coexist in the family, but he feels himself constantly being pushed to the margins because he is not human. This is best illustrated at the family dinner table, in which David cheerfully imitates the motions of eating and drinking in order to fit in, even though he needs no food or water.

Through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, Henry becomes convinced that David is dangerous. After all, he argues, if he can be programmed to love, then he has the potential for its inverse, hate, as well. What could he be capacle of? So, in the film's most primal, heart-rending sequence, Monica drives David back to the company where he was assembled in order to be destroyed. But, at the last minute, she cannot go through with it, so she instead abandons him in the middle of a forest. In our conception, parental abandonment is synonymous with indifference, but in Monica's case, it is exactly the opposite. Caught between her flesh-and-blood family members and this machine that loves her, she can do nothing else but leave him and hope that he can survive on his own. Of course, David reacts as a human child would, with shock and sadness, crying while grabbing at his mommy's arm, apologizing for everything he's ever done wrong and begging her not to leave him.

But, leave him she does, which begins David's quest to win his mommy's love so she will take him back. Obsessed with the fairy tale of the wooden puppet Pinocchio who, through magic, becomes a real boy, David, with Teddy by his side, sets out to find the mystical "blue fairy" who will do the same for him. This journey fills the middle third of the film, which balances uneasily between the sensibilities of Spielberg and Kubrick. Visually, it is dazzling, as we finally get to the see the wider futuristic America that had been denied us in the opening third, which took place almost entirely within the confines of the Swinton home.

Ideologically, though, this section of the film is dark and troubled, portraying a technologically advanced word on the verge of going completely haywire. Almost immediately, David finds himself captured and on display at a "Flesh Fair," a futuristic combination of a truck show and public executions, in which rogue mechas (short for mechanical robots) are corralled, brought before a jeering audience, and destroyed in any number of ghastly ways while an acid metal rock band blares on a side-stage. At the Flesh Fair, we get the full sense of the anxiety with which humans (also known as "orgas," short for organic) and mechas co-exist.

The ringleader of the Flesh Fair, Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), views it as a kind of performance art, in which the grisly destruction of human-like robots is an acting out of human superiority, an illustration that, despite their outward appearance, mechas are not human. And yet, as the scene eventually shows when Lord Johnson-Johnson attempts to destroy David, that is a fine line that can easily swing either way, as the audience rejects David's destruction because he is a child and, most importantly, because he begs for his life. "Mechas don't beg for their lives!" one audience member shouts. Thus, the line between the human and the machine becomes even hazier, as one more delineation between the two is removed.

At the Flesh Fair, David saves another mecha, a "love robot" named Gigolo Joe, played with sensual aplomb by Jude Law (Enemy at the Gates). Joe, as his name suggests, was designed for human pleasure, a mechanical prostitute who can do it better and longer than any real man ever could. Joe is cynical and steely, well-versed in the rules of the street. Because he was saved by David, he agrees to help the boy on his quest to find the blue fairy, which first leads them to Rogue Town, an immense, urban expanse of neon buildings and holographic billboards centered around sex and commerce. Their journey continues on, though, finally ending in the submerged city of New York, the tops of whose decaying skyscrapers still rise from the oceanic waters. Known as "the end of the world," New York actually becomes the start of a whole new act in A.I., one that is largely unexpected and incredibly troubling.

Without giving too much away (the secrecy shrouding A.I.'s plot has been worthy of Kubrick production), I will say that the last 30 minutes of the film relies on a rather labored deus ex machina plot device that, given the film's story, is both completely understandable and utterly out of place. Because David has spent the film's first two hours on a quest for something we know he can never find--the magical blue fairy from an ancient storybook--his journey has become too complicated to fully digest. For David, it is the search for his true essence, but we know that it is a hopeless, aimless quest that can only end in disappointment. There is a certain poignancy to David's childlike (and childish) faith in things that don't exist, which makes him that much more human. But, at the same time, it makes the film uneasy, as we constantly wait for Spielberg to deliver a plot twist that will allow him to fulfill his journey, lest the film end in cynical heartbreak.

Spielberg does just that, and it at this point that I can already hear the critics hooting and jeering, bashing the creator E.T. (1982) for mucking up Kubrick's vision with a fairy-tale ending. It is important to realize that the ending of A.I. was Kubrick's idea, not Spielberg's. According to Brian Aldiss in an article in the June 2001 issue of Premiere magazine, "Kubrick supplied a magical twist in the boy's quest, Aldiss says: 'What rose from the depths was a blue fairy.'" How Spielberg adapted this "magical twist" is anyone's guess, but the point is that Kubrick never intended for David's quest to end in failure, and he always envisioned a major narrative development in the end to bring it full circle.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Spielberg lets the concluding half-hour of the film play out is heavy-handed and laborious--although utterly sure of itself. It requires a great leap of faith and an enormous imagination, something I think many people will be willing to give it. But, Spielberg lets it run on too long, with too many moments that seem like they might be the conclusion, but only lead to other scenes. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Kubrick's conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which many audience members and critics felt was too ambiguous, too forced, and too long. Perhaps the ending of A.I. will appear differently with multiple viewings; but, on first viewing, it doesn't quite work as it should.

Of course, that is but one failing in an otherwise magnificent film, a work of great courage and imagination. It is, more than anything, a film that makes you think. It questions basic assumptions we have about what it means to be human and what the exact nature of love is. Most of Kubrick's films have been wary of machines, and yet we must remember that the most affecting character in 2001 was HAL, who, despite his malicious actions, was the only character to generate audience sympathy when he died, quietly saying those haunting words, "I can feel it. I'm afraid."

In A.I., David says something very similar, and it is an equally haunting moment. If he can feel, if he can be afraid, if he can love, who is to say that he is not human? Or, in better terms, who is to say that his experience of life is less than the human experience? A.I. is, despite its faults, the kind of film that forces you to ask such questions and haunts your thoughts after you leave the theater, which is more than most movies today can claim. In that respect, it is an absolute success.

Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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