Made in the wake of his commercially insipid The Lost World and the unearned sermonizing of Saving Private Ryan, A.I. Artificial Intelligence sticks out like a sore thumb. After veering between dramatic seriousness and crowd-pleasing spectacles throughout the ’90s, Steven Spielberg came out with his most childlike stab at sincere, meditative cinema since his 1987 masterpiece. If anything, Spielberg’s take on Stanley Kubrick’s final “what-if” project is even more challenging and deceptively trite than his chilling survey of life in a Japanese POW camp. The basic backstory of A.I.’s conception is legion even as it still inspires vicious debate: originally conceived at the height of Stanley Kubrick’s career in the early ’70s, A.I. went through several rewrites and holds as Kubrick honed the idea and waited for technology to catch up to his vision. But when Ian Watson came aboard in 1990 and handed in a treatment for what he called “a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio” he practically foretold Spielberg’s eventual involvement.
Considered by some to have crassly taken over Kubrick’s film after his death and promptly run it into the commercial ground, Spielberg actually stepped into one circle of the film’s development hell in 1995 when Kubrick aptly realized that A.I. fit far more into Spielberg’s sensibilities than his own. But Spielberg, being a person of reasonable intelligence and any grasp of the moviegoing public, convinced Kubrick to stay on both to see a great director keep working and because he knew damn well what would happen if word got out that he took a project from the director. Sure enough, when A.I. premiered two years after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg had to face the wrath of those who felt he’d cheapened Kubrick’s undoubtedly darker movie with tacked-on sentimentality and shiny crowd-pleasing effects.
However, what makes A.I. such a curious and engaging work is the manner in which it emerges a clear auteur statement for both filmmakers even as it functions best as an unholy, fascinating combination of their sensibilities, which become so muddled that nearly everything that is stereotypically Kubrickian belongs to Spielberg and vice-versa. Spielberg rewrote the script based on Watson’s treatment, and the co-writing credit Spielberg gave to Kubrick now seems not only a show of respect but an acknowledgement of intellectual debt. Kubrick’s chilled shadow may hang over the film, but that is only because Spielberg internalized his friend’s style and approach and successfully married it to his own.
The opening begins this stylistic mingling immediately, mixing Kubrick’s voiceover narration with a shot of a robot frame surrounded by blinding white light, recalling the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (incidentally Spielberg’s last solo writing job before this film). That will become a recurring image, not only introducing the robot protagonist before revealing him to be a freakishly realistic boy. In the film’s much-debated coda, the shapes of the creatures that discover David mirror those of this basic outline, hinting at their true nature.
Clearly taking from Pinocchio’s approach, Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński craft A.I. into a series of stylistically distinct vignettes, linked together by the existential yearning of a being who thinks, but does not therefore think it is. These opening moments move from the idealistic, philosophical innovation of robotics genius Allen Hobby (William Hurt) to the company employee, Henry, who gets to try out a test model of David (Haley Joel Osment) while his real son, Martin, lies in cryostasis waiting for the cure for a terminal disease. The sunlight filtering in from outside in these early scenes is always bright to the point of distraction, not only underscoring both the optimism behind the desire to build a robot that can love but the childish wonder of that robot as it learns human nuance. However, it also carries an edge, subtly playing into the opening narration about global warming and its disastrous effect on humanity by suggesting a near-total collapse of the ozone layer and UV-blockage. It’s a reminder of the harshness of the outside world surrounding the wealthy home of Henry and Monica, as sinister as it is inviting.
Spielberg’s sense of visual control is precise as it establishes David within his new “family”. He approaches family portraits and we see his face reflected in the frame over Martin’s picture, showing the robot subconsciously adding himself to the family from the outset. Monica’s initial terror and outrage is best exemplified by a shot that places David’s face behind a translucent, patterned glass door that breaks his blank smile into copies, an unsettling shot that also foretells David’s eventual mass production. Gradually, though, Monica’s fear turns to affection as she finds an outlet for her denied maternal care, and Spielberg highlights her internal thoughts of replacing her son with a “toy” with a pale blue glow around where each kid sleeps, David from a false moon projection, Martin from the mechanics of his 2001 and Alien-like sleep pod.
When Martin returns and makes David’s life hell in retaliation for this theft of attention, Monica abandons the mecha in a wooded area, pushing the film into darker territory (physically and metaphorically). An earlier high-angle shot at the Swinton dinner table framed David under the halo of the toroid light; when Monica tells David she’s leaving him, another high-angle shot places him inside of mossy, gnarled thorns, replacing his cherubic purity with a punishing crown of thorns.
Around this time, we cut to a nearby metropolis where a lover-bot roams the streets, pleasing women whose nervousness of paying for a gigantic sex toy melts into pure ecstasy. The dichotomy is darkly comic: David is capable of love but is unconsciously exploited by Monica to fulfill an emotional need, while Gigolo Joe’s (Jude Law) clients end up falling for a model designed only to provide pleasure. But even this hollow, programmatic “duty” looks favorable when compared to the actions of jilted husbands, one of whom murders his wife and lays the blame at Joe’s feet in time for a Luddite “Flesh Fair” to come rolling through town looking for stragglers.
But these represent personal, intimate displays of mankind’s failings. To understand the bigger picture, we turn to the settings. The city in which Joe prances resembles the acid-rain-soaked mélange of Blade Runner: neon signs are the only beacons in smogbanks so thick one can’t see past a few feet. Later, after David and Joe have met and the latter agrees to follow the young bot on his quest to become a real boy, they wind up in Rouge City, a place that resembles Las Vegas amped up beyond all boundaries of taste. Ads projected on pollution clouds, impossibly bright lights and not merely the suggestion of vice but a full immersion into it show the decline and fall of human civilization. Humans made mecha to rebuild the world after the calamitous effect of climate change, and clearly no one learned a damn thing.
And so, the only “human” characters in this movie are the robots, who look plastic and unreal to make this irony all the more unmistakable. Amusingly, Spielberg uses not only the inherent creepiness of a child actor reciting an adult’s lines but the overexposed status of his young star to artistic effect. Osment, who ingeniously came up with the idea of never blinking, always looks a little off, even after Monica takes to him enough to activate the full programming that makes him behave and love as a real boy. He’s designed to love, but, as one of Hobby’s subordinates asks at the beginning, can a human love him back? At first, that seems to be the case, but Monica’s affections are eventually revealed to be more self-comfort than love. The only true care David ever receives is from other mechas, their programmed sense of empathy and protectiveness making them far quicker to risk harm than any human. Joe, an older model, looks like a walking doll and is programmed only to service, yet he looks after David and helps him on his journey. Teddy is the most human creature of all, a stuffed bear that is defiant from the moment he is switched on—“I’m NOT a toy“—and always looks after David. Monica, who fails to act like a parent, tasks the bear with looking out for the boy, and whether he’s simply following orders or capable of showing empathy, Teddy sticks with David long after everyone else has either abandoned him or been forced from his life.
Spielberg brings out the humanity of these robots in what is, aesthetically speaking, the film’s most garish and ill-considered setpiece. The Flesh Fair, a hick rodeo-cum-rock festival-cum-Luddite autodafé, is as gaudy and sloppy as the vision of the Lost Boys’ hideout in Hook, a collision of simplistic elements made into a collage of pop cultural items Spielberg clearly does not himself know. But the scene is also one of the film’s most vital, forcing the human backlash to mechas to confront its wildest fear: their true replacement. With David front and center (again surrounded by a halo), the crowd blanches, convinced he is a real child. Hobby earlier dodged the question of reciprocal love on behalf of mechas by responding, “Didn’t God create Adam to love Him?” Here, we clearly see mankind having taken on the role of deities. (Joe refers to one of his clients as a “goddess,” a seductive compliment with deeper thematic suggestions.) Of course, the bacchanalia we witness here suggests that humans behave more like the capricious, egomaniacal Greek gods than the Judeo-Christian supreme being. But where God saw his creation’s sin and decided to love him anyway, humanity cannot even recognize its failure as a parent.
Yet for all that attention, all that importance, David, like all children, must eventually discover he is not special, not truly unique in that fetishized way we think of when we speak of each other as snowflakes and of our children as original works of art. When he follows a planted clue to lead him to a half-submerged New York City, David finds his “father’s” office and finds an exact copy waiting for him. In a fit of identity crisis, David destroys this other robot, screaming “I’m David!” over and over until Hobby arrives and stops him. Bewildered, David pathetically says he thought he was one of a kind. “My son was one of a kind,” Hobby responds bitterly. “You are the first of a kind.” Having given his only begotten son, Hobby will now spread his little boy over the globe so parents need not know the feeling of losing their own children, and at last the Christ imagery of David reaches a head.
Such heady material plunges A.I. into the realm of the message movie, and it’s amusing that Spielberg even acknowledges this somewhat when the Flesh Fair ringleader (Brendan Gleeson), opines, “I say originality without purpose is a white elephant,” a potential reference to Manny Farber’s infamous designation of all films that aim above their station. But Spielberg’s adventurous framing and his ability to keep this sewn-together narrative going keep the film from the realm of the stately and pompous. A shot of David walking up to an unfinished mask of his face, pressing his head inside the hollow mold and peering out of what are and are not his own eye sockets is a more troubling realization of his mercenary value than any soliloquies talking about the same. Brief exchanges, such as Joe’s parting “I am… I was,” make philosophy from brevity, and they also fleck Spielberg’s sentimentality with intellectual depth without halting the flow.
One can also spend an afternoon sorting through the various trademarks of both directors. The unblinking looks of the robots make for great Kubrick stares, while Spielberg positions David at the center of not one but two distant father relationships, from Henry (whose enthusiasm for the robot fades when David’s full programming plunges him into the uncanny valley) to Hobby (who just wants an immortal version of his boy as he remembers him). But it’s the mingling of the two, the warmth with the chill, the optimistic and the cynical, that gives the film a depth it might not otherwise have contained.
I was afraid I had nothing to add regarding the film’s much-contested ending after my initial review, but then Roger Ebert added the film to his Great Movies list. On the one hand, I’m thrilled; this marks a clear revision of Ebert’s opinion from cautious approval to designation as one of the best films of the modern era. His take is not only fascinating but one that has never before occurred to me. It is also one I disagree with almost completely on an interpretative level. But where I usually object to those who hate the ending entirely, I can now disagree with someone who comes to the same conclusion of quality. Ebert writes:
“These new generation mechas are advanced enough to perceive that they cannot function with humans in the absence of humans, and I didn’t properly reflect this in my original review of the film. David is their only link to the human past. Whatever can be known about them, he is an invaluable source. In watching his 24 hours with Mommy, they observe him functioning at the top of his ability.”
This is an intriguing, unexpected view, but I think it is partially the result of Ebert’s insistence on the original spark of humanity that a machine cannot replicate. This is an understandable position from a man who is now reliant on technology to communicate and knows its limitations of expression, emotion and true meaning, and I also wonder if some of his old, infamous anti-video-game stance is coming to play here. I believe, however, that Ebert fundamentally misreads what is a much darker portrait of mankind.
The clear implication of the coda, set 2,000 years into a future where humans have long since eradicated themselves from ecological carelessness, is a confirmation of what has been demonstrated all along: there is no part of us that makes us “human,” nothing inside of us that will forever mark ourselves as a unique species. The advanced mechas we see at the end, though admittedly more distant than one might expect a human to be, have risen to take our place, the end result of David himself. Earlier in the film, before his activation, he plays a joke on Monica and Henry at the dinner table and laughs hysterically. His laugh is processed, programmed, but it is nevertheless a demonstration of him being programmed to recognize something funny, perhaps the most subjective emotional response of all. When Monica abandons him, he sobs uncontrollably. Are the tears real? Not the waterworks themselves, perhaps, but his response is no different than that of a human child being abandoned by his mother.
Ebert suggests that the final projection, in which the mechas revive Monica for one day and let David play with her in a heavily monitored vision, is a show of mechas looking to create a being that will love them back. As he portentously closes, “No Mommy will ever, ever love them.” But it is Monica’s love, not the empathy of the mechas who at least make David’s passing easy as they gut him for information, that is fake. This is David’s view of her, all smiles and affection and unbridled devotion, a far cry from the woman whose skewed notion of the right thing still led to treating David like an outmoded gadget. The haunting suggestion of this ending (which Ebert at least recognizes as darker than nearly anyone will give it credit for) is not that the mecha have seen themselves shrink before their gods. It is that they have surpassed them.