One might ask why a film that achieves a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes requires a defence, but Stephen Spielberg’s 2001 science fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence may be the most misunderstood film of the 21st Century.
Development began in the early seventies when Stanley Kubrick embarked upon an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss story Super Toys Last All Summer Long. Kubrick saw this as the core for a film that would grapple with big questions about the nature of humanity, and the responsibilities inherent in the creation of artificial intelligence. Kubrick laboured for several decades, working on a script with science fiction author Ian Watson, but the project was abandoned – reportedly due to the limitations of special effects technology.
Kubrick and Spielberg had cultivated a friendship. The filmmakers seem opposed in outlooks and styles. Spielberg the great populist, a skilled craftsman with a firm understanding of the popular imagination. Kubrick the meticulous master filmmaker, producing works of formal brilliance, but clinical and austere. Kubrick’s was a cinema of intellectual ideas. Spielberg’s of warm sentiment and visceral thrills.
The legend goes that Kubrick passed the project to Spielberg telling him that the film needed his qualities. Upon release critics scrutinised the film mercilessly, some rushed to proclaim it a mix of fire and ice that had produced tepid water. Spielberg was pilloried for adding a final act to the film seen as sentimental (something he denies, attributing the ending to Kubrick). How dare Spielberg, a mere entertainer, deign to improve upon the work of the master. This was an underlying theme of even positive reviews. Roger Ebert, while praising the film, found the ending ‘facile and sentimental’. Peter Rainer in The New Yorker delivered an extended riff on Kubrick and Spielberg’s sensibilities being in opposition. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone called it ‘a fascinating wreck’. True to form ever contrary Armond White was one of the few who seemed to get it proclaiming A.I. ‘profoundly philosophical and contemplative’. The consensus was followed by audiences. This was an interesting failure in which moments of recognisably Kubrickian darkness were drenched in thick coating of sweet Spielbergian buttermilk. The problem with this reading is that it is wrong.
A.I. divides into three acts, or movements, distinct in mood and style. In a brief prologue, a curiously cadenced voice informs the audience “Those were the years when the icecaps melted due to the greenhouse gases and the oceans had risen and drowned so many cities along all the shorelines of the world.” The film proper begins in a lecture hall where Professor Hobby (William Hurt) puts to his class the proposition that they build a robot that can love. Not sexual, or romantic love, but the love of a child for its mother. In a world of low birth rates, Hobby wants to make a robot child that can act as a substitute.
This child is David (Haley Joel Osmet), after an extensive vetting he is placed with a family whose only son is in a coma. The drama of this section is in the relationship between David and his adoptive mother Monica (Frances O’Connor). The couple has a trial period to decide if the will keep David after which they can choose to have him imprint upon them. The process is irreversible, and if subsequently rejected David will be destroyed. Osmet’s performance is uncanny, he appears to be a flesh and blood child, yet there is a blankness to his mask-like face, a hint of something alien. Monica is torn but eventually chooses to have David imprint on her.
Interestingly for a film of intellectual ideas and concepts, many of these are expressed visually. In the opening act David is shown either separated from the family unit by ingenious framing (such as a superb shot through a ceiling light fixture that seems to reference Dr Strangelove), or frequently distorted in reflecting surfaces that emphasise his status as a copy of a boy. David’s first appearance as he approaches the threshold of the couple’s home is out of focus and heavily backlit so that he appears to be a Lowry-esque stick figure. This image is foreshadowing the appearance of the evolved A.I’s at the end of the film (that they look superficially like the visitors from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is possibly the key to the frankly stupid assumption they are aliens).
There is the briefest of periods of happiness before the couples biological son recovers. Martin, the son, sees David as a rival. In a moment of adolescent cruelty Martin has Monica read Pinocchio as a bedtime story. David is convinced that if he can find the story’s blue fairy he can become a real boy and win his mother’s love.
Martin engineers a situation in which his parents must choose between their sons. Of course, this is no choice at all, and Monica elects to take David back to the factory. She fails to go through with this however, and takes a left turn into dark woods outside the facility and in a heart rending scene abandons David with only a cybernetic teddy bear for company. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world’ she tells him before leaving his image to fade into the distance in her rear view mirror.
The second movement of the film opens up to show the chaotic world outside of the hermetically sealed upper class enclave of the first movement. David falls into the clutches of a ‘flesh fair’ a strange combination of tractor pull and evangelical rally in which runaway and abandoned robots are torn apart for sport in a gladiatorial arena. The symbolism is hard to ignore. Spielberg is linking this dystopian future America to a past it would rather forget. Like Amistad and Lincoln, A.I. explores what it is to be a slave.
When David escapes the Flesh Fair in the company of a robotic hustler Gigalo Joe (Jude Law) they embark on a quest to find the Blue Fairy. This eventually leads them to a flooded New York and a meeting with Professor Hobby. Watching the film in on its release in September 2011 barely a week after the terrorist attacks in New York of September the 11th 2001, the scenes in Manhattan were so viscerally disturbing and eerily prescient that many theatres carried warnings for patrons. In particular Gigalo Joe’s line that precedes his and David’s flight to New York ‘Many a mecha has gone to the end of the world… never to come back! That is why they call the end of the world ‘MAN-hattan’, and the subsequent devastating image of weeping statues in a flooded cityscape.
David discovers he is to become a mass produced, in despair that he is not unique he leaps from the skyscraper into the waters below. He sinks to the remains of Coney Island where he sees a fairground statue of The Blue Fairy but before he requests his wish is rescued by Joe. Later he returns in an amphibious vehicle and becomes trapped under a collapsed Ferris wheel. Facing the fibreglass fairy, David repeatedly wishes to become a real boy as the batteries give out on the vehicles lights and he and Teddy become encased in ice as the ocean freezes.
The third movement is the most controversial, and where the wheels really came off in its interpretation by critics. Thousands of years have passed and David and Teddy are discovered in an excavation of New York by evolved machine intelligences who see David as an important step in their evolution as a species and a link to the now extinct human race. Their only wish is to grant David the happiness that has eluded him in his existence. Through some quirks of quantum physics, they are able to resurrect long dead humans but they will only live for a day. They indulge David’s wish and resurrect Monica for one day of happiness.
“We’re not machines J.F. we’re physical.”
Replicant Roy Batty says these words to genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner. This key piece of dialogue exemplifies how Blade Runner and A.I. whilst appearing to ask the same fundamental philosophical question ‘what is it to be human’ actually are addressing radically different queries. In Blade Runner it is the tank-born artificial humanoids that have developed the ‘humanity’ that womb-born humanoids have lost in a bleak and de-humanising future LA. In A.I. the question is not ‘what is it to be human?’ But ‘what is it to be aware?’ The dawning of machine intelligence in A.I. is not causally linked to notions of ‘humanity’. The film ultimately imagines post-humans, and a world without the human race.
What Kubrick saw in Spielberg is clear. His warmth and his humanism would present the perfect disguise for what is one of the saddest films of recent years, an elegy for the human race.
This article originally written for Verite Film Magazine, and appeared in Issue 8, November 2013.