Writing of the film My Fair Lady in 2006 Roger Ebert remarked, “Many viewers would rather discuss the film that wasn’t made.” The same can be said of Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
A little back story. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. As a film project, it began life under the aegis of Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s. He divested himself of the project twenty-odd years later and handed the rains over to Steven Spielberg. In 2001, when it was released, most reviewers spent their reviews trying to determine which portions of the film were still Kubrick’s and which portions belonged to Spielberg. Much speculation remains about the version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence that Stanley Kubrick might have made.
This is, of course, a fool’s errand. Kubrick’s film doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because Kubrick could never make it. To make a successful version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence would require a director who believed that the true lasting proof of humanity’s genius was in their children. Kubrick didn’t even want to cast a child actor in the central roll. Part of the reason the movie languished for twenty-something years was Kubrick’s unwillingness to work with a child. He was hoping for CGI to reach a point where he could create a synthetic child to star in this film.
That was my long way of saying that Spielberg’s film should be approached on its own merits. There are many.
Set after humanity melts the polar ice caps and floods New York City, governments have adapted to the new world by strictly limiting the number of children. Meanwhile, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence lead Professor Hobby (William Hurt) to believe that it is finally possible to create a “mecha” child so real that it could fill the void in the lives of the many childless families on earth. He creates “David” (Haley Joel Osment), an artificial intelligence eleven-year-old boy as a test model. He places David in the home of Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) whose son, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma/suspended animation. Monica bonds with David and begins to treat him like a son. Henry can never quite get over David’s unreality. When Martin wakes and returns home, a series of misunderstandings cause the Swintons to abandon David in the woods. David, inspired by Pinocchio, believes that if only he were a real boy he could regain Monica’s love and sets off on a quest to find the Blue Fairy, so she can make him a real boy. Along the way, he is aided by a talking robotic teddy bear named “Teddy” (voiced by Jack Angel) and a sexbot (because porn is responsible for all technological advancement) “Gigolo Joe” (Jude Law).
There are big ideas here. What does it mean to be alive? Can a machine be alive? What exactly are the responsibilities that creators have to their creations? The only apt comparison we have is the comparison of parents and children, but is that fair? Is love real? Is it simply a series of physiological responses? Is it something more? Is there something unique about the human spirit? Can we learn the answers to these questions from the process of creation and/or child rearing?
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a meaty text. It brings up many questions but it never really finds the time to explore any of them in very great detail. The ending, seems to assume some answers, but the ending takes place thousands of years in the future of the main narrative – in a world devoid of humans and populated by machines. Machines that now believe the answers to those questions was inside of us the whole time. Too bad we eventually killed ourselves, or got killed by our machines – which is really the same.
Spielberg correctly resists the urge to make the robotic characters too charismatic. Under his direction, the actors playing robots, especially Osment and Law, are firmly in the uncanny valley. They have perfect posture, unblinking eyes, inappropriate levels of emotional response. Gigolo Joe in particular is a near parody of the perfect man, combining the lightness and romance of Fred Astaire with the strangeness of David Bowie. David and Gigolo Joe could be real people, but the actor’s wisely hint at their falseness. As a result, viewers can understand why characters might like them and why characters might be uncomfortable around them.
Spielberg, perhaps channeling Kubrick (to whom the film is dedicated), resists the urge to do too much exposition leading many American critics to conclude that the ending depicts an Alien civilization that has colonized earth when it actually depicts the children of our machines. Spielberg takes a risk, drawing his line between David and the Alberto Giocometti inspired future bots through a single visual expression at David’s entrance and trusting his audience to follow that to the end. It’s a move worthy of a post-impressionist. Spielberg should have the courage to do more like this. Unfortunately, other aspects of the film are dispensed with using long, boring, expository monologues. I can assign that problem to Spielberg because, in addition to directing, he is credited the screenplay.
I think perhaps that first image of David, distorted into a long limbed shadow, is the key to the whole film. A.I. Artificial Intelligence argues that the true nature of humanity, the true meaning of our existence, is too opaque to pin down. The mechas of A.I. Artificial Intelligence all know their purpose. That knowledge has diminished them. Our constant search for purpose, by contrast, has only made us great. Ultimately, that may have been too positive a worldview for Kubrick, but it’s a story Spielberg knows how to tell. He told it well in A.I. Artificial Intelligence an ambitious, if flawed, film that maybe could have been a masterpiece.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence finds itself on this list because Kyle Smith of The New York Post listed it as the best film of the decade. Additionally, A.I. was listed as one of the ten best films of the decade by two other reviewers. Next time I post, I’ll begin reviewing the twenty-five (okay actually twenty-six) the reviewers determined were actually the best films of the decade.
From Out in the Void