Stephen Spielberg’s A.I. and whether or not it’s shit

I have recently found myself involved in some heated discussions about the merits of A.I., which has prompted me to collect my thoughts in this post. It is unusual to find a movie which doesn’t preach a particular political or religious message but inspires such wildly differing opinions, so let’s take some time out to consider Stephen Spielberg’s confused sci-fi epic.

In case you don’t already know the history behind the film, Stanley Kubrick actually bought the rights to the Brian Aldiss short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (often referred to simply as “Supertoys”) in 1982. Over the next 17 years, he adapted the story as A.I..

Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg were already friends and they collaborated on the development of the film. In 1994, when the development was at an advanced stage, Kubrick suggested to Spielberg that he should be the one to direct A.I. while Kubrick himself would produce. Spielberg agreed to the proposal at first, but later changed his mind. It wasn’t until Kubrick’s death in 1999 that he reconsidered and began filming.

The story goes Kubrick felt Spielberg’s directorial style might be better suited to the heavy use of special effects and the fairytale elements of the story. There can be little doubt A.I. would have been a different film entirely with Kubrick directing or producing.

Many people say A.I. goes on beyond its “natural ending” or it feels like two disperate movies cut together. I would argue it actually has three acts, each with distinct moods and messages.

In the first act, the mecha David struggles to assimilate with his new “parents”, the Swintons. When his programming puts their biological son Martin in danger, David is deserted in the woods.

The second act is an odyssey, during which David teams up with a Gigolo Joe on his quest to find the Blue Fairy, whom he remembers from the story The Adventures of Pinocchio. His search leads him to a flooded Manhattan, where David locates the Blue Fairy, a statue from Coney Island. Trapped on the ocean floor, David repeats his wish to be a real boy until he eventually loses power and becomes encased in ice.

Some 2,000 years later, David is awakened by an alien intelligence. It transpires the intelligence is descended from the machines of man, although this science is pretty hazy. David discovers the Blue Fairy was not real, and the mecha intelligence is unable to grant his wish. However, using a lock of hair, the intelligence brings David’s “mother” back to life for one day only. David experiences the “everlasting moment” he has been looking for, and closes his eyes and falls asleep for the last time.

Much of the earlier portions of the film had already been scripted by Kubrick, so Spielberg was directing by numbers. The pace of the film begins slow and the thrills are mostly psychological. David, the artificial boy, is what Freud calls unhiemlich (“the uncanny”): he is disturbing because although he resembles something familiar (a human child) he is in fact something completely alien (mecha). At this point Kubrick’s involvement is especially tangible and it is quite easy to draw parallels with The Shining, which has similar Freudian preoccupations.

Once David is left to fend for himself, Spielberg’s influence quickly begins to be felt. He removed Gigolo Joe’s proposed sex scenes and made him a more likeable character than Kubrick had envisaged. Gigolo Joe’s all-singing, all-dancing antics are just one element which seems peculiarly out of place given some of the events in this section of the film. David’s interaction with the zany Dr. Know (voiced by Robin Williams) is another.

The film becomes even more problematic after David is entombed in the ice at the submerged Coney Island. The “second ending” is reminiscent of the ending to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is drastically different in execution. Shot through Spielberg’s rosy lense, the mecha intelligence looks similar to the aliens at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and has the same non-threatening qualities. By this point the film’s serious exploration of artificial intelligence has become the equivalent of Johnny 5 shouting “No disassemble!” in Short Circuit. No attempt is being made to keep the science believable when David is told his mother can be brought back for a single day.

A.I. is definitely not family orientated like Close Encounters or E.T., which makes its saccharine ending particularly frustrating. The earlier, more challenging parts of the film demand something more rewarding. In this respect, the ending feels disconnected; both in terms of the plot and the change in mood.

Ben Kingsley sounds as though he’s in possession of an unending supply of Werther’s Originals as he narrates David’s last waking moments. The film literally ends with a cuddle and it’s this trademark warm fuzziness of Spielberg which jars the most, because there’s no escaping the illusory nature of the seemingly happy ending. Approached from a slightly different angle, aspects of this ending are deeply tragic. David doesn’t get what he wanted any more than the Swintons got what they wanted at the start of the film.

I have heard several friends write A.I. off as shit, but in my view adopting such an oversimplified attitude means missing out on some of the rewards the film has to offer. Sure, the film is fatally flawed, it fails to live up to its potential; but it’s an interesting, hybrid piece of film-making with good points as well as bad.

At its core is a Stanley Kubrick adaptation which is as intelligent and thought-provoking as you could hope for. Sections of the film are true to the spirit of Kubrick’s adaptation, even if the film as a whole veers away from that vision. To genuinely appreciate A.I. you just need to possess enough imagination to watch and see what might have been.

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2 Responses to “Stephen Spielberg’s A.I. and whether or not it’s shit”

  1. Yes, it is quite surprising how polarising this film is, especially the ending.

    I agree with your breakdown of the three parts of the film, the first third is very Kubrick and it kind of sinks into Spielburg (which isn’t always a bad thing) as the film progresses.

    What I really enjoy (as usual) are the ideas and themes it brings up, but perhaps does not answer. Again, this film requires more than one viewing I think to appreciate the running theme of real vs unreal.

    The most obvious example is our journey to find if humans can love machines or can machines love humans. Questions come up like the flesh fair, where the crowd turns against the (human) ringmaster and sides with the robot (David).

    When Joe is framed for murder, should people be jealous of what mechas? Can robots can be arrested for murder? Surely that suggests machines can tell the difference between right an wrong (an idea not realised by the way).

    And the irony at the end, where the aliens can only learn about human emotions through a David the robot. The idea of synthetic vs the real and if we can tell the difference and if we can’t should it matter?

    The idea behind it is really quite subversive because we are made to side with the robots. We are made to side David and think the Martin, the Swinton’s real son, is nothing a obnoxious bully. Actually, nearly all the humans are cruel, while the mecha show more humanity that anyone (anything?) else.

    It’s an ambitious film, and I agree the best way to appreciate it is to think about what could have been. It doesn’t quite fit together to make it a great movie and it probably is a bit unwieldy and long.

    But I do love the ending. If it ended with David forever hoping with the blue angel, it would have been more conventional. More emotionally satisfying perhaps.

    But it doesn’t stop there. As said before, it transcends the rest of the film and your recognition of the uncanny in the film fits my opinion of the end perfectly. The ending takes you outside the ordinary and you experience the other. The last day with David and his mum is at once familiar and disturbing, happy but also infinitely tragic too.

    AI is most definitely not shit.

  2. thebigsmoke Says:

    I like the idea of the bit at the end, but the science doesn’t make any sense and I hate that Spielberg virtually parodied himself.

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