As a member of the Film Brat generation—that first generation of filmmakers to reap the benefits of academic film schools—director Steven Spielberg was one of the earliest to explicitly reference his influences within his own work. His early output was littered with riffs on such French New Wave luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but as he established himself within the American studio system, he began to increasingly reference that unassailable icon of cinematic excellence, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was well aware of these loving homages, and saw in Spielberg a kindred spirit—despite their very different styles of filmmaking. The two maintained a close friendship by regularly calling each other long-distance and swapping ideas.
In the mid-80’s, Kubrick looped Spielberg into a long-gestating passion project adapted from Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Super Toys Last All Summer Long”. He was planning on turning it into big science fiction film called A.I. Several times, Kubrick implored Spielberg to take the director’s chair, as he saw the project in line with the blockbuster director’s distinct sensibilities. Spielberg politely passed each time, deferring to the notion that no one could realize the idea as well as Kubrick could himself. Then, in 1999, Kubrick suddenly passed away, leaving his long-developing story unfinished. Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, gave the rights to Spielberg, and he finally decided to make A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE in 2001 as a tribute to his late friend and mentor.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is set in an unspecified future, where the melting ice caps have flooded the world’s coastal cities and mankind has retreated into the interior of the continents in order to survive. Humanoid robots have reached a point of maturity and have been integrated into almost every facet of daily life: labor, service, even romance. A prominent thinker in the field of robotics, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), announces a new endeavor: to create a child-like robot that’s capable of that fundamentally human feeling—love. Elsewhere, a young married couple has cryogenically frozen their young son in the hopes of finding a cure for the mystery illness that plagues him. To fill the void, the father brings home the culmination of Professor Hobby’s work: a prototype robot named David (Haley Joel Osment), modeled after Hobby’s own son and programmed to exhibit unconditional love. The mother, Monica (Frances O’Connor), is initially off-put by what she perceives as an abomination, but soon she warms up to him and becomes emotionally attached.
One day, a cure for their real son’s disease is found, and he is brought back to live with his family as he recovers. The boy and David try to co-exist, but normal tiffs of sibling rivalry are amplified by David’s programming, which is ill-equipped to deal with subtle variations of emotion and threatens to make him a danger to others around him. The parents make the difficult decision to return David to the factory, where he’ll be shut down and recycled. En route to the factory, however, Monica drops David off in the forest with a robotic teddy bear (appropriately named Teddy) and urges him to flee. Confused and afraid, David does as he’s told—only to get caught up in a Flesh Fair, a carnival dedicated to the violent and twisted destruction of robots for amusement. He meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a kindly male pleasure bot, and together they escape with their eyes set towards Manhattan—the ruined city at the edge of the world—where they hope to encounter the Blue Fairy and have David’s wish to be reunited with his mother granted.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE boasts one of the most eclectic casts that Spielberg has ever assembled. Due to his breakout performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), child star Haley Joel Osment was a no-brainer to portray David, the child robot with the capacity for love. Osment strikes a perfect balance between warm, cuddly intentions and cold, calculated delivery. He never blinks throughout the film, which is the key to his engrossing performance. Osment, unfortunately, never really had a big role like this again—he fell victim to the same curse that has struck down many promising child actors: puberty. For his performance as Gigolo Joe, Jude Law studied Frank Astaire and Gene Kelly as a reference for the theatrical grace in which his character is required to move. The playboy dynamic is not a stretch for Law, but he also turns in a compelling, nuanced performance despite his character being a robot. Frances O’Connor gives a heartbreaking performance as David’s mother, Monica, by painting a portrait of a very flawed mother. David’s unwavering devotion to her only enhances the humanity of her character and the burden her conflicted emotions bear.
Filling out is the supporting cast are Sam Robards as Harry Swinton and William Hurt as Professor Hobby, respectively. Robards is initially a warm and hospitable father figure—indeed, bringing David into the family is his idea. But when David proves to be a danger to his real son, Robards grows cold and stern, able to quickly differentiate his emotions towards man and machine. In contrast, Hurt is a warmer father figure and his stature as a philosopher and robotics visionary makes him something of a God-like figure as well.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is also populated by a variety of interesting, sometimes strange cameos. Brendan Gleeson plays Lord Johnson-Johnson, a robot wrangler for the Flesh Fair and a carnie perversion of the Robert Muldoon character from JURASSIC PARK (1993). Chris Rock makes a brief appearance as a robotic version of himself. A pre-ENTOURAGE Adrien Grenier has a small cameo as an eager bro travelling to Rouge City. Robin Williams voices Dr. Know, a hologram that dispenses advice to David and Gigolo Joe. Williams’ voicework was purportedly directed by Kubrick himself, well before even Spielberg directed Williams in 1991’s HOOK. And finally, Ben Kingsley and Meryl Streep lend their vocal chords as the Narrator and the Blue Fairy. Kingsley’s luscious, Thespian (with a capital T) voice does a great deal in helping Spielberg achieve a fairy-tale feel to the sci-fi story.
Spielberg reprises his collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi, continuing the turn towards highly stylized visuals and evocative camerawork that began with 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Their trademark look consisting of crushed blacks and blooming highlights is retained, along with the incorporation of a cool color palette that favors cobalt blues and steely greys. The Rouge City sequence also features bursts of colorful neon that convey the seedier side of this increasingly-unfamiliar future. Despite being entirely under Spielberg’s direction, the specter of Kubrick is strongly felt. There’s an icy intellectual, distant tone that counteracts the relatively warm domestic sequences. This tone is complemented by returning art director Rick Carter’s production design, which channels a neo-retro, modernist style comprised of rounded metallic surfaces akin to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). The level of control attained by the production approached Kubrickian levels, as nearly all of shooting was done on soundstages (with the exception of a few wooded sequences shot in Oregon). Also notable is the return of producer Kathleen Kennedy to Spielberg’s team after a conspicuous absence.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, John William returns for scoring duty, crafting an intriguing, somewhat muffle suite of cues that deal in a minimal, ambient texture. It’s a far cry from the brassy, sweeping sound he is typically known for, but it captures the futuristic tone of A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE quite well. In a further nod to the film’s connection to Kubrick, Spielberg incorporates a variety of classical and choral music cues that the late director might’ve used himself had he lived to tell the story.
Due to the considerable reverence towards Kubrick on display, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE has a strange reputation amongst Spielberg’s larger body of work. Like the mother who rejected her adopted robot son, repulsed by his inherent inhumanity, audiences rejected A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE for a stylistic presentation that left them uneasy and cold. Spielberg aims for a hybrid blend of his and Kubrick’s sensibilities, and as a result the film feels uncharacteristically cold and distant for those accustomed to Spielberg’s conventionally warmer, cuddly style. Because of this, many things that people thought were the result of Spielberg’s involvement were actually Kubrick’s doing, and vice versa. For example, Spielberg had gained a reputation as something of a live-action Walt Disney– criticized for a perceived maudlin sentimentality—so most people could be forgiven for thinking the narrative’s PINOCCHIO allegories were his doing. It wasn’t, surprisingly—that story conceit went all the way back to Kubrick’s initial development, as he often referred to the film in casual conversation as PINOCCHIO instead of A.I.
Despite honoring Kubrick’s memory by channeling his style, several moments are indicative of classic Spielberg tropes: low angle compositions, child-based perspectives, father/son tensions, moody shafts of lights, the requisite awe/wonder shot, and depictions of people in persecution—albeit, in this instance, the people aren’t really people at all. They’re robots, subjected to torture and destruction at the Flesh Fair.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE contains several of the most visually arresting images in Spielberg’s filmography—quite a feat, considering a career that boasts living dinosaurs and boys on flying bicycles. The most captivating sequences are set in Manhattan, which in the context of the film has been rendered uninhabitable after half of the city is submerged by biblical flooding. All that remains above the surface are the crumbling ruins of only the tallest skyscrapers. The film encountered a degree of controversy after its release, as it was released prior to 9/11 and prominently featured images of the World Trade Center towers. By the time the DVD was prepping for release, the Twin Towers had already been destroyed, and Spielberg was faced with the choice of retaining them or erasing them altogether so that his vision of the future would be congruent with our new, sobering reality. He decided to leave the towers in, at a time when several other filmmakers were in a mad scramble to erase any trace of the towers from their work, and their inclusion adds a further sense of loss to the desolation on display. Spielberg chose to depict the version of New York that was true to the story and the context in which it was made, at the great risk of immediately dating the film.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was a middling success, with audience put off by its unfamiliar tone. Spielberg was further derided for a sentimental epilogue that flashed forward thousands of years into the future and saw a highly-evolved race of robots (not aliens as is commonly thought) rescuing David from deep beneath the ice that buried Manhattan and granting his wish to be finally reunited with his mother, albeit for only one day. Ironically, this sequence was part of Kubrick’s original vision, not Spielberg’s.
A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is an easy film to deride, but those who are quick to do so are missing the point. As a tribute to the late Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg meant to make a very cerebral story, with enough ideas about the transience of man and the permanence of our creations to fuel several college-level philosophy classes. There’s also the intriguing idea of mankind’s folly as creators and God-wannabe’s, trying to reduce such a profound and irrational emotion like love down to a logical, mathematical function. In the end, Spielberg accomplished what he set out to do- honor his dear friend with a work that was worthy of the late director’s own canon. Even after the passing of twelve years, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is still considered today to be an albatross around Spielberg’s neck, but let us not forget: Kubrick’s own films were criticized and misunderstood in their time too, and now they’re considered unassailable cornerstones of the cinematic experience. Perhaps a similar fate awaits A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.
A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount
Produced by: Bonnie Curtis, Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Spielberg
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Rick Carter
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams