A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2001)


Contemporary popular cinema has many blockbusters, but few true events. For a film to be an event, it needs more than simply excitement, cleverness or star power; more than the pre-fab mythology of a Star Wars cycle or the elaborate spectacle of a Gladiator (2000).


Event-films, paradoxically, do not need to be perfect or seamless. It is in fact better if they are somewhat excessive and unresolved, open to conflicting interpretations. Primarily, they must touch some raw nerve in the mass imagination, igniting a train of thought and feeling that mixes anxiety with delight, fear with desire.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence – written and directed by Steven Spielberg from a mountain of material developed by the late Stanley Kubrick – is variously weird, confronting, magical, maddening and inspiring. As a blockbuster, it is wayward and fascinating – fascinating precisely because not everything in it makes comfortable sense, or fits together well.  But it is incontestably a cultural event of the highest order.


But first, another context. One of the most poignant, tearing moments in cinema happens an hour into Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935). This today little-known Hollywood gem is a mystical romance about two people (played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) who, cruelly separated for most of their lives, manage to meet up and frolic, forever young, in their shared dreams.


It takes Coop, however, a little while to get this nocturnal transcendence trip down pat. In his first dream vision while serving a life sentence in prison, his lover materialises and moves, phantom-like, through the cell bars. He remains stuck, cursing the illusion that is taunting him: “All this is a lie I’m dreaming!” His ghostly companion coolly replies: “Don’t ask why. Just believe!”


Hope, blind faith, belief in dreams, the power of the human will to alter mundane reality – these have become great subjects for cinema. Spielberg has in fact devoted his entire career to taking such possibilism (as Denis Wood has called it) (1) to delirious heights.


The three acts of A.I.’s futuristic story are carved from surreal displacements and vast leaps in space and time. Act One is an intimate, family story concerning Monica (Frances O’Connor), Henry (Sam Robards) and the robot child they adopt, David (Joel Haley Osment, superbly cast) – a special prototype experimentally implanted with the ability to develop emotions of love and belonging.


David’s evolution is rudely halted when the couple’s human son, Martin (Jake Thomas), suddenly emerges from hospitalisation. Hurled into wild woods, David enters Act Two of his journey, undoubtedly the film’s least successful section: a Mad Max-style panorama of angry humans (orgas, meaning organic) hunting down and brutally destroying discarded robots (mechas, for mechanical).


Act Three, which is reminiscent in some respects of the finale of 2001  (1968), takes David through several remarkable voyages – including into the distant future and under water, where New York sleeps after a new Ice Age has overtaken the Earth.


Where Ring  (1998) is about a child’s almighty fury, A.I. is about unstoppable longing. Time and again, David explains, whispers, prays or shouts his dilemma: if he can become a real boy, then Mommy will finally love him.


But the clammy sentimentality of this premise is contradicted at every turn by odd, startling or subversive complications. As a result, one watches the film in a uniquely disturbed state: while our emotions are being mercilessly preyed upon, our minds race to figure out what artistic process gave rise to such a tortuous fantasy.


A.I. enacts the meeting of two artistic sensibilities that are, in virtually every respect, antithetical. On certain levels of subject matter and style, a satisfying blend of these sensibilities is achieved. But the most exciting parts of A.I. register the split between them.


Kubrick has often been described as a cold, clinical, misanthropic filmmaker. In fact, Jacques Rivette once went so far as to say: “Kubrick is a machine, a mutant, a Martian. He has no human feeling whatsoever”. Rivette added, though: “But it’s great when the machine films other machines, as in 2001”. (2)


There is no doubt that Kubrick and Spielberg worked toward a meeting of minds on the project. Kubrick rightly saw that his Pinocchio-like parable was perfect material for the director of E.T. (1982) and Hook  (1991) – David is given the trait of obsession for the tale of Pinocchio, which has thus passed, historically, from Carlo Collodi to Walt Disney and hence, logically, to one of the contemporary filmmakers most steeped in Disney’s ethos, lore and ideology. (3)


Many aspects of the tale surely resonate for Spielberg. He has often focused on outsiders – children or aliens cut off from family and community. There is longing for the old, patriarchal, family structures in his cinema, but also intense, sometimes furious ambivalence (as in his Jurassic Park  series): children who want to disown and kill their parents, parents who want to exclude or murder their kids. So, in his hands, A.I. becomes a monument to the striving to overcome the most extravagant obstacles that a scary, troubling world can put in a child-outsider’s path.


Spielberg, for his part, has scrupulously respected aesthetic procedures fundamental to the maker of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Dr Strangelove (1963) – such as his tendency to break stories into long sections or plateaux that leisurely explore a particular premise.


Earnest speculation has raged as to which elements of the film originated with Kubrick and which have been added by Spielberg. One theory, for instance, runs that Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), David’s handy, robot companion in Act Two, was envisioned by Kubrick as a darker, dirtier creature. Spielberg insists that Kubrick’s notes in this regard were sketchy and that he needed to elaborate the character himself.


In the wash-up, Joe starts out as a devilish imp and quickly metamorphoses into a lovable sidekick, complete with Fred Astaire dance moves – the kind of reassuring, cartoonish figure beloved of Spielberg.


But if Joe can stand for the Spielbergian side of the film, the singularly unnerving presence of Professor Hobby (William Hurt) at the heart of the story is pure Kubrick. The more we find out about Hobby, the less we like him.


He is a demiurge like many scientists, creators and military officials in Kubrick’s oeuvre – a man who would be God, recklessly and heartlessly assuming power over life and death in the name of some grand, world-altering plan. The eventual revelation of David’s true significance to Hobby serves only to render his plan more chilling.


A.I. is a monumentally perverse film. Indeed, its wildest moments are enough to make one imagine that Kubrick’s ghost has possessed Spielberg and made him twist his usual, cloying sentimentality into something altogether stranger and more disturbing. It is a spectacle reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s immortal fantasy-vision of how philosophy (including his own) comes to be:


[I] conceive of the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or, which amounts to the same thing, a sort of immaculate conception. I imagined myself as arriving in the back of an author and giving him a child, which would be his and which nevertheless would be monstruous. That it really be his is very important, because the author had to really say everything that I made him say. But it was also necessary that the child be monstruous, because it was necessary to go through all sorts of decentrings, slippages, breakages, secret emissions that gave me a lot of pleasure. (4)


There are many niggly questions haunting David’s story, and they only become more obvious and prominent as his cosmic chronicle presses on. Firstly, there is the synthetic, wholly static nature of David’s so-called love for Monica – an imprinted emotion which, as Hobby rightly predicts in the opening scene, creates a being “caught in a freeze frame”.


Then there is David’s evident mother-fixation. A.I. may well be the most starkly Oedipal tale in cinema history. At the high point of David’s dream of being the sole repository of Monica’s love, he even muses pleasantly: “No more Henry, no more Martin …” And the final scene, in this light, is nothing short of mindboggling.


Then there is the question of humanness itself, which I suspect was Kubrick’s guiding theme as he developed the project. His interest in this topic goes deeper than the usual Star Trek-style orientation towards aliens, androids, and the evolution of the human species – although that is a level on which the makers of 2001 and Jurassic Park (1993) do indeed meet.


A.I. becomes more intriguing once we recall that human beings were always rather strange and precarious entities in Kubrick’s cinema. For starters, the psychological individual of today is only a historical blip for Kubrick, positioned somewhere between swirling amoeba and the formless Star Child at the end of 2001, living beyond the strict co-ordinates of time and space.


Even within the seemingly naturalistic boundaries of psychological drama, Kubrick was always at pains to present humans in defiantly anti-humanist ways: as animals, machines, or crazy interfaces of material bodies and irrational drives. (5)


As has often been noted, Kubrick’s clinical view of humanity led him to a paradoxical level of tenderness and compassion. Only he could present entirely manufactured creatures – like the computer HAL in 2001 or the walking, talking Teddy in A.I. – as a story’s most intriguing and even delightful characters; only he would envision base, obsessive, paranoid jealousy (in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) as the most essential and universal human trait.


A.I. takes this Kubrickian investigation of humanity to its most extreme and deliberately confusing point. The story presents its nominal humans as primarily driven by ego – expressed in a boundless desire to be loved and worshipped (Hobby: “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”). As to the emotions of which mechas are ultimately capable, the film remains resolutely ambiguous to the very end.


Taken from the Kubrick angle, A.I. is the ultimate exercise in “a machine filming other machines”. Almost no one in this story is real, in the old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood sense. Phantoms, simulations, clones, spirits, mere images take the place of people. Spielberg has reached this path, less intellectually,  through another route: through high-end special and digital effects processes. Putting these orientations together, A.I. takes the simplest gestures and interactions – like sharing a laugh at the family dinner table – and makes them look utterly strange and unfamiliar.


What is David’s journey, finally? Does he truly become human by the end? Two further, fundamental doubts eat away like termites at the heart of this familiar, Spielbergian, Peter Pan tale.


The first involves the supposed uniqueness of humans. Spielberg pointedly inserts some wise, benevolent aliens to sing the praises of this uniqueness, but Kubrick’s scenario constantly and brutally undermines the notion – especially when Hobby coldly tells David: “Are you one of a kind? No, but you’re the first of a kind”.


The second doubt signals Kubrick’s most inspired perversion of the Spielbergian creed. The latter’s films, as I have already indicated, always preach the need to believe in impossible dreams – and they use every cinematic resource available to involve the audience in that necessary leap of faith. This is what has long divided those who acclaim Spielberg’s films as inspiring and moving from those who decry them as sentimental and manipulative – and it is a debate which is almost impossible to ever adjudicate, given our intractable subjectivities as cinema viewers.


A.I. overflows with situations, words and events that keep rubbing our noses in the illusory, artificial nature of such dreamy beliefs – from Joe’s ability to literally merge the categories of fact and fairy tale, to the unforgettable apparition of a magical Blue Fairy that is in fact a tacky, Coney Island statue. The hand of the faithless, always sceptical Kubrick is surely at work in the moment when a devastated David watches this tacky icon slowly crumble into a thousand pieces.


As a net result, it is impossible to simply watch this film; rather, one gets caught in its trap, alternately moved by the extreme pathos of David’s story and then chastened by the evidence of its underlying trickery. Although it’s some kind of fairy tale, it’s certainly not made for children, or at least not the kind of innocent, child audience Spielberg sometimes aims for – because it’s (to borow the title of a splendid cartoon segment) a fractured fairy tale.


For every lush image of transcendence which is so vividly offered by A.I., there is a complementary image of loss, abandonment, dissillusionment or death. This is the ambiguous spin in which the film leaves us, no doubt mirroring the war within Spielberg’s own sensibility as he tries to remain true to Kubrick’s legacy.


At the heart of the film, you can sense this constant war between Kubrick the icy, sardonic misanthrope, and Spielberg, the incurable optimist, the dreamer with an idiot grin. Spielberg’s only recourse is to take his little hero even deeper into the realm of wish-fulfilment fantasy. As David frolics with a phantom of his mother in a heavenly home more fantastic than anything Peter Ibbetson ever had a chance to visit, the typical Spielbergian dream-come-true is simultaneously affirmed and completely folded in on itself.


This may not be the drama which A.I. intended to convey, but it is the one that makes it a rich, unmissable movie.



MORE Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can, The Color Purple, The Lost World, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Terminal, Munich, The Fabelmans




1. See Denis Wood, “No Place for a Kid: Critical Commentary on The Last Starfighter”, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. 14 No. 2 (1986), pp. 52-63. back


2. Frédéric Bonnaud (trans. Kent Jones), “The Captive Lover – An Interview with Jacques Rivette”, Senses of Cinema, no. 15 (September 2001). back


3. For a brilliant discussion of what Disney did to Pinocchio, see William Paul, “Art, Music, Nature and Walt Disney”, Movie, no. 24 (Summer 1977), pp. 44-52. back


4. Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Severe Critic”, cited and translated by Terence Blake, Agent Swarm, 12 July 2016. back


5. I am indebted, on this point, to Dana Polan, “Jack and Gilles: Reflections on Deleuze’s Cinema of Ideas”, Art & Text, no. 34 (Spring 1989), pp. 23-30. back

© Adrian Martin September 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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