Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Steven Spielberg and Ian Watson based on the short story by Brian Aldiss.
Starring: Haley Joel Osment (David), Frances O'Connor (Monica Swinton), Sam Robards (Henry Swinton), Jake Thomas (Martin Swinton), Jude Law (Gigolo Joe), William Hurt (Prof. Hobby), Brendan Gleeson (Lord Johnson-Johnson), Robin Williams (Dr. Know), Ben Kingsley (Specialist), Meryl Streep (Blue Mecha), Chris Rock (Comedian).
Since I am writing this review as part of Stanley Kubrick retrospective, I should mention off the top that Steven Spielberg’s A.I. is not Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. I don’t know what Kubrick would have made of the material had he ended up making the film – which as A Life in Pictures implies, he did intend to do after making Eyes Wide Shut – as he wanted to let Special Effects catch up with his vision for the film. But that same documentary has Spielberg say that Kubrick had approached him before he died about directing the film – that Kubrick felt it more matched Spielberg’s sensibility than his own. Judging on what ended up on screen – Kubrick was right. Yet, I have no doubt that Kubrick could have made his version of A.I. as well – and it could also have been great. Spielberg is a great director in his own right however – and smart enough to know that if he was going to take over a project from Kubrick, that he would be stupid to try and do it the way Kubrick would have done it – so he made the film his own. It is undeniably the most Kubrickian film of Spielberg’s career – we see some thematic and stylistic hallmarks of Kubrick throughout – but it is still every inch a Spielberg film. And, for that matter, it’s one of Spielberg’s very best films.
The film opens with Hobby (William Hurt), sometime in the future, explaining the current state of Artificial Intelligence. Humans have created “Mechas” that look, feel and sound like human beings. They can also learn from past behavior, and imitate human emotions – but that is the key, they imitate human emotions, they do not feel them. Hobby wants to create a Mecha that can actually feel love. A member of the audience asks what is one of the key questions of the movie – if human beings can create something that feels genuine emotions – or is at least programmed to believe they feel them – what responsibility do humans have to that creation
Next we meet Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), a married couple with a child of their own, but one with an illness that cannot be cured, so is being held in a sort of hibernation until he can be cured. One day, Henry brings home David (Haley Joel Osment) – a test mecha, the first to be made as a child, and one who will behave like one – and if Monica chooses to, will imprint on her – so that he will love her exclusively – so much so that if they ever choose to get rid of David, he has to go back to the factory to be destroyed. She is hesitant at first – but then grows to love David, and imprints him. And then her real child recovers – causing conflict between David and her real child.
The movie has a definite three act structure – with the first being David’s introduction to the Swinton’s, and what happens as a result. The second act is what happens after Monica decides she can no longer keep David – but cannot bring herself to have him destroyed, so she basically lets him off in the middle of the forest to be free. David knows the story of Pinocchio, and has convinced himself that if he can find the Blue Fairy – and become a real boy – that he can go back home to Mommy again. He meets up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) – a “lover mecha” who is on the run from the law himself, and the two journey to try and find the Blue Fairy for David. There are two brilliant set pieces in this part of the movie – a so called Flesh Fair, where people gather to destroy Mechas, and the second is Rogue City – a kind of Las Vegas wonderland, which is perhaps the best single environment created in a Spielberg film to date. The third act, set 2,000 later, takes a very strange turn indeed – into an area that few filmmakers would even attempt.
The film is, undeniably, more sentimental than any film Stanley Kubrick ever made. Yet, it is not overly sentimental to me – it is that rare film that appeals equally to the emotions and the brains. Haley Joel Osment's performance is key in this – he creates David as a child who is real enough to be loved, but is still somewhat mechanical – there is something missing about him. This would be a hard performance for any actor – but for a child, it is simply remarkable. Jude Law gives one of his very best performances as Gigolo Joe as well – even more mechanical than David, one who doesn’t feel genuine emotion at all – just knows what his programming is.
But that also describes David too, doesn’t it? He never really feels any genuine emotions – he simply follows his programming, which requires him to feel emotions – or more accurately to think he feels emotions. But what is the difference between genuinely feeling somewhat, and just thinking you feel something. Is What Monica does to him kind – because she allows him to live, or cruel because David will never be able to love anyone other than Monica – so he will never be able to recover, the way a real person would.
As a technical achievement, A.I. is truly remarkable. It is a brilliantly directed film by Spielberg – who uses some Kubrickian tracking shots, and zooms, but generally stays away from Kubrick’s hallmarks visually. He creates a wonderful visual world – one enhanced by John Williams score. Even if you find the story lacking – and some do – I do not know how one could not love the visual world Spielberg has created here.
One thing that has always mystified me is the feeling that Spielberg somehow copped out at the end – and gave the film an underserved happy ending. This is a film that ends with all of humanity being wiped out, with the main character staying put, praying to an inanimate object for 2,000 years in vain to become a real boy, who is brought back – by advanced mechas (yes, they are mechas, and yes, Spielberg probably would have been wise to not make them look so much like a Spielberg alien) because they now do not have any memory of humanity – and David has those memories. They then get those memories from David – watch him operate his programming as it was meant to (by bringing back his mother, either in real life, or simple programming language) – and then basically let David expire – they do not need him anymore. I know the final scene – which gives David what he wants – is meant, at least in part, to draw tears from the audience (and succeeds in many cases) – but that doesn’t mean the end of A.I. is happy – it’s actually rather hard to think of a bleaker ending. It is certainly bleaker than the end of Kubrick’s 2001 – a film who Spielberg takes a few hints from in the ending here.
To bring it back to the beginning, Steven Spielberg did not make the film Stanley Kubrick could or would have made if he had lived long enough to make this film. He did something different – not necessarily better or worse (we will never know that) – but undeniably his own. There is apparently a movie going to be made at some point based on Kubrick’s Napoleon screenplay – another movie he never got to make. I am trying to reserve judgment – but this strikes me as a bad idea. There was only on Stanley Kubrick – no one else can be Stanley Kubrick. Steven Spielberg knew this, so when he took over a project from Kubrick – he made it is his own – and he made a masterpiece. It’s not Kubrick – but it is brilliant.