It’s a difficult era of my life to recall, but there was a time while I was alive when the internet was not a ubiquitous influence on pop culture & politics, but just something nerds in basements used to discuss nerd shit on nerdy message boards. Before the at-your-fingertips availability of sites like IMDb & Wikipedia, it was easier for false word-of-mouth information about movies to spread, which is how I heard weird urban legends about the production of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The lie I was told about A.I. as a kid was that it was a Stanley Kubrick film that the infamous auteur did not live to see completed, so it was taken over & “ruined” by populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg. I vaguely understand where this claim is coming from, as it’s difficult to reconcile the out-of-nowhere sweetness of A.I.‘s epilogue with the (out-of-character for Spielberg) brutally bitter, ice cold sci-fi masterpiece that precedes it. The truth, of course, is that Kubrick did not direct a frame of A.I. He held onto the rights for the project (an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story) for decades, but was frustrated with child acting & special effects limitations that made the task appear impossible. Kubrick essentially gave up on A.I., handing over the reins to Spielberg, who turned it into what I believe to be the most beautifully bonkers & traumatic work of his career. Kubrick’s influence certainly guided Spielberg’s hand through the project (with some spillover into his next project, Minority Report) and seemingly pushed him to creative heights as great as any of his earliest, most iconic blockbusters. The idea that Spielberg ruined the work of a deceased auteur is total bullshit, though, and I’m embarrassed that I initially believed it without seeing the picture for myself.
Watching A.I. now, well over a decade after the initial umbrage around its jarring epilogue, the film’s few faults seem microscopic in comparison with its towering ambition & technical achievements. What clicked most for me on my recent initiation to the film is in the tension between the warm Spielbergian concept & cold Kubrickian execution, which I suppose is what inspired the urban legend around its production history. It’s difficult to imagine a more Spielbergian narrative than a scientist (William Hurt in Icarus/Altered States mode) striving to “build a robot who can love” or “a robot who dreams.” Instead of filtering that concept through the childish, wide-eyed wonder of something like Hook or E.T., though, Spielberg leans into the scenario’s emotional terror. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a fairy tale about a machine who loves unconditionally, but receives nothing in return because he is considered a Thing, not a Person. Its many allusions to Pinocchio rely heavily on that tale’s horrors of body dysmorphia & crises of self, not its potential for storybook cuteness. Filtering that formula through a Blade Runner-inspired future of “real” people playing god with artificial minds & bodies opens the film up to a brutal adventure into philosophical dread & emotional torture. Spielberg is not at all afraid to twist the emotional screws here— stabbing, melting, dismantling, and psychologically torturing his robo-cast at every cruel twist in the story, a far cry from the “gee willikers!” sci-fi throwbacks of his 1980s work. He walks back those impulses somewhat in the epilogue, but the film has already dug too much of a wickedly cold groove at that point for the emotional damage to be undone. I’m always on the hook for Spielberg’s forays into sci-fi but I can’t remember a time a film of his has struck me more in its sheer audacity.
Haley Joel Osment delivers the performance of his career as the titular A.I. and the de facto Pinocchio— a childlike robot created to soothe parents traumatized by the declining health of their “real” son. When their human son snaps out of his life-threatening coma, their robo-boy no longer serves a purpose in the household and is essentially curbed as if he were a broken dishwasher. This sets off a never-ending quest to earn his “mother’s” love by becoming a “real boy,” something the audience knows is impossible, but the robot does not. Every line-reading of “I love you, Mommy. I hope you never die,” & “I’ll be so real for you,” is a stab to the audience’s heart, a feeling the film chooses to linger in at length. A.I. starts as a climate change parable, a traditional fairy tale set in a nightmarishly familiar near-future for yuppies. Once its central robo-boy is abandoned as obsolete technology, its vision shifts to a Blade Runner hellscape packed with a never-ending parade of sci-fi eccentricities: canine-shaped Tron bikes, an oversexed neon perversion of Atlantic City, a moon-shaped hot air balloon, a Ministry concert/right wing robo-torture rally, etc. Out poor, lost robo-boy is not built to survive these conditions, having been designed for intimate, domestic comfort. He finds comrades in fellow abandoned comfort appliances (most notably an animatronic teddy bear & a sex robot played a perfectly-cast Jude Law). Their help is mostly an empty gesture, though, as his ultimate goals of earning his “mother’s” love and becoming “real” are tragically unobtainable. Because of his programming, it’s a fact he never accepts and the audience has no choice but to watch him search in vain for peace that will never come.
There’s a clear sequence late in A.I. when the story logically comes to a (bottomlessly grim) conclusion and the movie seemingly ends. Everything after that moment has been picked apart & scrutinized for “ruining” the picture by so many people, to the point where its meaning has been widely misinterpreted & urban legends about its inclusion have muddled the film’s history. Personally, I think the ending is perfectly serviceable, even if mediocre; it only stands out like a sore thumb because of the near flawless 2+ hours that precedes it. Even on a technical level, A.I. is a modern wonder. Haley Joel Osment’s creepily convincing robotic acting digs under your skin, even as you feel deep empathy for his existential plight. The mixture of practical effects (including robotics work holdovers form the Jurassic Park crew) and CGI is remarkably seamless for a film this far in the past, amounting to an intoxicating visual experience. Even if the technical end were amateurish, though, I’d still be in amazement of how Spielberg can use his knack for emotional manipulation for evil here, creating a truly torturous experience out of his typical childlike wonder. The dismount may be subpar in comparison to the rest of the film, but the claim that the final ten minutes “ruins” everything that comes before it is ridiculous. Spielberg’s at his best when working in this rare mode of Not For Everyone sci-fi instead of his usual populist grooves. Claiming that he corrupted the genius work of another filmmaker is a disservice to what’s really going on here: a darkness & mastery of the form he’s not always willing to dwell in when afforded the chance. A.I. is a great glimpse at the genre-film master Spielberg could be if he weren’t so careful with his less emotionally complex crowd-pleasers. This is a work of obsessive, insular passion, even if it feels on the surface like Kubrickian coldness.