Nov 11 2011 10:00am

“I Am NOT A Toy!”: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Stanley Kubrick spent a number of years following his (excellent) Vietnam picture Full Metal Jacket planning an adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ SF story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.” The two main problems Kubrick encountered were finding a child actor capable of the necessary caliber of performance, and the technological limitations of late 80s, early 90s special effects. After watching his friend Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and being awed by the dinosaurs, Kubrick got the sense that visual effects technology had finally caught up with his vision for the Aldiss adaptation, which he was working on under the working title Pinocchio. He also became convinced that Spielberg was a better director for the project than he was himself, and spent the last few years of his life trying to convince a reluctant Spielberg to take the project on. Spielberg demurred, humbly telling Kubrick he was the better filmmaker and that he should direct the picture. The situation was still undecided when Kubrick passed away in 1999 during post-production of Eyes Wide Shut. Spielberg, as a tribute, decided to make the movie he and Kubrick had discussed, which eventually was retitled A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

The resulting movie is, despite the best attempts of the finest minds in film criticism to find traces of Stanley Kubrick in it, entirely Steven Spielberg’s, for better or (more frequently) worse. As a movie it shows off Spielberg’s mastery of craft — in this regard he is at least Kubrick’s equal; both of them were and are capable of achieving any visceral effect they want through cinematic technique — but as cinematic SF it’s lumpy and unsatisfying, doing an uneven job of world-building, first not introducing its setting at all and then, suddenly, revealing a fascinating one that it fails to explore.

A.I. feels, in a way, like a well-done hour-long episode of a TV show of which we haven’t seen the preceding episode, followed by an hour and a half of a dystopian yet tame SF chase movie missing its last act, followed by a twenty minute rewrite/oversimplification of the last chapter of 2001 (that has nothing to do with the chase movie, but is kind of a resolution of one of the least interesting plot strands from the the hypothetical TV show.) Most frustrating in all this structural lumpiness is the fact there are some good performances and intriguing ideas in the mix. Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law are both quite good as robots who can never possibly get back what they give to their human masters, who are almost unanimously depicted as emotionally dead and cruel. The idea that humanity, in response to ecological disasters that, among other things, flooded New York city up to nearly the tops of its skyscrapers, turned to robots to help cut down on the overpopulation that led to the disaster is an interesting one. But it’s an idea that we’re told rather than shown, and there are a number of logical loopholes in it. For example, the movie seems undecided about whether robot children are commonplace enough that couples who’ve lost their real child might, as a matter of course, adopt a robot replacement — the way it seems at the beginning of the movie — or whether Haley Joel Osment is the first robot child ever manufactured, which is what a number of people suddenly reveal is the case. There is a difference between a twisty, surprising narrative and one that keeps suddenly saying “Oh, and by the way, this thing you probably should have known about a half hour ago exists,” and A.I. is, unfortunately, the latter.

There is some good, though, in A.I. For all the problems with Spielberg’s script, his direction is solid. In spite of myself I still got caught up emotionally in it, because of the sheer force of Spielberg’s ability to evoke emotion with nothing more than camera moves, edits, and John Williams music cues. Call it manipulative all you like, and in this case as in many of his other misfires all this emotion is almost completely divorced from the script, but Spielberg is Spielberg. He can make an audience feel however he chooses (thinking, of course, is another matter....)

The worst part about this whole thing is that the ARG that was part of A.I.’s promotional campaign was both awesome and painted a fascinating portrait of the movie’s 22nd century setting. I spent almost the whole summer of 2001 playing that game, looking for the person(s) who killed the scientist. I miss that time, playing that game on my dial-up connection, looking forward to seeing this movie where the immensely talented Spielberg would bring the late master Stanley Kubrick’s vision to life. Maybe that’s my whole problem with A.I. Maybe nothing could possibly have been that good.

In any case, wanting to see a new Stanley Kubrick movie was foolish, and expecting one from Spielberg, a profoundly different artist and man, even more so. Fortunately, as far as Stanley Kubrick (and Spielberg, for that matter) is concerned, there are still the movies he got around to making. Those are still around, and they’re still every bit as fascinating as they ever were.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to and

1. condara
I cant shake the feeling that this is master satrisit Kubrick's joke on the artificial intelligence aka innate dumbness of Spielberg.
Topher Kersting
2. Topher
The film really needed to end at the blue fairy. The epilogue with the aliens was completely unnecessary.
David Stumme
3. grenadier
Aliens? What movie was that in?

The creatures in the epilogue were the evolved mechas. They've basically inherited the Earth.
4. dav
I actually like the entire movie until we meet William Hurt. After that it seems to fall apart. The scene where she dumps him is killer and Brendon Gleason is great at the flesh fair. I still think it's among Speilberg's most stylistically impressive movies and at least it had "some" ideas mixed in with the chase (unlike Minority Report which is all chase with like a hint of an idea, but not really because there's a chase going on).
A.J. Bobo
5. Daedylus
I liked a lot of things about this movie. On the surface, I liked the visual effects and the acting a lot. I liked the story quite a bit too. My problem with the movie is that it is about half an hour too long. If Spielberg had cut a few minutes here and there throughout the movie, I think it might have worked a little bit better.
Michael Burke
6. Ludon
While I agree with the world building questions, I disagree with you on the the structure of the story. Note: I can't say what I want to say without spoilers so if you haven't seen the movie yet you might want to skip my comments.

This is David's journey. Showing us that neon jungle and the flesh fair first would have taken the story away from David. We first saw why David was created - and if you listen closely to the dialogue in that scene you will understand that he was to be the first of a new model and a whole new series of models intended to make Mechas more acceptable to Humans. (If you compare David's features and hair to Joe's you do see a difference.) Then we learned why David's family had been selected. Once David had been delivered, it is truly his story. David had no knowledge of that broader world at first because no child knows everything about the world around him at first. Then, what a child does learn is through experience and eductaion. Having David admit to knowing about neonorgyville (my name for it) or any other aspect of the world at large would have broken the illusion that he was a child for his parents to raise and love.

When we do get to see the wider world we see it (mostly) through David's experiences. How different is that world from ours? The toys and tools are different but how different are the people and their motivations? Spend a week really listening to the news and you'll be able to identify who we as a people (nation, community, etc.) like, hate, fear, despise or persecute. Is a world with neonorgyville and flesh fairs out of place with our current social trends?

While it was not said here, I've heard people complain about the flesh fair scene. They called it a silly scene that distracted from the movie. I strongly disagree with them. It is true that some elements of that scene were silly but were they any more, or less , silly than TV networks spending at least twenty minutes showing us helicopter views of people going into and out of an apartment building while the anchors said "We're not sure what we are looking but we're showing it to you because it might be something" during the build-up to the slow-speed O.J. chase? That whole episode was one of our flesh fairs. We can get caught up in Bread and Circuses as easily as the ancient Romans and the people in this scene. (Maybe that's part of why some don't like this scene - they can see themselves in it.) In the scene the people are screaming for tearing metal and flowing hydrolic fluid. It can't flow fast enough for them. Then David cries out when the drop of acid hits his arm. This is the key scene in the entire movie. This is the point where Mecha truely got their foothold. The people reacted to a child crying out. The people started screaming for blood. Without intending to do so, the people had accepted a Mecha as an equal. This scene sets the stage for the ending of the movie. If you don't have this scene then yes, the movie ends underwater with the Blue Fairy.

The scene at the end - where David meets his creator then sees (part of) the assembly line is also important for it does cement David's position as the first. That fact does not really become important until the conversations with the advanced Mecha.

For me, this movie is a fine tribute to Stanley Kubrick. It may not be exactly the movie he would have made, but this story does have the texture of a story he would have told.
Paige Morgan
7. paigecm
I agree 100% about the movie not living up to the game. I loved that game, and I used to return to the Cloudmakers site and read the narrative the same way I'd pick up a favorite book. Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems to be contaminated with malware.
8. jere7my
The game was amazing. The AIs who communicated through images were particularly effective. SF author Sean Stewart (Perfect Circle) was behind much of it. There was one puzzle that involved deciphering a phone number on a restaurant check; calling it in real life took you to a security guard at the drowned Statue of Liberty, where bad things were going down. That "security guard" was actually Sean answering the phone in his garage, guiding the Cloudmakers to the next clue. (I tried to convince him I was part of the conspiracy, to no avail.)

I liked the movie, despite the structural problems. The variety in the AI characters was brilliant, as were their unsettlingly variable levels of "realness" — is that an appliance or a person we're seeing torn apart? And, yes — those were evolved AIs, not aliens, at the end. That's a bit less out of left field.
9. Stephica
Oh geez, I remember that ARG. I had so much fun finding clues. I think I even got a call from some mysterious person talking about the blue fairy at one point.
10. Cool Bev
I seem to recall a Wired article from a long while back that said Kubrick had been patching together a version of the movie on digital video w/ laptop special effects for about a decade. Just a little at a time, like Wells' Chimes at Midnight.

On the other hand, this is the never-accurate Wired, and my fuzzy recollection in addition, so...
11. Stefan Jones
Well, Topher @#2 beat me to it: The movie should have ended with David making a wish.

That would have been utterly brutal, but a logical ending.

I saw A.I. in the theater. I'm not sorry I did, but I can't bear to watch it again. Even with the somewhat happy super-bot epilogue, it was too painful, too bleak.
12. Mike Allen
I highly recommend screen story writer Ian Watson's account of how A.I. came about:

One thing that Ian has said that seems to surprise folks is that the ending, with the advanced mecha, is exactly what Kubrick wanted, not an addition by Spielberg.
Kevin Maroney
13. womzilla
Mike @12: If you watch the epilog with the sound off, it's very obviously Kubrickian. Perhaps it doesn't add anything to his body of work that he hadn't done better in 2001, but it's still obviously him.
14. SeeingI
No Kubrik at all, really? Not even in an ending where all of Spielberg's evocative power is aimed at getting us to feel something for a fake boy expressing fake emotions over a hologram, while humanity's dispassionate successors look on?
15. shelleybear
I think a lot of people miss the two main points.
One: The ending Kubrick would have intended was the robochild's dive into the water. An act of suicide is a supreme human act.

Two: The sheer greed of the child. Bringing back the woman it though of as it's mother KNOWING it ended her hope of ressurection at a later time.
David Elliott
16. dissembly
@SeeingI - YES. Exactly. I beleive that is the essence of Kubrick, and one of the reasons I don't like him very much.

Bleak, pessimistic distate for human beings and our worthlessness. That's what I felt at the end of A.I., the end of 2001, the end of Strangelove, the end of - actually, the entire narrative of - Eyes Wide Shut.

Don't get me wrong, I see valuable things in Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket - I'm with Kubrick there, morally and cinematically.

But he can't seem to get beyond how awful we can be, and consider, "What could we do differently? Could we make the world a better place?" There are no better emotions in movies like Eyes Wide Shut or A.I., no hint of redemption, no truly uplifting moments, and I think it actually really ties them together.

A.I. reminds you of the fact that the only human character in 2001 was HAL - and the poor thing had to live out its existence taking care of all those emotionless, robotic automatons.

It reminds you of the utter distaste, utter inability to find anything life-affirming or redeeming in human beings, that coloured every moment of Eyes Wide Shut.

I guess my main problem with A.I. was that it felt too much like a Kubrick movie. Not that I am a huge Spielberg fan either. If anything, he doesn't have enough cynical Kubrick in him (to the extent that the man who made Schindlers List can give us a World War II movie that portrays family and honour in a way that wouldn't have been out of place in 1930s Germany). A.I. wasn't a balance between them though, it was more like a parody of both.
17. Peter G.
The ARG "the Beast" was truly one of humanity's finest creations. I feel privileged to have been a participant, and the souvenirs I received at two in-person events (an in-game rally for the Anti-Robot Militia and one of the movie premiere showings) are among my most cherished possessions.

And that's probably why I, too, was so disappointed by the film.

I wish Spielberg-- or someone more appropriate, like Ridley Scott-- would make a movie out of the story from the Beast. The philosophical questions that were so badly fumbled in A.I. deserve serious attention, and the Beast storyline is much better suited to this purpose. I think it would also be more entertaining.

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