Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
In 2001, one of the most highly anticipated movies in renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s career was to be released. Why was it so heavily awaited? Because it was Spielberg’s attempt to bring his own version of a Stanley Kubrick film to life. The late Kubrick, director of such stylistic, mostly bleak & calculating films as “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange,” admired (and maybe even envied) Spielberg’s vision (and vice versa, I believe). So, when Kubrick brought his idea of a “sci-fi version of ‘Pinocchio’” to light, he wanted Spielberg to direct it. Both directors went through years of collaboration (and arguments about which of them was better to direct the film), and Kubrick wrote a 90-page story treatment. When Kubrick died in 1999 (the same year his film “Eyes Wide Shut” was released), Spielberg decided to bring Kubrick’s vision to life himself.
The result was “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” a film that many audiences & critics saw as an ambitious mess upon theatrical release. They saw it as a clash of two different directing styles from a director trying to mimic another director’s trademarks. Spielberg was traditionally seen as a sentimentalist/optimist, and for him to go more artful and deep by way of Kubrick (who seemed to have a dim point of view about human nature) caused people to scratch their heads. (We’ll get to the ending…)
The story is set in a distant future and centers around David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic (or “mecha”) child who is the first of his kind—a mecha programmed only to love, invented after its creator (William Hurt) discovered a robot can feel pain. David is brought home to Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) by her husband Henry (Sam Robards), who works at Cybertronics (the mecha factory) in New Jersey. David is a test project for Cybertronics and somewhat of a substitute for Monica and Henry’s natural son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is in a coma. David and Monica form somewhat of a bond, but complications arise when Martin awakens and gets David into trouble, causing things to go awry and Monica to get rid of him. But rather than take David to be dismantled, she instead leaves him in the woods where he and his robotic toy bear (named “Teddy”) have no choice but to brave the world they aren’t familiar with. This includes becoming part of an event that destroys mechas (called a Flesh Fair), a travel through Rouge City (imagine Las Vegas if it was taken over by “The Fifth Element”), and a journey to an underwater Manhattan. By his side is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mecha designed for prostitution purposes who David meets at the Flesh Fair.
Where the “Pinocchio” aspect comes into play is when Monica has already read the story to David, who has become genuinely fascinated by the concept of The Blue Fairy. When he is taken out into the world because he feels his “Mommy” doesn’t love him anymore because he’s a machine, David embarks on a journey to find The Blue Fairy and wish to become “a real boy.”
Think about what I just wrote—“David [a mechanical child constructed by man] is ‘genuinely’ fascinated” and “he ‘feels’ his ‘Mommy’ doesn’t love him anymore.” Why would a machine care or feel about anything other than what it was designed to do? For that matter, how can “love” be programmed at all? I don’t know, but in science-fiction, there’s always the reasonable answer of machines learning just as humans do, the more times interaction is a factor. David could have simply developed more than he was programmed to, by simply watching, listening and learning. That reasoning would also help explain why Gigolo Joe, who when we first see him seems like he’s being framed for murder of one of his clients, runs away when he could have stayed with the body, because after all, why else would a robot feel the need to save himself? And then later, when he joins David on his quest, he can’t help but express cynicism about the concept of a real Blue Fairy.
But then again, it can be argued that these emotions are simply part of the coding, because after all, artificial intelligence is simply that: artificial. All these machines can do is run programs that may fool us by being like them. So, perhaps, rather than actually learning and thinking, these androids are advancing in their programs—David furthers along his journey because he’s programmed to love and he’s taking it to the highest degree; Gigolo Joe is cynical and self-preservative because he’s supposed to behave like anyone would in a city like Rouge City.
I don’t know; no one knows for sure. But this kind of thing is fun to think about and discuss with fellow audience members. Far be it for me to bring up a lesser movie, but there is a line of dialogue in an ‘80s family film called “D.A.R.Y.L.” that actually sums up this film’s idea perfectly: “A machine becomes human when you can’t tell the difference anymore.”
What turned many people off when they first saw this film was the fact that it’s not always easy to determine the concepts of a robotic child programmed to “love” and it left them with more questions than answers… Isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t entertainment leave audiences wanting more? Well…that’s not the only thing. As I mentioned above, Spielberg and Kubrick were on opposite sides of the directing field, so audiences were uneasy with one trying to replicate the other. They felt Spielberg’s vision contradicted with that of Kubrick’s. But what really confused and angered many audiences about the film was its epilogue. Let me explain:
David and Teddy are trapped in a vehicle underwater where they find a statue of The Blue Fairy at a submerged theme-park attraction. David stares at The Blue Fairy as time goes on and on, wishing his dream of becoming a “real human” will come true. Does this make him less human or more human? It could be argued…both. 2,000 years later, humans are extinct and now-highly advanced mechas roam the world. David and Teddy are found and are thought of as special, as they are the only surviving mechas to know humans, thus giving them understanding to their existence. They reward David by bringing Monica back to life, so he can spend a single day with her as her son. Monica tells him she always loved him, David feels more or less real, and they lie peacefully together in bed as David’s journey to become real has finally come to a close…
It’s a highly sentimental (and as some would say, “schmaltzy”) ending that broke the film for most audiences, especially those who thought it was unnecessary, false, and went against what Kubrick would have originally intended. They put the blame on Spielberg because they believed Kubrick would have ended the film with David underwater wishing and praying, and Spielberg added on the extra half-hour to give David a happier ending. Even film critic James Berardinelli of reelviews.net stated in his original review, “There is no doubt that the concluding 30 minutes are all Spielberg.” What they didn’t realize until later was that the whole story was from Kubrick, and that included the much-maligned ending. Spielberg has gone on record saying that he tried his best to bring his late friend’s vision to life as best as he possibly could, even when his collaborators thought it wouldn’t work. He felt that if he didn’t do it, he’d be betraying him, and he simply couldn’t do that.
There is a lot you can read into this—like Kubrick wanting to make the Spielberg movie he always wanted, Spielberg understanding Kubrick more than we thought, and so on. And even if the movie doesn’t work for someone, it can’t be argued that there wasn’t a lack of understanding behind the scenes.
And thankfully, people who didn’t particularly care for “A.I.” before have since revisited the film, which resulted in softened views and opinions. Roger Ebert only gave it a slight positive review upon initial release (only to include it in his Great Movies collection ten years later). Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker has softened up on it, as seen in his 40-minute video review of the film. English film critic Mark Kemode even apologized for maligning the film severely, years after he first saw it.
There’s something special about “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” whether it be in front of me or behind the scenes. The visuals are outstanding, Spielberg’s ability to duplicate the style of visual storytelling Kubrick was also known for is remarkable, the concepts of what makes someone human are fascinating to think about and discuss with people, and the story of Spielberg working hard to make his late friend’s wish come true is something to be admired. I thought differently about this film too, when I first saw it like many other people. But also like those people, upon second viewing, I found myself with a deeper appreciation for it that has me coming back to it every once in a while.
NOTE: If you think for a moment that Spielberg was defending himself for the ending by putting all the blame on the late Kubrick, think about two things. One is, it makes sense that Kubrick would end a sci-fi film with human extinction (which is essentially what it adds up to, being in a world dominated entirely by super-advanced robots) because if you look at many of his films, you can see a pattern containing actions of the worst of humanity (possibly even a reflection of what he saw in the world he lived in). The other is, Kubrick was Spielberg’s dear friend to the end. Spielberg tried his absolute best to bring Kubrick’s vision to life, by copying styles and atmosphere Kubrick himself was infamous for. Why would he add on anything more than what Kubrick originally intended? Think about it.