Stanley Kubrick is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Discovering his films while I was in college, I was immediately struck by their singularity, and I subsequently developed an obsession with his chilly, elegant aesthetic, not to mention the artistry and, yes, emotion that lies beneath it. And not that I was expecting to sit down with him at a round table and shoot the sh*t, but it's one of my greater professional (and personal) regrets that I wasn't working as a critic or film journalist when he passed away in 1999.
In any case, in 2001 I was thrilled to hear that Steven Spielberg decided to pick up 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence,' Kubrick's long-gestating adaptation of Brian Aldiss's 'Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,' and complete it as a tribute to the filmmaker. At the time, I really liked almost all of it, and I was subsequently first in line to buy the film on DVD. But this week Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing the film on Blu-ray, and with its 10th anniversary looming, it seemed like the right time to revisit the film.
Originally conceived in the 1980s and early 1990s by Kubrick as an adaptation of Aldiss's short story, 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence' went through several incarnations before Spielberg picked up the reins and agreed to complete the film at the behest of the late director's wife, Christiane Kubrick. The film was released on June 29, 2001, and at a cost of $100 million, the film still went on to be a hit, earning more than $235 million during its worldwide theatrical run. (In fact, it made more internationally than it did domestically, which was a rare occurrence at that time.)
The film received generally positive reviews, although many critics highlighted its sometimes unwieldy combination of the sensibilities of Kubrick and Spielberg -- or perhaps more accurately, the perception of their sensibilities. (In interviews, Spielberg observed that many critics mistook his work for Kubrick's and vice versa, since Spielberg is better known than Kubrick for the sentimentality of his films.) The film currently enjoys a 73 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, 'A.I.' was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score, and nominated for three Golden Globes, for Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Supporting Actor for Jude Law's performance as Gigolo Joe.
What Still Works
It comes as little surprise that both at the time and in retrospect, Spielberg gets a number of really important details right, starting with the obvious and yet understated identification of David (Haley Joel Osment) as a robot. Specifically, Spielberg doesn't employ complicated prosthetics to distinguish his "mecha" characters from his "orga" ones; rather, he simply gives them a little bit of a sheen to their skin -- in David's case, a shininess to his forehead -- that never lets them look fully naturalistic. Combined with Osment's deliberately rigid performance, which brilliantly juxtaposes robotic precision with little humanistic flourishes that were "designed" by his creators to create emotional identification in his parents/owners, Spielberg's physical definition of David is at the core of the effectiveness of the entire movie.
The other thing that really seems to work best in the film is the way that Spielberg both manipulates the audience to identify emotionally with David, and yet also reminds us via the other characters that he is not human. When he is first introduced to Monica (Frances O'Connor), Spielberg plays up his cold, robotically-friendly demeanor, and it's in the balance between his lack of warmness and his oddly earnest efforts to be available and communicative that we slowly begin to care about David, even as we're constantly reminded he is a robot. Spielberg softens David's demeanor when the character starts calling Monica "Mommy," but throughout the rest of the film, there are little reminders that no matter how desperate he becomes in his search for his Mommy, he's never going to be a real boy. (This is never more apparent than during his temper tantrum in Professor Hobby's office, which again simultaneously humanizes him as he realizes that he is not as special as he originally believed.)
What Doesn't Work
Oddly, I feel like the dimensionality of the human characters is not always effectively communicated, particularly in the case of Monica's husband Henry (Sam Robards) and her son Martin (Jake Thomas). Henry brings home David and encourages Monica to adopt him, but immediately becomes suspicious of the robot when she does. I'm not sure if it's more or less disingenuous because he actually works for the company that makes robots, which means that he would presumably be more comfortable or accustomed to being around them; but his increasing mistrust seems to be more representative of the audience's uncertainty with robot technology than indicative of an actual person in a society where robots have become commonplace.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding the fact that yes, little boys and siblings will always have rivalries and jealousy is natural, Martin is like an evil genius. His plot to get David to appear to attack Monica is shockingly sophisticated -- to me, anyway -- and he never seems to express the kind of earnest curiosity that I feel like any kid would have about their new sibling, even if he/she/it were artificial.
But the real problems with the movie start later, not just with the Flesh Fair, but especially in Rouge City, which is clearly a production designer's wet dream, but seems egregiously unlikely -- and more than that, chintzy. While I suppose I can buy that "the rubes" like to watch robots being torn apart, the creation of a team of motorcycle riders with glowing wolves on their handlebars just seems absurd, especially given that this isn't meant to be a 'Thunderdome'-style future but one steeped in at least a semblance of reality. And as tacky as places like Las Vegas definitely are today, it just seems unlikely that these cities in the future would transform themselves into these purely decadent, neon-clad dens of hedonism and iniquity without there being some kind of more suburban or even metropolitan counterpart.
And finally, the ending feels incredibly disjoined, tacked-on, and incongruous with the rest of the movie, no matter who wrote it. (Spielberg has said that the ending of his film was the same as Kubrick's, although Kubrick admitted he never felt like it worked when he created it.) The film feels like it has a perfect, bittersweet ending with the shot of David, sitting in the amphibicopter looking at the Blue Fairy statue, asking her to make him into a real boy -- an embodiment of David's ability to live forever, loving his Mommy, and never achieving his dream of becoming that thing he thinks his Mommy will love. But starting with the voiceover, which is always problematic when it exists only at the beginning and ending of a movie -- an indication things aren't or won't be clear enough without someone almost literally explaining them -- the rest of the film feels like terrible, sentimental wish-fulfillment, even if the rest of the film is often so melancholy and flat-out sad that there's an almost understandable impulse to give the audience something more upbeat or gratifying.
First of all, is it immediately clear to everyone but me that the creatures at the end of the film are robots and not aliens? I remember being surprised by that discovery when I first saw the film, and actually forgot until I read about that fact online while researching the film. And I suppose it doesn't really matter one way or another, but why then do the robots communicate nonverbally to one another in one scene, but actually say "give him what he wants" in the scene where they're watching David play out his dream-interaction with the Blue Fairy? These little things by themselves are distracting, when the film's focus should be sharpening; and given the fact that either way, aliens or robots, these creatures are complete fiction, it seems like it would have been a better decision just to be consistent, no matter how they communicated or in what context their arrival was framed.
But the bigger disappointment is that even when the film commits to its reunion finale, it offers so much exposition and so many conceptual conditions that they undermine the payoff of David actually finally being able to reunite with his Mommy. Before he gets to see her, the head robot explains that he can only see her for one day because creating her from her DNA means this or that; why, at this point, isn't "give him what he wants" enough? If the movie is going to end with him blissfully deluded that he has reunited with Monica, why does it matter that she can only exist for one day, and then at the end of that day she disappears?
What's the Verdict?
'A.I. Artificial Intelligence' holds up in some ways as well or better than many of Spielberg's other movies, but it also falls prey to many of the same shortcomings that even his successes do, the biggest of which is his tendency to value sentimentality over all else, and to undermine the narrative coherence of the rest of his story in order to offer the audience a gratifying payoff. And as he and others have observed, it's entirely possible that the film's many problems were largely Kubrick's fault; but as the director and screenwriter, Spielberg needed to do what was best for the film, I believe, even at the expense of Kubrick's vision. Unfortunately, whether it was a matter of their styles not congealing, or a lack of clarity in its realization, or just the simple inability to bring together its many great ideas into a cohesive whole, 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence' is an often great experience -- but overall it's not a truly great film.