Originally published June 26, 2016.
I didn’t expect to like A.I. Artificial Intelligence very much when I watched it for the first time this past weekend. Growing up I remember the film primarily for the novelty of how a copy of it first entered my family household, when my father procured a used copy of the special edition DVD from Blockbuster Video, and I was astounded by the sheer amount of content that could fit onto what looked like a compact disc. A.I. became the signifier of something that I had been denied access to temporarily, and perhaps stands as one of the earliest examples of a movie that presumably held more meaning than I had previously understood the medium to be capable of bearing.
Originally put under multiple stages of production by the late American auteur Stanley Kubrick starting in the early 1970s, A.I. Artificial Intelligence saw several screenwriters take a swing at bringing Brian Aldiss’ short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long to the screen. After Aldiss provided the first draft of the film’s script for Kubrick, the director continued to hire new screenwriters to provide further passes at producing his passion project into a full fledged feature film production before handing the reins over to close friend and blockbuster icon Steven Spielberg in 1995. But it wasn’t until after Kubrick’s death in 1999 that Spielberg finally began working in earnest towards finishing the final draft of the film’s script, his first original screenplay since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.
Following the film’s eventual theatrical release in 2001, A.I. Artificial Intelligence has become a decided talking point in movie history, though not always as the source of universal praise. For many viewers, seeing the film for the first time at the turn of the twenty-first century with all of the production’s history in mind, Spielberg had seemingly married the thematic styles of two entirely dissimilar directors into what Rotten Tomatoes has posthumously declared “a curious, not always seamless, amalgamation of Kubrick’s chilly bleakness and Spielberg’s warm-hearted optimism.”
The film as a whole has been the center of some critical debate since its initial release in 2001, with many critics and general moviegoers alike at odds when it came to dissecting the various influences behind the production’s final shooting script. In what can be essentially broken down into roughly three acts, the film moves from the sentimentality of the nuclear unit to an apathetic world ruled by industrial cruelty before finally reaching transcendence in an ill-applied utopia. Taking place in the late twenty-first century, long after the effects of global warming have depleted the global population and wiped out various coastal cities, A.I. Artificial Intelligence imagines a society where robots called Mecha are in constant conflict with their human creators called Orga. Enter David (Haley Joel Osment), the first child-like Mecha ever created, whose modus operandi is to provide the feeling of connection between child and parent for those grieving the loss of a son or daughter.
What follows when David is placed under the care of Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry Swinton (Sam Robards), a young couple gripped with the uncertainties of their biological child’s comatose state, is both heartwarming and alarming. Despite being taken aback by David’s overt facsimile of human life, Monica quickly grows fond of David and forms a love that is tested and broken when her actual son miraculously recovers and returns home. But when David proves potentially dangerous to the well being of the Orga nuclear unit, the child robot is forced out of the Swinton household and into the woods of a world gone awry.
When initially developing the script for the film that eventually became A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Kubrick would often refer to the movie as a variation of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. That thematic allusion is peppered throughout Spielberg’s finished script, as the film moves with David in the constant search of the fabled Blue Fairy of the original children’s storybook narrative in the hopes of being transformed from Mecha to Orga. Accordingly, David’s adventures take him across many of the seedier facets of contemporary society, including the raucously unsettling anti-Mecha Flesh Fair, the sinful temptations of Rouge City, and the final spiritual devastation of a flooded Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.
Which brings the conversation back around to the final thirty minutes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, still the most hotly contested portion of the film’s enduring legacy. Taking place 2000 years after the events of the rest of the film in a depicted future where Mecha have outlived the mass extinction of their Orga creators, David is greeted by a grand illusion orchestrated by his robot successors, and is finally reunited with his beloved mother Monica. Despite this contentious and beguiling sequence’s visual ambiguity – which has led more than one critic in the past to assume that the beings David meets are in fact extraterrestrial beings – the film ends on a note in keeping with its overarching sentimental nihilism. Kubrick’s bleak cynicism pervades over the film’s fabric, but with Spielberg’s sporadic touches of melodramatic optimism the production results in one of the more satisfying science-fiction dystopias of the past fifteen years.
Having now finally watched the film after having it cast a shadow over my budding adolescence in the early 2000s, I can say that I now see why the movie has been held under such high scrutiny. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is an imperfect modern movie marvel that holds back as much as it divulges, which is exactly what should be desired from any attempt at hard science fiction. Spielberg has perhaps never made a movie quite as enigmatically sophisticated as A.I.; as such, it might just be the director’s greatest production of his late career and a more than fitting tribute to the work and artistic influence of its chief orchestrator Kubrick fifteen years after the film was finally released theatrically.
Whether or not the final sequence of A.I. holds much meaning beyond the blind optimism that it naively casts against the film’s overarching gloom still feels uncertain. What can be said is that the film still holds the power to move viewers deeply, thanks in no small part to the special effects that Kubrick struggled so long to accomplish believably over the course of his lifetime and which Spielberg was finally able to achieve in 2001. David is an irresistibly odd protagonist to follow, and his odyssey to become a real boy and discover what it means to love, Mecha or Orga, is still a touching and much needed sentiment on the film’s fifteenth anniversary.
Featured Image: DreamWorks Pictures