A few months back I went through the entirety of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography in about two weeks. It was a wonderful experience since I love the man’s movie’s so much. But that experience birthed an idea in my mind that germinated for months until I finally followed through on it last week. I rewatched A.I. Artificial Intelligence, one of several films Kubrick had toyed with for years while leaving it unfinished.
In 1979, while Kubrick was filming The Shining in England, Steven Spielberg was also filming Raiders of the Lost Ark on the same studio lot. On a day when the lot was largely deserted, Spielberg and Kubrick found each other. In 1979, Spielberg was the wunderkind of Hollywood who had made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Kubrick was still the man who had made 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Spielberg was in awe, and Kubrick was very open, inviting the younger filmmaker to see some parts of the sets and inviting him to dinner. The two became friends for the rest of Kubrick’s life.
It wasn’t merely a personal relationship that developed, but a proto-professional one as well, for when Kubrick began toying with the idea of making a movie about a robot boy, he included Spielberg in many conversations. At one point in the early 90s, Kubrick even tried to convince Spielberg to make the film himself, insisting that the material was closer to the younger filmmaker’s sensibilities that Kubrick’s, but Spielberg never fully committed. There were rumors that Kubrick was going to take up A.I. as his next movie after Eyes Wide Shut, but we’ll never know if that’s for sure.
As a tribute to Kubrick after his death, Spielberg took on A.I. as his next project.
Based on what I’ve read, the reason that Kubrick had so much trouble tackling the project was the central character of David, the robot built to love. I think he could never quite answer the question to himself of whether David was something capable of love or just a program, playing out in service to his programming. As the artist in charge of bringing the vision to screen, he needed a firm answer, which he was never able to provide himself.
When Spielberg took over, it feels like he jumped at an answer (yes, David’s love is real), and started making the film. However, that answer that Spielberg presumably provides in the movie actually ends up going against some things that are deeper into the movie’s intentions, those elements that maintain the question from Kubrick’s mind through to the final product. And that contradiction is what ended up fascinating me most about the movie upon this first watch of the movie in over a decade.
But first, let’s cover some of the story.
The First Act
One of the things that Spielberg mentions when he talks about this movie is that it’s essentially broken down into three parts. The first is everything up to David’s abandonment, the second is everything from that point to the arrival at Manhattan, and the third is the rest of the film. He assigns chief authorship of the three parts to either himself or Kubrick. The first and third are all Kubrick’s he says, while the second is mostly Spielberg.
I remember some early reviews of the film that got everything about that completely backwards. They assumed that the first part was Spielberg’s because it dealt with the home and boyhood, the second was Kubrick’s because it was “dark”, and the third was Spielberg’s because everyone hated it. However, when you actually watch the movie with Spielberg’s explanation in the back of your mind, it becomes screamingly obvious about the questions of authorship.
The first act is one of the most Kubrickian pieces of filmmaking that Stanley Kubrick never lensed. The shot composition carries the kind of precision that Kubrick was famous for. The performances have a subtlety and exactness that feel as designed as anything anyone ever did for Kubrick. The scene of the first dinner with David, the robot before he is imprinted to love his mother, Monica, is so fulsomely Kubrick that I could believe it was filmed by his ghost.
In this first act, a grieving mother and father visit their real son who is cryogenically frozen as they await a cure to a life-threatening disease the boy carries. The father works for a major robotics company while his mother refuses to let go of her son. The head of the robotics firm offers a prototype robot to the family, one made in the form of a boy who is designed to love. They are beta-testers. Monica, the mother, is resistant to the very idea, but out of both curiosity and her own melancholy decides to keep the boy robot around. As she grows more fond of the little thing’s quirks and she sees the possibility of finding some replacement for the boy she had lost, Monica imprints on David, a process that is irreversible. The twist comes when the real son, Martin, is brought back and the two children are set at odds with each other for the love of their mother. David’s purpose is so simple that he has trouble understanding his place is this newly reformed family.
After a series of misunderstood acts that look threatening, Monica must send David back to the manufacturers for destruction, but she cannot do it, leaving him in the woods to run away instead.
If this first hour or so of the film were the entire film, I think it might be the single best movie that Spielberg ever made.
The Second Act
That’s not to imply that the second act is bad by any means, but where the first act feels so perfect in execution, the second feels inelegant, especially in comparison.
Back to supposition of the backend of production. Kubrick worked on and off of A.I. for almost 15 years. In that time he made two films (Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut) while also trying to develop other films (The Aryan Papers in particular). It’s obvious that he never fully fleshed out every point, and I think this major second section of the movie is the part the received the least amount of his attention. We know that the Flesh Fair, where robots are torn apart to the cheers of a human audience, was the brainchild of Spielberg, but Rouge City and Doctor Know were mostly Kubrick’s (Robin Williams actually recorded his part at the direction of Kubrick before the director’s death). This is the section where the two filmmakers seem to clash the most. This is the section that feels the most Spielbergian.
It’s much more active than the first or third acts, with many more moving parts. It introduces Jude Law’s character Gigolo Joe, contains a lot of travel and an embrace of special effects in some rather gaudy ways that the other two parts don’t share. The act itself is good, but a solid step down from the first.
Where the inelegance really steps up, though, is in two major plot points. The first is around the introduction of Gigolo Joe. Joe is a robot lover/prostitute who services human women. He goes into a hotel to meet a client, finds her dead and her husband there, having done the murder. Joe knows that this means he’s in trouble, but the explanation for that is absent. Does Joe believe that he’ll be apprehended for her murder? It’s unclear why anyone would think so, and that murkiness opens up the second act with a sense of confusion. The second plot point is how David and Joe end up escaping Rouge City. The police arrive to arrest Joe, but leave their amphibicopter unprotected to David can just get into it, play around with the controls a bit, and save Joe. It’s not a plot hole, but a point of plot convenience that’s extremely unsatisfying that also feels like something that an artist with more time to iron out details would have figured out better.
Still, the images are stark, especially the use of the Moon air balloon as the vehicle to steal rogue robots. I really like Joe as a character. The scene with Doctor Know is fun to watch. David’s journey through different versions of love and hate, never finding any substitute for his core programming for his mother, is colorful and engaging.
The Third Act
From the moment we join Joe and David flying over the flooded Manhattan, we are firmly in Kubrick territory again. The movie quiets back down and focuses again sharply on David. They fly through the ruins of New York and find the hint they had gathered in Rouge City, the Lions who Weep, statues of lions with water streaming out of their mouths and eyes a hundred feet above the ocean.
It is in this building that the robotics firm has established a presence in wait for David’s arrival, but there are surprises waiting for David, all that look exactly like him. David had been told by everyone around him that he was unique, one of a kind. But, according to Professor Hobby, David’s creator, he’s merely the first of a kind. Is David’s love for his mommy unique anymore? He lashes out against the other active David, smashing his head in with a lamp. When Professor Hobby leaves to find others to talk with David, the robot, left with no meaning anymore, throws himself from the building into the water where he sees his next salvation. Joe saves David only to switch places with him in the amphibicoptor as Joe gets captured and David takes the craft into the ocean to face the Blue Fairy (more about her in a little bit) where he spends several thousand years begging her to become a real boy.
Before moving on to the coda, I just want to take a second to mention the marvelous imagery of this section. The lions weeping, the sight of New York, the line of robot boys, David peering through the face of another David to see where his first memory came from. It’s all so striking and feels more like it came from the imagination of Kubrick than Spielberg. No offence to Mr. Spielberg, who is a very fine director, but Kubrick’s use of imagery always feels more purposeful and thought out.
According to Spielberg and Ian Watson (who wrote Kubrick’s original treatment for the movie), this ending isn’t a creation of Spielberg, but what Kubrick wanted. Kubrick wasn’t known for rank sentimentality, so that reading of the ending, if you have it, might need to be revisited.
I recall talking with a teacher of mine after the movie had been out for some time who thought that the film overall was good, but the ending made it bad. I hung along with this opinion for a very long time, thinking that the ending was a mistake, until I watched the movie again recently. Instead of a schmaltzy coda that gave David everything he wanted, I saw a bitter, cynical ending about how David never got what he actually wanted. And that second reading of the film was much sadder to me.
In order to get to that reading though, we have to look at some of the mechanics of the ending.
David has run out of battery in the ensuing two thousand years when a race of advanced robots wakes him from his sleep. They read his mind and exclaim that this robot knew humans! The next thing we see is David waking up in the home he shared with Monica. Called out to by a voice, he finds the Blue Fairy who promises to give David a long life in this place, but David only wants Monica, his mommy. The Blue Fairy grants his wish and disappears.
Before David sees Monica, though, he’s visited by one of the robots who explains to him that they can bring back Monica from the dead, but she will only last one day before she will expire never to return again. Does he really want this? Yes, he wants his mommy. The robots decide to give him what he wants. David proceeds to have the happiest day with his mommy, coloring, cooking, and just having a joyful time before Monica begins to grow tired. David puts her to sleep and falls asleep next to her with the narrator’s voice heavily implying that David never woke up again.
On the surface, this seems like David got everything that he wanted, and he received a happy ending, an interpretation aided by the very lovely music John Williams scored for the scene, but I think a different interpretation is in order.
David never actually woke up from his sleep, and the robots put him into a computer simulation. They wanted to learn about either humans or their early ancestor robots and thought that they could learn from David, hoping to use him to understand a greater deal than they already knew. They offered him a long life to explore, and what did he ask for? His mommy. Knowing that they could get no more from him, they learned what they could from his single day fulfilling his purpose of loving and being loved, they shut him down. They put him down like a sick dog, because that’s all he was good for.
The single largest motif of the film is the children’s story Pinocchio. This is another assumption that early film viewers made about the film, that the idea of including the story of the marionette into the film was Spielberg’s idea. According to everyone involved with the film, it was Kubrick’s idea. There’s a small detail in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the main character talks up the movie version of Pinocchio and tries to convince his family to go to a screening instead of Goofy Golf. And yet, it was still Kubrick’s idea.
Like many motifs, the images tied to the ideas are there to highlight the themes and characters of the film. The parallels between Pinocchio’s journey and David’s are obvious, but the parallels end at appearance, and I think that’s the point.
In the original story, Pinocchio goes through his adventures, grows, and eventually does become a real boy. David, on the other hand, is on a facsimile of Pinocchio’s journey. He never really grows, and he never becomes a real boy. Even his final moments are a deception (perhaps a self-deception). It’s an illuminating thread that helps highlight the central ideas at the core of the film, and I find it rather elegantly intertwined.
Originally published here