Film Reviews

Cinematic Blindspot: Melancholy & The Infinite Wonder of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.

Steven Spielberg. Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg. Kubrick. Spubrik? Kielberg?

Nope. Nuh-uh. Not happening. Those two just don’t go together. Both giants of cinema, sure, but also on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, with Spielberg being the right-brain director to Kubrick’s left brain. How could the man responsible for Close Encounters of the Third Kind ever work with the guy who made 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’d be like Transformers’ Michael Bay partnering with Ex Machina’s Alex Garland just because both directors know a little something about making robot movies. So, so wrong on so many levels.

These were the questions posed by film critics at the dawn of the new century when the seemingly impossible happened and a Steven Spielberg-directed version of a Stanley Kubrick film was released. Obsessed over by Kubrick for nearly two decades, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was eventually handed off to Spielberg after Kubrick’s death in 1999. The legendarily prolific Spielberg had it done and in theaters two years later and stuck closer to Kubrick’s original vision than anyone realized at the time.

The film, set in 2142, is a sci-fi take on Pinocchio, featuring at its center a lifelike, but non-blinking android called David (Haley Joel Osment). The woman he is programmed to love and regard as his mother abandons him in the woods like a discarded pet when her real, human child returns home and manipulates the situation to his favor. Struggling to entirely understand the rejection, David determines he obviously needs to become a real boy like Pinocchio does in the story mommy read to him. Once he does that, she’ll love him again because being human must be why she loves her other son instead of him.

Even for a director known for his legendary scenes of families separating and coming back together, this sequence in A.I. is particularly brutal:

Accompanied by a Jiminy Cricket figure in the form of a talking animatronic teddy bear, David’s quest takes him into the seedier and darker sides of the world such as a terrifying WWE/monster truck-like event where old, discarded robots are demolished for the amusement of cheering humans. There, he meets and befriends Gigolo Joe (a spell-binding Jude Law), who, like David, is close enough to human in appearance and behavior but just off enough (Law’s precise, mechanical head movements are ingenious) to be fascinatingly unnerving. Joe, largely a Spielberg instead of Kubrick creation, accurately predicts a future where the zeros and ones will inherit the Earth.

Yet throughout it all David remains singularly obsessed with his objective.

That’s part of A.I.’s enduring wonder: Is David truly capable of love? Or is he simply fulfilling his programming? When he, spoiler, gets a version of what he thinks he wants at the end is he becoming human in that moment, as the film’s composer John Williams suggests in the DVD’s special features, or is he actually just being dispassionately decommissioned, like a program turned off after serving its purpose? Is the mother he finds at the end real or something being projected into his head? Does it even matter since she’s quite clearly real to him?

It is a sometimes uneven, but often surprisingly beautiful work of art, regarded by many as a masterpiece and one of Spielberg’s most underappreciated films, yet it remains divisive. Vulture ranked it at just #14 out of 29 Spielberg films while the AV Club’s newly published retrospective on the film concludes A.I. is one of the director’s “major works.” It’s a sci-fi fairy tale told by the master of those kinds of stories but filtered through Kubrick’s original vision. The two styles are understandable at odds with one another, and the resulting friction doesn’t work for everyone. Yet, for me, this lends A.I. a haunting melancholy that’s difficult to shake.

Upon its release, A.I. was accepted as a flawed, but admirable tribute by some. However, it was also quite loudly rejected by others who regarded it as a form of cinematic betrayal, as if Kubrick’s last great masterpiece had been hijacked and watered down by Mr. Sentimentality. One has to remember that this was not too long after the Eyes Wide Shut fiasco, a time when the cineasts of the world lost their shit after Warner Bros. used digital technology to alter the film’s orgy scene to avoid an NC-17 rating. Since Kubrick wasn’t around to defend himself (or his film), purists answered the call to battle, first with Eyes Wide Shut, then A.I.

Over the years, this has led Spielberg to feel understandably defensive about A.I. In 2002, he told film critic Joe Leydon, “All the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s.” He later told critic Richard Schickel, as quoted in Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective, “I wrote the screenplay because Stanley wasn’t alive to make the movie [but] those were Stanley’s ideas.”

The backstory here is legendary in film lore.

Kubrick optioned Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story collection “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” in 1982, yet quickly wished to move away from Aldiss’ focus on the parents in the story and onto David. In Aldiss’ telling, David is more or less just the coping device used by a man and a woman grieving the death of their real son (eventually changed to a very sick, instead of dead son in the film). Kubrick wanted David to be a futuristic Pinocchio, a puppet controlled not by strings but instead chips and computers and a drive to become human. When Aldiss rejected this idea, Kubrick rejected him and invited many different writers – Bob Shaw, Arthur C. Clarke, Sara Maitland – over many years to help him flesh out his concepts. By the time of his death, Kubrick had written a 95-page treatment and created nearly 2,000 pieces of concept art.

The sticking point had always been the feasibility of it all: the technology wasn’t there yet to make the film with an actual robot child, as Kubrick attempted at one point, but it also wasn’t there to create some of the sets he had envisioned. Moreover, his film shoots were legendary for their length – Eyes Wide Shut set a Guinness Book of World Record for the longest continuous film shoot – which meant casting a human child to play David wouldn’t work. That whole suspension of disbelief thing is out the window if the non-aging android boy at the heart of your story visibly ages from start to finish because the perfectionist director took so long to finish.

More than all that, Kubrick increasingly sensed he wasn’t the right guy for the job. All of his creative instincts on the project – the lost child, the teddy bear, the Pinnochio of it all – were taking him into Spielbergian territory.

As Spielberg now recalls, “I think Stanley recognized that the only time our sensibilities were on a parallel track was A.I. And Stanley was the one who called me. He was the one who, for the first time ever, said, ‘I want you to read a treatment that I’ve written.’”

Plus, it was only Spielberg’s groundbreaking work with Industrial Light & Magic to bring dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic World that convinced Kubrick there might be a way to use computers to bring some of his visions to the screen. To make the movie about the melding of artificial intelligence and a child’s concept of love they were going to need a whole heck of a lot of artificial intelligence of their own and the director most capable of tapping into his inner child.

Thus, A.I. was a story which had to wait for the technology to catch up to it, and Kubrick didn’t survive quite long enough for that. That left Spielberg to shepherd the project into the history books, making A.I. the first film to use computer-animated pre-vis and large-scale sections where the only real things on the screen are the actors, such as when Gigolo Joe gives David a tour of Rouge City, a futuristic den of sin with archways mimicking a woman’s mouth:

As with most advancements in digital technology, the special effects have since lost their cutting edge, bettered in just this last year by the likes of Valerian, Blade Runner: 2049, and, indeed, Ready Player One. But the effects hold up surprisingly well considering their age. More importantly, the effects shots are there to supplement what is actually a deceptively simple and universally relatable story: it’s about love.

There is so much boilerplate sci-fi happening on the edges of A.I., with robots used as the metaphorical other hated and feared by humans and talk of the Earth someday falling into the hands of not future generations but instead our very own machines. Almost none of it matters to David, though. For some, that’s a fault in the film, a sign of its uneven quality. Shouldn’t he, after all, at least have some kind of reaction to the Flesh Fair or be shaken by it? But, at its core, the film is about the enduring nature of love, even if it lives on far beyond us in the programming of androids who can’t actually understand it.

There is always something off about David throughout the film, from his “robotoxed” face to his laugh that goes on for too long. Thus, it follows that his version of love would also seem off, “too insistent, too nonnegotiable,” as Molly Haskell put it in Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films. Yet, at the same time, there’s a pureness to it.

On the one hand, that’s so very, very Spielberg – a lost child simply seeks a mother’s love. On the other hand, it’s very Kubrick, with a more misanthropic view of humanity and preference for machine. If, as the film argues, we are destined to destroy ourselves and repeat the same mistakes over and over again as we stubbornly refuse to learn any lessons from history, may we at least be remembered and pass on the concept of love to our more coldly logical descendants.

The result is a film that, not surprisingly, is both profound in its simplicity and surprising in its complexity. It’s seemingly destined to always incite argument, both between the Spielberg and Kubrick fans and those who regard the story as a simple, straightforward tale of a child’s love and others as a mature reflection on what love really means and looks like to a machine. That makes A.I. somehow both cold to the touch and heartbreaking. If you’ve never seen it, please rectify that immediately. If you have but didn’t think much of it on first viewing, it warrants a re-appraisal.


  1. Many of the critics who were either lukewarm on A.I. or rejected it outright have since repented. Robert Ebert did in 2011. Two years later, Mark Kermode issued a YouTube apology and about-face on A.I. prior to interviewing Spielberg for Lincoln.
  2. Notable actors you might not remember are actually in A.I.: Clark Gregg, William Hurt, and Brendan Gleeson.
  3. A.I. was released by Warner Bros. in 2001 and grossed $235m worldwide against a $100m budget. Ready Player One is the first film Spielberg has made at WB since then.
  4. 2018’s Haley Joel Osment on making A.I., as quoted in this month’s Empire: “When I joined A.I., the big thesis statement we talked about was the responsibility of society has when it makes synthetic beings that develop emotions. That is a sci-fi concept that is becoming less sci-fi as we develop technology. To be a part of that is an experience that becomes more important to me as I get older.”
  5. Spielberg saw fit to make another homage to Kubrick in the form of a mid-movie twist in Ready Player One which will surely have the internet talking.

Prior Cinematic Blindspot Articles:

  1. Now I See Why Aaron Sorkin Loves Network So Much
  2. How Logan Led Me to Children of Men
  3. Long Live the New Flesh in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome

Next Up: Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (aka, one of the films which inspired Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs)

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