‘A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’ Visually Balances a Futuristic Milieu with the Warmth of Home

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Steven Spielberg
Warner Bros., Dreamworks
29 June 2001

“She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you David, she cannot love you. You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat, or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me.” — Gigolo Joe

Since its release, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has been much like its protagonist, David. Both are considered replacements for something that looks far rosier in memory. And, as a result, both have been scorned and have to work harder to find love in this world.

Much of this has to do with the history of A.I. The story finds its origins with “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”, a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss. Stanley Kubrick first started adapting this story for film, but unfortunately died before he could see it through to completion. As an homage to his friend, Steven Spielberg picked up the project and finished it based on both his conversations with Kubrick and using Kubrick’s copious notes and illustrations.

How much this actually changed Kubrick’s intent for A.I., the film version, will never be known, but the switch from Kubrick to Spielberg forms the basis for almost every criticism of the film. In “Creating A.I.“, one of the features on the new Blu-Ray edition of the film, Spielberg insists that it was Kubrick’s intention to have Spielberg direct from very early in the process. Whether that fact is forgotten, intentionally ignored, or disbelieved, it hasn’t stopped the wave of complaints: Spielberg is too treacly and sentimental for the material, Kubrick would have made it darker, the final film is too close to Spielberg’s other movies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in particular) and, most emphatically, the ending was a tacked-on mistake to give the whole thing a happier ending.

Whether or not those arguments have merit—and, concerning the last one, Spielberg often claims in interviews that he only delivered on Kubrick’s blueprint for an ending—so much about A.I. has to be ignored to have those criticisms create the lasting impression of the film. For starters, A.I. is a gorgeous movie, visually balancing a futuristic milieu with the warmth of home. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is responsible for adding beauty—wisps of fog, baths of light—to an otherwise relentlessly harsh story.

There is no better example than the first appearance of David (Haley Joel Osment), a robot who was programmed to feel and crave love. When he first arrives, the door to the family home slides open, and it’s hard to get a clear picture of him. He looks distorted and misshapen, emphasizing his alienation from “real” humans. Then again, the reason for the visual distortion is not so inhuman—he’s hard to make out because he’s awash in an angelic white light. The moment is so nice, it’s no wonder they find a way to work it into nearly every one of the Blu-Ray’s extra features. Similarly, no one can find fault with Spielberg virtuosic camera movements — who can remain so steely in the face of his lengthy tracking shots? — or the seamless way that Industrial Light and Magic’s special effects are woven into the tapestry of the filmmaking.

These images are used to service the best kind of possible sci-fi story—the kind that takes grand ideas about the future of society, but brings them from a theoretical to an emotional human level. David is created because of worldwide scarcities that result from a melting of the polar ice caps. In his society, parents are limited in the amount of children they can have. A company—Cybertronics of New Jersey—founded by David’s creator, stepped in to make robots for couples like Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O’Connor), whose flesh-and-blood son, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma. After all, robots don’t eat or take up as many natural resources as organic humans do.

Problems arise when Martin awakens from his coma. David is cast out into the wilderness, where robot-hunters torture machines for sport. He befriends other robots—most notably Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), another robot programmed to love, but in a very different way—as he embarks on a quest to find Pinocchio’s “Blue Fairy” and become a “real” boy so that he can win Monica’s love again.

The plot raises many questions that sci-fi works often like to tackle: What happens to this world when we use up all of its resources? How closely should we relate to the machines that are essential to our daily lives? What are our responsibilities to these machines? At what point, if ever, is something artificial so lifelike that it finally becomes “real”? What is “real”, anyway?

To the movie’s credit, all of these problems are filtered through David’s eyes. The worldwide scarcity of resources—what actually sets into motion the main conflict in the film—is pushed to the periphery of the story. Aside from some voiceover exposition (done by Ben Kingsley) and a few striking images of New York City submerged in water, the state of the world is just taken as matter-of-fact and left to the side. The movie isn’t full of boardroom scenes where top scientific minds try to address society’s fraught environmental situation. What matters is how all this affects David. It gives him his reason for being, which is, at its heart, unnatural.

The same goes true for the uneasy — if not downright violent — relations between humans and robots in the film. It makes sense that humans in David’s world would feel tense at the number and intelligence of robots. But rather than understanding it on a rational level, Spielberg gets us to really feel it, through David’s fear at a “Flesh Fair”, a sadistic carnival where robots are degraded and dismantled for the delight of humans.

It’s a grisly scene, and uncomfortable to watch, but its individuality is key. Choosing one robot to express the plight of them all is more effective than a movie — I, Robot, for example — refocused to be about struggles that humans as a race and robots as a whole face in the wake of their increasing dependence. (It’s in this way that the ending of the film is not only earned, but essential — but since this issue is only approached in the margin throughout David’s story, there have been complaints of its superfluity. Those who are aggravated by its existence should remember that the main question — “What happens after society builds too many, too smart robots?” — is one that definitely deserves an answer.)

David’s journey is fraught. It is frightening at times, and upsetting at others. Sure, it’s even a little silly and, occasionally, heavy-handed and overwrought. But it’s by hitting these emotions — even if sometimes they’re hit too hard — that the movie is really able to get its ideas across.

The extra features on the new Blu-Ray release of the film — many of which are carried over from the two-disc special-edition DVD — try to keep focused on the positive, with only a touch of the content spent on refuting the critics. There are different features dedicated to the movie’s design, costumes, lighting, effects, robots, music, and acting, with other features that allow Spielberg to offer his own take on things (as usual, he doesn’t do a commentary). And really — even without listening to the Blu-Ray’s argument — they’re all superb, and it’s a shame if you let a bit of sticky-sweet sentimentality ruin all of that for you.

RATING 8 / 10