A.I. Artificial Intelligence turns 20: a look back

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s first film of the 21st Century: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. His previous film, Saving Private Ryan, was originally planned to be followed up by Minority Report, but a number of factors contributed to Spielberg making A.I. next.  The major factor being the 1999 death of Stanley Kubrick, who conceived the project and discussed it with Spielberg for years.

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Based upon the Brian Aldiss story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (with Kubrick taking inspiration from Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the film’s title), they both worked on the project while making other movies. Upon seeing the deserved Oscar-winning special effects for Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Kubrick’s focus on A.I. was renewed, as he thought that FX technology could do the story justice by that time.

Kubrick’s passing prompted Spielberg to take the project to completion himself, even inspiring him to write the screenplay himself to ensure Kubrick’s ideas wouldn’t be lost (the only other films Spielberg is credited with writing are Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist). Spielberg also felt that having A.I. released in the year 2001 would be a great way to honor Kubrick, to whom the film is dedicated.

In the distant future, a narrator (Sir Ben Kingsley) informs us that the ice caps have melted, resulting in the loss of numerous lives as well as cities. As a result, any parents wishing to have children must obtain a license before attempting pregnancy.

At a university, Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt) lectures a class on his idea for creating an android, or “Mecha” as society labels them, that can actually love.  Hobby says that this could be a way to appease families that are waiting for a license. He even demonstrates how such an achievement will exceed even the most advanced Mechas that have already been created, going so far as to “experiment” on a female Mecha in his audience.

Another audience member asks if any parent that such a Mecha would love would be obligated to return that love. Hobby replies:

Hobby: In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love Him?

A year and a half later, Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor) go to a medical facility to visit their son Martin (Jake Thomas), who’s in suspended animation because of the disease he carries.

Henry works for a company of Hobby’s, which is what leads the professor to pick the Swintons to be the test subjects for his new Mecha, named David (Haley Joel Osment). Monica is initially horrified at the prospect of an android in the place of their own son, but agrees with Henry to go along with this idea. David is physically smiling upon arriving at his new home, and proceeds to make the Swintons uncomfortable by startling them with laughter while they have dinner, and later taking Monica’s idea of hide and seek too far when he startles her as she uses the bathroom.

However, Monica slowly becomes more open to David, and one afternoon, sits alone in a room with him and activates his imprinting protocol. This instantly causes David to express love for her, even calling her Mommy.

By this point, Monica and Henry’s roles regarding David have reversed, with the former regarding David as a gift, while the latter is indifferent almost to the point of irritation. This is illustrated when Monica delays the dinner date she and her husband are late for in order to give David a toy that used to belong to Martin: Teddy (Jack Angel), which is essentially Teddy Ruxpin 2.0.

But everyone gets an unexpected surprise when Martin returns home cured.  He initially seems to bond with David, but soon becomes jealous of him and prompts him to do such things as scaring Monica by cutting her hair in the middle of the night, as well as eating food (despite Teddy’s warning) which leads to David temporarily breaking down.

Martin later has his friends over, and their ganging up on David accidentally leads to him and Martin going into the family pool, nearly drowning Martin. It’s this incident which leads to Henry wanting to return David to Hobby to be destroyed. Monica tearfully agrees to do so, but en route, she finds she can’t, and abandons a tearful David with Teddy, telling him where to go to avoid being destroyed.

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Elsewhere, a prostitute Mecha named Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is about to entertain his new client, but finds her dead and realizes that he’s about to take the fall for her death. He runs off, removing his identification tag. He runs into the nearby woods, where David tells Teddy that they can return to Monica if they find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio (a story Monica read to him often), who can make him a real boy.  Soon, other Mechas are converging on their location after a truck dumps Mecha parts which they use to replace parts of themselves.

But a menacing hot air balloon in the shape of the full moon soon startles them all and they run off. The operator of the balloon (Brendan Gleeson) announces that they’re here to collect rouge Mechas, and they dispatch motorcycles that somewhat resemble the light cycles from Tron to round them up. This includes David and Joe, although the collectors are startled that a newer model such as the latter is in the area.

Teddy is separated from David, prompting him to go chase the balloon to the monster truck-esque Flesh Fair (that little bear must have damn good batteries to go so far by himself). While David and Joe take a look at the other Mechas that are about to be executed, Teddy ends up in the hands of a little girl, who’s surprised to see David and Teddy converse. This leads to her going to her dad, who’s one of the operators of the Fair. He takes a look at David and realizes that he’s just too unique to be trashed. But the balloon man wants to do it anyway, and basically takes David, who drags Joe along.

But before they’re terminated, David’s pleas for mercy prompt the audience to think he’s a real boy and throw things at the balloon man in protest. The chaos allows the girl’s dad to set David, Teddy, and Joe free.

In his office, Hobby is delighted upon learning that David is alive and sets out to find him. It’s also here that we learn that David was modeled after Hobby’s late son.

Now on the run, David informs Joe that he’s looking for the Blue Fairy. Joe suggests they go to the Las Vegas-esque Rouge City, where a certain Dr. Know can help them find her. After hitching a ride, the trio go to a building. A kiosk inside introduces them to a hologram named Dr. Know (voiced by Robin Williams), who informs him that the answers he seeks are in Manhattan, which is one of the cities that’s now flooded.

Joe is apprehensive about making such a journey, and even suggests to David that perhaps the Blue Fairy is merely a way humanity keeps Mechas in check. But David vehemently argues against that due to his love for Monica, and is prepared to go ahead without Joe.

That’s when authorities arrive to take Joe away. Fortunately, they leave their flying police cruiser unattended, allowing David and Teddy to “borrow” it and save Joe, who instructs the cruiser on how to take them to Manhattan.

They arrive and make their way to Hobby’s office. David enters first and is startled to find a duplicate of himself reading. He answers the duplicate’s friendly overtures by saying Monica loves only him, and in a jealous rage, smashes the poor thing to pieces with a lamppost. Joe and Teddy understandably get the hell out of there before David’s rage is stopped by Hobby.

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The professor says that Monica told him that she put the idea of the Blue Fairy in David’s head, and as a result, asked Dr. Know to divert him to this location. Taking him to another office, Hobby proceeds to praise David as a breakthrough in Mecha technology because of how David’s own love led him to this point. However, David becomes saddened that a technological marvel is all he’s being viewed as now. This stance isn’t helped when Hobby goes off to gloat to his colleagues, and David walks around and sees Mechas like him being made ready for shipping.

Sitting on the window edge of Hobby’s office, David becomes so downtrodden that he decides to throw himself into the water below. And I have to say, Hobby must have had a lot of gloating to do, given how long he’s gone. But Joe is nearby to witness this and uses the cruiser to go to the spot where David landed and pulls him out of the water. David excitedly tells him that during his brief time underwater, he saw what must be the Blue Fairy. Unfortunately, this is when the police catch up with Joe. But just before he’s taken, he sets the cruiser to allow David and Teddy to reach the Blue Fairy and then wishes David farewell.

David drives the cruiser to the right spot, which turns out to be the underwater remains of Coney Island. He parks right in front of a statue of the Blue Fairy just before the ferris wheel collapses onto the cruiser, trapping him and Teddy. David begins to plead repeatedly to the Blue Fairy statue to make him a real boy.

We then flash forward 2,000 years later.  Earth is now a frozen wasteland and humanity is extinct. The only signs of life are more advanced Mechas. They stumble upon the now frozen David and Teddy and slowly revive them by shattering their icy prison. Upon awakening, David goes toward the Blue Fairy only for the statue to shatter.  The Mechas probe David’s memories and one of them (voiced by Ben Kingsley) says that they’re unable to make him a real boy, but another (Meryl Streep), in the form of the Blue Fairy, is able to temporarily recreate Monica thanks to some of her hair that Teddy kept.

This allows David and Monica to spend one last happy day together, before the movie ends with them both drifting off to sleep.

A.I. has both a similar title to E.T. and also has a child as its protagonist. But unlike E.T., I wouldn’t recommend A.I. as viewing for the whole family—though I suppose the same can be said for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, which also has a child as its protagonist. This is because the drama surrounding David is intense and downbeat. Hence, I’m not surprised that audiences were perplexed by this film upon its release.

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The complaint that was most prominent was the ending, which some felt was too happy and was added by Spielberg. But it’s been proven that Kubrick was the one who devised this ending. And this ending is actually not happy at all when you realize that humanity goes extinct—and I certainly didn’t begin watching A.I. expecting that!

But as a drama, I found A.I. has much to make me recommend it. This is mainly due to the performances of both Osment and Law. Osment is every bit as great here as he was in The Sixth Sense, and Entertainment Weekly said it perfectly when they called Law’s Joe a cross between the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Hurt also stands out as a scientist who’s essentially a Dr. Frankenstein who doesn’t abandon his creation. But the film turns that aspect on its ear because it isn’t his devotion that David wants, but rather Monica’s. In other words, Hobby’s delight at what he’s accomplished ends up blinding him to the fact that David did his job too well.

Much like Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey and The Shining, A.I. also poses some intriguing questions. For instance, Hobby says that Monica filled him in on what happened when she tried to take David back. Did Henry and Martin leave her after that? That would add more nuance to the day she and David later spend together. Also, does the film end with David dying alongside Monica? If so, Teddy is possibly the advanced Mechas’ only link to how life was when humanity was dominant.

The tone Spielberg achieves here was definitely felt in his next film, the aforementioned Minority Report, as well as later films of his such as Munich. Like 2001, A.I. has some moments that will test the patience of some viewers, but overall, I feel Kubrick would’ve been proud of it.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is Ailurophobia, available now from Amazon.

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