A.I. Artificial Intelligence at 20: Steven Spielberg at His Creative Best

After 20 short years, I’m still not sure if A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a film I like or merely admire — and yes, there’s a difference! I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but still admire the sci-fi flick and recognize it as a cinematic milestone.

A.I. released smack dab in the middle of summer on June 26, 2001, off of a strong marketing campaign that showed off the film’s impressive visual FX, that kid from The Sixth Sense, and promised another magical two-syllable Steven Spielberg adventure ala E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Film nerds like me saw A.I. as an awkward, but still pretty awesome, collaboration between two of the greatest filmmakers of all time — Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, who conceived the project (after being inspired by E.T.), but ultimately handed it to the Beard after feeling his darker sensibilities didn’t quite match the material. Despite plenty of trepidation, Spielberg eventually relented and tapped A.I. as his follow-up to Saving Private Ryan and the rest is … history?

Well, not great history, but history nonetheless.

A.I. enjoyed a $29 million 3-day opening from Friday-Sunday in 2001 and eventually grossed $45 million during the July 4 holiday frame before dropping 52% in its second weekend, followed by declines of 62%, 58%, 56% … in its third, fourth and fifth frames en route to an unremarkable $78 million domestic haul. Overseas, it earned an impressive $157 million for a decent $235 million box office against a $100 million budget.

Critical reaction was mostly positive, with plenty signaling out Spielberg and Kubrick’s contrasting styles as a weakness. Roger Ebert, in his initial review, awarded the film three stars and called it “both wonderful and maddening.” He later revised his critique, added a fourth star, and included A.I. among his “Great Movies” archive.

Audiences were downright confused. At my first screening, I recall waiting in a massive line filled with young children whose parents obviously didn’t take note of the film’s PG-13 rating or brush up on its decidedly mature content. Many were shocked. Instead of kids magically flying over the moon on bikes, A.I. featured a bunch of horribly disfigured robots screaming for their friggin’ robot lives whilst being pulled apart mercilessly at a robot deathmatch. Sure, there’s a cute little teddy bear, but he’s not exactly the type of toy a young kid would ask Santa for at Christmas time.

And while The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment does indeed star in the film, he doesn’t present the same, ah, childlike innocence, and instead evokes fears of abandonment.

Oh, and Jude Law shows up as a sex robot named Gigolo Joe, whose first scene involves easing the mind of a, ahem, client.

In hindsight, it’s fair to wonder if A.I. might’ve been better received had it arrived with an R-rating and pushed harder on its darker elements. As is, the film feels remarkably uneven — neither safe nor whimsical enough to entertain audiences nor daring enough to achieve the kind of critical praise it clearly wants.

That doesn’t mean it’s not good. In fact, I daresay A.I., with all of its wondrous visuals, unique ideas, and remarkable performances remains vastly under-appreciated. There is truly much to admire here from Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography, ILM’s incredible special FX — including the bit in which a woman’s face literally rips apart to reveal a robotic skeleton underneath — to John Williams’ beautifully haunting score.

Really, though, Spielberg’s direction remains the key ingredient, and it’s clear the Beard is genuinely having a blast out-Kubricking Stanley Kubrick. The Academy Award-winning director’s work here ranks amongst the best of his career as the camera floats through this strange universe to capture moments equal parts eerie…


…and tender.

There’s a delightfully batty scene early on in which David, the young robotic protagonist played by Osment, eats dinner with his mother and father. He is fresh out of the box, so to speak, and enthusiastically attempting to mimic his “parents” routine behavior. Spielberg uses a rather normal human reaction (laughter) as a means to ramp up the unusual tension underlying this decidedly odd situation.

Even a game of hide and seek is rendered bizarre due to David’s lifeless reactions. Later, once David has been “programmed” to feel and love, we see another family dinner, except with a new addition: Martin, the “real” son of David’s parents who jealously goads his robotic brother into eating a plate of spinach with disastrous results.

Again, Spielberg clearly relishes the opportunity to twist the familiar into something cold and uncomfortable. In a sense, he’s taking the usual familial tropes found in his previous work — E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist — and splattering them with a thick coat of abnormality. The results are delightfully un-Spielbergian.

The first act of A.I. ranks among some of Spielberg’s best work, and I kind of wish the film would’ve lingered longer in the Swinton household for more uncomfortable bits of family togetherness.

Alas, the second act, the film’s biggest misstep, sees David abandoned in the woods by his mother where he teams with Gigolo Joe to find the Blue Fairy in order to become a real boy. Here, Spielberg, using the same road trip formula established in Jurassic Park, The Lost World and that he would later use in War of the Worlds, struggles to blend wondrous fantasy with Kubrick’s bleakness. Here is a film featuring a cute teddy bear, magical fairies, alienesque future robots, flying spaceships, and goofy characters (voiced by Robin Williams no less) juxtaposed against sex robots, violent “flesh fairs,” and creepy robot meltdowns.

Yet, the larger struggle exists between Spielberg the Showman and Spielberg the Auteur. Considering A.I.’s hefty $100 million price tag, it’s little wonder the former periodically sprinkles the plot with Pinocchio references, crowd-pleasing moments, and a rather cozy, audience-friendly ending, much to the detriment of Spielberg the Auteur who clearly yearns to delve deeper into darkness. The results are frustrating and fascinating all at once — you’re not blown away so much as you’re left imagining the film that could have been had either side won out.

Spielberg gives his audience plenty of interesting questions to chew on, but seems intent to explore the very significant question: what is love? David, you see, is quite literally programmed to love Monicahis mother. How much should she love him in return? In the opening scene, William Hurt’s character states: “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”, suggesting that even mankind’s most basic desires are mostly artificial in nature. Can one truly love a being whose source of affection stems from a computer program? What does it truly mean to be real? Martin, the resentful son, is flesh and blood, but lacks all sense of humanity, while David, without any choice of his own, is practically bursting at the seams with emotion.

Even Monica struggles to care for this unique contraption. She feels guilty when she abandons David in the woods but doesn’t love him enough to deal with his obvious flaws, most of which stem from faulty engineering. This is why the aforementioned ending feels a little forced — David pines for a woman who sees him as little more than a very large disposable toy. Perhaps that’s the point and the reason David’s journey seems futile from the start.

Now, there exists a large contingent of fans who feel Spielberg should’ve ended his story with David trapped underwater pleading with the “Blue Fairy” to turn him into a real boy:

Instead, Spielberg reopens the film two thousand years later where super-advanced robots discover David buried in ice long after civilization met its bitter end. After some back and forth and an extended scene with another faux Blue Fairy, David is granted a final wish to spend one day with Monica.

It’s a touching, heart-wrenching finale no matter which way you view it — either David became a real boy and died alongside his mother, having experienced humanity and love for the first time in his life, or he remained artificial, forever trapped in a moment alongside, for lack of a better word, a figment of his imagination brought about by advanced programming.

I suppose the irony here is that this emotional ending comes from an artificial source — movies — crafted by a master manipulator. Is Spielberg proving a point or merely diverting our attention with a tacked-on bit of cinematic whimsy?

That’s for you to decide.

For me, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence remains a captivating cinematic exercise — a wondrous dream that never fully achieves reality.


Marvel and DC