A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Spielberg’s Grim, Dark Sci-Fi

Spielberg’s A.I. is one of his most ambitious and problematic films, and not only due to its valiant effort to blend two disparate sensibilities.
Grade: B+
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
AI Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Easily this summer’s most eagerly-awaited movie, “A.I.,” which is always captivating to watch and often emotionally touching, is a media event par excellence. The project began decades ago by the late Stanley Kubrick, who handed the helming to Spielberg, when he realized that the latter may be more suitable for a story about a robot boy who’s anxious to be real and experience the utmost human feeling, love.

Thematically, “A.I.” revisits ideas first seen in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick’s prophetic sci-fi, as well as Spielberg’s blockbusters “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Yet visually, this inventive film charts new, exciting grounds for Spielberg, who continues to evolve as an artist. A brilliant performance by Haley Joel Osment should help broaden the appeal of a film that’s decidedly not a typical children’s movie a la “E.T.,” and whose dark look and contemplative narrative will attract more mature viewers.

Debates have already begun as to what would “A.I.” look like had it been directed by Kubrick, who was intrigued by the idea ever since he read Brian Aldiss’s 1969 short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Yet a closer look at Kubrick’s oeuvre reveals that there are no children in his narratives, and when there’s a young protagonist, as in “Lolita,” she’s a nymphet!

In contrast, those claiming that “A.I.”‘s visuals and darker tone are due to Kubrick’s inspiration–and drawings he commissioned–are doing Spielberg a disservice. Spielberg’s best work has always expressed the good-evil duality, though not necessarily in films he had directed himself. Hence, “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” which Spielberg co-wrote and co-produced, are good companion pieces. While the former offers a sunny, bright version of suburbia, the latter is a ghost story with unfriendly, destructive spirits.

Moreover, the Oscar-winning Holocaust film, “Schindler’s List,” and the superior WWII drama, “Saving Private Ryan,” also revealed a more mature and savvy director, determined not to repeat the mistakes of “The Color Purple,” which had the neat, clean look of an old MGM production.

In “A.I.,” Spielberg takes solo writing credits for the first time since “Close Encounter,” which may account for part of the textual problems. While the narrative structure is complex but clear, the dialogue is serviceable (but no more), and some of the characterizations, particularly of Jude Law as a gigolo robot and David’s real brother, Martin, are narrowly conceived.

In the brief prologue, a brilliant genetics professor (William Hurt) informs his students and colleagues of his ambition to create a child robot with all the human qualities, one who will be able to feel, dream, fear, and love. An inquisitive student challenges the professor with a question about society’s reaction to the robot. Will he be accepted and loved as one of their own It’s in this aspect that “A.I.” is at its most pensive, introducing intriguing insights that haunt the entire film, specifically: What’s the definition of love Is love symmetrical Is it always based on reciprocal emotions Is family love, by parents and siblings, a biological given or culturally conditioned

Twenty months later, Hobby’s grand plan materializes and a gorgeous boy named David (Osment) is created and placed in the hands of a grieving couple: Henry (Robards), who works at the lab, and his inconsolable wife, Monica (O’Connor), whose son Martin has been in deep freeze for years, waiting for what seems to be an impossible cure to a crippling illness.

The film’s second part, which details David’s life with his adoptive parents, recalls family sequences in “E.T.,” though its more somber and grave tonality might have been influenced by Kubrick’s vision. Spielberg has said that in writing and directing the film, he not only wished to pay homage to Kubrick, but also felt as if the director’s ghost were present on the set.

The well-behaved David immediately takes to his parents, particularly Monica, calling her mommy and bombarding her with questions about her mortality. Gradually, the reluctant mother, who initially locks David in the closet, warms up to the point of investing him with Martin’s super toy, Teddy, which has the ability to talk and react.

Things change radically, when a cure is found for Martin’s disease and he returns home. In one brilliant scene after another, Spielberg demonstrates how the family dynamics changes when it size evolves from a trio to a quartet. It doesn’t take long for David and Martin (Thomas) to become rivals, competing not only for Teddy’s affections, but for those of their mother as well. A mecha (mechanical creature), David is not allowed to eat, but under pressure from Martin, he challenges his body with a huge bowl of spinach, to some disastrous results. Finally, a desperate Monica decides to discard of David, dropping him in a forest in a heartbreaking farewell.

The third, and weakest part, which throws the narrative off balance, switches to a sleazy urban milieu, where the gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is introduced as a sexual machine, a blond robot in black leather coat, whose function is to satisfy women in a way–and with equipment–that will never make them desire another man. Fate brings Joe and David together when, along with other mechas, they are brutally chased by some Biker Hounds, and locked into a scary stadium, Flesh Fair, where the masses are entertained in what’s equivalent to a bloody gladiators’ arena. The extended nocturnal sequences in this seedy circus, where mechas are ruthlessly executed, recall Fellini’s “City of Women” and other rock concert films, representing a new visual terrain for Spielberg.

Fortunately, after this distracting and gruesome part, the story resumes its resonance and chief line, when David, Joe, and Teddy, escape to Rouge City, a garish urban world that in look and ambience bring to mind Fritz Lang’s brilliant silent sci-fi “Metropolis,” as well as “Blade Runner” and other noirish sagas. From here on, the tale assumes the shape of a road-fantasy movie, with the trio searching for the Blue Fairy, who lives at the End of the World. Inspired by MGM’s classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” as well as David Lynch’s deconstructive fairytale “Wild at Heart,” ensuing acts introduce a virtual wizard, Dr. Snow (voiced by Robin Williams).

Coming full circle, the narrative ends at professor Hobby’s lab, when Davis encounters numerous replicas of himself, all angelically dressed in white. This encounter recalls a similar one in “Being John Malkovich,” except that it’s scarier, sadder, and not played for laughs.

Spielberg has often experienced problems with his films’ endings, which are either too sentimental (“Saving Private Ryan”) or too long and repetitive (“Schindler’s List”). While “A.I.” has a coherent and emotionally satisfying finale, it’s also one of the movie’s few manipulative sequences.

Ever since Spielberg began collaborating with the brilliant Polish lenser Janusz Kaminski, his movies have assumed a “messier,” more persuasive look. It’s a tribute to the entire team of designers, costumers, and special effects experts that, despite frequent shifts in tone, which will irritate some viewers, “A.I.” boasts a beguiling, inventive, and compelling look throughout.

The film’s two most impressive ingredients that help unify a deliberately fractured tale are Osment’s performance which holds the entire picture together (almost like Tom Hanks’s in “Cast Away”) and John Williams’s variegated score, whose tonal changes, from the light and sunny to the dark and haunting, evokes the precise mood of each of the film’s chapters.

Despite structural and other deficiencies–deliberate pacing and framing that call attention to themselves “A.I.” is a cinematic event in a way that none of the summer movies has been so far.  It’s a thought-provoking sci-fi that encourages viewers to speculate about the fine line between humanity and technology in the near future. In a season dominated by popcorn pictures and box-office records, that’s an achievement of the highest order.

Oscar Nominations:

The film was nominated for 2 Oscars:

Best Visual Effects

Best Original Score (for John Williams)


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Bonnie Curtis

Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, screen story by Ian Watson, based on “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Janusz Kamiński
Edited by Michael Kahn

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Stanley Kubrick Productions

Distributed by Warner

Release date: June 29, 2001 (US)

Running time: 146 minutes
Budget $100 million
Box office $235.9 million