Advances in technology, both cinematic and everyday, mean that it may be easier than ever to attempt an arresting portrayal of artificial intelligence in film. Look at Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a low-budget movie by Hollywood standards that nonetheless uses convincing special effects and thought-provoking writing to create a science fiction story that might not have worked as an indie 15 or 20 years ago. Or Spike Jonze’s Her, which includes a number of low-tech dialogue scenes but feels strangely believable as a vision of the future. Yet one of the very best movies about artificial intelligence remains Steven Spielberg’s simply titled A.I. (or, as it appears on-screen and in marketing materials, A.I. Artificial Intelligence). It’s a pre-Siri, pre-Her, just barely post-millennial exploration of a robot boy programmed to feel the very human emotion of love.
Spielberg’s A.I. will probably always be affixed with an asterisk. Per film lovers and even Spielberg himself, it belongs in part to Stanley Kubrick, and the opening credits even include the wonderfully unlikely credit of “An Amblin/Stanley Kubrick Production.” Kubrick had been developing the project, loosely based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, for years. Effects technology had developed sufficiently to make the movie a reality by the ’90s, and after Kubrick’s death in 1999, Spielberg, a producer on the project, took it over (which was supposedly, at least at some point, Kubrick’s intention).
Much has been made of the tension between Kubrickian and Spielbergian sensibilities in the film, and there’s an undeniable frisson to Spielberg tackling material that seems well suited to Kubrick, like Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robotic (in the parlance of the movie, “mecha”) sex worker on the run after being framed for murder. But A.I. also kicks off an unofficial trilogy of early-millennium Spielberg science fiction, and along with Minority Report and War Of The Worlds, it sees his fantasy filmmaking taking on a darker, more menacing dimension than his sci-fi of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Spielberg wrote the screenplay and directed A.I. himself; even working off of Ian Watson’s Kubrick-approved treatment, it must be acknowledged as his work—not just, as some snide cinephiles prefer, to assign blame for whatever they like least about it.
There are a few moments in the early going where Spielberg seems reluctant to throw the audience into a mecha-driven narrative. The film opens with narration by Ben Kingsley explaining some conditions of the movie’s future (global warming, flooding, population control), then goes into a prologue where developer William Hurt explains in interesting but perhaps unnecessary detail the concept of a mecha programmed to feel love. Then, finally, the movie arrives at Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards), a couple whose only child is comatose. They receive a prototype of what Hurt described in the first scene: David (Haley Joel Osment), a mecha-child who, once imprinted, will love Monica like she is his real mother.
In these early scenes, the human couple speaks awkwardly, especially the father; while this could very well have to do with Spielberg’s rustiness at screenwriting—it’s one of only two solo screenplay credits in his filmography, along with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind—it also blurs the line between human and mecha, which makes sense given the transition the movie sets up. Before Monica commits to imprinting David, the scenes proceed largely from her point of view: the camera follows her, not David, as she adjusts to having an obedient and slightly creepy robot around the house, and David is often seen in reflections or through glass.
When David’s more advanced AI functioning switches on, there are scenes from his point of view. It’s unusual to see a movie adapt the perspective of artificial intelligence, especially when it yearns so nakedly not for its own advancement or understanding of humanity, but something more primal: David wants to be Monica’s son. This could easily be the plot of a horror movie, and eventually Monica and Henry come to see it that way, especially after their son (Jake Thomas, the annoying little brother from Lizzie McGuire, not quite shedding his cutesy kid-actor roots) awakes from his coma.
Though the movie dips into the parents’ point of view, humans effectively leave A.I. in the scene where Monica, not wanting to take David back to his makers for what she assumes will be his destruction, brings the mecha-boy to the woods and abandons him (along with Teddy, his often level-headed and occasionally indignant robotic teddy bear). It’s maybe the roughest moment in the movie, with David trying to impose AI logic onto the situation and sounding pitifully human in his desperation, begging “if you let me, I’ll be so real for you.” For her parting words, Monica can only offer a distraught, heartbreaking apology: “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” With one last perfect shot of David shrinking in Monica’s rearview mirror, the movie says goodbye to humans as main characters, with David beginning his quest to find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, who he believes can make him a real boy.
From this point, the movie’s sights become even more amazing. A.I. overflows with memorable imagery, from a water-decimated Manhattan to the neon lights of Rouge City (sort of a mecha-Vegas) to the shots of the moon (actually a hot-air balloon driven by mecha-scrounging Flesh Fair true believers) rising up with menace, subverting one of the most iconic images of Spielberg’s career with a glancing nod at E.T. There are visible humans in the second half of the movie, of course. The Flesh Fair where David meets Gigolo Joe is run and attended by humans; William Hurt makes a return to the picture later on; and at one point, Joe and David hitch a ride with the guy from Entourage. But the constants are David and Joe, with even Teddy given more screen time than many humans. (The film’s most elaborate tracking shot follows the journey of Teddy, rather than a proper human.)
Though Joe has been manufactured as an adult and David seems to have emotional capabilities beyond other mecha, their interactions maintain an element of two children leading each other nowhere—a fairy tale without a narrator. This could be maddening at length, but the two robots do arrive at some meaningful insights, even as neither really questions David’s ability to find Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy and transform into a “real boy.” Joe offers a near-poetic analysis of how the mecha fit into the movie’s society: “They made us too smart, too quick, and too many.” Joe hasn’t been programmed for the same degree of love or attachment as David, but he’s able to show some degree of self-awareness, if not the same level of emotion (simulated or not).
Indeed, what is said to separate David from robots that have come before him is his ability to follow an imitation of human life to its “logical conclusion,” as Hurt’s inventor refers to it: the ability to pursue his dream, even if his dream is, to some degree, a programming construct designed to imitate humans. By sticking with David on his journey, Spielberg makes A.I. almost experimental in its embrace of a faux-human perspective and its banishment of actual humans from much of the narrative. David’s artificial intelligence—his programmed ability to want, like humans want—is, in this context, a kind of superpowered, inexahustible version of childhood. David has a quest, but navigates through a semi-real world armed with fairy-tale logic, which makes his story unpredictable, neither rational nor fairy tale.
Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.
This is a lot of information to process, especially for a movie that seemed, for a moment, to be wrapping up with David under the sea. But David waiting for an eternity is an easy, if impressively bleak, way out of this strange story. Logical, to be sure: David follows his programming (if the Blue Fairy is not real and he is programmed to follow his dreams, he will spend his eternal childhood in its thrall), and it’s visually foreshadowed in an earlier shot of him lying at the bottom of a swimming pool. But it’s also programmatic. It’s easy to imagine an artificially intelligent screenwriting program absorbing the movie’s story details up to that point and spitting out that ending, or an artificially intelligent editor cutting the movie off before Kingsley’s narration pipes back in.
It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else. The movie isn’t necessarily condemning this form of humanity; like other great artificial-intelligence movies, it invites thought about what makes us human. The bleakness of the “correct” and predictable ending (tagged, incorrectly and often, as what Kubrick would have done) is still presented by the “incorrect” one, but with a lot more tonal discomfort (aided by the pseudo-romantic overtones of David’s day with his mother—he knows how she likes her coffee!) and accompanying complexity.
Not everyone who watches A.I. recognizes that complexity with all that discomfort in the way; it’s an oversight that obscures one of Spielberg’s best films. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Some of it has to do with the expectations of sentimentality from Spielberg, who may have sent mixed messages by overdoing it on the exposition or the John Williams score that accompanies the scenes. Some of it is probably wrapped up in the conventional-wisdom myth of Spielberg as a director who no longer understands how to end a movie (see also Munich, with its gracefully despairing final moments obscured by a melodramatic sex scene a few minutes earlier). But maybe the widespread dislike of A.I.’s ending shows the movie doing the rest of its job, in a fleeting yet vivid way that few other artificial-intelligence-related movies manage. It nearly turns David into a real boy, and nearly turns a portion of the audience into mechas, not computing when their programmed desires aren’t met.