A.I. Why did Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick want Spielberg to direct Kubrick’s A.I., the fable of a robot who wants a human mother’s love? Imagine the personals ad Kubrick might have taken out: “YOU LIKE: sweetness & light, plucky kids, happy endings, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ i like: a hope-free environment, leering homicidal teens, pitilessly ambiguous Gotterdammerungen, icy Gyorgi Ligeti melodies written ‘as a dagger in Stalin’s heart.’ let’s meet for a movie!” Maybe they had a mutual case of genius envy.
Kubrick needed Spielberg’s speed. Ever since 2001’s success freed him to do almost anything he wanted, Kubrick yearned to make a blockbuster as big as The Godfather or Star Wars or E.T. But he couldn’t, because he enslaved himself with research. “I usually take about a year [developing a film],” he said in 1968. “In a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then as you’re making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what’s happening with the resources of all the analysis you’ve done.” After 1971, Kubrick’s spontaneity expired (if not his genius). He spent decades mulling movies more than making them. Most of what he actually shot was over-thought, emotionally parched.
Spielberg once (according to critic Michael Sragow) compared watching Barry Lyndon to “walking through the Louvre without lunch.” Kubrick was all about making marmoreal masterworks, not pleasing mortals with morsels of wish-fulfillment fantasy. But surely he knew, as the real 2001 approached, that he wouldn’t live long enough to fulfill his own fantasy: an A.I. movie starring real robots instead of actors (most of whom he treated like robots). And a child actor would age visibly during a year-long Kubrick shoot. He hoped Spielberg might whip up a computer-generated boy for the lead, or at least do his famous fast magic with a live child actor.
So what’s in it for Spielberg, in making a Kubrick movie? Perhaps to “eat at the grownups’ table,” as Woody Allen put it–to join the highbrow pantheon. Spielberg makes filmmaking look too easy, and makes too much easy money. We’ve all spent wild nights with his flying bikes and leaping lizards, but not everybody respects him in the morning. Many say Schindler’s List is sui generis and Private Ryan simplistically jingoistic; his serious-issue movies The Color Purple and Amistad suck dead eggs. But when he dares to swap DNA with uber-director Kubrick, you’ve got to give him credit. There could be deeper motives.
Biographical critics Joseph McBride and Henry Sheehan trace a strain of father fear in Spielberg’s movies, and the father figures he seems fondest of are akin to movie moguls: Attenborough the proprietor of Jurassic Park, Schindler the factory “Direktor,” and in A.I., William Hurt as Professor Hobby, the entrepreneurial inventor of the robot boy David. (Professor Hobby is far kinder than David’s adoptive dad, played by Sam Robards.) The company Kubrick formed to produce Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie he scuttled after Schindler’s List hit, was called Hobby Films. How better to honor a cinematic daddy than to finish his film in his style with a character named Hobby? What better way to transcend the anxiety of influence than to blend pastiche with one’s own stylistic voice?
Anyhow, now it’s finished: A.I., a film (as one producer put it) by “Stevely Kuberg.” It’s like no other movie, because it’s so much like so many other movies. In one brilliant scene, the robots scavenge spare parts for themselves from a dump of less fortunate fellow robots: a new jaw here, a forearm there. The parts fit together jaggedly, but the crude welds enable the robots to function. That’s the way A.I. is built: not just Spielberg’s style mashed into Kubrick’s, but characters and stories and particular shots from multitudinous movies (especially Kubrick’s), all stuck together at odd angles. (The picture did not form part of the original article, I inserted it) It’s weird, but it works. The primary source of A.I. is Brian Aldiss’s “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” and two of his other very short stories about David, the robot with the mommy problem. Kubrick jammed David’s story together with the story of Pinocchio. This misses the point of Aldiss’s tale: Pinocchio wants to earn the right to be real, but David the robot doesn’t get it that he’s not a real boy. In the film, David (portrayed with sensitive precision by the eeriest boy actor on earth, Haley Joel Osment) has a more primal urge: to make Mommy (the generically cute Frances O’Connor) love him, no matter what it takes. When David enters his human Mommy and Daddy’s house, he’s backlit to look like the tall, spindly extraterrestrials in Close Encounters. Then he’s revealed to be an almost perfect replica of a human: a bit shiny-faced and stiff, but convincing, even by the standards of the day (the usual futuristic post-apocalyptic Earth, whose advanced gizmo science produces what Kubrick used to call a “mechanarchy”). At first, sitting at dinner, shot from above through a circular lamp that echoes the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, David seems remote. When he emits a barking laugh and points at the strand of spaghetti dangling from Mommy’s chin, and then Mommy and Daddy laugh, it’s hard to say whose laugh is more mechanical. After Mommy imprints herself on David according to the owner’s manual, however, his face melts into beatific rapture. Osment does a good job of conveying love at first sight. David hugs Mommy. Later, he’s shot from below, with a lamp granting him a halo, like the one that gives Strangelove a nimbus when doomsday arrives. David gets his halo when he becomes aware of death: “Mommy, will you die?” It’s creepy, because of course Mommy doesn’t love David–he’s just a substitute for her real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who must remain comatose for years until science can revive him. (The lad is stashed in a bubble bed like the ones astronauts hibernate in 2001.) At last, Martin is defrosted and comes home. It’s bad for David, an echo of the displacement of Alex by Joe the Lodger in A Clockwork Orange. The convincingly bratty Martin taunts David, a cold, Kubrickian echo of the domestic comedy of Spielberg’s enchanted suburbia.
Two scenes of mythic impact ensue. Martin tricks David into snipping a lock of Mommy’s hair as she makes like Sleeping Beauty one night; Mommy makes excuses for him. But at a pool party soon after, the real boys threaten David, who clutches Martin, begs, “Keep me safe!” and falls with him into the pool. Martin requires CPR after being fished out, and as he’s receiving it, the camera pans back from David, infinitely disconsolate on the pool bottom. He recedes, like the cast-off astronaut drifting into space in 2001 (the one who doesn’t get to be reborn as the Star Child). David recedes yet again later in the film–in Mommy’s rearview mirror when she abandons him in the woods. This is palpable horror. It’s not a standard Spielberg kiddie-peril scene, though, because one uneasily identifies with the mom’s predicament–at least she didn’t send him back to the factory to be destroyed–and David’s monomania has begun to alienate our affections just a bit.
Into the woods goes David. He glimpses those scavenging robots–a folksy lot, like hobos in a 1930s Warner flick, though their busted-upness mainly alludes to the wooden boys hacked up by wicked Stromboli in Pinocchio. He meets his rakish new pal, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot with hair like a Bob’s Big Boy statue, built for sex with lonely human women. Law breathes life into a clammy mise en scene–you’ll miss him when he goes. Spielberg made him nicer than Kubrick would’ve done, but it’s no sellout. It simply buries the weirdness deeper. Joe tries to tell David that his mommy doesn’t love him any more than Joe’s dates love him, but David won’t listen. When Joe laments of his creators, “They made us too smart, too quick and too many,” he’s echoing Coppola’s quote about how his crew making Apocalypse Now had “too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” The idea is to critique techno-culture, but the point is muddled, and the film’s heart isn’t really in it whenever it sounds the danger: technology alarm.
Ominously, the woods are lit up by a false moon–an aircraft that hunts robots for the Flesh Fair, a demolition derby where humans take out their frustrations by burning and hacking up robots.
The moon is a cruel parody of the kindly moon in E.T. But whereas abandonment by Mommy registers emotionally, violence against robots just doesn’t. It’s a relief when Joe leads David to Rouge City, a sci-fi update of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, with big bridges shaped like women’s gaping mouths, to evoke the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange (which was much scarier). Rouge City is a letdown: It’s Blade Runner; it’s Judge Dredd’s town; we’ve seen it all before. Its plot function is to give David the Pinocchio prediction that a Blue Fairy will make him a real boy. David heists an amphibicopter and buzzes off with Joe to Manhattan, flooded up to the Statue of Liberty’s torch (a nod to Planet of the Apes). He meets his maker, Professor Hobby (a nod to Rutger Hauer’s scene with his maker in Blade Runner), confronts the existence of other Davids and has an existential tantrum. Here’s where Kubrick would nastily stress that David has become a real boy in the sense that now he kills robots too; Spielberg makes it a friendlier reunion, just as he changed Michael Crichton’s sinister dinosaur-park entrepreneur to a jolly man in Jurassic Park. Either way, as a Kubrickian snarl or a Spielbergian coo, the scene would come off as abstract and unaffecting. Arbitrarily, Hobby leaves David alone a minute, and soon we see him leap from a skyscraper (Radio City) into Manhattan’s briny abyss. This is formally a quote from Pinocchio’s dives to escape Pleasure Island and rescue his father at the bottom of the sea, but it has no resonance, because it’s not really part of an intelligible narrative movement. There is no sense of escape; it’s a slow fall, not scary at all.
The whole movie is by this point as drifty as seaweed in a lulling current. David’s bed at home resembles Monstro, the whale that imprisons Pinocchio, and yet it’s snug and inviting. What does this mean? Plainly, this movie doesn’t work at the level of straightforward causality. It’s a troubling dream. A.I. has two endings involving the Blue Fairy, and I guess I shouldn’t reveal either. Suffice it to say that the one Kubrick probably would have stopped with is clearly superior, colder, mysterious without being muddled. The second, Spielbergian ending is fuzzier, more redemptive and alludes to the cosmic ending of 2001 and Kubrick’s cuddly aliens and snug family feelings.
A.I. ends with a whimper (or two), but I got a huge bang out of it. It’s full of stunning images: sad, disintegrating faces, a robot boy’s strangely shining eyes, lively artifacts of humanized technology. Although it’s in an utterly different key, the blend of sensibilities is not an adulteration but an improving alchemy. A.I. effectively combines the moody indeterminacy of Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001, and the addiction to happily-ever-aftering of Spielberg. There’s also the merest flavor of what William Everson once called “one of the screen’s supreme moments of horror”–the scene in Pinocchio where the boy, in midtransformation into a donkey, shrieks, “Mama!” until he’s deprived of human speech and his mama can’t hear him anymore. When you’re not a real boy, no one can hear you scream.
Tim Appelo, former video critic of Entertainment Weekly, has written cultural criticism for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times.