While there have been many cinematic masterpieces that have tackled the complex subject of artificial intelligence, ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, very few have affected the mainstream consciousness like Steven Spielberg’s A.I. did. In a BBC poll that was conducted almost five years ago, Spielberg’s 2001 drama was selected by critics as one of the 100 best films of the 21st century. 20 years after its initial release, does A.I. still stimulate the imagination of newer audiences or has it been relegated to the realm of flawed projects?
It was Stanley Kubrick who started work on the project after acquiring the rights to Brian Aldiss’ short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long in the ’70s. However, his artistic vision was far ahead of the technology that was available at the time which put the project on an indefinite pause until Kubrick saw the masterful CGI effects in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. He felt that Spielberg was the right filmmaker to capture the spectacle of A.I., a decision that shocked Spielberg himself. Although he tried to convince Kubrick to stay on as the director, it was Spielberg who ended up translating Kubrick’s vision to the big screen after the latter’s death in 1999.
A.I. is a complex exploration of a world that has been ravaged by climate change and its disastrous consequences. Even though human civilisation has been pushed to the brink of an apocalypse, mega-corporations show no sign of slowing down and continue to create more products and more waste. One of those products happens to be humanoid robots that are highly intelligent but lack emotional empathy, a recurring motif that is observable in Phillip K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as well. One giant tech corporation figures out a “solution” – a robot designed as a child which can be programmed to love human parents.
Over the course of the film, we follow David (played by Haley Joel Osment) as he tries to fit into a human family and earn his mother’s love who quite predictably discards David when her biological son recovers from a serious health condition. A.I. is an empathy test designed for us as well, waiting patiently to see how we would react to a child getting bullied and neglected only because he is not considered to be “real”. Spielberg examines the moral dilemma that entails creating an entire species of sentient entities, what is the value of their “artificial” consciousness? In David’s world, people consider him and his kind to be lesser than animals and regularly engage in publicly destroying robots for the satisfaction of large audiences. No matter how far we advance into the future, our capacity for hatred and violence refuses to fade away.
Just like Pinocchio, David embarks on a journey to turn into a “real boy” which takes him to the end of the world (which is quite conveniently shown as Manhattan). He is accompanied by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male robot prostitute and a mechanical teddy bear as he searches for subjectivity and his own identity. Despite Spielberg’s best attempt to create a world that is visually interesting, A.I.’s most fascinating aspect is its treatment of the problem of artificial intelligence. The prefix of “artificial” is problematised because David is more human than most characters in the film. Unlike humans who have forgotten to love or to dream, David fearlessly pursues both because he is paradoxically uninhibited by human constructs despite being one. In a postmodern universe where traditional value systems have been irreversibly ruptured, he even finds the courage to have faith in his God – the Blue Fairy.
Many regard A.I. as one of Spielberg’s most ambitious projects but some consider it to be too ambitious, especially the way the film wraps its narrative up by skipping 2000 years of human history and cutting straight to mysterious extraterrestrial beings. Even though the concepts which A.I.’s ending touches upon are truly intriguing, it rushes through these philosophical tangents without properly exploring any of them. However, it would be wrong to classify it as reductive melodrama because the film does not fixate on the banalities of love and emotional attachment. Instead, it approaches such common ideas from a psychological perspective in order to make us question the authenticity of our own “feelings” or more appropriately – our neurological impulses that have been programmed by evolution.
In an interview, Spielberg clarified that he did not really take any artistic liberties with the ending: “People assume the exact opposite of what the truth is. People assume that Stanley ended A.I. with David and Teddy underwater, trapped by the Ferris wheel, and that they’re going to be down there until their batteries run out. And I, of course, get criticised for carrying the film 2,000 years into the future, and they assume that that’s how I wrecked Stanley’s movie, when in fact every single beat that I put in my version was first in Stanley’s 95-page treatment. The whole superstructure of A.I. is Stanley Kubrick’s vision, and I got as close to his vision as was humanely possible.”
A.I.’s meandering philosophical investigations might lose their direction along the way but it would disingenuous to say that the film has no creative power at all. It has its moments of brilliance which are more than enough to spark our curiosity and facilitate discourse about its subject matter but none of it is powerful enough to leave us speechless.