A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): The Love Child of Spielberg/Kubrick Delights, Despite Imperfections

David and Teddy
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

In 2001, Stephen Spielberg released AI: Artificial Intelligence, a blend of science fiction and fairy tale tropes, to above average acclaim. But over the years, it's become a divisive darling -- a movie that draws derision on many sides for a variety of reasons. Fans of co-creator Stanley Kubrick often view Spielberg guilty of intellectual theft and claim he robbed and ruined Kubrick's vision. Fans of Spielberg's usual fast-paced, action-packed blockbuster adventures may feel the movie drags towards the end or leaves things too open-ended. And there is much rumor and speculation about who is responsible for different segments. Regardless of personal opinion, let's dive into the history and themes of this complicated yet fascinating film.

In 1969, British writer Brian Aldiss published a short story called "Supertoys Last All Summer Long." Kubrick liked the story and purchased the rights to make a film adaptation in the 1970s. And why not? Many of the themes Kubrick examines throughout his body of work show up here: the impacts of technology on society, the contrast between people and manufactured beings, the cruel things people do to one another in the name of progress, the future and what it holds, and people's capacity to love and seek love. Kubrick hired and dismissed several writers to work on the story treatment before hiring Ian Watson, giving him Coloddi's Pinocchio as inspiration. Kubrick also brought one other person onto the project: Stephen Spielberg.

Both Kubrick and Spielberg worked on other projects while all of this was going on, and Kubrick procrastinated, hoping that some new technology would be created that would allow a character like David -- a robot boy -- to render realistically on screen. Not thinking a child actor could pull off such a role, he assumed it would all need to be created with animation or special effects. In the meantime, concept artist Chris Baker was brought on to turn Kubrick's visions of a futuristic world into hard copy sketches. Many of the impressive set designs that awe viewers today -- Rouge City, post-apocalyptic Manhattan -- come directly from Baker's drawings, with no alterations. Baker would go onto work with Spielberg as the movie became a reality, acting as one of the few bridges that worked on the project throughout its evolution.

Stephen Spielberg chats with Osment
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

AI then sat in production hell for years. Spielberg and Kubrick went back and forth for awhile about who would do what. Kubrick wanted Spielberg to direct, thinking it was closer to his wheelhouse as a director, but like Kubrick, Spielberg had other things he wanted to work on first. And he was perhaps reluctant to take the director role from Kubrick, who clearly had a large investment in how it would look. For awhile, the pair had a dedicated fax line for sharing notes and updates.

Perhaps the movie would have never come to pass had Kubrick not died in 1999. At that time, Kubrick's wife asked Spielberg to finish the project. Spielberg himself wrote the screenplay, based on Ian Watson's story treatment, and AI was finally fast-tracked and released in 2001, at least 20 years after Kubrick purchased the rights. By all counts, the ending was a faithful adaptation of Kubrick's vision. To honor Kubrick's normal routine, Spielberg refused to allow press access, and AI was a true secret until public release -- the love child of two dearly beloved directors.


For those who haven't seen the movie, the plot revolves around David, a mecha-child who has been programmed to love in a post-apocalyptic America. Although troubled about his presence at first, Monica (Frances O'Connor) completes the imprinting process that will forever bond David to her. But when troubles arise between David and her human son Martin (Jake Thomas), Monica feels compelled to return David for disposal. David determines to become a real boy so that Monica can love him back. Accompanied by Teddy, a robot Supertoy, David begins an odyssey that will take him through space and time to make his wish come true.

Let's talk about the movie itself. To start with, one would be hard-pressed to critique any of the performances. Haley Joel Osment makes a convincing robot boy as David. Just two years prior, audiences fell in love with Osment after his role in Shyamalan's Sixth Sense. But the roles couldn't be more different. David is clearly not human. He laughs too loud at jokes, never blinks (Osment's own suggestion), and doesn't understand when people are making fun of him. It's his inability to understand social cues that land him in trouble with his adopted "parents," and convince them it's time to return him to the robot pound. Osment gives a performance beyond his years. 

Frances O'Connor as Monica Swinton also turns in impressive work as the mother who longs for child companionship once more, but doesn't give full thought to the consequences. While we dislike her for agreeing to abandon David, we understand her decision and can see the conflicted feelings that compel her to leave him in the woods rather than turn him in for scrap metal. Although her time on screen is short, these moments are key in understanding the drive David feels to return to the happiness he was programmed to desire.

David and Monica
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

In the imprinting scene, during which Monica completes the ritual that will bond David to her forever, she reads a string of words off a direction sheet with her hand held gently behind his neck. Up until this point, David's behavior has been nothing but odd and alienating. During this imprinting ritual, as David softens and curls up in her lap, calling her Mommy, it's as if we, too, have now been programmed to soften towards David. In an instant, our feelings toward him change in a way that's nothing short of bewitching. A combination of nuanced acting, emotional beats, spare text, and excellent direction create this exquisite sequence.

Jude Law, as Gigolo Joe, is delightful as the "lover bot" who begins to help David on his quest after the two are thrown together at the gladiatorial games known as the Flesh Fair. David's human, soft features contrast nicely with Joe's perfectly chiseled jawline. Gigolo Joe serves as surrogate big brother for David but also provides a voice of reason to guide him when he gets too sentimental.

David and Gigolo Joe
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

And I could go on about the acting. Getting to enjoy supporting roles from powerhouse players such as William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, and Sir Ben Kingsley makes for one enjoyable surprise after another.

Another highlight of AI would have to be the overall look of this film. From the suburban modern home of the Swintons to the grounds of Cybertronics to the grungy site of the Flesh Fair, AI moves us from one fantastical playground to another. As the journey of David and Joe (and Teddy the Super Toy) continues, we then visit the urban pulsing energy of Rouge City, the remains of post-Apocalyptic Manhattan, the underwater wonder of a buried Coney Island, and finally the far future world of the evolved mecha. Many of the more urban sets almost seem reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, whereas the Manhattan scenes remind this viewer of the dreamscapes where Dom and Mal Cobb once played in Nolan's Inception. Kubrick and concept artist Chris Baker certainly had a lot to do with these visuals which are just as much part of the cinema conversation as any science fiction film.

Post-apocalyptic Manhattan
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

There are particular moments in which the sets, acting, writing, and emotions all blend together in ways that are unforgettable. The imprinting segment already mentioned is one. I have two other favorite scenes that linger in my mind.

The first: David and Joe question Dr. Know, a Google-type search engine disguised as a carnival attraction (voiced by Robin Williams) in Rouge City. David feels certain Dr. Know will give him a clue as to how he can be real boy and eagerly pays the fee needed to question Dr. Know. In much the same manner that one does a genie in a lamp, David must quickly learn the rules of engagement with Dr. Know before his money goes to waste. Once David seems to crack the code and asks the right question, all of the whimsical lights shut off and Williams' soothing voice begins to recite lines from a W.B. Yeats poem, "The Stolen Child." This is done with such ceremony that we, like David, feel we are finally getting somewhere and that David's dreams coming true are right around the corner.

The second: A few scenes later, David finally meets the blue fairy at the bottom of the sea, part of the remains of Coney Island, ravaged by water damage and time. As David finally makes his wish, the Wonder Wheel falls on their helicopter shelter, trapping them underwater. Although the narration informing us that David sat there for 2,000 years seems like the ultimate cop out, the next segment is too astonishing to notice. A captivating 2-minute tracking shot (oh how I wish it would go on) follows a space vehicle traveling through the snow-covered ruins of Manhattan after the 2,000 years has passed. As the mist clears, the first marker that catches the eye is the then-still-standing Twin Towers. The vehicle continues through the buildings, dipping down into where water once covered the Earth, landing at last on David, frozen still inside his helicopter cage. Overhead, haunting music plays throughout the shot. A thorough search turns up no help in identifying the vocalists (unless it was electronic) in the track titled "Stored Memories" on the movie soundtrack. This tracking shot seems like a gentler cousin to the Stargate sequence in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. For now at least, you can see this scene here. Fun fact: Rumor has it that many felt that Spielberg should remove the towers from the movie when the DVD release came out. Spielberg chose to keep the landmark intact with no editing.

David talks to advanced mech
Photo: Warner Brothers and Dreamworks LLC

As we come to the end of this write up, the only thing that's left to discuss is the ending. David's wish for a reunion with his mother can't really come true, as 2,000 years later, she's now dead and gone. But the mecha men tell David they can give him one last day with her (Teddy's safekeeping of Monica's lock of hair plays in here). Finally wishes come true, and David is able to be with a shadow of Monica, which is better than nothing. On first viewing, this ending understandably seems sappy and overly emotional. Yet what might seem like a Disney-esque, fairy-tales-come-true type of ending, on subsequent viewings, takes on a darker tone. After all, David is the last living link between these advanced mecha and the human race. While they seem angelic in their intent, let's be honest, they have been programmed to please the humans. They cannot please humans anymore, so they settle for providing a service for David. As he has his day with Mommy, they watch him like a science experiment (not unlike the advanced species in Kubrick's 2001). David supposedly falls asleep content to just be by Monica's side. Teddy climbs up on the bed, forever abandoned by everyone. While we feel bad for David, not a thought is given for Teddy, who has now been abandoned by his first owner, Martin, and now David.

David could never be a real boy. He didn't go on a journey; he simply did as he was programmed to do by human beings who thought nothing of what their decisions would mean for the technology they created. A deeper reading of these things could inspire discussions on such topic as predeterminism, fatalism, or even nihilism.

With such varied responses to this film, all of the great performances, cinematography, screenplay, and such a complex history, A.I. Artificial Intelligence deserves to be studied as much more than a failed experiment or an object of derision. While there are moments when the pacing falters and some of the narration could even be called cringe-worthy, it's a startling science fiction film that haunts me to this day. Please give it a watch. On Amazon Prime.


Charles said…
Thank you for writing this post on AI! I remembered the movie fondly from my own childhood and gave it a rewatch last month so as to include a mention of it in my monthly newsletter for May. A lot of advances have occurred very rapidly with generative LLMs in only the past 4 months—long after you wrote your post. I feel that this movie, though probably forgotten by many, deserves a re-evaluation in light of current events.
Lindsey said…
Thanks for reading Charles. That's a good point, and maybe I should post my review again soon.