Reevaluations of movies are not only important, they can also be very enlightening and, in the best case, fun. Popular, as well as individual tastes change over the years, that’s why giving a film another try after a certain span of time can give the viewer a new perspective on the material, for the better or the worse. Generally, reevaluations simply help to appreciate films for what they really are from a distance, stripped from their initial surrounding hype and/or prejudices, which sometimes leads to them getting their deserved backlash or reappraisal.
For some reasons, lately all of a sudden positive reevaluations of the Steven Spielberg-helmed SF-drama A.I. from 2001 are popping up all over the internet. While A.I. mainly received favourable reviews (73% on Rotten Tomatoes) upon its release, it was also met with criticism, often accusing Spielberg of toning down the source material that was Stanley Kubrick’s brainchild.
What is happening now though is that the film is elevated into some kind of misunderstood masterpiece, which made me curious because even after seeing it three times -the first time during the original theatrical run- I never changed my opinion about it, which is why I decided to give it a fourth try that might eventually change my conflicted feelings I associate with this epic.
Unfortunately that did not happen and I still think that A.I. does not deserve to be called a masterpiece, but at least the latest sighting helped me to put my finger on what exactly does not work about it in my eyes.
First, I have to state a few things in advance.
What I don’t want is to achieve with this article is to illustrate the fascinating back story of the film that is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, as there are already pretty good articles depicting the decade-long development process on the web, written by more professional writers than me. I will come back to the eternal discussion which parts are owed to Kubrick and which to the Berg, but in a more speculative fashion.
It’s also not about comparing particular reviews by other writers with each other or commenting on them. This article is about my very personal impression of the movie and an attempt to analyze what I think is preventing it from being rightfully considered as a “classic” or “masterpiece” while defying some often-cited general statements in favour of the film which I deem as false.
It naturally became a longer piece in the end, because the reevaluation of a reevaluation has to present a longer chain of proof than a simple review as it must present the counterargument to a counterargument to an argument, etc.
A film by Stevley Kuberg
Some individual elements of A.I. are praised for good reasons. The performance by Haley Joel Osment as the robot boy David is simply brilliant and pretty much the heart of the film. Another saving grace is Jude Law with his subtly humorous portrayal of the smooth robotic gigolo Joe. Without their inclusion, A.I. would probably be completely unwatchable.
Worth mentioning is also the incredible FX work by the Stan Winston Studios that still surpasses some efforts we get served nowadays with its emphasis on realism over CGI-glossiness. Most importantly, I actually do think that A.I. has a great and unique storyline and above that I am one of the few who thinks that the controversial “second ending” could have worked. Could have.
Apart from those perks though, A.I. is a bit of a mess and not even a particularly interesting one. Strictly speaking, it does not matter which parts are Spielberg’s creation and which ones Kubrick’s, but I still blame the Berg, as he was responsible for the wonky execution in the end.
Fact is that Spielberg tried to mesh his style with that of Kubrick and the result of those two clashing is not a pretty sight. Kubrick is famously documented to have claimed that all the sweetish parts that are attributed to Spielberg are unexpectedly his input, but assuming that they would have played out on screen the same way as they do now in the finished film if he had helmed the feature, is simply foolish. That’s 100% Berg in all his glory.
Sadly just the later Berg though, because if it was his younger self something vaguely intriguing might have come out of this dour affair. An uneven film can still be worthwhile and the blend of Kubrick’s notorious “cold look” and Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality could have led to something fascinating, but the problem is that Spielberg is -not unlike Kubrick- a control freak and not an intuitive artist that can let loose. So what we end up with is a tonally dissonant hybrid but one that is paradoxically without any striking contrasts, because they are bulldozed away by the director, with “ambiguity” and “subtlety” being collateral damage in the process.
On the one hand, A.I. is not a clever and reverent homage to Kubrick even it tries to, it is a Spielberg movie that solely uses this angle as a gimmick to prove the versatility of its vain director. There may be some clumsy references to the master but Spielberg never lets Kubrick truly into his mind, the allusions always only scratch the surface and remain there.
At its very heart, A.I. is a Spielberg movie, aggressively pointed out by the director himself, because the most obvious references he put front and centre are the ones paying homage to his own body of work: The full moon from E.T. makes a big cameo and the aliens from Close Encounter of the Third Kind even twice, once in the beginning with the out-of-focus introduction shot of David and a second time at the end with the design of the super-advanced robots (often mistaken for aliens) in the epilogue.
It’s a classic vanity project, Spielberg’s way to tell the world: “I was friends with one of the best directors ever and he even let me finish his film! And I put my own stamp on a Kubrick film! Choke on that, bitches!”
On the other hand the film may be purely Spielberg in spirit, but is not even good at that. As I already alluded to above, the Berg at this point in his career is naturally a different beast than the one who left his mark on pop culture with early masterpieces like Jaws, E.T. or Raiders of the lost Ark, which could be described as “blockbuster movies with heart and soul”. As it was pointed out many times before (also by myself), Spielberg’s popcorn films undeniably suffered in quality after his ambitions shifted towards more serious dramatic fare. Jurassic Park and The Lost World felt like anonymous efforts intended to fill the money sock, which they probably were. Even his late 80s and early 90s works Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook already were unusually plodding and lachrymose compared to his previous features.
Between 2001 and 2005, an attempt to return to the “Blockbuster Spielberg” is discernible in the Berg’s filmography, with three of the movies he made during that timespan being set in the SF-genre: A.I., Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005). On the surface, all three of those are outside of the director’s comfort zone, with their dark tone and even cerebral approach in the case of the former two. But on closer inspection they turn out to be all Spielbergified and silly, tonally all over the place due to a director, who, at the end of the day, cannot get out of his own skin anymore. Or rather does not want to…
Among this three aforementioned movies, A.I. is, even if only in some details, the one that is the closest to E.T., the film most people immediately associate with Spielberg and the one that established his trademarked sentimentality and nostalgia for a romanticized childhood that were frequently imitated in subsequent 80s movies.
Yet if E.T.’s sentimentality was genuine and heartfelt and Hook’s sentimentality was a whiny and moderately successful attempt by a midlife-crisis Spielberg to recapture that magic, then A.I. was the logical next step, a disillusioned, calculating business man Spielberg recognizing his style not as an individual artistic choice anymore, but as a brand product and giving the audience what they would expect from a “typical Spielberg movie” with all the popular trigger moments. The aforementioned distanced approach is therefore maybe not only a byproduct of mocking Kubrick’s style, it is also a testament of Spielberg being in full routine mode.
What is left is a movie that is not fulfilling on a cerebral level and phoned in on the emotional level. In short, Spielberg not only fails at channeling Kubrick, he also fails at channeling Spielberg.
It is no coincidence that the one Spielberg movie from that period that is genuinely good is Catch Me If You Can from 2002, for a very particular reason. Not only did its two protagonists a lot of the heavy lifting again and it helped that Spielberg returned to more grounded, straightforward storytelling, but it is also contains some parallels to the director’s own biography in a way, as it is about a guy who makes his way through life by pretending and selling illusions, which makes it more personal. That’s not only a metaphor for the job as director by the way- if you read one of the various versions of the stories Spielberg told in interviews how he got into film business, you will understand that it might be closer to his own private persona than he is aware of.
From Jabba’s Palace to Russ Meyer
Let’s take a closer look at the film itself.
The first, overlong section of the film that depicts the family David is thrown into is already a sign that Spielberg was on autopilot or, if you feel the need to speculate, did not quite get the point of the source material.
While the horrible mentality of the upper middle class family is hinted at, it could have been fleshed out even more. I suspect that Kubrick’s intention was to use this segment to examine the hidden horrors of everyday family life, not to spend it on a heavy-handed set-up of David’s character arc. When David leaves the house and is lost in the cruel wide world, the home seems too much like a safe haven in retrospect, borderline psychopath brother and all. I think that it would have had a stronger impact if David was just sent from hell to another- just of a different kind, juxtaposing the hell that family life can be to that of the unpredictable outside world, making it difficult for the audience to decide which one is worse. It would have also emphasised the inherent sadness and futility of David’s unreciprocated love towards his “mom” (Frances O’ Connor).
Remember, they are not only a snobby upper middle class family, which is bad enough, but they live the high life in a collapsed world, maybe completely unaware of the squalor existing beyond their little settlement. They also accepted David for completely selfish reasons, treated him like dirt before his emotion chip was activated (hm…wrong movie?) and were unafraid to kick him out when the first problems surfaced. What’s not to hate?
David’s introduction to the family would have deserved a more icky, intimate atmosphere when real humans meet an artificial one, as it Ex Machina (2015) created so masterfully, to cite a recent example. Unfortunately, these scenes are so conventional, unmemorable and banal, even a second rate Spielberg epigone like Chris Columbus could have directed them (which brings up repressed ugly memories of Bicentennial Man, 1999). Moments of sweetness are signified by actors shot against gleaming backlight, while scenes depicting trouble like the spinach eating contest or when David almost drowns his step brother are staged as conventional suspense moments. Solely the infant acting powerhouse Osment can bring some ambiguity and subtlety to the happenings, but even he can only achieve so much.
Once David enters the stage for example, the too sympathetic portrayal of the family makes it hard to identify with him, the plastic kid with the odd behaviour and we automatically turn to the mother. If the family was portrayed in a less favourable light, we would be forced to identify with him earlier, not just after he was already left behind in the forest. And again, if it was not for Osment, we would not have cared for David after all, because the direction does nothing to engage us and sell us this sudden shift of focus to David’s character.
The following scene showing the “Flesh Fair” perfectly encapsulates the clash of tones I described above: While the Industrial rockers “Ministry” are with their hellish sound the perfect choice to rock the stage for an event of a partly post-civilized society, the robot mayhem in the arena below is due to the childish designs of the automations as gut-wrenching as the torture scene in Return of the Jedi when the little boxy droid gets its feet burned. It’s hard to feel shocked by the robo-genocide when it is depicted as a Road Runner– cartoon.
Overall, the depiction of the future in A.I. feels very unbalanced, improbable and childish, an impression I also got when watching Minority Report the following year, which makes me wonder if Spielberg is really the right man for futuristic SF. His preceding SF movies E.T. and Close Encounter were rather present day fables with some aliens thrown in after all. Of course there are also fairy tale elements in A.I., but it is meant to be set in the “real world”, so there is no excuse for idiotic, butt-ugly designs like the hot-air balloon disguised as a full moon or the tricar.
I am less surprised by the toned down version of “Rouge City”, because Spielberg was, unlike Kubrick, never known for exploring the dark undersides of sexuality. At least the city has an amusing design, like a fever dream of Russ Meyer had after a long day at the slot machine in Las Vegas and is not as embarrassing as the moral pointing finger- swinging “cyber brothel” scene in Minority Report.
Skipping the film’s visually most impressive part, the New York segment, I want to conclude this article with a few words about the controversial “second ending”: I am one of the few who thinks that this ending is quite clever, but and here comes the big “but”, it fails because the delivery is again beside the point.
Thought up by Kubrick himself, the last scenes are mirroring the starting situation of the movie. Instead of humans, robots are now ruling the world and it is David who orders a copy of his stepmom for his own emotional needs. Moral lesson: Love is always a little selfish, solipsistic and lopsided and reciprocated love is probably just projection.
This would make a perfect ending for a dark, bitter fairy tale, but the schmaltz is applied so generously and the final montage of David reuniting with his mom goes on for so long that it lacks any punch. Spielberg is unapologetically resorting to cheap emotional manipulation, dragging out the scenes and amping up the volume of the sugary John Williams score, so that even the people on the cheap seats realize that it’s time for the Crying Game. Probably he knew that he had to hammer it home because any traces subtlety or sincere emotionality would have been hopelessly lost at this point in the movie.
To be fair, it would have been nearly impossible to create a truly satisfying ending to A.I. as it is. The “fairy tale ending” makes sense on paper, but it does not ring true or feel earned.
That’s because the fairy tale aspect is just one of many undercooked ingredients in the big A.I. stew, which range from ponderings about the self-awareness of artificial beings to a comment about the nature of evolution. Sadly, A.I. is too one-dimensional to convey a true richness of themes, which was maybe still existent in Kubrick’s vision. Devoid of layers, it cannot be many things at the same time, only one thing after the other. This is reflected in the world it presents on screen, which never feels vivid or graspable.
Bragging with this multitude of themes, A.I. fails to tackle even one of them properly, they just serve to overwhelm the audience and keep up an illusion of intellectual depth. With the help of John William’s competent score, Janusz Kaminski’s slick and show-offy cinematography and the phenomenal actors, Spielberg tied it up in a package that might be neat looking but is hollow inside.
To make it completely airtight though, the Berg also added some pompous and heinously manipulative emotional beats to create a simulacrum of a film that is both cerebral and emotional so it cannot be called out for its intellectual shortcomings.
In the end, I can only come back to the question film fans and critics asked themselves countless times over the years: How would Kubrick have realized his brainchild?
And as we will never know that, we are left with Spielberg’s A.I. is an unfortunate hybrid, not just one of different artistic sensibilities:
It may feel as mechanical and calculating as a robot but sadly not its precision, analytical understanding- or inability to be phoney.