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A.I.: Spielberg vs. Kubrick

February 27, 2018

AI Artificial Intelligence flesh fair

Is “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” more an example of Spielberg doing Kubrick, or Kubrick doing Spielberg?

As Steven Spielberg owns sole credit for both the screenplay and direction of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the answer to the above question may seem obvious. Upon closer examination, it gets murkier.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence began as Stanley Kubrick’s concept for a science-fiction take on Pinocchio. The story kernel: a fake boy wishes he were a real boy. In the case of A.I., the fake boy is a robot rather than a marionette. In Kubrick’s words, “a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio.”

Kubrick, with such renowned speculative works as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971) already under his belt, likely had the project penciled in as a possible follow-up to Clockwork. Obviously, and for a variety of reasons, this did not come to pass.

AI Artificial Intelligence David activation

Sporadically throughout the seventies, and between other projects like Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980), Kubrick worked to develop a screen adaptation of the 1969 short story, Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. Even with Steven Spielberg agreeing to help produce the movie as early as 1985, the adaptation process did not prove particularly fruitful until the nineties as Kubrick shuffled through a handful of writers, including Aldiss himself. When Kubrick passed away in 1999, mere days after completing the edit of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Spielberg stepped in to pen the screenplay himself, working from the notes of Kubrick and his revolving stable of writers.

Another potential pitfall for the project was the idea of a child protagonist. Kubrick had doubts that a child actor would have the necessary acting chops for the role. In his mind, this bugaboo meant back-burnering the project until computer effects proved capable of creating the character from scratch. Sure enough, when Kubrick saw Spielberg’s impressively CGI-laden Jurassic Park in 1993, interest in A.I. re-ignited. Mere months after Kubrick’s passing, a young actor by the name of Haley Joel Osment would make it all a moot point with his breakout role in 1999’s The Sixth Sense. Osment would go on to claim the lead role of David in A.I., complemented with the full suite of computer-generated effects. (Random thought: Osment and Jude Law are both rather good in this, and both play “mecha” characters. Isn’t it interesting that subpar actors are often referred to as “robotic,” and yet, it requires an awful lot of nuance to actually play a robot convincingly?)

The last major barrier to getting A.I. made was Kubrick’s sensibility as a filmmaker. Though  A.I. is, at times, a dark and anti-humanistic film which bears Kubrick’s imprimatur, it is no surprise that all involved parties felt comfortable handing Spielberg the directorial reins for this story of a robotic child on a harrowing quest. Returning to the question at the top for a moment, it wouldn’t be totally out of line to claim that this was essentially a “Spielberg” film from conception. Had Kubrick lived long enough and chosen to make it himself, would it not have been understood to be his version of a Spielberg film?

Alas, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Stanley Kubrick’s baby, opened on June 26, 2001, as “A Steven Spielberg Film.” With a title that created a clunky grammatical parallel to Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,  A.I. was the first film since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, back in 1977, for which Spielberg had received sole directing and screenwriting credit. A special effects extravaganza with heart, with the plight of a child at its core, A.I. was ostensibly a Spielberg film through and through.

AI Artificial Intelligence Manhattan

Though A.I. looks the part of an intimate and sentimental blockbuster, the finished product is a film packed with competing elements. Creators and creations. Realism and allegory. Kubrick and Spielberg. Duality was not new for Spielberg, but the lingering of Kubrick’s ghost will always leave viewers with a few unanswered questions about what the film might have become with more direct involvement from Kubrick. As it is, A.I. feels like a mash-up of elements common in each of the filmmakers’ respective bag of tricks. This push-and-pull occasionally results in unproductive tension, but the film only picks up steam as it barrels toward its endgame. In other words, the film noticeably improves in correlation with how far it withdraws from humanity. While Spielberg has claimed credit for many of the darker story elements, the progressive distancing from any semblance of humanism feels like pure Kubrick.

The first act, a domestic drama with science-fiction tropes, feels like it could support a smaller, more laser-focused film all its own. The first act is also the last act to feature sympathetic human characters. This part of the film is hardly Spielberg’s best work, but it only sets the stage for the odyssey that follows.

Although one could likely cull enough evidence to figure out exactly who wrote which parts of A.I., the film’s ultimate potency, to Spielberg’s credit, makes it all incidental. As David explores the underbelly of civilization, replete with kindly but disreputable mechas, including Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), the film takes on an otherworldly blend of Kubrick and Spielberg that feels like it would be unattainable if it came from strictly one or the other.

The “flesh fair” portion of the film is one of the darker elements directly contributed by Spielberg. In pitting mecha-bloodthirsty humans against their synthetic counterparts, the flesh fair shows a level of degradation in society that we sometimes catch flashes of during particularly nasty election seasons. It also delivers some of the grandest spectacle A.I. has on offer. It’s a troubling but fun sequence that ultimately feels like a diversion from the grander narrative laid out by Kubrick.

As the film wends on, it becomes apparent that its endgame is to put humanity as squarely in the rearview as possible. The very momentum of the movie seems to increase in correlation with its distance from human characters. By the time they make it to Manhattan, the movie has left humanity all-but-completely behind and entered the realm of allegory. As the problematic realism recedes (along with all those pesky organic beings), it becomes easier to swallow things like William Hurt living in a half-submerged skyscraper.

AI Artificial Intelligence Robot Mecha

While A.I. was never likely to attract the devotees of crowd-pleasing romances, the ending sure seems perfectly engineered to elicit a tear and a sniffle. I won’t go into detail on the off chance this writing inspires some to see A.I. for the first time, but it’s perfect. Truth be told, I’m not sure if the ending is joyously heartwarming or so, so incredibly sad. From a humanistic view, it’s devastating, but then again, this movie does not assume a humanistic POV. It is classic, clinical, Kubrickian iciness, but delivered in the most sentimental, Spielbergian way possible (when I first wrote that sentence, I had it the other way around). The ending is a near perfect amalgam of the two great filmmakers. The final forty or so minutes could very well be the closest any movie has come to replicating the raw speculative power of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It gets a bit talky, but the feeling is dead on. I like to think that a silent version, or a version fully narrated like a children’s book, might have been the most perfect version.

Sources close to Kubrick have speculated that the iconic filmmaker would have been pleased with Spielberg’s film. As exacting as Kubrick was, and as clinical as his movies tended to be, it’s easy to conjure a scenario in which he felt a sense of competition with all other artists, and all other artists with him, but, A.I. does not represent an odd convergence that developed out of a director rivalry. Actually, it’s something of a comfort that two of the greatest American filmmakers of the late 20th century were able to collaborate on a finished film that feels equally personal to both.

From → Essay, Film Reviews

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