In Contention

‘A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,’ a decade on

Posted by · 2:34 pm · July 2nd, 2011

It was June 29, 2001. I was in film school. I opened the local paper, read my friend, the film critic’s, review of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” Steven Spielberg’s distillation of a project he and legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had developed together for years.

I was nervous. I had, for one, hit a post-adolescent anti-Spielberg stretch (which I fully own as childish, but attribute in part to my feelings on the “Saving Private Ryan” vs. “The Thin Red Line” situation of a couple of years prior). Like any cliched film school student, I was a Kubrick obsessive. I wanted this to come off without a hitch.

The review was positive. Not an all-out rave, but enough to really get my hopes up. I hit the first matinee of the day, bells on, ready. The film washed over me and it didn’t connect. Something felt off. I heard the film, but I didn’t listen to it (to paraphrase, of all things, “White Men Can’t Jump”). So I adopted early on an attitude toward the film that I soon would understand as limited even if it wasn’t ill-considered.

I wanted the dreary finale that myth came to define among a certain class (wrongfully) as the way Kubrick might have seen it, not the “Spielberg ending,” as it came to be not-so-affectionately known. It wasn’t until six or seven months later, when the film hit DVD and I gave it another look, that I really allowed myself to respond to what Spielberg was doing, and to accept that, in truth, it was always a project meant for him, and for good reason.

An early line from William Hurt speaks to the very fabric of the film’s thesis: “Didn’t God create Adam to love him?” From there an incredible narrative unravels a story about human selfishness and failed responsibility, about such imperfection weighed against a pursuit OF perfection before a Creator, be the pursuer mecha or orga.

Finding sentimentality in the film’s denouement is strange, I feel. Perhaps it’s an extension of the vibe of Spielberg’s career, but this film is actually the least “Spielberg” of his portfolio to date. The advanced A.I. that show up in the final moments (to this day erroneously considered aliens by some) ultimately represent the boiled down point of the endeavor. They seek the meaning of all things and view the human spirit, long evaporated, as the skeleton key. They seek their God.

These are themes old as time, spun here with delicacy and, in some ways, perfection. I have come to see the film as Spielberg’s most thorough consideration and can’t imagine truly viewing the enterprise as rushed or hastily pondered.

But that’s my journey with this film these last 10 years, unbelievable as it is that a decade has passed since that first disappointed viewing. “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” is a singular piece of work on the canvas of cinema. It is the marriage of separately unique directorial perspectives yielding an experience unlike any other, but it boasts a familiarity owed to its philosophically subatomic considerations. It is science-fiction at its very best.

More on Spielberg Monday in the first Off the Carpet column of the new Oscar season.

[Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures]

→ 52 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

52 responses so far

  • 1 7-02-2011 at 2:50 pm

    Brock Landers said...

    A completely misunderstood masterpiece.

  • 2 7-02-2011 at 3:12 pm

    thespirithunter said...

    I too have warmed to the film over the years. When it first came out, I was caught up (as with many others) in detecting where the Kubrick lines ended and where the Spielberg boundaries took over. I also did not like the ending, relying too much for my taste on another Disney film that was trapped in Spielberg’s psyche (much like the Dumbo diversion in 1941).

    But the years have been kind. I look at Spielberg’s output at this time as being very fractured. He is a master at the set piece, but sometimes that’s all his films are – set pieces looking for a whole. In the beginning, his films were excellent because his set pieces created a coherent story (Jaws, Raiders, ET). At this juncture in his career, his set pieces did not fit together coherently (ex. Lost World’s trailer over the cliff sequence – awesome in and of itself, but not needed to tell the story) I still believe Saving Private Ryan is an outstanding 29 minute short film with too much tacked on after the DDay sequence. The advance AI at the end of the Kubrick/Spielberg mixup was too reminiscent of Close Encounters for my taste. But your opinion of the search for their God hits it on the head. And moves the film higher up the scale. An underappreciated cinematic masterpiece.

  • 3 7-02-2011 at 3:33 pm

    med said...

    your friend was the film critic or the film critic review was your friend?

    Sorry, just confused on your meaning here…

  • 4 7-02-2011 at 3:43 pm

    Rashad said...

    His friend was the film critic.

    The thing I loved about the ending, aside from the evolution of the mechas, was the twist on Pinnochio. Instead of the boy becoming real, the apartment and his mother, a clone, become “artificial.” The movie hits me emotionally more than most films.

  • 5 7-02-2011 at 3:48 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The critic, med. Comma placement. ;)

  • 6 7-02-2011 at 4:04 pm

    Speaking English said...

    There were DVDs in 2001? I just remember getting my first in 2004.

  • 7 7-02-2011 at 4:07 pm

    Speaking English said...

    But anyway, yeah. Great film. Very strangely it seems “Saving Private Ryan” is the one getting the cold shoulder lately. The opening battle sequence may be the best part of the film, but it’s not like there’s nothing else after that. The only real misstep in the film, I think, is the framing device and overly patriotic ending. Otherwise its super.

  • 8 7-02-2011 at 4:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    My first DVD was The Matrix in late 1999. Or maybe I held off until 2000.

  • 9 7-02-2011 at 4:36 pm

    Rashad said...

    Yeah, people seem to think the movie is only about the first war sequence, when most of it examines how and why soldiers rationalize fighting and following orders. (I personally feel the final battle is just as impressive and more involving emotionally.) I didn’t find anything “overly” patriotic about the ending. All he did was end it on the faded flag waving. Ryan is full of guilt for being the one they sacrificed for. Though this is really for another article.

  • 10 7-02-2011 at 4:37 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Oh wow. Having just looked it up, apparently DVD wasn’t dominant until mid-2003, so you were definitely early in the game!

  • 11 7-02-2011 at 4:39 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Rashad: patriotic or not, I still find the ending mushy and trite.

  • 12 7-02-2011 at 4:47 pm

    Parrill said...

    Always enjoyed AI. Felt like it wasn’t perfect and have come to accept it as a flawed masterpiece. There are still some moments that I wish were gone…cough…Chris Rock…cough…but the ending is anything but sentimental. I mean he spends a perfect day with Mom and then she DIES! It’s really bittersweet.

    I realize how underrated the film was when someone was watching it at a party and I was in the other room and I was entertained simply by listening to the score and sound mix. Few films can tell a story so well with just sound.

    Plus, Jude Law was amazing and on a roll back then. Remember his 1-2-3 punch of AI, Perdition, Cold Mountain?

  • 13 7-02-2011 at 4:49 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    My #9 of the decade.

  • 14 7-02-2011 at 4:52 pm

    Rashad said...

    They both die.

  • 15 7-02-2011 at 5:29 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I wish Jude Law had a major resurgence (Sherlock aside).

  • 16 7-02-2011 at 5:59 pm

    The Z said...

    It’s funny that everyone thinks the ending was Spielberg’s idea, but all that I’ve read and seen that was how Kubrick had always intended the film to end.

  • 17 7-02-2011 at 8:23 pm

    SJG said...

    @5, 7, 9:

    Wow, I remember that my parents bought a DVD player when they were still relatively new so I decided to look up roughly when we would have gotten one. I distinctly remember that the first movie I ever watched on DVD was “Pleasantville”… which was released on DVD in 1999. Damn. And now that I think about it, I’m sure that’s when we got our DVD player because I remember being in 6th grade when the whole “Y2K” scare came about and I was watching “Wild Wild West” on DVD when midnight struck and I was kind of let down that the world didn’t actually, like, end or whatever was supposed to happen.

    I pretty much thank God every day that I have parents who aren’t complete rubes when it comes to movies. The older they get the more they want to watch total crap, but I can remember being a very, very small child and watching old Betamax videos of Indiana Jones and The Wizard of Oz because my dad didn’t want to sacrifice the apparently superior picture quality by switching over to VHS. I’m pretty sure I also watched Alien and Aliens on Betamax. Whether the picture quality was actually better, I don’t know, but I love knowing that my dad cared enough about his movie watching experience that he always insisted on what he considered the best.

    And while I’m reminiscing, I’d just like to recall the time in 3rd grade when my parents told me I should watch Braveheart with them. Most of my friends had parents who would only let them watch movies like Kazaam (Shaq’s horrid genie family flick)… and some didn’t even get to watch that, because it had (gasp!) curse words. Meanwhile, I was told I ought to watch quality films even if they had sex and violence.

    Anyway… I’m not really contributing to the discussion. Just reminding myself of how grateful I am that I was never shielded from great movies, and that my parents always kept about four steps ahead of everyone else when it came to technologies. And that they took me to see movies like Out of Sight and Sleepy Hollow in elementary school. And numerous other things.

  • 18 7-02-2011 at 8:28 pm

    Danny said...

    I thought AI was a masterpiece when I saw it when it came out. I heard so many people then say they felt the film should have ended underwater at the Blue Angel sculpture. But the final section of the movie: the robots having survived humanity and looking for their creators, and the mother being artificially created for the boy (when he’d been created for her initially) – it’s what closed the circle both in theme and storytelling, and made an astounding movie a masterpiece.

  • 19 7-02-2011 at 9:22 pm

    Drew said...

    First DVD was Mission Impossible 2. I think it came with the player my fam got.

  • 20 7-03-2011 at 2:05 am

    red_wine said...

    Just to be sure, superb as the movie is, writing is not its strong suit, its a quite a bit on the nose, the directing is the king-maker here. And then you have the dazzling below the line contribution that Spielberg’s films always luxuriate in, I’ll single out John William’s score for special mention, again an under-rated masterwork.

  • 21 7-03-2011 at 2:47 am

    Chris P. said...

    For years I used to think that ‘A.I.’ was a great film ruined by the ending, because I actually thought those were aliens. Then I read an article about them being advanced robots and I immediately got that the ending was just right. Well, not really ‘immediately’, since it took me five or six years to work out it was my fault, not the film’s.

  • 22 7-03-2011 at 2:59 am

    lionel said...

    ha who actually read sjg’s post?!

  • 23 7-03-2011 at 4:28 am

    Chris G. said...

    (Haha Kris, my first DVD was the Matrix too. That movie seemed to introduce the format in such a meta-way)

  • 24 7-03-2011 at 6:26 am

    Kevin S. said...

    My first DVD was The Matrix as well! I got my DVD player as a birthday gift in the 10th grade in 2000. I can remember my friends (not huge film people) asking why you needed better video/audio quality unless you were watching an action flick and desperately defending why it was a better format. Feels like a win in my book.

  • 25 7-03-2011 at 7:55 am

    Michael W. said...

    It’s funny to read about The Matrix being people’s first DVD. I actually bought The Matrix on the same day that I bought my first DVD player in the fall of 99. But I was still not sure that this DVD stuff was the future, so I bought The Matrix on LaserDisc!

    At the same time I picked up The Shining and Deliverance on DVD so those two became my first two DVDs :D

  • 26 7-03-2011 at 10:26 am

    Loyal said...

    Ronin was my first DVD purchase, Spring of 99. Still one of the best car chase sequences ever filmed.

  • 27 7-03-2011 at 11:12 am

    JJ1 said...

    I believe my first dvd was ‘Full Metal Jacket’, and it was a gift.

  • 28 7-03-2011 at 11:37 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    First VHS? Mine was Batman.

    First Blu-ray? Mine was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

    Never owned a laserdisc player.

  • 29 7-03-2011 at 11:43 am

    whatafy said...

    My #10 of the decade. Brilliant

  • 30 7-03-2011 at 1:16 pm

    Speaking English said...

    VHS: no idea.

    DVD: funnily enough, I think “The Matrix Revolutions.” Maybe “The Return of the King.” Can’t remember.

    Blu-ray: “Coraline,” which I just got last year.

  • 31 7-03-2011 at 1:51 pm

    Loyal said...

    VHS: Tough to say, I purchased a lot of VHS movies when Blockbuster had their sales. I’m guessing my first purchase was either Schindler’s List or Jurassic Park

    Blu-ray: Ronin. I’m a creature of habit.

    I’m sure when DHDDBI (Direct High-Def Digital Brain Implants) hits the market, Ronin will be my first purchase.

  • 32 7-03-2011 at 2:24 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I still have yet to buy a blu ray dvd; though I own one player.

  • 33 7-03-2011 at 3:28 pm

    Mike_M said...

    I have to re-visit AI, I remember not being a fan of it…

    my first DVDs where Dave Matthews Band – Listener Supported and then Seven (was back-ordered at my local sam goody for like 2 months, crazy)

    my first Blu-rays where Spider-man (came with my ps3), first i bought where Wild Bunch, Rescue Dawn, 3:10 to yuma (remake), Sunshine… i think my wife (then gf) bought me a bunch for xmas, but do not remember which ones

  • 34 7-03-2011 at 3:30 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    My first two DVD’s I bought together. The Matrix and Army of Darkness.

    First Bluray: Iron Man

  • 35 7-03-2011 at 4:31 pm

    Michael W. said...

    I’m pretty sure my first VHS was The Terminator.

    Blu-ray: Haven’t jumped on that train yet.

  • 36 7-03-2011 at 9:04 pm

    Troy S. Williams said...

    Just joining the discussion:

    My first DVD was ‘Sliding Doors’ on 1/2/99.
    My first VHS was ‘Batman’ because Blockbuster sold it a day early.
    My first Blu-ray was ‘Let The Right One In’ British edition.

  • 37 7-03-2011 at 11:47 pm

    The Great Dane said...

    This is on my Top 3 of best movies of all time. I cry heavily and sobbingly through the whole ending everytime and continue to do so for fifteen minutes AFTER the film is over. No other film has ever had that impact on me.
    Haley Joel Osment rightfully was nominated at the Globes, and it’s a crime he was overlooked by the Academy. He should have won! His transition from machine to “human” is beyond belief – and his body language and movements. Even the eyes – he does not blink ONCE throughout the more-than-2-hours he is on screen!

    An overlooked masterpiece and deeply touching experience.

  • 38 7-04-2011 at 4:56 am

    Mark said...

    First VHS: Star Wars and Grease (which were then played every day for about 5 years).

    First LD: The Abyss Special Edition Box Set

    First DVD: Alien

  • 39 7-04-2011 at 6:59 am

    Carlo said...

    Really awesome piece Kris! I loved the movie the first time I saw it ten years ago (when I was 12 however). This is really making me want to revisit it and discover something new. Thanks man!

  • 40 7-04-2011 at 2:07 pm

    Simone said...

    I have a better understanding of the ending of AI – which due to my previous belief, prevented me from watching it again because it literally broke my heart. But now to know that robots outlived man, hmmm, maybe I’ll have to watch it again. But still have some tissue close by.

    First VHS: Beverly Hills Cop

    DVD: The Matrix

  • 41 7-04-2011 at 7:46 pm

    James said...

    First VHS – ET – The Extra-Terrestrial
    First DVD – The Insider
    First Blu-Ray(s) – Saving Private Ryan and The Dark Knight

  • 42 7-04-2011 at 8:58 pm

    Kevin Klawitter said...

    I love how the haters of AI always assume Spielberg came up with the “sentimental” parts when in reality all of the sentimentality Pinnochio-type stuff came from Kubrick. Spielberg incorporated the darker stuff like the Flesh Fair.

    If the movie was really meant to be cold and extremely cynical like the (false) Kubrick stereotype suggests, why would Kubrick hand-pick somebody like Spielberg to helm the project instead of a Fincher, Cronenberg, or even Nolan (all of whom were well-established at the time)?

  • 43 7-04-2011 at 9:01 pm

    Marc R. said...

    Just wondering, which film do most people believe is better, “Minority Report”, or “A.I.?” Sadly, I still haven’t seen A..I. I plan on just buying it soon. If I don’t love it, then I’m sure Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography will keep me coming back

  • 44 7-04-2011 at 9:19 pm

    Rashad said...

    I’d go with AI, but it’s close. I’m more emotionally involved. Aside from all the themes etc. David’s journey is as compelling as any adventure film to me.

    Minority Report is one of my favorites too.

  • 45 7-05-2011 at 12:22 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Tough one. I think MR bottoms out slightly with the exposition-laden finale, so I might go with A.I. But the thing is, I’d probably rather watch MR.

  • 46 7-05-2011 at 1:49 am

    Matthew Bailey said...

    I am so happy that I am not the only one who immediately recognized that those weren’t aliens, but the descendants of the many Constructed (Artificial) Intelligences that were left on Earth when Humanity (as a biological species) became extinct.

    When I informed my friends of this, they immediately changed their mind about much of the film (although the Deus-Ex-Machina of “We can only bring back a biological entity for 24 hours” was complete B.S. and unnecessary – they failed in that respect to find a more suitable means of limiting the interaction with “Mommy”).

    Still, I am hoping that in the coming decades, we will see more and more realistic portrayals of Artificial and Constructed Intelligences that do not portray them as the “Frankenstein Complex” of humanity.

  • 47 7-05-2011 at 7:56 am

    John H. Foote said...

    A masterpiece and one of Spielberg’s best films, one that challenges audiences and makes demands of them as a viewer — brilliant on every level…and the performances????? My God…….by far one of the very best films of its year, robbed by the weak and ordinary “A Beautiful Mind”…though the Academy did not see fit to nominated either the film or the brilliant filmmaker…..

  • 48 7-05-2011 at 1:14 pm

    Matthew Bailey said...

    As an acquaintance of John Nash, I found “A Beautiful Mind” to be spectacular as well.

    The two movies were not anywhere near in the same league.

    “A Beautiful Mind” dealt with the very real travails of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

    “A.I.” was a flight of Fantasy with some grounding in philosophical speculations about possible futures (Futures which I am working to bring about).

    If A.I. had been a little less fantastic, and stuck to the actual philosophical implications of its premise, then it would have FAR OUT-SHINED “A Beautiful Mind.”

    Unfortunately, “A.I.” was still too grounded in dualism and human speciesist prejudices to have really explored the topic of Sentient Constructed Intelligences.

    And, “A.I.” included about every possible trope imaginable to dehumanize “the Machine,” never mind that the human body is JUST A MACHINE as well.

    When Spielberg does a movie where he plainly lays out that reality (that the human body is JUST a machine) then he will have truly earned the recognition of the Academy, as well as that of Academia and Religion.

  • 49 7-07-2011 at 10:31 pm

    Kevin Klawitter said...

    Roger Ebert just added “A.I.” to his Great Movies list:

  • 50 7-08-2011 at 8:27 am

    Sawyer said...

    It’s a wonderful movie, and maybe Spielberg’s most emotionally-charged movie ever, and that’s saying something for a man who has made a fortune off of pulling viewer’s heartstrings. The visuals are impeccable, especially in the oft-deriled third act, and for me, the movie’s length serves it well – the only time it drags a tad is David’s discovery of the mecha factory in old Manhattan.

    For my money, it’s also the greatest lead performance by a child actor ever. Osment’s 1-2 punch with The Sixth Sense and AI would rival any film actor’s resume. Hopefully he can find his way back to the screen because he is a singuarly talented actor.

  • 51 7-08-2011 at 8:28 am

    Sawyer said...

    oft-derided I mean.

  • 52 8-10-2011 at 9:24 am

    Danny said...

    Glad to see “A.I.” is finally receiving the accolades it deserves. The pompous, overblown, ineffective “Tree of Life” will NOT be revered years from now. It’s pretense is numbing; I cannot fathom why serious critics (and it’s only critics) are rallying around it. “A.I.,” on the other hand, would benefit from a re-release!