Here's a piece I wrote years and years ago—a decade ago, now, I think, on a Miles Davis email listserv, of all places—on the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film A.I. For some reason, I thought I'd crossposted it here, but don't seem to have, so here 'tis. And I still haven't rewatched the movie. (Yet.) I tried to recently, and got about twenty minutes in before the darkness became too much for me.
I’ve been thinking recently about A.I., the film Steven Spielberg made some years back. Actually, since I watched the movie about a year ago, I’ve thought about it quite a bit.
For those few who might not know, A.I. is a film that Stanley Kubrick had wanted to make for decades; he’d made copious notes and even a few tries at a screenplay. When he died his widow asked Spielberg, a good friend of Kubrick’s and the director Kubrick had finally decided was more suited for the film anyway, to take the project on.
So Spielberg ended up not only producing and directing, as normal, but writing the screenplay as well, something he hadn’t done in well over twenty years.
The result is…well, it’s odd. There are times the film could not be any more clearly a Spielberg film, and then there are times where it’s so damn Kubrick it’s bizarre. Sometimes it’s just part of a scene or a set design or even a single shot but there are Kubrick touches here and there that just suddenly scream at you. If you’re familiar with the work of both artists, it can be quite disorienting, but generally fascinating.
There are a few classic Spielberg mistakes, including a terrible, terrible bit of stunt casting in a cameo; what should have been an interesting three minutes pulls you right out of the film due to the intrusion. For the most part, however, the cast is outstanding, including a phenomenal Jude Law in one of his best performances ever, and the brilliant Haley Joel Osment, best known for his work seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense.
I should alert you: there are major spoilers coming up—in fact, I’m going to be discussing the last ten minutes of the film in detail—so if you haven’t seen the movie, well, you should. And then come back.
But I’m not waiting. It's been out for a long enough time already. Don’t worry, though, whenever you get around to it, I’ll be here.
Okay. The main criticism most people seemed to have with the film was its ending, which was slammed as being a typically Spielbergian uplifting happy ending, and one which seemed tacked-on at that.
This, I think, misses the point completely. Instead of being some saccharine sop to our bruised emotions, I think Spielberg’s premise is a withering critique of the human race and one of the darkest things he’s ever committed to film.
Allow me to explain. Throughout the entire film, the humans are shown to be self-absorbed, cold and uncaring about anyone or anything but themselves. There are a few exceptions—at the demolition derby the crowd does rally to save the android played by Osment, but even there, it’s clear that it’s only because he looks so human, not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with torturing androids which certainly seem to feel terror and regret. As long as they clearly look like robots, it’s okay to ignore what seem to be their genuine feelings. It’s only when it looks like a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy that they become uneasy.
Even his mother tosses him aside almost as soon as the going gets rough. The fact that she tries to help him stay safe—him, an unusually smart six year old boy—indicates she knows what she’s doing is wrong, and that it bothers her tremendously…just not enough to actually do the right thing. If anything, her anguish over the fact that she’s throwing the little boy away—pretty much literally—that she knows it’s not right, simply makes her actions that much more reprehensible.
But the boy runs into the Jude Law android, on the run for his life. And yet the android helps the boy, even though he suspects—correctly, as it turns out—that it’ll cost him his own life, something the android otherwise tries desperately to protect.
And that’s one thing that’s made clear repeatedly—their intelligence may indeed be artificial, but it’s been programmed for self-protection. This makes sense, of course—if you’ve got a piece of machinery as expensive as these androids undoubtedly are, it’s only logical to make sure they don’t simply wander into traffic.
But the only character who acts out of, well, character, and is willing to sacrifice for another is the Jude Law robot. Not one of the humans were willing to make that leap. And that’s one hell of an indictment of our species.
But it gets worse. Or, in terms of art, better. Because the movie seems to end with the little fake boy at the bottom of the ocean, praying and praying and praying to Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy to please, oh please, make him a real boy. He prays over and over and over again, never tiring, never losing hope, never losing faith, until civilization collapses and the planet freezes and he’s embedded in ice, still staring at the clouded vision of the Blue Fairy. He’s now unable to speak, embedded in ice as he is, but for two thousand years, he keeps faith. He keeps praying, hoping, believing, knowing that eventually his faith will be rewarded, that he will be turned into a real boy, just like Pinocchio, and then, at last, his mother will love him. Finally, he will truly know his mother’s love. He will know what it is to be loved unreseverdly, unconditionally.
And that’s where it seems the film will end. With the title character still hoping desperately that his mother will finally love him.
And that’s where the film drove people crazy. Because the film doesn’t end there, and instead that most Spielbergian of creatures show up—that’s right, aliens. Spielberg said in interviews that they weren’t actually aliens, just massively advanced androids…but (I believe) that’s never actually stated in the film and they sure look (and act) like Spielbergian aliens. And just like the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., these are kind and benevolent creatures. And they rescue the little boy and explain that civilization on Earth perished long, long ago, eons ago, and that they’re anthropologists, here to study what they can. They’re able to recreate the dead as long as there’s some DNA left, but of course his beloved mother turned to dust centuries ago so they can’t help him.
Ah, but the little boy android has a lock of hair he’d cut from his mother before she threw him away. And using that the aliens are able to recreate his mother for one day, and one day only—that’s the extent of their abilities. And when she goes to sleep, she’ll die again, this time forever.
They make sure that this boy understands this and wants to proceed and indeed he does. So they bring his mother back to life and the two of them have the kind of day every little child dreams of, just the two of them, together, playing, reading, having fun—loving. And she goes to sleep and dies, and he lays his head on her body and himself appears to die.
And there’s your happy ending. Except that it’s not. Not really. Or rather, yes, superficially it is: the hero finally got what he wanted—his mother’s love, and therefore managed to die happy. (If indeed he really died. Which, again, how happy can an ending be if the protagonist is a little boy who either dies with his mother or at least lovingly lays his head on his dead mother's body?)
But it’s how he got his happy ending that’s so powerful. He got it because aliens cared enough about him to help. Aliens whose quest in life is to study other cultures. Aliens who could have brought this one human back and used their twenty-four hours to study her as much as they could, to have asked her questions, learned all she could teach in that short time. Instead, they let her and the little boy have their day together even though it was their best chance to understand humans.
Likewise, they could have studied the little boy, questioned him forever. But they’d didn’t. Instead, they allowed him his day, in fact, facilitated, initiated it. Even knowing that by doing so they were throwing away forever their one best chance at achieving all their goals on the planet.
The only characters in the film who cared about the little boy enough to sacrifice their own goals—or in the case of the Jude Law android, even his own life—were another android and these aliens. They were the only ones who displayed what we normally like to think of as a trace of humanity.
And that’s why all those who see this as a typical happy ending are completely and totally missing the point. It’s not a typical happy ending. It’s an indictment of humanity. It’s a desperate hope, perhaps, that if artificial intelligence ever does come to exist, it’ll be better than us. An acknowledgement that it'd have to be.