Despite being known as a true Hollywood auteur with hallmarks and recurrent themes, Steven Spielberg has only ever written three films. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist and 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Famously Spielberg inherited the project from friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick before his death. Kubrick lamented that the film was more to Spielberg’s sensibilities than his own. It might have also been that the infamous perfectionist Kubrick could never get a robotic boy that could carry the film and refused to use a child actor pretending to be a robot.
The sticking point of many people’s opinions on the film is the struggle between what is considered Kubrick and what is considered Spielberg. Taking inspiration from Brian Aldiss’ novella Supertoys Last All Summer Long and a story treatment by Ian Watson, Spielberg ushered the film into production using the decades worth of notes that Kubrick had left him. The story, of a future world where global warming has reduced the human population and the coastlines, sees the rise of “Mecha” human-looking androids that can integrate into society. The film follows David (Haley Joel Osment) an android bought by a family to replace their terminally ill son, only to find himself abandoned when the son is cured.
What is interesting about A.I. is just how much it chimes with both director’s interests. Somewhat atypical for a Spielberg film the focus isn’t on an absent or uninterested father but instead a mother – Monica (Frances O’Connor) – and the desire to be loved by one’s own mother. There is a father present, played by Sam Robards, and in true Spielberg fashion is the one who doesn’t try to connect with David. It’s telling that Henry doesn’t use the imprinting protocol to connect to David, but Monica does, he’s not the true parent as shown by David referring to Monica as “mommy” but Henry by his name.
The mother-son dynamic is one echoed clearly in Kubrick’s The Shining, and there are times where O’Connor and Osment resemble Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall in the film, but it’s not that easy to dismiss this as Kubrick territory. Spielberg’s second feature The Sugarland Express was expressly about a mother and child, while his seminal E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial also paints a portrait of a loving mother. This first act, less a science fiction film than a drama about adoption and the rivalry between two sons, feels like it could be in the mould of a Spielberg film. However, that serves to deny that Kubrick wasn’t interested in how people behaved with each other too.
Similarly, the often commented abject horror of the robot-killing Flesh Fairs, overseen by Brendan Gleeson, is attributed to the more nihilistic tendencies of Kubrick, including his subliminal use of Native American iconography in The Shining and his concerns about how mankind treats others. Yet, once again that is to ignore that Spielberg has dealt with horror in his past, he did write Poltergeist, and launched the summer movie with Jaws. Not only this but the idea of a child in peril is frequently shown in Spielberg films. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are all noted for scenes where children are put into mortal danger and the unflinching nature over it.
Moreover, the themes of segregation and persecution have been well utilised by Spielberg – The Colour Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad and later Lincoln would all concern slavery of some form; the abuse of human beings for being different. Spielberg pointedly makes the first robot to be killed on screen a Black robot (voiced by Chris Rock), and the scenes of David walking around the fair call to mind the little girl in the red coat that became so iconic.
In the character of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex-robot that acts like a dancer and exists solely for women’s pleasure, you could argue that that is more in the interest of Kubrick – his films are often noted for their sexual scenes. His final feature Eyes Wide Shut is a sexual odyssey about a man in crisis, while Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are both works about sexual fetishism. It’s also true that the Gene Kelly-style movements of Joe chime with Kubrick’s use of classic cinema to underline a darker meaning. Most notably the recurrent motif of Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange.
Though Spielberg films are known to have male characters who are known as either womanising or charming – Indiana Jones, Ian Malcolm and Fred Abagnale Jr are all chancers and grifters but also men who have an easy time with women. Not to mention Spielberg is also devoted to classic cinema himself.
The biggest sticking point remains the ending, often misunderstood and blamed on Spielberg. The final part of the film is often believed to be aliens appearing to David once he reaches the blue fairy. In reality these are robots that two hundred years on have evolved to a higher plane. The confusion is often caused because they look a lot like the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This final section in which the future Mecha offer David the chance to be with Monica for a single perfect day using a lock of her hair so that they can study mankind long after the planet has frozen and entered a new ice age is considered overly sentimental and more in line with Spielberg’s naturally emotional filmmaking.
Both Spielberg and Watson have maintained that this ending was always Kubrick’s idea and that he had always seen the ending going this way as he saw A.I. as a modern version of Pinocchio. While sentimentality is not the sort of thing associated with Kubrick, some of his films do end with hope. That both Danny and Wendy Torrence survive the events of The Shining could be seen echoed in the final day of David and Monica. Similarly, Eyes Wide Shut ends on a note of hope that the couple might be on the road to recovery.
The final sequence of the film and the evolved Mecha also call to mind the Star Baby from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Life, in some form, evolving beyond its capabilities and the natural destruction of the planet appear to have weighed on Kubrick’s mind. If he had hope that evolution might be our salvation he also believed – as shown in Dr. Strangelove – that he believed mankind would be its own end. Here pollution and climate change have destroyed the planet.
A.I. also deals with envy. When David finally makes it to his creator Professor Hobby’s lab and is faced with another David robot he smashes it in a fit of rage, insisting on his own individuality. He shows true envy of the other David’s claim to the name and identity. It could be seen as a echo of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL’s motivations in the film speak to a desire to do what he was made for – similarly to David – but at the expense of other people. HAL envies Dave and Frank’s ability to hold conflicting ideals at once while he cannot do both his programmed mission and withhold the information of why mankind must go to Jupiter, resulting in his decision to kill them.
Envy is also the motivating factor in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The aliens come to Earth and attack us because they envy what we have, a planet that is healthy and full of life. The scenes of the Mecha being caught in cages and lifted into the air echoes later scenes in War of the Worlds where humans are rounded up in cages and lifted to the tripod.
What A.I. illustrates twenty years on, isn’t the gulf of differences between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick but rather the thematic and artistic similarities they had. There’s a reason Kubrick and Spielberg bonded, and why Kubrick trusted Spielberg to make the film – beyond his affinity for getting fantastic performances out of children. Both artists had similar interests and themes they explored in their work, and ultimately, A.I. remains as much a Kubrick film as it does a Spielberg film.