AI – a film of two halves

A new film about Artificial Intelligence is the brainchild of two great film directors: Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. So why isn't it a great film?

Allison Felus

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The new Steven Spielberg film AI has had a long period of gestation – more than 30 years, in fact.

After reading a story in Harper’s Bazaar in 1969, the late director Stanley Kubrick was inspired to make a movie about a robot child. He later discussed the technical aspects with Spielberg and they considered collaborating – but never got the chance due to Kubrick’s death in 1999. Spielberg inherited Kubrick’s notes and sketches, wrote a screenplay, and finally made the long-awaited film we now know as AIArtificial Intelligence.

The friendship between Spielberg and Kubrick was a strange one. The differences between them could be said to represent the masculine and feminine elements of mainstream filmmaking. Kubrick was the stern, distanced father figure, who was intimidating but subtly nuanced under the cold exterior. Spielberg is the matriarch, full of emotion and light, and fun to be with – but who yearns for something greater.

And what happens when these parents have a child? AI, of course.

Haley Joel Osment (of Sixth Sense fame) plays an eerily chipper, fresh-faced kid who is in fact a machine – and who goes on a quest to become more human. It is a sometimes moving and uplifting story – but you can’t avoid the fact that Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s traits seem to cancel each other out, and the film suffers for it.

Spielberg, the director, seems hampered by trying to live up to Kubrick’s legacy. So the gee-whiz earnestness that’s been the key to his most successful films is noticeable by its absence in AI. And when a movie about cool futuristic gadgets is missing a sense of wonder, you know something’s wrong.

Since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, Kubrick became known for movies where the machines are more human than the humans. But in Spielberg’s hands, this idea is sacrificed at the altar of emotionalism. When the robots are mostly saccharin-sweet and the humans mostly sinister, neither is a very good example of the kind of well-rounded humanity that Kubrick imbued his machine characters with.

Some of AI’s sequences leave you feeling cheated and wanting more – while others feel like they will never end. One of the most tiresome is the scene at the ‘flesh fair’, where androids are destroyed for the viewing pleasure of angry, ugly and mostly lower-class humans – like a cross between a demolition derby and a gladiatorial death match.

The point Spielberg is smashing us over the head with is that people fear what they do not know or understand and will resort to large-scale cruelty in an attempt to reassert their superiority. Thanks, Steve. I didn’t quite catch what you were getting at with ET, Amistad and Schindler’s List, but now I think I’ve got it.

But the film’s performances go a long way in smoothing over the rough patches. Osment as the child-robot David lives up to all the hype he’s earned in his brief but impressive career. His role is filled with complexities that would overwhelm a much older actor, but he meets the challenge head-on. And Jude Law as the sex-toy robot Gigolo Joe is every bit as dashing as you’d expect him to be – and his character’s sexual boasts offer an amusing comment on Law’s tendency to play characters who represent the pinnacle of masculine beauty.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the film is how it fudges the question of what it is to be human. Spielberg’s early (and best) work shows us how important emotions are to our experience of the world – just as Kubrick’s best stuff reminds us of our dark side. But AI flounders in a no-man’s-land, where ‘artificial intelligence’ more aptly describes the pedestrian and predictable philosophy that the film offers.


AI is on general release in the USA. It opens in the UK on 21 September 2001.


See the AI website.

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