Artificial Intelligence: A Retrospective

Image Credit: Upsplash License: YuYeung Lau

Ross Evans pays tribute to the underappreciated 2001 Spielberg film, AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Global warming. Rising tides. Billionaires playing God with robotics. A 2001 film full of 2021 concerns. It’s strange to think that AI: Artificial Intelligence was dismissed as lower-tier Spielberg upon release. Part of this, of course, comes from the duality of the film: a Frankenstein’s monster made from Spielberg’s blockbuster sensibilities and the harder existential ruminations of Stanley Kubrick, who had been developing the project since the late 1970s before his death in 1999. Kubrick had long intended Spielberg to helm the film, and so there’s an inherent sense of collaboration in AI, a 21st Century curio that time has been remarkably kind to.

The film is undoubtedly a showcase of Spielberg’s knack for big-screen showmanship, most notably in the stunning Rouge City sequence, but the most thrilling moments are those in which the film’s central philosophical thesis shines through. Set in a world where robots (known as Mecha in the film’s gorgeously realised world) are built to perform tasks for humanity as the population dwindles, AI is fully fueled by the power of its ideas. The most notable of these is the film’s focus on David, a Mecha child built for a single purpose: to love his mother. The exchange of affection between humans and machines appears time and again in AI, which opens with a roomful of scientists debating the moral implications of such a creation. “It isn’t simply a question of creating a robot who can love,” one character posits early on. “Isn’t the real conundrum: can you get a human to love them back?”

Just as the idea of a robot built to love is central to the film’s themes, we too are reminded of how much casual cruelty the human race is willing to dispense. From the pranks and mind games of David’s organic brother to the horrifying Flesh Fair, the film repeatedly puts forward images of people inflicting pain for their own amusement. The contrast with David’s unconditional love of his mother is sobering, particularly in the first act, where his constant displays of affection leave him locked out of the role he was literally built to fill. It’s here where Spielberg focuses on the power of a mother’s love, which is so real and uncompromising and free of judgement that it is seen as a weakness in a cold, uncaring future where machines are butchered for entertainment.

“The Jaws director has always known how to deliver big screen thrills without sacrificing his trademark blend of wit and heart…”

The film’s sentimentality is by far its greatest asset. It may have been seen as dewy and saccharine on release, but like sugar preserving fruit, AI’s sweetness has given it an enduring appeal two decades on. The focus on love and hope becomes the film’s backbone, a constant source of light in its increasingly dystopian world and, while this may seem typically Spielbergian, the surprising truth is that much of the film’s softness and warmth actually came from Kubrick. Knowing that the most heartfelt moments were conjured up by a storyteller known for his cold intensity makes them resonate all the more, and so AI stands as a monument to the filmmaker’s lesser-seen kindness.

Kubrick’s presence in the film is much like that of the Blue Fairy: tucked away in implication before being put on dazzling display in the film’s gut-wrenching coda. Spielberg isn’t just a director for hire making the film in Kubrick’s stead either, he makes his voice felt in every moment of blockbuster spectacle. AI is a work of pure ambition, taking risks and gambling on its premise in ways that still make it stand out in the current sea of remakes and reboots. The Jaws director has always known how to deliver big screen thrills without sacrificing his trademark blend of wit and heart, and revisiting AI marks it as one of the purest examples of his foolproof formula.

However, the most enduring thing about AI is how all of these components combine, fusing together to create a fitting tribute to Kubrick’s legacy and made by a man who is both one of his most capable contemporaries and closest friends. As the film ends and David falls asleep beside his mother, it feels like Kubrick leaving behind his most lasting theory on the role of cinema: it’s the place where dreams are born.