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A Picaresque Robot Version of Pinocchio

February 28th, 2010 · 8 Comments

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 poster A.I. Artificial Intelligence DVD

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, screen story by Ian Watson, based on the short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Bonnie Curtis
Running time: 146 minutes

Should I Care?
There are science fiction films that improve with age — Blade Runner tops the list and Donnie Darko is right behind it — and then there’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg’s ambitious tribute to his friend, the late Stanley Kubrick. The good news for Kubrick fans is that unlike the master filmmaker’s aborted Napoleon project circa 1970, we’ll never have to ponder what Kubrick’s future faerie tale would have looked like had he lived long enough to figure out the story and direct it himself. The bad news is that despite the streamlined elegance of its industrial look — production designer Rick Carter and his team were nominated by the Art Directors Guild for an Excellence in Production Design Award, while Dennis Muren, Scott Farrar, Stan Winston and Michael Lantieri were robbed of an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects — the conceit of an artificial boy who longs to be real after his adoptive mother reads him Pinocchio is artificially sweetened at best, tedious at worst.

The landscape A.I. spirits us across — an energy efficient single family home, an anti-robot carnival of destruction, a sin city over the Delaware River, the ruins of a Manhattan deluged by the rising tides — is as visually compelling as any you’d expect from the greatest director of boys’ adventure movies of all time. But Spielberg’s screenplay spins its wheels trying to engender sympathy for an artificial boy and validate its childish perceptions of the world. The script squanders opportunities to fully explore humanity and the direction we’re headed and seems devoted instead to pushing the comforts of fantasy. The result is less E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and more Harry and the Hendersons. Jude Law fills in for Bigfoot as comic relief, but doesn’t seem to even be acting in the same movie as the hapless Haley Joel Osment, who does the best he can with a role that would have better realized fifteen years later as a completely digital character. The vibrant and penetrating musical score by John Williams is perfect as is.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001

So, What’s This About?
In an unspecified future, greenhouse gases have melted the polar ice caps, submerged the coastal regions of the world and displaced millions of people. To assist mankind with labor without draining resources, artificial beings referred to as “mecha” have been created. Unlike organic beings, mecha require no food, no sleep and will never grow old. The latest mechas even look human, but lack our emotional responses. Professor Hobby (William Hurt) challenges his colleagues at New Jersey based Cybertronics to develop a mecha child with the capacity to love, the ideal product for families unable to acquire a license for children. Hobby approves a test family consisting of Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) who views the mecha child as something of a toy. His wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) grieves the loss of their biological son Martin (Jake Thomas), suspended in a cryogenic state for the last five years while doctors attempt to cure a rare illness.

The arrival of the artificial surrogate David (Haley Joel Osment) upsets Monica at first, but after growing attached to the mecha, she chooses to initiate its imprinting protocol, emotionally coupling David to her forever. When Martin recovers and returns home, David finds the love of his mother elusive. Sibling rivalry increases tensions in the Swinton home and David is soon seen as a threat. Rather than send him to Cybertronics for destruction, Monica sets David loose with a walking and talking teddy bear (voiced by Jack Angel) for companionship. David falls in with a group of castaway mecha including Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure model framed for murder by the husband of one of his clients. The pair escapes a Flesh Fair, a futuristic tractor pull where humans celebrate the destruction of artificial beings. Having been read Pinocchio by his mother, David believes he can win her love back by finding the Blue Fairy, who will turn him into a real boy. With Joe’s help, David embarks on a journey to meet his creator.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 Haley Joel Osment Jude Law

Who Made It?
Supertoys Last All Summer Long was a short story by British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss published in 1969. Four years later, Aldiss co-authored a history of sci-fi titled Billion Year Spree that included a flattering reference to Stanley Kubrick, the master filmmaker of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Having settled in the village of St. Albans north of London, Kubrick invited Aldiss to lunch in 1976 and latched onto the idea of adapting Supertoys into a feature film. Aldiss agreed to sell Kubrick the film rights in 1982 and worked with him on a screenplay, but when Kubrick insisted on incorporating elements of Pinocchio to tell the story of an android yearning to be a real boy, the partnership stalled. Failing to respark their collaboration in 1990, Kubrick turned to sci-fi author Ian Watson to draft a story based on Aldiss’ concepts. Working with Watson, Kubrick fashioned a 90-page treatment for a “robot version of Pinocchio”, which Kubrick was calling A.I.

Kubrick commissioned hundreds of illustrations from graphic artist Chris Baker and even shot some test footage, but unable to make the film with the technology that existed at that time, the director put A.I. on the shelf. Jurassic Park compelled Kubrick to revive the project in 1993, but he convinced himself that the ideal director for the material would be Steven Spielberg, who Kubrick had discussed A.I. with as early as 1984. Envisioning a Stanley Kubrick production of a Steven Spielberg film, Kubrick temporarily got the director on board before Spielberg insisted that Kubrick direct A.I. himself. Kubrick’s death in March 1999 threatened to keep A.I. on the drawing board, until his brother-in-law Jan Harlan and widow Christiane proposed to Warner Bros. revive A.I. with Spielberg at the helm. The finished product — with Spielberg adapting Kubrick’s treatment and designs into his own script — would sharply divide critics and moviegoers when released two years later.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001

How’d They Do It?
In an interview with BBC News in September 2001, Brian Aldiss recalled the genesis of Supertoys Last All Summer Long, published in Harper’s Bazaar 32 years previous. “I wrote that story in 1969 when computers were not the household toys, pleasures and working tools they are now — they were lodged in laboratories. At that time possibly, because of their novelty, there was a theory that the human brain was roughly like a computer; it calculated in the same way and moreover the dreams we dreamt at night were indications that the computer was downloading data. If that was the case, it was quite easy to imagine that one might create an android boy and program him to believe (a) that he was a real boy, and (b) he loved his mother. The gist of the story is that however the boy android David tried to please his mother, he could never do it — the essence of the story is about love and the failure of love. And that was what I think attracted Stanley Kubrick to the story.”

Aldiss made a passing reference to the master filmmaker in a sci-fi history he wrote with David Wingrove titled Billion Year Spree, in which Kubrick was described as “a great science fiction writer of the age”. Kubrick invited the author to the first of several lunches in 1976. In conversations about what type of movie Aldiss thought would be successful, the author suggested Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick. Kubrick was interested in Supertoys and in 1982 purchased the film rights. By November ‘82, Aldiss went to work with the director at his estate in St. Albans, attempting to expand the 2,000-word short story into a screenplay. Aldiss recalled, “Kubrick always told me that if you had a six or eight-part episodic structure, then you’d got the film made. He kept saying to me, ‘Look, Brian, forget about narrative. What we want are six non-submersible units.’ That was his philosophy. You can really see it working well in 2001, with these disparate elements that don’t quite connect, and that’s what gives the film its mystery.”

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001

Aldiss continued, “You have to work to make the connection yourself; the most brilliant one, of course, being when the ape-man throws the femur up into the air and Kubrick cuts to the space vehicle. If ever you want to prove Kubrick’s genius, then you only need look at the juxtaposition of those two shots.” But Aldiss was uncomfortable with where Kubrick wanted to go with the source material. “Stanley was set upon making a modernized version of Pinocchio in which David the android boy meets the Blue Fairy and becomes transformed into a real boy. I hoped that Stanley would create another future myth and not really look back. In the end we weren’t seeing eye to eye and things were not moving forward and I got the push.” In 1990, Kubrick phoned Aldiss and briefly invited him back in an effort to jumpstart Supertoys. Kubrick had arrived on the melting of the polar ice caps and the flooding of New York as a non-submersible unit, but Aldiss’ unwillingness to work the Blue Fairy into the script put him on the outs.

British science fiction author Ian Watson then entered the picture. In a memoir published in The New York Review of Science Fiction ten years later, Watson recalled, “Early in 1990, in my cottage in a little English village sixty miles north of London, the phone rang. Stanley Kubrick’s assistant, Tony Frewin, introduced himself and said that Stanley wished to talk to me. Why me? It transpired that Tony had phoned various specialist SF book dealers to ask who they rated as a writer with lots of bright ideas, and several of my story collections, such as Slow Birds and Evil Water, were duly delivered to Stanley. A few hours later the courier arrived and handed over a package containing nine sheets of flimsy fax paper bearing the text of Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, faded as if retrieved from an ancient file.” Describing the movie Kubrick had in mind as “a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio”, Watson was put under contract to Warner Bros. and from May 1990 to January 1991, huddled with Kubrick to produce a 90-page treatment for A.I.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 Clara Bellar

As early as 1984, Kubrick confided in Steven Spielberg his plans for A.I., which inched closer to reality once he saw the advances in visual effects that Industrial Light & Magic made in 1993 with Jurassic Park. Kubrick shot test footage of oil rigs in the North Sea, imagining that he could digitally replace them with skyscrapers. Discussing A.I. in a behind-the-scenes featurette for the film’s DVD release, Spielberg revealed, “Stanley investigated several things. He actually built a complete mechanical child that was a complete disaster. The mechanics of what we can do today cannot simulate the liquid movements of let’s say of computer graphics animation, but CGI has also not yet reached a state of the art where it can replicate a human being. We mixed it a bit in Jurassic Park where the animals were CGI and the people of course were not and Shrek is all CGI and that’s an art form onto itself, but to put a digital boy in amongst a cast of human beings photographed on 35 millimeter, we’re still years away from that technologically.”

In 1994, Kubrick summoned Spielberg to St. Alban’s for a chat. Interviewed by Mark Kermode for The Culture Show in November 2006, Spielberg revealed, “He didn’t want to make A.I. I mean, he developed it, for himself and then he said, ‘This is more you than me.’ And he began to produce it for me to direct. We actually made a deal with Warner Bros. for Stanley to produce it, for me to direct it based on Stanley’s script with Ian Watson. And it was great. It was going to be a great relationship and then I kept getting faxes from Stanley all night long.” Spielberg added, “And the amount of information he was giving me, including shots and where the camera should go was so extraordinarily precise and detailed that I finally called him on the phone and said, ‘Stanley, I can’t direct this movie. These faxes are crying out to me to say to you, you have to direct it. This is your movie.’ And I withdrew from the project.” Kubrick put A.I. on the backburner once again and began a five-year odyssey to get Eyes Wide Shut on the screen. It would be Kubrick’s final film.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 Haley Joel Osment Frances O'Connor

Kubrick passed away suddenly at his home in March 1999. Several months later, Kubrick’s wife Christiane and his associate producer Jan Harlan contacted Warner Bros about reviving A.I. under a new director. Harlan recalled, “It simply would have disappeared into the archives if Steven Spielberg had not taken it.” With an April 2000 start date for Minority Report looming, the director poured over Watson’s 90-page treatment and some 600 storyboards that graphic artist Chris Baker had drawn for Kubrick.“So many of the visual iconic moments in the film were based on ideas that Stanley had — like the Flesh Fair, the moon with the gondola underneath it, the whole concept of Teddy, which was part of the original Brian Aldiss five-page short story that he wrote back in the late 1970s. But Stanley left behind boxes of his notes and I could read his handwriting because I had eighteen years of learning how to read his faxes mostly in longhand and it was just interesting little tidbits and not really philosophical but mainly ways that he wanted the picture to feel and look.”

In March 2000, it was announced that Spielberg had chosen to push Minority Report back a year to direct A.I. from a screenplay he’d adapted himself. Budgeted at roughly $90 million, shooting commenced that August. Other than a jaunt up to Gresham, Oregon to film the forest scenes, A.I. was mostly shot over 68 days on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. For a 2001 TV documentary produced in the U.K. titled Steven & Stanley, the director confided, “The hard thing about making A.I.: I didn’t want to lose myself and you know, just slave and service Stanley’s vision. I had to put as much of myself in this project as I could to also make it my while.” He added, “Stanley wanted to put the Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio story in synchronocity with Brian Aldiss’ story of David, Monica and Henry. As a matter of fact, Brian Aldiss called me when he found out that I was in the picture to beg me to drop the entire Pinocchio idea. He said, ‘Pinocchio’s one story and my story is another. You should make my story and not Pinocchio’s story.’ And I explained to him that I was really making Stanley’s story at this point.”

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 Jude Law Haley Joel Osment

Opening June 2001, A.I. divided critics almost evenly as a movie could. A.O. Scott, The New York Times:A.I. is the best fairy tale — the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story — Mr. Spielberg has made. Once again he asks us to identify with a young boy, exiled from the only home he knows and forced to find his way in a strange and unsympathetic world.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Greatness and miscalculation fight for screen space in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a movie both wonderful and maddening. Here is one of the most ambitious films of recent years, filled with wondrous sights and provocative ideas, but it miscalculates in asking us to invest our emotions in a character that is, after all, a machine.” Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “What is of note is the fact that what we’re left with — Kubrick or no — is a muddled, messy disaster of a film, something that seems more like a drastically edited miniseries, cut down to incomprehensible levels with whole sections missing. You may wonder what’s going on more that once. You’re not alone.”

With box office receipts leveling off at $78.6 million in the United States, A.I. was a blockbuster overseas, grossing $157.3 million. Confiding to Mark Kermode five years later, Spielberg addressed the criticism heaped on the film, namely, that it was either too long, too candy coated or both. “All the blame I get for destroying Stanley’s vision are scenes that Stanley actually came up with. You know, the scenes that people can’t believe Stanley conceived — and would have directed himself — are the scenes I’m most credited with spoiling A.I. You know, the whole ending, where after, where David and Teddy are actually rescued underwater, and when it turns to ice and brought into their own future of super mecha. This was Stanley and Ian’s treatment. It was their 97 page treatment that I adapted into my screenplay.” He admitted, “But I think what’s also interesting is I think one of the things that scared Stanley away from A.I. was it was too much of a film for me and too little of the kind of movie he is known for, as a great cineaste.”

A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001 Haley Joel Osment

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Plumbing Stanley Kubrick” By Ian Watson. New York Review of Science Fiction, May 2000

“Regarding Stanley” By Rachel Abramowitz. The Los Angeles Times, 6 May 2001

“The Steven & Stanley Story” By Jenny Cooney Carrillo. Urban Cinefile, 6 September 2001

“Brian Aldiss: Kubrick, Spielberg and Me” By Matthew Sweet. The Independent, 14 September 2001

“The Mind Behind AI BBC News. 20 September 2001

Steven and Stanley (2001). Kensington Television Productions

A.I. Artificial Intelligence: Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition. DreamWorks Video (2002)

“An Interview with Steven Spielberg” By Mark Kermode. The Culture Show, 4 November 2006

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Brother/brother relationship · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Man vs. machine · Mother/son relationship · Prostitute · Road trip

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Heather Hofmeister // Apr 8, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Right on. I have been trying for years to find a way to describe my own ambiguous feelings for this movie. The point that the point of view was all askew, and that we were at one point meant to care about the humans, and at another meant to care about the robots, left me as a moviegoer feeling confused and lost. I also felt like it did not know when to quit. Right on, Distracted Globe. You hit the nail on the head with the problem with this film.
    One could add that the gender issues are typical Spielberg. Spielberg’s perspective tends to show women as either Madonnas or Whores, and this film is no real big exception– Blue Fairy and the mom figure are the madonna figures, the female robot is the whore figure. Nothing more to go on for the female viewer than these stark caricatures.

  • 2 AR // Feb 28, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I like and dislike this movie. Personally, I didn’t have much difficulty transferring my sympathies from the humans to the robots. I think Osment does a great job in the role. But I agree that it lacks focus, and the ending just doesn’t work. It had a lot of potential, which it fails to live up to. Shame, really.

  • 3 kelsy // Feb 28, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    I have incredibly vague and confusing memories of seeing this in theaters, with the most prominent memory being Jude Law doing a jig and saying, “Gigolo Joe, what do you know?” Such an interesting movie.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Mar 1, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Although deeply flawed and criminally overlong, I am more charmed by this movie than annoyed, although the ending just about ruins everything that came before. However I do believe that Spielberg was doing his best to honor Kubrick’s vision and the criticized faults therefore are down to both of them.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Mar 1, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Heather: I hear you, but I think you’ve got to cut the filmmaker a little slack and appreciate that he or she runs toward what they know. Spielberg’s comfort level is usually with the young boy. For sci-fi that puts adult women in focus, check out James Cameron.

    Amanda: If Kubrick and Spielberg couldn’t find a movie in this material after 20 years, I think that goes to show how difficult storytelling can be. I think Osment acquitted himself really well in interviews he gave for this movie, but he really had a thankless job, playing a role intended for a computer generated image. Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: Normally I’d say give this one another go, but I can’t. It says something when the thing people remember most about your sci-fi extravaganza is a robot gigolo dancing a jig. I don’t know what it has to do with the price of tea in China. What a wacky film! Thanks for commenting.

    Patricia: The charming aspects of the story might be the main reason Kubrick never directed it. At the very least it’s a fascinating study of the Jenga-like qualities of making a film. Thanks as always for commenting.

  • 6 Steve W // Mar 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    For me, the movie is cursed with a kind of tonelessness that often afflicts Spielberg when he’s trying to be “adult.” What is his attitude towards what he’s putting on the screen? Stuff that should be heartbreaking (like the mother’s indifference toward her mecha son) come across as distanced and peculiar, as if Spielberg himself didn’t know what to make of what he was showing us. Same thing with the mecha demolition arena scenes. What’s missing from the movie is a strong sensibility. I would say that it’s because Spielberg is trying to channel Kubrick’s more detached, cynical sensibility and it doesn’t fit him, but movies like “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds” and the second half of “Saving Private Ryan” have the same problem.

  • 7 Yojimbo_5 // Mar 9, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Nice piece. And Steve W. is right about Spielberg—there are moments in his adult scripts that seem to lack a directorial focus and is substituted with an obtuse stylization that skirt the directness of his other work.

    For me, the movie falls apart at the end for a couple of reasons:
    1) the sudden inclusion of narration in an image-driven film. Kubrick employed a lot of narration in his films to set up situations or to provide an ironic button to scenes (or to bridge his non-submersibles). At tghis juncture in the film, it feels like a rule-change.
    2) the casting of Ben Kingsley as narrator—Kubrick narrations work best dispassionately, and Kingsley’s emotive tone is too much in an emotional segment.
    3) The super-mecha designs are too non-specific as robots so that a casual viewer is left to wonder if they are a Spielbergian ET, or an AI. In which case, either scenario leads to:
    4) audience disconnect with too many unfamiliar ideas. You pile on: humanoid robots, a flooded Earth, which is then frozen, the fast-flash forward of years, and a civilization of super-mecha archaeologists who are curious about their own history—I think an audience who could buy a simplistic “Planet of the Apes” scenario couldn’t take in ALL of those radical concepts, and at some point found the exercise silly—and far-fetched—and disassociated from the film. Then, when you finalize the emotional David story and you have an audience primed to treat it with derision.

    It’s too bad. There are so many GOOD concepts to this film–like the instilling of emotions onto robots…how many people name their cars? How many people decorate their computers? It’s an odd thing we do, and, for me, is the heart—as it were—of the film.

    Also, the writer comment about Spielberg’s generalization of women falls apart if you look closely at his films–like his first one, “Sugarland Express.” And as far as Cameron putting “adult women in focus,” he solved the issue…by writing them as men.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Mar 9, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Steve: Thanks so much for dropping by and leaving such as astute comment. I agree that when a director tries his or her hand at material they’re really not comfortable with, the uncertainty shows. Whether that’s the case here based on what we think we understand about Spielberg is hard to say. I’m not sure that flaws in movies like A.I. or Munich would have been resolved if Darren Aronofsky had been on the set. I think it’s the script more than anything.

    Jim: I hope any college students stealing portions of this article for their essay take your points in as well, many of which had never occurred to me. I read an interview where Spielberg actually had to correct the journalist, who also thought the super mecha at the end were aliens, so that’s one of several elements in A.I. that were just left a sketch. Still, I’d rather see work like this than the fourth Indiana Jones movie, which doesn’t even try to be any good.

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