[EDITOR'S NOTE: "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," a film directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Stanley Kubrick, was released 10 years ago this summer. We are honored to present critic-filmmaker Benjamin Sampson's two-part video essay on the film, which he edited in 2009 while studying cinema and media studies at UCLA. Sampson has written a new introduction for PressPlay. -- MZS]
By Benjamin Sampson
As most people know, Steven Spielberg’s A.I Artificial Intelligence actually started out as Stanley Kubrick’s A.I Artificial Intelligence. It was Kubrick’s longest gestating project, always in some form of development or another from the 1970s until his death in 1999. Part of Kubrick’s hesitance to make the film was actually very practical. Kubrick knew he shot films slowly, and therefore hesitated to cast a child actor in the starring role of David for fear that any real child would grow too rapidly for on-screen consistency. Kubrick spent a significant amount of time trying to solve this problem, even pouring a good deal of money into the development of actual robots for the role, only to abandon the attempts. While the troubles of children and robots endlessly delayed the project throughout the 1980s, it also eventually led to Spielberg’s participation in the film.
After viewing Jurassic Park in 1993, Kubrick thought digital effects might now be sophisticated enough to solve his technical problems. He knew Spielberg well—the two had been friends since 1979, when they both shared neighboring sound stages in England while filming The Shining and Raiders of the Lost Ark—and so he contacted the other director for advice. Their conversations led to Spielberg becoming a confidant and advisor on A.I and, as the collaboration grew, Kubrick eventually came to believe Spielberg’s sensibilities and quicker filming pace would better suit the material. He even offered Spielberg the job at several points, saying they could advertise the project with “Stanley Kubrick Presents a Steven Spielberg Film.” Spielberg, however, initially declined. After Kubrick's death in 1999, Christiane Kubrick and Jan Harlan approached Spielberg and asked him to complete the film. Spielberg this time agreed and the final film was released, appropriately enough, in the year 2001.
So now we have the film—the technological and artistic child of two very famous and very different directors. But given this filmmaking pedigree, the film itself is sadly the most overlooked artifact of the entire venture. Critics and fans spend much their time debating the contributions of each filmmaker—what belonged to Kubrick and what was added by Spielberg—and often with incorrect theories. A common misconception, for example, is that Kubrick would have ended the film with David trapped under the sea, and that Spielberg tacked on some strange and sentimental ending set in the far future, which is false. Kubrick actually devised the entire ending.
But all of these speculations still distract from the central issue: the film. Regardless of production history—fascinating as it may be—A.I. is still a film and speaks in the language of a film and communicates to an audience on the level of a film. So, what is the film communicating?
When studied as a visual text, the film expresses many visual patterns and motifs. For example, A.I. is obsessed with patterns of doubling and circular design. Throughout the film, faces become superimposed on top of one another, while different characters echo similar actions and the film narrative circles around on itself. Circles also dominate the film’s visual compositions, with specific characters repeatedly framed through oval structures or reflected against rounded surfaces. These repetitions in the mise-en-scène suggest multiple readings and underlying themes, including an interconnection between humans and machines that spans both desire and destiny.
After examining the film itself, it seems rather logical that Kubrick offered Spielberg the project. Their dual authorship perfectly reflects the film’s own visual duality. And their much-noted contrast of temperaments—warm and cold, emotional and analytical, tender and pessimistic—perfectly compliments the film’s final message. Only their combination of perspectives could show why human love is so attractive and so addictive, and at the same time so maddeningly selfish and self-seeking. As a result of this duality, A.I. never recoils from either genuine emotion or its dark consequence.
Benjamin Sampson is a writer and filmmaker based in Los
Angeles, California. He studied cinema and media studies at UCLA,
where he created an online study project titled A.I.:
Artificial Intelligence, A Visual Study.