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DEEP FOCUS: A.I.: A VISUAL STUDY, Parts 1 & 2

by Matthew Seitz
July 8, 2011 9:00 AM
5 Comments
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[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
PressPlay contributor

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
.

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5 Comments

  • Smirkdirk | September 4, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    Really liked this video essay, however, I'd always assumed that the beings in the end were, in fact, aliens akin to Spielberg's aliens in "Close Encounters". This may be a stupid question, but is there in fact a cue in the film that points to these beings as being advanced mechas as postulated in the video?

  • Ben Sampson | March 6, 2012 1:19 AM

    Yes, Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy both said in interviews at the time that the beings at the end of the film are evolved mechas.

  • Andrew | July 23, 2011 5:23 AMReply

    To Karl Manley Richter:

    The reason the title is "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is apparently due to the fact that people kept mistaking the title as "A1" -- the steak sauce. How benign.

    I watched this film again today (first time on Blu-ray) and found it intensely heartbreaking. Mankind creates in its own image those that would satisfy its desires without thinking of the consequences -- what these creations would say about us after we have gone and as they continue to be. The mechas in this film do not consolidate into the entirety of human existence and cannot represent the entirety of human existence. They simply represent the single-minded selfishness of human emotions and desires (the desire to have a child again, the desire for the ultimate in sex, the desire for destruction) and express theses emotions monotonously and tirelessly. It's heartbreaking to watch human-like beings subjected to this. Then one realizes it came to be when man desired to project himself onto objects and nonliving material. I was caught in a circular cage -- feeling anguish for poor David or other mechas, realizing that they are not truly alive and may not even be genuine, understanding what this says about the mechas' creators. We go 'round and around.

  • Karl Manley Richter | July 13, 2011 12:59 PMReply

    The title of the film always bugged me. Why not just "A.I." or just "Artificial Intelligence"? Now I can see it as another instance of mirroring. Maybe that's a stretch. After all, it was "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" too. But I have to think that all the precision this piece points out extends to the title as well.

    Great job. This gave me a new appreciation for a film I always thought didn't live up to its pedigree.

  • Stephen | July 8, 2011 3:32 AMReply

    Truly outstanding piece. In fact, I think this is my favorite piece yet featured on this exciting new venture. The potential for the visual essay in film criticism and scholarship is unbounded.

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