why A.I. is a misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece


It is an unavoidable facet of the filmmaking process that leading directors are often unable to make their dream projects. Sometimes, this is because they are fired or replaced halfway through filming – as with Gone with the Wind, where George Cukor was supplanted by Victor Fleming. Yet there are other instances where a director’s long-cherished story ends up being made by a completely different auteur. 

Perhaps the most famous example of this is A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a dark science-fiction parable revolving around David, a ‘Mecha’ or robot child who desperately wishes to become human. Drawing heavily upon The Adventures of Pinocchio, it combined whimsicality with horror in a striking and original fashion. It featured a starry cast including Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, and, fresh from The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment as David. It was developed over the course of decades by Stanley Kubrick, but only filmed after his death by Steven Spielberg, as an homage to his friend and fellow director. 

Upon its release in 2001, it was received respectfully but not warmly by critics, who labelled it an uneasy mixture of Kubrickian chilliness and Spielbergian sentiment. It was a reasonable success at the box office, but Spielberg’s subsequent science-fiction thriller Minority Report received much greater critical and financial acclaim. Yet now, two decades later, is it time to reassess A.I.?

The project had its genesis in 1976. Author Brian Aldiss had been impressed by Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and described him as “the great science fiction writer of our age” in his book Billion Years Spree. A pleased Kubrick invited Aldiss to lunch to discuss working together, which intensified after the vast success of Star Wars in 1977. Aldiss remembered Kubrick asking him, “How can I make a movie that would gross as much as Star Wars and yet allow me to retain my reputation for social responsibility?” 

A.I. sprung from Aldiss’s 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. Kubrick, impressed by the success of Spielberg’s E.T., bought the rights to Aldiss’s story and commissioned him to write a new plot around it. However, the result, which the Kubrick scholar and biographer Filippo Ulivieri now describes as “an espionage-cum-prison-break type of story that, in retrospect, feels like a typical action movie from the Eighties”, was not satisfactory. 


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