What if robots were just like us? It’s a question movies have been asking since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The idea took on renewed interest in the tech-obsessed 1980s with The Terminator and Blade Runner, but its apex might just be the closest thing we ever got to a collaboration between two of the greatest minds in sci-fi cinema: Steven Speilberg and Stanley Kubrick.
I'm talking, of course, about A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which is available to stream free on Crackle. Here's why you really need to watch (or rewatch) this science fiction classic.
A.I came out in 2001, but it was decades in the making with an unusual trip to the screen. Stanley Kubrik, who had changed the possibilities of commercial movies for many with 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, took an interest in a short story by British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss. “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” was just 2000 words, leaving Aldiss confused as to how Kubrick could stretch it into a movie. Later, Aldiss would reveal that he was starting to pick up on what Kubrick had in mind.
“I couldn’t see how we could turn this vignette into a film," the writer told Kubrick biographer John Baxter. "We stuck at it for a while, but it wasn’t working. Then, gradually, I realized; this time it wasn’t Star Wars, it wasn’t E.T. It was fucking Pinocchio!”
Burning through collaborators for decades and delaying the movie for other projects, Kubrick came up with an idea that surely must come to any creator who has spent so long on a project: what if somebody else made this? Kubrick called up Steven Spielberg in 1995 and pitched him the idea. A shocked Spielberg convinced Kubrick to keep working on it, and Kubrick responded by putting the film off yet again for the marathon shoot of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died in 1999 from a heart attack in his sleep, and Speilberg finally agreed to take up the task of finishing his peer's unfinished sci-fi epic.
The debate over which part of the movie is Kubrick’s and which part is Spielberg’s became a parlor game for movie fans. Spielberg himself weighed in after the film’s release, saying that “the whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film...was word for word, from Stanley's screenplay. This was Stanley's vision.”
Watching it today, it’s easier to see what Spielberg is talking about. The first section of the movie, with its multiple false starts about global warming and robotics before we finally get to the first of its several plots, feels very Kubrick. Two parents of a very sick child bring home a mechanical Haley Joel Osment named David. What follows feels like subtle body horror.
The audience has been told that mecha robots like David are perfect replicas of humans, but we soon start to see that that isn’t the case at all. Osment and Spielberg perfected David right between the marker of childlike and unsettling. The blinks come less frequently and he’s very gullible. Bodies come into increasing and discomforting focus, including a moment where the once-sick child convinces David to cut off a piece of his mother’s hair.
In one scene, David and his new brother enter an eating competition that leaves his skin drooping. In another, boys stare at David in morbid curiosity, trying to pull down his pants and poke him with a knife.
But A.I. soon abandons this subtly horrifying family setting for a mythic, almost certainly doomed adventure. We follow David as he wanders through the world trying to find the Blue Fairy from the story of Pinocchio in hopes that she will turn him into a real boy who his mother can love.
Along the way, he encounters any number of robots who are trying to avoid getting destroyed, including Jude Law's Gigolo Joe, who is convinced that he can find David’s Blue Fairy because he knows women. These robots, one conditioned to love and the other to please, are stuck in loops after being abandoned and see no way forward but to continue.
Like any Kubrik movie, there’s too much in A.I. to cover in one short article. Like any Spielberg movie, the characters keep you watching. And that ending will leave your jaw dropped.
A.I. is streaming now on Crackle in the U.S.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately claimed that Ewan McGregor plays Gigolo Joe. We regret the error. Thanks, Mark!