Very Special Effects


a film by Steven Spielberg

The persistent theme of Stanley Kubrick’s movies is the obsessiveness of the human attempt to control the future—one’s own or the world’s—and the complicated ways in which that attempt fails. Fixated lovers (Lolita), solitary rogue-adventurers (Barry Lyndon), grandiose novelists (The Shining), nuclear strategists (Dr. Strangelove), military trainers (Full Metal Jacket), all the way down to the picture-perfect couple whose model of domestic joy is elaborately dismantled in Eyes Wide Shut: they are all there to enact some version of The Control Freak Brought Under Control, the story of the inventor who invents his own doom, the entrapper who maneuvers himself into someone else’s trap.

That the obsessive patterns within his films were mirrored by Kubrick’s own slow and perfectionist filmmaking process is no secret. A.I. (or, alternatively, Artificial Intelligence), one of the most elaborately developed of his unrealized projects, had been in the works since the early Eighties; it was announced as his next film after Eyes Wide Shut, but with Kubrick such forecasts frequently went unfulfilled. One of his consultants on the project was Steven Spielberg, whom he at one point proposed should direct the film with Kubrick as producer. Following Kubrick’s death, Spielberg took it upon himself to bring the movie to fruition, rewriting the script but evidently preserving the essential structure already laid down. The idea of Spielberg serving as a medium enabling Kubrick to make one last movie, or at least a simulacrum of a last movie, has a curious symmetry with the movie’s notion of artificial intelligence preserving humanity beyond its own extinction. Spielberg’s films have often been concerned with the idea of rescue, whether of endangered people or endangered childhood dreams. Saving Stanley Kubrick might be this movie’s alternate title, raising again the question of what finally can be saved, and for whom.

The movie’s source, a story by the science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss, hinged on the plight of an android endowed with the capacity to love but not the capacity to understand why his adoptive human mother fails to love him back. In A.I. the android is David, an experimental prototype who is given to a couple as a substitute for their own ailing, cryogenically frozen son. We are in a world transformed by global warming, where the surviving humans exercise strict population control and supplement their diminished numbers with a virtual slave class of intelligent “mechas,” but the household where David comes to live scarcely differs from the suburbia of E.T., except that everything is a bit more sour.

The domestication of the robot child serves as a demonstration—unsentimental, and without facile caricature—of the way in which adults can use children for their own emotional gratification. In culmination, the desperate mother takes the irreversible step of activating David’s capacity for love. The ritualistic quality of the scene—she reads a prescribed list of random words while maintaining eye contact—recalls the drinking of the love potion in Tristan and Isolde, except that it’s a one-way process: only the mecha child comes under the…

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