For all the talk about Spielberg’s tendency for happy endings, I think A.I. is the one film whose ending sparked the most debate. I remember after it came in 2001, the rest of that summer was filled with endless variations of, “It should have ended with them trapped underwater!” Of course, a lot of those same people were laboring under the mistaken impression that those were aliens at the end of the film and not highly advanced mechas, even when that’s clearly spelled out in the film. And they also miss out on the fact that the supposed happy ending here isn’t really that happy at all.
A.I.‘s origins as a Stanley Kubrick project probably didn’t help matters. Spielberg may be loved, but Kubrick was revered, and there was a feeling that the two directors’ sensibilities just wouldn’t mesh. So naturally, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary provided by everyone up to and including Kubrick himself, people assumed Spielberg tacked on the happy ending and ruined Kubrick’s vision. Never mind that Kubrick was on record as saying he felt the story was better suited to Spielberg’s style. Never mind that the shooting script Kubrick would have used contained the ending as it appeared in the film. Nope, Kubrick good, Spielberg bad, fie upon your ending.
So let’s look at where they would have left they film. David and Teddy are trapped underwater beneath the fallen ferris wheel, staring at the Blue Fairy statue. David’s just had his world pretty much torn apart, meeting his creator and finding out that he’s not unique. What better, bleaker ending than to have him stuck for all eternity just out of reach of the thing he’s been searching for the whole movie? Well, one that’s actually in keeping with theme of the film, for starters. The opening scene pretty much spells out what’s being examined here: the nature of love. Can we genuinely love something that’s been programmed to love us back? And in a sense, aren’t we all programmed to love anyway? Just with nerves and emotions instead of wires and subroutines. David’s whole quest to find the Blue Fairy and become a real boy is just part of a larger goal: to be loved again. Consigning him to his watery fate is to say that the search for love is ultimately doomed.
But let’s go beyond that, to the ending we did get. It’s not sunshine and lollipops by any stretch. First of all, every human being on the now-frozen planet is dead. So there goes any chance of David being loved again. The mechas that rescue him and Teddy are so far beyond what he is, and so in awe of what he represents, that he can’t really relate to them. So he’s alone again. The version of Monica he gets to spend his one perfect day with is a fake, just as programmed to love him as he is to love her. So he’s not really getting a genuine conclusion, just a manufactured one. And then we’re left with the image of Teddy forlornly plopping down on the bed as Monica and David “die” and leave him alone. So basically, David’s desire for love causes him to abandon the one true friend he’s had. This entire final sequence is asking us to question whether we just saw a happy reunion or a hollow, empty, selfish facsimile. And to consider if the how of what David and Monica feel is as important as the fact that they’re feeling it. It pulls us both ways. It’s not a simple case of sending the audience home happy.
There’s also a lot going on here with the idea of identity and purpose. Henry and Monica bring home David because, with their natural son seemingly frozen forever, they still feel the need to identify themselves as parents, only to a child that can actually return their love. Lord Johnson-Johnson and his followers feel their human identity threatened by the existence of the mechas, and so they take delight in their destruction. And the fugitive mechas simply desire to be useful again, scavenging for spare parts to make them whole, performing their roles right until the very end. Even Gigolo Joe’s final words of, “I am! I was!” are as much a declaration that his existence had meaning as they are a plea for David to remember him. Throughout the film we see characters dealing with both natural and manufactured roles; some, like Joe, quite at ease with who and what they are; others, like David, wanting to be something more. It’s interesting to note that it’s the mechas who most often seem to be content with their lot, as if the film is implying that the emotions that separate us from the machines are the very things that fill our lives with strife. The one exception is David, and, well, as I said above, he doesn’t exactly end up in the happiest of places.
So if you ask me, Spielberg did Kubrick proud. No, he didn’t make a Kubrick movie; he’s simply not wired that way. But he did make a film every bit as thought-provoking and visually striking as anything Kubrick did, and without the cold sense of distance that so often permeates Kubrick’s films (and quite appropriately, given their themes).
Tomorrow: An absolute good.