Whenever anyone tells me that the ending to Steven Spielberg’s 2001 science-fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a cop-out, or that it slaps a happy face on the harsher story that the project’s originator, Stanley Kubrick, would’ve told, I think of Teddy. In the last 15 minutes of A.I., a super-advanced robot named David (played by Haley Joel Osment) asks a colony of even-more-advanced robots to create a cloned version of the woman who once took care of him, Monica (Frances O’Connor), and to program that clone with her personality and memories. David is told that this “Mommy” clone will only live a day, so the two of them have one perfect day together. Then, as Monica fades, David chooses to deactivate himself, freezing the moment forever. Beautiful? Sure. Sappy? Undoubtedly. But happy? Not really. If nothing else, the sentiment of that final shot of David and Monica is undercut by what enters into the frame right at the end: Teddy, David’s semi-sentient toy bear, completely forgotten, and now permanently abandoned by his companion of the last 2000 years.
When A.I. was released in 2001, it drew a mixed critical response and middling box office (at least in the U.S.; it did very well overseas). Even now, the common complaint about A.I. is that Spielberg’s sunny California sensibility is a mismatch for Kubrick’s chilly cynicism, satisfying neither highbrow science-fiction fans, nor mainstream audiences. But the truth about what A.I. was meant to be—and what it actually is—doesn’t separate so neatly.
Kubrick first began trying to adapt Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” in the 1970s, first with Aldiss as his writer, and then with Ian Watson. Kubrick reportedly kept delaying the film because he didn’t think special-effects technology had advanced enough, but then he saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and decided that not only was the time right for A.I., but that Spielberg should be the one to make it. When Kubrick died unexpectedly in 1999 after making Eyes Wide Shut, Spielberg embarked on A.I. as a tribute to his friend, writing his own screenplay for the first time in decades, from the Watson treatment that Kubrick had previously approved. Spielberg has always waved off the argument that he scuttled Kubrick’s original plans for A.I., noting that every major story beat—the ending included—came from Kubrick and Watson.
That said, A.I. does feel much more like a Spielberg film than one of Kubrick’s. Spielberg has a few visual signatures—he does so love his shafts of light and shallow depths of field, for example—but there’s also a busy rhythm to his work, dating back to his earliest studio films. Movies like Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind use overlapping dialogue as well as any non-Robert Altman 1970s Hollywood picture, creating an illusion of unstructured naturalism. The bustle of Spielberg’s films differs from the spare precision of Kubrick, whose work is so controlled that the actors in his movies often come off as wooden. Spielberg seems to be consciously balancing his skills as a technician with elements that make his movies feel more lived-in and likable. He does this with the best of intentions: to make viewers feel more at ease. But as he’s matured as a filmmaker, Spielberg has learned to take advantage of his welcoming vibe to deliver some unexpected jolts.
A.I. is one of Spielberg’s joltiest movies. Some of the critics who panned it on first release assumed that this must’ve been a mistake, writing that film’s jaggedness was surely the result of Spielberg trying and failing to smooth out Kubrick. On closer examination, though, there’s no way A.I. couldn’t have been exactly as shiny and serrated as it is.
A.I. is set in the future, in the wake of an ecological disaster that’s forced the government to grant licenses to couples who want to have kids. When Monica’s son Martin comes down with a crippling disease and lapses into a coma, her husband Henry tries to cheer her up by volunteering them to try out David, a new kind of “mecha” companion developed by his colleagues at Cybertronics. Monica slowly warms to David, but when Martin’s health improves, David becomes an afterthought, tormented by Martin, who eventually goads David into misbehavior so severe that Monica abandons her robo-boy in the woods. David then begins a journey to become “real” that brings him into contact with a robot-torturing carny (Brendan Gleeson); a mecha-gigolo (Jude Law); his own creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt); and eventually, after waiting through another ice age, his robot descendants (the leader of whom is voiced by Ben Kingsley, A.I.’s narrator).
Because A.I. is David’s story, and because David was been programmed to be a wide-eyed innocent, Spielberg seems to have injected a sour story with sap, making it all about a naïve kid’s quest for love—which David hopes he can find by locating the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. But the film is studded with troubling moments that shake the fantasy. Throughout the film, David is far more creepy than cute, laughing too loud, “loving” too intensely, and trotting out his electronic tricks at inappropriate times—such as when he turns himself into a speaker for Monica’s phone, right when she’s getting the call that Martin has awakened. When David finally finds Professor Hobby, their reunion is waylaid when David wanders into an ominous room full of boxed-up “David” models. Even David’s “happy ending” has a brief moment of discord, when he’s recounting his adventures to Monica, and she gets a horrified expression that neither David nor the robot narrator acknowledge. These aren’t examples of Spielberg losing control of the tone of A.I. This is the tone of A.I.
In short: A.I. wasn’t the typical Steven Spielberg science-fiction/fantasy movie, made to warm hearts and move merchandise. Aside from the film itself, there was really only ever one A.I. product: a single, inexplicable toy.
I don’t know whose bright idea it was to make a “Super Toy Teddy” doll. In an article published in Entertainment Weekly a week after A.I.’s release, producer Kathleen Kennedy explains that the studio marketing experts purposefully ruled out a line of A.I. action figures and playsets, because they didn’t want the public to think the movie was for kids. Kennedy also talks up the Super Toy Teddy—“It’s a very sophisticated robot”—that Hasbro was planning to release in October, months after the film’s opening. A few days before the EW piece, USA Today ran a feature about Jack Angel, the voice of Teddy, who describes how he recorded all his lines for the film without being allowed to read any other part of the script, and how he was told to try and sound like Winnie The Pooh’s Eeyore. (“But don’t make him sound dumb.”) He also mentions that during his recording sessions, he laid down the tracks for the toy Teddy.
Neither Angel nor Kennedy explains the reasoning behind making a toy aimed at preschoolers in conjunction with a PG-13 movie. Teddy is a memorable character in the movie, but he’s hardly the kind of lovable scamp that kids would want to take home. He’s something of a forlorn figure, Teddy: repairing himself because nobody else is going to; futilely warning David, “You will break,” when David tries too hard to be human; and moving over the course of the film from the bottom of a box of unused toys to an underwater vehicle where he sits for thousands of years with a determined David. (“We are in a cage,” Teddy mutters matter-of-factly, as their long wait begins.)
The Super Toy Teddy toy doesn’t offer any such advice or sage comments. Press Teddy’s tummy, and he utters various inanities, mostly having to do with being grumpy, being giggly, wanting to play, not wanting to play, and needing a hug. He also tells jokes. None of this—seriously, none—is adorable. It’s all super-disturbing.
Maybe Super Toy Teddy never was meant for kids. Maybe the toy was always bound for the collectors’ market. Today, they’re so rare that I could’t even find one for sale on eBay the last time I checked. Amazon has a few available from some of its retailing partners, ranging in price from $200 to $350. A page on Showbiz Shop offers a mint-in-box Teddy for nearly $800.
My own Super Toy Teddy didn’t cost anywhere near that much. As I recall, it cost me around $50, back in 2001. I remember being stunned when I happened across one in a department store while I was out Christmas shopping, and I gave it to my wife Donna almost as a gag gift. We were still relatively young then: both in our early-to-mid-30s, married for five years, homeowners for two, and parents of a 3-month-old baby boy. We were still at a point in our lives where it didn’t seem completely idiotic to throw away half a C-note on something kitschy and “cool.” We were still at an age where that was pretty much our design aesthetic—setting up toys, posters, and games haphazardly around the house, as signifiers of what we liked.
I bought Super Toy Teddy as a joke, because A.I.—and the Teddy scene at the end—hit Donna and me pretty hard. She was about six months pregnant when we saw A.I., and the movie spoke to all our fears about having a kid. A.I. ticks the boxes of all the common parental anxieties. Monica isn’t entirely sure what’s safe or unsafe for David to do, or how to handle it when he malfunctions. She doesn’t know how to answer when David asks if she’s going to die someday, since she knows that thing she’s programmed to bond with her will likely outlive her by centuries, and then what’s he supposed to do? The “imprinting” process between Monica and David is so quick and half-considered—not unlike the moment of conception for many parents.
By the time Donna and I added a daughter to the family in 2004, most of our toys and games that once were mostly decorative had become just ordinary toys and games, to be played with by our kids for a while, then given away. Meanwhile, most of our posters had been taken down, and a good-sized chunk of my more collectible media sold off to help pay for unexpected home repairs and tax bills. We’ve always held on to Super Toy Teddy, though, and have never handed him down to either of our children. He’s been up on a shelf in our master bedroom since 2001, getting dustier by the year.
This might be a reach, but I’ve come to think of A.I. as Spielberg “getting rid of his toys.” The movie slips in sly visual and thematic references to past Spielberg blockbusters: There’s an E.T. moon hanging in the background of more than one scene, multiple Close Encounters silhouettes, and a Jurassic Park-like debate about the moral responsibilities of scientists. Also, at one point, David listens to Monica read a story to Martin while partially blocking a piece of art so only the words “because I could” are visible—another callback to Jurassic Park, perhaps. Spielberg made several “mature” films before A.I., but this one at times seems almost like a direct indictment of his earlier inclinations toward juvenilia.
Spielberg did have a remarkably creative and productive half-decade following A.I. Aside from The Terminal (an interesting failure), every movie he made in the first five years of the 2000s is essential viewing. A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War Of The Worlds, and Munich—all are great in my book. Spielberg only hit a serious roadblock when he revisited his youth with his old friend George Lucas for Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. He’s recovered well since then with three consecutive good films (The Adventures Of Tintin, War Horse, and Lincoln), but I don’t think any of those are on the same level as his early-2000s work.
A.I. in particular still strikes me as a masterpiece. I thought it might be back in 2001; now I’m certain of it. But it isn’t any easier to watch in 2014 than it was before my first child was born. Like a lot of Spielberg’s films—even the earlier crowd-pleasers—A.I. is a pointed critique of human selfishness, and our tendency to assert our will and make bold, world-changing moves, with only passing regard for the long-term consequences. Spielberg carries this theme of misguided self-absorption to child-rearing, implying that parents program their kids to be cute love machines, unable to cope with the harshness of the real world. He also questions whether humankind is nothing but flesh-based technology, which emerged from the primordial ooze (represented in the opening shot of A.I. by a roiling ocean), and has been trained over millennia to respond to stimuli in socially appropriate ways. A.I. blurs the lines between human and mecha frequently, from an early shot of Monica that makes her look exactly like one of Professor Hobby’s creations, to the way Martin walks, thanks to mechanical legs.
This notion of humans as machines resonates with me because my son is on the autistic spectrum. We had no idea back when we watched A.I. in 2001 that part of our parenting duties would one day involve making our child understand what certain facial expressions mean. Privately, my wife and I call our son “Robot Boy,” referencing both a Guided By Voices song and A.I. But I’m not sure that raising an autistic child makes us any more attuned than most mothers and fathers to how much parenting is like programming—and how inadequate that programming can be. It’s brutal to watch A.I. and see Monica feed fairy tales to David before cutting him loose with a feeble, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” It’s even more painful to know that if David needs a model for what life might be like on his own, he can look to Teddy, who’s self-sufficient, but lonely. The harshest lesson of A.I.—and one Spielberg doesn’t flinch from—is that inevitably, the Davids and Teddys are left to fend for themselves, armed with whatever half-considered advice and parables adults have thrown at them over the years. And that’s the hell of it.
Next month: The Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo Palace Lego set.