Kubrick’s A.I. : The Version that Never Was

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the hotly anticipated new movie from Steven Spielberg, hit theatres in the summer of 2001, a portentous date for any science fiction movie, but an especially significant year for this one. The story of an eerily human android boy who is rejected by his ‘mother’ and forced to fend for himself in the robot underworld of the future, it was met with generally positive but still mixed reviews. There was universal praise for the twelve-year-old Haley Joel Osment as David, the kid robot who yearns to feel human emotions, but some critics found it facile and unsatisfying, a fairytale treatment of a deeply troubling moral and philosophical issue, the reality of which was bearing down ever more heavily as the new Millennium dawned. “For Spielberg to take on a downer of a story like A.I.,” wrote Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel, “is like Santa Claus taking charge of the IRS.” Most of the negative reviews could be boiled down to a simple axiom: too ‘Spielbergian’, not ‘Kubrickian’ enough. And for once, this was not simply a case of Stanley Kubrick’s name being evoked as the epitome of high-brow sci-fi.

What nagged at critics twenty years ago, and continues to nag today, is that A.I. could not only have been Kubrickian, as the material and premise seemed to demand, it could actually have been a Kubrick film. That it wasn’t, and that the late Stanley Kubrick’s version of A.I., a project he spent years developing before it finally eluded him, lives tantalizingly on in the imagination, makes it one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of cinema.

“I literally go into a bookstore, close my eyes and take things off the shelf,” Stanley Kubrick told Rolling Stone in 1987. “If I don’t like the book after a bit, I don’t finish it. But I like to be surprised.” Whether he happened on the works of British author Brain Aldiss in this manner is unclear. But, after reading Aldiss’ history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, in 1976, he was moved to contact the author and a friendship ensued. Over long lunches at Castle Kubrick, the director’s palatial estate in Hertfordshire, England, they “talked of movies, SF and drink,” according to Aldiss. BARRY LYNDON (1975) had just been released to lukewarm reviews and Kubrick was fishing around for both a new project and a new direction. Aldiss suggested Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, but, for whatever reason, Kubrick dismissed it. In the end, he opted to make THE SHINING (1980) and his and Aldiss’ steak-dinner tête-à-têtes were put on hold.

They resumed in the early eighties, by which time Kubrick had developed a particular interest in Aldiss’ short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, the tale of a robot boy desperate to be loved by his human mother and haunted by suspicions that he is not ‘real’. He confides his fears to his only companion, his android teddy bear. “Kubrick had an interest in artificial intelligence going back to HAL and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968),” says Alison Castle, author of The Stanley Kubrick Archive. “He was intrigued by the idea of a machine that could look like a human and behave like a human.”

Despite reservations that Supertoys was too slender a tale to hang a feature film on, Aldiss sold the rights to Kubrick in 1982 – reluctantly; he was having tax problems and needed the money. Putting further misgivings about writing with a collaborator aside, Aldiss set to work on a treatment. Ominously, early in proceedings, Kubrick presented him with a lavishly illustrated copy of Carlo Colllodi’s 1883 novel Pinocchio. It was Aldiss’ inability – refusal, in fact – to see any parallels between his story and Pinocchio that ultimately derailed his attempts to write a script that satisfied Kubrick. “Though we often rocked with laughter while working,” he wrote in a new introduction to Supertoys in 2001, “we made no progress. Plot line after plot line tunneled into the sand.” He also believed Kubrick was unduly obsessed with the sci-fi blockbusters of the era, STAR WARS (1977) and E.T. (1982), in particular. When Aldiss broke the terms of their contract by leaving England for a trip to Florida, Kubrick used the opportunity to sever their alliance. “I sent him a postcard, didn’t I?” was Aldiss’s retort.

Haley Joel Osment in A.I.

Kubrick continued work on Supertoys, preserving the Pinocchio motif: an artificial boy who longs to be human. As a filmmaker noted for his rationalism, it’s somewhat surprising that it was Kubrick who injected this vein of whimsy into proceedings (Aldiss warned him of the pitfalls of re-writing old fairy tales. “It’s a classic story and one that people can relate to,” points out Castle, reasonably. And Collodi’s Pinocchio is emphatically not Disney’s PINOCCHIO (in one scene he has his legs burnt off; in another, he kills Jiminy Cricket!). “Don’t make too much of the Pinocchio idea,” cautions Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer, long-time friend and brother-in-law. “A.I. goes much further, the idea that man can make a robot that can ‘love’ being the ultimate.”

One thing Kubrick was adamant about, and which, had he been able to pull it off, would’ve put more distance between his vision of A.I. and Spielberg’s than any other element, was that David would not be played by a human actor. “His dream,” says Castle, “was to create a robot that looked enough like a human being that you’d believe a woman cold love it like a real child.” Clearly, in the 1980s, this was wishful thinking and Kubrick put Supertoys on hold to make 1987’s FULL METAL JACKET, hoping that the technology would catch up in the interim. That would turn out to be a fond hope, but he nevertheless returned returned to A.I. in 1988, focusing his concentration once again on the screenplay.

Kubrick called first on the services first of Arthur C. Clarke, who furnished a brief summary, and then on Northern Irish sci-fi author Bob Shaw, a talented and vastly underrated writer who lasted just three weeks, failing more quickly than even Aldiss, to come up with anything that fired Kubrick’s imagination. “I think,” said Shaw, “he formed the opinion I was a useless bugger.” Next to enter the lion’s den – or the billiard room of Castle Kubrick – was Ian Watson whose story collections Slow Birds and Evil Water had been brought to Kubrick’s attention. “He wanted me to write an original 12,000 word story,” Watson recalled in Playboy in 2000, “doing whatever I liked with the Aldiss tale. When I mentioned that Aldiss happened to loathe me, Stanley said dismissively, ‘Don’t bother about him. I own the story.’ (Much miffed, Aldiss later told a fan magazine, ‘Not only did the bastard fire me, he hired my enemy instead.’)” Watson labored on the script for eight months from May 1990 to January 1991. “Story conferences were akin to building a precarious castle of wooden blocks,” he recalled, “often doomed to collapse towards the end of the afternoon.” Still, heeding Kubrick’s directive to ‘Put some vaginal jelly on the words”, Watson finally turned in a treatment that Kubrick was happy with, proclaiming it in fact ‘One of the world’s great stories.’

A year later, Supertoys found itself on the backburner once again as Kubrick busied himself with The Aryan Papers, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s Holocaust novel Wartime Lies. When that fizzled out in late 1993, Warner Bros. announced that Supertoys would be his next movie – although it had now acquired the title A.I., possibly in homage to E.T..

By then some of the gloss had worn off Watson’s treatment. Kubrick decided it needed a little more ‘jelly’ and turned it over to author Sara Maitland, best known for her spiky re-workings of classic fairytales. Where Watson had added the character Gigolo Joe, a robotic man-whore who accompanies David on his journey, Maitland’s twist was to make David’s mother an alcoholic, the film ending with a reconstructed memory in which David mixes her a Bloody Mary, a task he had performed repeatedly in an attempt to win her love. According to Maitland, Kubrick ‘Wanted a coda in which the new race of robots, because of a technological limitation, cannot keep the mother alive after reviving her. The movie would end with David in his mother’s bedroom, watching her slowly disappear. It must have been a very strong visual for him, because he wasn’t usually stupid about story. He hired me because I knew about fairy stories, but would not listen when I told him, ‘You can have a failed quest, but you can’t have an achieved quest and no reward.’” Still, despite the protracted process and profusion of stumbling blocks, the elements of the story seemed to be coming together. In May 1994, Kubrick finally grasped the nettle and put together his own 87-page treatment, stitching together a patchwork of ideas from previous collaborations while adding his own narrative embellishments. Armed with this, he began pre-production.

To anyone who has seen Stephen Spielberg’s A.I., the basic storyline of the 1994 treatment – unfinished though it is – will be familiar. Many scenes – David abandoned in the forest, the Flesh Fair, the journey to Rouge, drowned Manhattan, the encounter with the Blue Fairy, the ‘reunion’ with his mother and so on – made it into Spielberg’s film in some form or another. Still, there is a yawning chasm between page and screen, and even the language of Kubrick’s treatment suggests how different his A.I. would have been from Spielberg’s. He describes the fossilized human remains David and Joe find at the Nichols Robotics Institute as ‘Gemmed skeletons sat at desks and table panels, as if locked into bizarre ormolu thrones like dead knights awaiting a magical trumpet call.” Gemmed skeletons and ormolu thrones are not exactly Spielbergian.

During the writing process, Kubrick had employed British sci-fi artist Chris Baker (known as Fangorn) to sketch out A.I.’s visual backdrop. He also contacted Dennis Muran of Industrial Light and Magic to sound-out the feasibility of special effects. He also consulted James Cameron, whose fx-heavy TRUE LIES (1994) was cleaning up at the box office. “Stanley wanted to pick his brain as a director who did special effects in a way he had never experienced,” says Harlan. “Don’t forget, the effects in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY were real – they were filmed. There were no ‘special effects’ as we knew them thirty years later, let alone as we know them today. Dennis Muran encouraged Stanley [to use] the then most up-to-date techniques, but Stanley realized that all this meant much of what he wanted to do would be out of his hands.”

Even so, Kubrick was broadly satisfied with the ILM tests, particularly of the submerged skyscrapers for the New York sequence. But there was one barrier that still stood in the way of his vision – David himself. He was still determined not to use a human actor, reasoning that, given how long it took him to make a film, the boy would visibly age throughout the process. His solution was to seek advice from Japanese robotics engineers and to bring in fx artist Chris Cunningham to construct a prototype David. Cunningham, now better known as a music video director, had been robotics technician on 1990’s HARDWARE and created creature effects for ALIEN 3. He seemed the perfect choice and spent a year designing and building a robotic head. “I never saw any of the footage [Kubrick] shot with the robot Chris Cunningham built,” says Castle, “I don’t know if it even exists any more. But Kubrick found it unconvincing and didn’t want to use it.” In fact, he found it so disappointing that he gave up on the idea of a robot all together. “The idea died in the process,” says Harlan. “It was unthinkable that Monika (David’s mother) would develop maternal feelings for such a model or a mechanical replica. It had to be a real boy, an actor.”

Around this time, Premiere magazine ran a piece on the rise of computer effects in movies. Referring to Kubrick it said, “For those waiting the first true digital work of art, the master can’t re-emerge soon enough.” Kubrick, it seems, was beginning to think the same. He had been friends with Steven Spielberg for years (“I always sent him a print of my films,” joked Spielberg. “He never sent me one of his.”) and greatly admired what he’d done with CGI in JURASSIC PARK (1993). The two met and discussed collaborating on A.I., but unable to agree on exactly what form that collaboration might take, the idea was shelved. Then, in a foreshadowing of subsequent events, Kubrick confided to Jan Harlan that he thought Spielberg might be a better bet as director than him. “If I do it, it may be too stark,” he said. “I might emphasize too much of the philosophical side.” That is, of course, exactly what his fans would’ve wanted him to emphasize and what, to its critics, is missing from Spielberg’s version. Harboring these new doubts, and still not convinced that CG technology was yet up to the task, Kubrick once again turned his attention away from A.I. and towards another long-gestating project, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle that would become the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman vehicle EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Even so, while trumpeting the commencement of the new film, Warner Bros. were confident enough that Kubrick would return to A.I. that they stated as much in a 1995 press release. And, indeed, as EYES WIDE SHUT wound down in 1999, Kubrick picked up the reigns of A.I. once more. This time, sadly, the project was halted by forces beyond even his control. Kubrick died in his sleep of a heart attack on 7 March 1999.

Kubrick’s death left us with a litany of what-ifs, from his epic Napoleon biopic to The Aryan Papers, to, believe it or not, a version of Lord of The Rings starring The Beatles. Perhaps none though is more intriguing than A.I., specifically because of the Spielberg version. It’s a terrific movie in its own right, but at every juncture you can’t help wondering – What would Stanley have done? “It would’ve been much darker,” says Castle. “There’s really only one moment that I felt was truly Kubrickian: when David falls into the swimming pool at the birthday party. There’s a shot of him floating at the bottom of the pool. To see a child’s body like that, apparently dead, is a very emotional moment.” But, to Castle, there is one crucial difference. “Spielberg cast a very likeable, cute actor as David, and you can never really tear yourself away from the fact that you’re watching a human being. Kubrick never wanted it to be that way. He wanted you to know that David was a robot.”

“[Stanley] always admired Spielberg because he was so different,” says Jan Harlan. “He loved Ingmar Bergman for the same reason. In A.I., he hoped to show a world far in the future, after mankind has destroyed itself in the inescapable state of permanent ‘me, me, me!’. Nationalism, competition, outright egotism in place of cooperation has lead to nuclear Armageddon. He would have loved Spielberg’s interpretation, even though his own would have been different, because the core of the story is maintained the way he saw it. It’s two great artists painting a picture of a world we can’t know – and both pictures would have been beautiful. Do you prefer the Picasso, or the Chagall?”

In 2016, a BBC poll of 177 international critics voted A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE the eighty-third greatest film made since 2000. It is dedicated to Stanley Kubrick.

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