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Even with Spielberg-style cuddliness, there’s a cold, dark void at the heart of artificial intelligence

Hugh Linehan: With his Kubrick-derived film AI Artificial Intelligence, the director created a surprisingly convincing version of where technology is leading us

AI Artificial Intelligence: Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film. Photograph: Warner Bros

I didn’t much care for AI Artificial Intelligence when it came out, in 2001. The film’s origin story – a decades-long, endlessly reworked Stanley Kubrick project picked up by Steven Spielberg and put into production within months of Kubrick’s death – was, it seemed at the time, probably responsible for its many flaws. I agreed with the San Francisco Chronicle when it wrote that “we end up with the structureless, meandering, slow-motion endlessness of Kubrick combined with the fuzzy, cuddly mindlessness of Spielberg. It’s a coupling from hell.”

But a couple of decades and several technological leaps forward later, the film looks a more convincing version of where we are heading than it did at the start of this century. Most of that is a question of pure form; the phenomenon known in English as the uncanny valley was coined in 1978 by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the sense of unease generated by machines that look, sound or behave almost ­but not quite like humans.

In AI the same queasiness is generated not by a robot (although that is one of the film’s supposed themes) but by the very contrary world views and obsessions of its two creators. The movie is itself a sort of uncanny valley. As Tim Greiving pointed out in a 20th-anniversary appreciation for the Ringer, “when you cut AI open, you find cold Kubrick machinery underneath warm Spielberg skin”.

Kubrick spent almost 30 years trying to develop Brian Aldiss’s short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long. By the early 1980s it had been reconfigured as a Pinocchio allegory, with David, an artificial boy, rejected by his human “mother” and going on a quest with his Jiminy Cricket-like friend Teddy in search of a Blue Fairy who will explain the mystery of his existence. Having hired and fired several screenwriters, as was his wont, Kubrick showed it to his friend Spielberg, who described it as “the best story you’ve ever had to tell”.

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Kubrick was an obsessive genius with a bleak view of the human condition expressed through a canon of unique films that he managed to finance by pretending they were in mainstream genres such as historical drama or horror. Spielberg is a populist master of commercial cinema with a humanist sensibility that seeks a transcendent redemption to every narrative arc. Kubrick, who never had a blockbuster hit on the scale of Jaws or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, thought AI could be his shot at topping the box office. But as the years wore on, the gaps between his films became longer and longer. In the final 20 years of his life he only made three – and died of a heart attack while completing post-production on the last of those, Eyes Wide Shut. With Minority Report delayed by Tom Cruise’s unavailability, Spielberg jumped in.

Kubrick’s long-time confidant and collaborator Jan Harlan insists the director “truly believed Steven would be the better director for this film – and I think he was right”.

He wasn’t. The film has the ho-hum competence we associate with middling Spielberg. An 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, fresh from his Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense, is at the core of everything as the lost robot boy. The set pieces in a 22nd-century dystopia scarred by climate change are unmemorable. There is no sense of the internet, much less of the “intelligence explosion” that IJ Good posited in 1965, four years before Aldiss wrote Supertoys Last All Summer Long and 35 years before the film AI was made. Good predicted a tipping point at which technology achieves sentience and autonomy from humans. In that sense, The Terminator is a more accurate vision of the future.

But, with all its flaws (or maybe because of them), AI still feels a more plausible future than Arnold Schwarzenegger chasing us with a big gun. A decaying capitalist society. A climate disaster. The end of humanity. It just doesn’t sound like a Spielberg movie. Spielberg was faithful to Kubrick’s preparatory notes and adjusted his shooting style to match the older man’s visual sensibility. But that warm fuzziness is still there, encasing Kubrick’s far chillier vision. And despite what the San Francisco Chronicle said, there’s none of the deadpan monotony of classic Kubrickian sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon or The Shining.

Viewed in 2024, though, AI Artificial Intelligence bears many of the qualities that are becoming familiar from the chatbots and generative products that are beginning to infiltrate our day-to-day lives courtesy of Google, Microsoft and soon, apparently, Apple. The humanlike touches. The ingratiating tone. And, beneath it all, the cold, dark void.