The Perfect, Shattering, Bittersweet Ending Of AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Years ago I interviewed Steven Spielberg and I told him that even well after the release of AI: Artificial Intelligence people on the message board of the site I wrote for, CHUD, were arguing about the ending. 

“Oh I know,” he told me. “I love reading all the arguments. And I love that they’re still arguing.”

Nineteen years after the release of AI it seems to me the arguments should be over but when I tweeted about watching the film this week I was immediately – within seconds! – hit with responses that said the movie should have ended with David trapped under water, spending all of eternity gazing upon the Blue Fairy. 

If you don’t remember AI all that well, here’s how David got there. It’s a near future semi-apocalypse – the ice caps have melted, drowning many cities and wreaking havoc on the poor. But the wealthy have it pretty good, all told. Because of the nature of post-ice caps Earth, there are strict limits on having children, and there needs to be a new labor force. Enter robots. But there’s still one more niche to fill – children for those who can’t have them, or have lost theirs. 

David, played by Haley Joel Osment, is the result. His maker has a dream – to create a robot that can love you. It’s ethically ambiguous, and some of his colleagues raise the question of what would be the owner’s responsibility to a robot that loves them… and could a person truly love a robot in kind? But science marches on, and 20 months later David is introduced into the home of an employee and his wife whose son has been in a cryogenic coma because of an unnamed illness. 

At first the wife, played by Frances O’Connor, cannot see the robot as anything other than an abomination. The beginning of the film feels like a horror movie, with this preternaturally chipper and vacant little boy popping up when least expected, watching with an alien curiosity, smiling with a disturbing emptiness. But over time she softens, and she makes the decision to take the next step – allowing the robot to bond with her. She is told this cannot be undone; the only choice is to destroy the robot if things go sour. 

The change is immediate. David is almost like a real boy right away, calling her mommy and wanting only one thing – his mother’s love. And for a while it’s good, but one day the other son is awoken from his sleep, seemingly cured, and everything is disrupted. 

Through a series of events driven by misunderstanding, casual childhood cruelty and David’s desperate, all-consuming desire to be loved, the robot boy’s position in the home become untenable. His mother drives him back to the factory to be destroyed, but she can’t bring herself to do it – instead she leaves him in the woods with only a robotic Super Toy teddy bear, Teddy, and tells him that he must now fend for himself. 

Shattered, David believes the reason why his mother does not love him is because he is not a real boy. Having heard the story of Pinocchio, David becomes obsessed with the idea that there is a Blue Fairy, and that she can make him a real boy, and that once he is a real boy he can return home. He sets off on a quest to make that happen. 

AI is all about the line between what is real and what is fake. David is, in Blade Runner terms, more human than human, and stories become religions. More powerful than religion – David turns away from a church at one point in the film, opting instead for an internet search about fairy tales. At a Flesh Fair, where humans destroy robots to assert their organic supremacy, the audience turns against the organic organizer when he wants to destroy David – they see themselves reflected in this robot boy. Even when they are told he is fake they still rush the stage to free him. Reflections are a huge part of the film’s early visual imagery, as Spieberg again and again shows us the organic reflected in inorganic materials. 

David sees himself reflected in the story of Pinocchio, even if he knows on one level that it is not real. It is not real but it is true for him, and so he pursues the Blue Fairy to what he believes is the End of the World – Manhattan. There he discovers his origins, finds and destroys his own reflection and eventually hurls himself into the sea. While this is an act of despair it leads him to his dream – a submerged Blue Fairy statue in the aquatic ruins of Coney Island. There he and Teddy get trapped beneath a fallen Ferris Wheel, the robot boy forever looking up at the statue, just ever so out of reach, and every day he says prayers to it, over and over again… until the oceans themselves freeze.

This is where many people want the film to end, with David never able to reach his goal. But that, to me, is simply nihilism, and it’s not even thematically interesting or appropriate. This movie is a Pinocchio tale – that’s something Stanley Kubrick brought to it back when he was developing the film – and Pinocchio must make it to the Blue Fairy. It’s in the story!

But what’s more, keeping David from what he wants doesn’t explore the larger theme of what is real and what is false; rather keeping the robot boy staring at a statue forever freezes the question in place. Where AI goes next takes us very deeply into that question. It doesn’t answer it, but rather it gives us the most bittersweet finale possible and then asks us to ponder the difference between real and fake, and whether that matters. 

Before we get there, I think it’s important to note that, despite a widespread folk knowledge that Spielberg came up with this ending on his own, the ending of AI: Artificial Intelligence in the finished film is the same one that Kubrick had when he was working on it. For those catching up on this movie: Stanley Kubrick had been developing this for a number of years, at one point wanting to build an animatronic boy to play David. It’s based on a short story called Supertoys Last All Summer Long, but over the years Kubrick really made it his own. He was working with scifi writer Ian Watson, who produced a treatment. Kubrick developed the movie for a decade; as early as 1985 he wanted Spielberg to direct it, thinking the story fit Spielberg’s sensibility more. Spielberg turned it down, and Kubrick decided to direct AI after he finished Eyes Wide Shut. Sadly, Kubrick died, and the project returned to Spielberg. 

People look at the ending of the film and assume it was all Spielberg, but Ian Watson says otherwise. In a comment on his personal blog, Watson lays it out quite bare: 

“The final 20 minutes are pretty close to what I wrote for Stanley, and what Stanley wanted, faithfully filmed by Spielberg without added schmaltz.”

Of course this ending is what Kubrick wanted, as it’s the right ending for the film. After David i trapped underwater the film jumps ahead two thousand years, and David and Teddy are excavated from ice by hyper-advanced robots. Humanity is long gone, and the robots are excited because David knew humans first-hand. They can get information about humans from this robot who knew them. 

It’s worth noting here that maybe the one major misstep in the film is the design of the advanced robots – they look like aliens, and many people assume they’re aliens. You can understand why, as they have a silhouette that is similar to the famous grey alien silhouette, which Spielberg himself popularized with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But if you look at them closely you can see some kind of internal circuit board pattern just under their skin – they seem to be the merging of mecha and orga that had been talked about earlier in the film. On a visual level they look just as David looks in his introduction – Spielberg shoots him against a bright white background with a lens that distorts him, making his head turn into a long neck with a tiny top. In the moment that’s a great visual, as it has David going from totally inhuman to human as he steps forward, but it’s also a foreshadowing of the next evolution of robots. 

Anyway, they’re robots. And they take David in and put him in a replica of his first home. Is it a structure they built? Have they hooked David’s brain up to a computer, discarding his physical body? I’m not sure, and I don’t think the movie offers up enough evidence to go either way, thus extending the tension between the real and the fake in a new direction (doubly extending, as even if they built his house… it’s a fake version of his house). 

There David meets the Blue Fairy, animated. She tells him that she cannot make him a real boy, but that she can bring his mother back to him… but only for 24 hours, and when she falls asleep at the end of the day she will be dead forever. This is clearly fairy tale logic; Spielberg spins some space-time jibber jabber around it, but really it’s magic (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C Clarke). But to do this she needs some physical remnant of Monica, the mother… and it turns out Teddy has just such a remnant. 

This is a big part of what makes it clear this was always the ending of the movie – the structure of this is impeccable. Earlier, way earlier, David was tricked into cutting off a lock of Monica’s hair to create a magic spell that would make her love him. He did it while she was asleep, and she woke up to find the robot boy with scissors right in her eyes. This is the first moment when it becomes clear to David’s parents that they can’t keep him. But a lock of hair is cut and Teddy picks it up, and it’s forgotten for the next 90 minutes. 

Until it’s ready to be used in a spell, just like the one that David was told about two thousand years ago. And so Teddy produces the hair and the robots produce Monica, who is hazy and sort of confused about where she is. But it doesn’t matter – David and Monica spend one perfect day together, doing all the small things mothers and sons do. David gets to make her coffee just the way she likes it, she dries his hair after a bath and makes it a mohawk, he paints her pictures that tell her the story of his quest. 

But here we get the real/unreal thing again. David is told that he can’t alert Monica to what really is happening, that it’s two thousand years in the future, that he was abandoned and had these adventures. Instead he presents them to her like a story he made up. It’s not real, she thinks, but it’s absolutely full of truth.

Then night begins to fall, and like a fairy tale princess under a spell Monica becomes impossibly sleepy. She lays down and David curls up next to her, and as the lights in the house go out one by one, they die together. Teddy, left alone, climbs up on the bed, the lone survivor, and the camera pulls away. 

On the surface there’s sweetness here – David gets the day of love with his mother! – but when you interrogate it in the context of the film’s themes, it’s utterly heartbreaking. This isn’t Monica. It’s some kind of ghola, a resurrected clone thing that doesn’t even know what’s going on. David can never get love from Monica, because she is long dead, completely forgotten by anything that still walks the Earth. What David, the simulated boy, can get is only simulated love. He will never know Monica’s true love, only this ersatz version of it. 

It’s heartbreaking. He can never get what he wants, and in a much more powerful way than if he had remained underwater. And yet the movie, because of its lengthy rumination on the difference between real and fake – from Gigolo Joe’s lovemaking to Dr. Know’s expertise to the truth that David himself is a simulacra of Dr. Hobby’s dead son – doesn’t allow us to make an easy conclusion. 

Is it sad or is it triumphant? Is it sad that we can never get what we want, or is it triumphant that art and stories allow us to bend reality to our will? “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” Alvy Singer asks in Annie Hall when he writes a play that has Annie come back to New York with him. In that moment he’s acknowledging it’s kind of sad, but he’s also acknowledging that this is what art is about. 

And so AI leaves us there – destroyed because David can never truly get what he wants, but also bursting with emotion because he gets the next best thing. To see this as schmaltzy is to miss the complicated undercurrents of emotion, the way the movie itself doesn’t come down on one side or the other. And to see the ending as sweetly happy is to miss the fact that David, whose greatest fear is being alone, chooses to die and leave alone Teddy, the only character in the movie who has consistently been there and given him the kind of parental love he desperately wants. There’s a whole other essay to be written about The Tragedy of Teddy, but how you can watch that fluffy little robot struggle up on to the bed and sit staring at two corpses and think this is unambiguously happy is beyond me. 

This is why Spielberg loves the arguments, because he understands this ending is actually quite similar to Kubrick’s ending for A Clockwork Orange, which is different from the ending of Anthony Burgess’ original novel. Kubrick ends his movie with Alex cured of the cure, and fantasizing (living?) an orgy. The triumph here is that Alex has returned to his antisocial ways, and there’s a deep complexity to this – we don’t want the government to be brainwashing people but at the same time Alex was a really unrepentant piece of shit. You don’t want the fascist state to win… but at what price? It’s a choice Kubrick made, as Burgess’ novel has 21 chapters, a number that specifically echoes the age of majority as the final chapter shows us Alex as an adult, having outgrown his youthful violence and antisocial tendencies. Kubrick found that too tidy, and he wanted to leave audiences something meatier to chew on.

So it is with the ending of AI. This isn’t simple, and depending on the day I can see the ending of this movie as a brutal and savage denial of David’s happiness or as a paean to the beautiful lies we tell ourselves and each other in art. Today I find it shattering; watching it this week I was wracked with sobs. I have my own mother issues – like David, I have a mother who cannot love me in the ways that I want to be loved, and like Monica it’s not my mother’s fault.It doesn’t make it any less difficult. Sometimes I watch movies with great, loving moms and I fall into those stories, but the fantasies don’t, in the end, give me the love I actually need. 

But they give me something else. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. It’s sad and it’s lovely. It’s the absolute definition of bittersweet, a completely perfect execution of this emotion. I think Kubrick was right – only Spielberg, who has the ability to offer us access to his own conflicted childhood emotions, could have told this story correctly. 

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