A.I. Wars

by Chris Huntley

The dueling visions of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg in A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a film born from the visions of two filmic legends: Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg. Though there are many great and not-so-great qualities in the film (see the terrific film review by Charles Taylor for Salon.com), there is one particularly onerous flaw that most audience members sensed but which Dramatica can explain—A.I.’s mysterious double ending.

Dramatica identifies the Story Limit as the dynamic that describes the story’s boundaries and brings about the climax and resolution of the story when reached. It’s the storytelling element that tells the audience when a story will be over. The story limit typically comes in two varieties: time limits or Timelocks, and limited options or Optionlocks. Timelocks are deadlines (e.g. 12:00 Noon) or fixed quantities of time (e.g. 48 hrs.). Optionlocks are destinations (e.g. New York City to Los Angeles) or fixed quantities of options (e.g. three wishes). Tension grows as time or options run out.

So, why is it that the audience thinks A.I. is over about two hours into the two and a half hour movie? The obvious Dramatica answer is that the Story Limit has been met, the climax reached, and the story is over. But what about the “final” ending, the one at the end of the film that also has an “ending” feel to it too? Again, a likely answer is that the Story Limit has been reached, etc.

But wait; can a story have two Story Limits? No, but a film can have two stories in it and each one can have a Story Limit. That’s what is happening in A.I. There are two different stories with two different endings at two different times, giving the story a "dual personality" that echoes the dual nauture of its unique authorship.

Stanley Kubrick is the brainchild behind the original adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.” Unfortunately, he died before completing the project and Stephen Spielberg, already intimately tied to Stanley’s project, picked up the story’s development and brought it to the big screen.

The story Kubrick was interested in is a sort of Sci-Fi version of the Pinocchio story told from the manufacturer’s (toy maker’s) point of view. Kubrick’s version proposes the question, “What would happen if we created an Artificially Intelligent boy and set him free in the Real World—would he find his way home?”

Spielberg seems to be interested in the Pinocchio story as well, but from the wooden boy’s perspective. This is a theme hinted at in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and more overtly explored in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Spielberg’s version proposes the question, “Can an artificial boy become real?”

So, what are the two different stories in A.I.?

Story #1—The first story involves Prof. Hobby, the Visionary. He designs an A.I. boy after his own son, David. Unlike other A.I.’s, however, David’s specially designed empathic “option” will bond him to his “parent” when given certain key words. David is given to a family and activated. Though artificial, David begins to question how much different he is from real boys, especially after he is thrown out of the family and left to fend for himself. David searches and eventually finds his creator, Prof. Hobby. Prof. Hobby is thrilled that David is clever enough to find “home” and goes off to celebrate with his colleagues (Story Outcome of Success). David, however, is thunderstruck when confronted with other, inactive “Davids” at Prof. Hobby’s. David decides life isn’t worth “living” and tries to commit “suicide” by jumping into the ocean (Story Judgment of Bad).

Story #2—The second story involves David’s struggle to become a “real boy.” It begins with his activation by his “mommy,” Monica Swinton. Things go well until Monica’s real son, Martin, is revived from cryogenic sleep and returns home. David’s artifice is picked on by Martin and is responsible for a near fatal accident. Rather than return David to be deactivated, Monica sneaks David out of the house and sets him “free.” David sets off on a journey to become a real boy. He meets his maker, Prof. Hobby, but that doesn’t provide him the answers he needs. He tries to kill himself but gets trapped at the bottom of the ocean staring at a carnival “Blue Fairy.” He falls “asleep” as all energy drains out. He wakes up hundreds of years later in a recreation of Monica’s house. The sentient A.I.’s of the future give David a chance to be with his mother one last time. David and Monica spend a wonderful day together as mother and son. After Monica goes to “sleep,” David goes to sleep and dreams—something only real boys can do (Story Outcome of Success; Story Judgment of Good).

What are the two different endings?

  • Story #1 is a Success/Bad story—a personal tragedy.
  • Story #2 is a Success/Good story—a happy ending.

When do the two stories begin and end?

  • Story #1 starts at the beginning of the film and ends about two hours later, twenty to thirty minutes before the end of the film.
  • Story #2 starts about twenty to thirty minutes into the film and ends about two hours later at the end of the film.

How could Dramatica have helped fix A.I.’s story problems?

Half of solving a problem is identifying it. As we’ve seen, Dramatica identified two different stories (and storyforms) where it appeared there was only one. Knowing that, Spielberg would have the option of picking Story #1, Story #2, both, or come up with something altogether new.

If he wished to keep them both, he could develop each story more thoroughly as independent grand argument stories and then weave them together. As full stories, the audience is less likely to confuse the ending of one story with the end of the other. Through Storyweaving, the climaxes could be juxtaposed to the audience at the same time even though Story #1 & Story #2 may happen at different times and in different places in the stories.

In trying to be honest to Kubrick’s vision and his own, Spielberg ended up including both stories in the film. Unfortunately, the two stories don’t mesh completely in the finished work and therefore work against a coherent argument to the audience. The sad part is that it seems that Spielberg wasn’t quite aware that two stories were struggling for supremacy in the film and thus the story in the finished film is flawed, structurally speaking. A.I.’s future would have been brighter with a little Dramatica insight.

About the Author

Chris Huntley co-developed Dramatica over a period of fourteen years and is the Vice President and Academy Technical Achievement Award® winning co-creator of Write Brothers, Inc. His 29 years of experience with script formatting, word processing and software development are reflected in the acclaimed Dramatica theory of story. Mr. Huntley continues to develop writing tools for Write Brothers, Inc.

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