By Karol Krok
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of the more unique entries in Steven Spielberg’s filmography, it certainly can be placed among most durable and memorable projects of his 21st century output. Which doesn’t mean the film is free of problems, of course: it certainly suffers from being narratively sketchy, somewhat unpolished and generally stylistically inconsequential. The intellectual and spiritual aspirations can also be discussed and questioned: moviegoers and critics argue to this day over the merits of its content or whether Spielberg managed to provide a suitable tribute to Stanley Kubrick. One might say that the director tried to push this idea too far into mainstream territory by over-dramatizing what should have been a purely symbolical parable. But the undeniable truth is that, despite all deficiencies, it actually stays with you long after watching. There is some really powerful imagery to be found in there – submerged Manhattan, eerie woods scenes, Mecha “graveyard”, clinical Kubrickian household and the eternally smiling Blue Fairy statue. All of which confirms some level of mastery in staging a cinematic setpiece.
John Williams’ approach to this score is quite unique. Instead of trying to find a strong throughline, he opted to follow Spielberg’s disjointed narrative very closely and, thus, creating a seemingly unfocused work. Each story segment has its own sound palette and character, with only few sparsely used elements to tie the entire score together. Even the composer himself called his music for this film “schizophrenic”. It all isn’t random, however. In many ways, his take on A.I. alludes to Stanley Kubrick’s own eclectic approach. This has been especially highlighted on the controversial original soundtrack album from 2001. That disc didn’t really attempt to follow the film’s story; instead, it presents various ideas in isolation where each track forms its own musical miniature.
The connection to Kubrick’s legacy is evident all the way through. The tonal, albeit slightly mechanical, string writing of ‘Cybertronics’ brings back to mind the famous adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet. Stanley used it so famously in 2001: A Space Odyssey to convey the mundanity of life in space during mission to Jupiter. In A.I., similar device serves to establish the undigested human tragedy that struck Monica’s son Martin. Williams doesn’t really quote anything verbatim from that classical piece itself (as James Horner would in several of his works) but there’s a definite stylistic connection there. It’s also worth pointing out the melodic idea itself is a direct connection to composer’s own Empire of the Sun from 1987, in which several cues were based around that desolate, but strangely emotional, idea.
While there are plenty of dissonant and even atonal passages, they never quite reach the unsettling terror of Georgy Ligeti’s pieces in several Kubrick films. The darker passages to be found in A.I. portray David’s turmoil and that state is never more pronounced than in ‘Replicas’, in which Williams’ uses human voices to amplify his dizzying confusion. Probably not as harsh as anything heard in 2001 or The Shining, for instance, but then Spielberg’s tale is in many ways a gentle fairy tale and those sort of uncompromising techniques wouldn’t feel right for his more melancholic tale.
A.I. also marks an interesting episode in Williams’ career where he started to flirt with smaller thematic cells and minimalistic techniques. This score was among the first in that series, with each of his 2001 and 2002 works carrying over some aftershocks of this compositional approach (with Attack of the Clones and Minority Report being two most notable examples). While it can’t be said that he adopted rigorously the tradition of Philip Glass, the connection is still fairly evident. John, of course, put his own neoromantic stamp on those late 20th Century avant garde idioms. The most recognisable allusion can be found in the stirringly melodramatic and turbulent ‘Abandoned in the Woods’, where the mechanical string arpeggios propel Spielberg’s drama. On the new La-La Land album, we got to hear an actual film version of this cue for the very first time. Previously, it was just a suite-like piece written originally for the end credits roll.
But even more interesting is ‘The Mecha World’ material that brings him probably closer to such composers as Steve Reich and John Adams. Williams uses this busy mallet percussion to convey an idea of a metropolis in this futuristic dystopian world. Curiously enough, it serves to portray both busy and decadent Rouge City as well as desolate submerged New York. Of course, no Kubrick-themed film could do without an actual quotes from classical repertoire. Apparently, the late director insisted on using ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ waltz by Richard Strauss, without ever stating his intention behind this particular choice. So, following that request, John Williams inserted a snippet of that piece into his own underscore (heard ‘Journey to Rouge City’) and the results are surprisingly seamless, given that this lush late Romantic theme is stated on top of minimalistic rhythmic ideas. Only a true master can sell that.
Among many expanded releases of Williams’ work, this particular one holds a very special place and is most welcome. As previously mentioned, the original 2001 album presented a purely musical representation of ideas, without trying to mimic the actual story progression. In many ways, it felt more like a concept album based around certain elements, rather than a film score. For that very reason, listening the score as heard within its chronological context is a drastically different experience. This new generous expansion from La-La Land Records gives us the opportunity to absorb this work as conceived and intended by composer. It establishes a bit more of a narrative coherence, something many fans were complaining about the lack of in 2001.
Given how much music actually was recorded for A.I., this new set presents almost two hours of previously unheard music. Two discs are devoted entirely to full film score in chronological order while another 60 minutes of alternates follow on disc three. Among the things we get to hear for the very first time is a full development of all smaller themes. Previously heard in their semi-suite album format (‘Hide and Seek’, ‘Abandoned in the Woods’ and ‘Cybertronics’ tracks), they now form a gentle, if somewhat unsettling, portrait of David’s family and their complicated relationships. For the most part, La-La Land’s product fills in the gaps from film’s first act that is focused on those smaller character moments. However, one of the biggest surprises is an increased presence of Blue Fairy theme (curiously labelled as ‘A.I. Theme’). Williams apparently originally intended it to be more present throughout and his original introduction can be now heard in ‘Immaculate Heart’. There’s also an entirely new segment restored in the middle of ‘Finding the Blue Fairy’.
The sound quality was never going to perfect on this new set, even with the best of intentions. The old 2001 album was notorious for its embarrassingly disappointing sonics. Fortunately, Mike Matessino was able to clear up the recording and considerably improve dynamic range. Jim Titus provided yet another classy packaging design and Jeff Bond wrote a nice concise summary of all the thematic ideas found within this score. The two dreadful renditions of ‘For Always’ pop song were thankfully moved to the extra third disc. They never had anything to do with the film anyway and were merely a cheap attempt to increase CD sales. Joseph Williams’ ‘The Biker Hound’ electronic extension also can be now found in the bonus section, same as John’s ‘Inside Dr. Know’ source piece. While both of those are certainly good to have and feel integral to A.I.’s narrative, producers wisely placed them outside of the main score programme so that they don’t break up nicely fluid and contemplative musical experience. Finally, ‘The Moon Rising’ sequence can be enjoyed on its own, without those distracting inserts. And it feels better for it.
La-La Land Records and Mike Matessino present the complete A.I. score on a perfectly executed product and manage to improve upon its original 2001 release in almost every way imaginable. It is not simply an optional bonus item for music collectors but a true essential to own and study. John Williams really achieved something quite special with this Steven Spielberg film. It undoubtedly engaged him both intellectually and emotionally on a level that viewers and listeners rarely get to experience, even by maestro’s own high standards. His music is unique, heartbreakingly emotional and certainly not artificial.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence – Expanded Archival Collection is out now from La-La Land Records