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The Old Ultra-Non-Violence: Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” is the Real Horrorshow

‘It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.’ –A Clockwork Orange

In contemporary cinema, we associate ‘disturbing’ cinema with images that unsettle us, usually in the form of something disgusting, ultraviolent, sexually transgressive, or taboo. The serial killer has been fetishised to abstraction, and 90’s consumer culture has been taken to its zenith with David Fincher’s Fight Club. The top of the building has been blown off with nihilism, to the point where our jaded sensibilities are no longer rattled by the most outlandish shock tactics. Harmony Korine’s Gummo and David Cronenberg’s Crash may be skillfully crafted (and philosophically stirring) motion pictures, but do they still disturb us in the traditional sense of the word?

There’s an argument that the only thing which could really upset us now is unabashed sentimentality. Steven Spielberg has accomplished just that in his final 20 minutes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. This article will contain no spoilers per se, but it’s best to approach the film without any preconceptions about where Spielberg is taking you. Be forewarned before you read this essay, it may ruin some of the surprise for you. Suffice to say, the closing sequence of A.I. will polarize, upset, infuriate, and provoke audiences in a way that Fight Club cannot (and as good as Fincher’s film is, it only serves to confirm information we already know. Our case is terminal.)

Running at two-and-a-half hours, A.I. can neatly be broken into sections, as filmcritic.com editor-in-chief Christopher Null does in his review (referred to as ‘mini-movies’). It’s a fair assessment, as each could comprise its own stand-alone short film. Ultimately, that’s all they would be were it not for that memorable (or memorably awful, depending on your perspective) climax which Mr. Null refers to as ‘David’s quest for infinity and beyond.’

Most reviews understandably deconstruct the Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick connection. It’s fair to say that Spielberg would never have been able to make a film such as this one if left to his own devices, and the Kubrick connection adds a much needed detachment that lends an almost clinical understatement and even spookiness to the family scenes toward the beginning of A.I. as a family takes in a little robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment) whose love knows no temperance. It’s like the child protagonist as makeshift bogeyman.

It’s crucial to note that David is not seen in a sympathetic light from the start. He’s dangerous, unpredictable, and could potentially cause grave harm to his human owners. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from this, which certainly falls thematically into the common realm of ‘disturbing.’ A scene where David is laughing madly, or wolfing down spinach so rapidly one fears he’ll need a stomach pump, are both done to shock the sensibilities of an audience at large, handled with the precision of a surgeon.

Another conventional device is the scene straight out of Bambi (one which will surely be remembered in the years to come) where the robot boy is abandoned, left to his own feeble devices. We instinctively cry when Bambi’s mother gets shot, so our knee-jerk reaction is to become upset when a small child (even a dangerous robot one) is left to perish in the deep, dark woods — with echoes of fairy tales abound. Tugging at our heartstrings, no matter how well presented, is the easiest trick in the books — and Spielberg still hasn’t broken any new ground in terms of being disturbing. The thought hardly enters our minds.

The Flesh Fair and Rouge City segments (complete with Jude Law’s wonderfully stylized turn as a gigolo android) would seem like the sequences to shock us, but this is PG-13 and Spielberg has never been comfortable in dealing with overt sexuality. The dirty sculptures exist more as a Kubrick homage than as Spielberg’s ability to delve into the dark tunnels of our carnal psyche. Quite simply, Spielberg is all about mom, dad, and apple pie. He lacks the necessary temerity to stare sex in the face, and in that way is a puritan. Perhaps that’s why, despite Law’s outstanding work, this is the weakest part of A.I. (A loathsome Robin Williams cameo doesn’t help, creating more kitsch than clinch.)

Only in the climax (set in a world completely outside the one Spielberg has built, without saying any more than that) does Spielberg disturb his audience in a way they were completely unprepared for.

Again, without spoilers, the naked sentiment of the ending is ladled on with saccharine sweetness and mush. The audience erupted into gales of hostile laughter. We couldn’t handle the sincerity of Spielberg’s vision, or, alternately, the one-track mind of David as interpreted by the filmmaker/temporal bodies outside of David’s head. At first, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Every line was a groaner that Hallmark Cards would be ashamed to print. Some folks walked out, others heckled the screen, still others buried their heads in their hands embarrassed by this almost vulgar display of treacle.

At first, I was laughing my ass off. If I had popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen. This sucked! And then it dawned on me: The audience, including your humble narrator, was truly upset by the conclusion of A.I. We were utterly at a loss, reacting spontaneously and violently. At that moment, it occurred to me that maybe Spielberg really got something right here. We’re comfortable watching Fight Club, but blisteringly rattled by love, affection, sentimentality. What the hell is the world coming to when we’re shaken to our foundations by sugar, spice, and everything nice? Spielberg was clearly not catering to popular taste with this warm ‘n’ cuddly ending. There’s a remarkable precision in those scenes, from a craftsman who knew exactly what he was doing.

I absolutely hated the ending of A.I. I’m no sentimentalist. I much prefer the Stanley Kubrick/David Cronenberg/Todd Haynes school of scientific detachment. Steven Spielberg does not possess a single shred of irony, and more’s the pity. Having said that, A.I. is one of the few films this year worth going out of your way for. It damages our preconceived ideas of what makes us angry — and in doing so does what every great film should: Places the focus back on the viewer and asks them what they think.

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