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by Lucius Shepard
June 17, 2001

Word has it that prior to its general release, Steven Spielberg premiered his new mega-glop wad of saccharine and special effects, AI, for an audience of MIT students and professors, many of them involved with machine intelligence. Apparently Spielberg's ego remains unsatisfied by the adulation of the dull-eyed millions who munch and gape their way through his sentimental epics, and thus he requires the validation of those whom the movie's subject matter most concerns. So it was that in a highly publicized noble gesture, he donated prints of his slavery-era film, Amistad, to California high schools with student populations dominated by Afro-Americans, perhaps feeling that these young folks might derive poignant insights from his deep, heartfelt understanding of negritude, rather than—as was the case—causing them to go "Huh?," slip on their headphones, and get real with a joint by Tupac or Notorious B.I.G. According to reliable sources, the reaction of the machine-intelligence people was even less kind, ranging from scathing comments on the film's implausibility to outright derisive laughter.

Poor Steve.

Nobody knows the trouble he's seen.

Denied a Best Director nomination for The Color Purple, in which he turned Alice Walker's delicate novel of poor blacks in the South into a cloying load of zippety-doodah featuring the godawful acting debut of Oprah Winfrey; shunned by the youth of South Central; and now his latest spielburger must suffer the slings and arrows of the pocket-protector set.

AI, inspired by Brian Aldiss' vignette "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," began its cinematic life as a project of the late Stanley Kubrick, who decided—against Aldiss' advice—to transform the story of an artificially intelligent child unloved by its mum into a retelling of "Pinocchio." In the hands of a great filmmaker, especially one of Kubrick's cold, meticulous sensibility, the movie might have avoided the excess of sentimentality inherent in the idea; but when Spielberg—who never met a button he failed to push—inherited the project and then rewrote the script, it was pre-ordained that the spirit of cutesy-poo would be invoked to the max, and some big-eyed waif like a Keane child come to life would be chosen to embody The Machine Who Wants To Be A Real Boy, and that at some point said big-eyed waif would be depicted staring with "Aw, goshes!" awe up into white Jesuslight, and everybody in the theater would be either sobbing or spewing stomach acid and liquefied popcorn into the aisles.

Pray to be among the latter. To weep during a film by St. Spielberg, to surrender to the entirely unsubtle manipulations of the most crassly commercial, hanky-drenching, family values-humping faux-auteur in the history of the universe...Well, it's just not a good sign.

Apart from a smattering of cuddly robots and computers with sexy voices, machines generally have been cloaked with menace by Hollywood, perceived as agents of chaos or evil. Exemplary of this are the horny computer of the Demon Seed that impregnated Julie Christie; the sinister computer of The Forbin Project that sought to become humanity's master; the unforgettable Hal of Kubrick's 2001; etc., etc., these etceteras inclusive of a small army of movies and TV shows concerning computer-run buildings that attempt to kill their tenants. There has been at least one previous film that treated of a machine intelligence who had the urge to be—or rather, harbored delusions of being—a real boy, this the uninspired D.A.R.Y.L. But neither one bad film, nor even several, should detract from the scope and dramatic simplicity of the basic concept.

Choosing big stories with broad appeal has always been a Spielberg strength, and early in his career, it appeared that this along with his technical imagination might produce that rarest of breeds, a commercial director capable of making films of a certain quality. But somewhere along the way, Spielberg's artistic instincts went soft, his epic sensibility betrayed him, and he began to make films in which easy sentiment was penciled in for honest, earned emotion. Commercially speaking, this was a canny decision, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making commercial movies. There's a place for all of them...even Adam Sandler films. My guilty pleasures include a number of calorie-less comedies and ultraviolent actioners. But Spielberg's movies have achieved such a potent level of commerciality, he now bestrides the world of the studios like a vast, rather goatlike colossus, having become both figurehead and the leading exponent of a machine that churns out tasty-looking, brain-deadening garbage masquerading as art and funnels it down the throats of a burgeoning race of Homer Simpsons who—having been nourished on such sewage—have predictably grown increasingly brain-dead and eager for more donuts. Why Spielberg threw away his abilities as an artist and evolved into the pope of professional pandering, the titan of tear-jerking, the Mister Please-Please-Please-the-Lowest-Common-Denominator Himself, I have no idea. Some will tell you it was due to the fit of pique he suffered after Close Encounters was shunned by the Academy. Shamed and reviled, unloved, he wandered the streets of lower Hollywood for days, preaching the gospel to whoever would listen, targeted by brickbats and the laughter of whores, until at last, despairing, he stood on a sewer grating with rank steam rising up around him, muttered a Kabalistic spell, and was subsumed into the lower orders of the Damned. Now I don't altogether buy into this story—I've also heard it was his mother's cousin, Max, who advised Stevie to forget all that dreck about quality and go for the loot. But whatever the case, a close examination of his recent films testifies that some degrading influence is at work. I submit as evidence the regrettable Amistad, being Steven's filmic assertion that slavery was very likely immoral, and containing one of the worst casting decisions in the history of cinema, that of signing to the role of a Pre-Revolutionary lawyer Matthew MacConaughey, an actor who may one day be known as the Matt Damon of the late 90s; Saving Private Ryan, which is basically an episode of the old TV show Combat with an okay Grand Guignol beginning and a mawkish framing device, and features the Mister Potato Head of contemporary thespians, Tom Hanks; the ludicrously over-hyped Schindler's List, which should be on no one's list of decent Holocaust movies, a Grade C picture with Grade A cinematography, another mawkish framing device, and little sad kiddies staring up into light, a film to which we owe an eternal debt of hatred for giving us yet another half-baked British ham whose acting is all accent and wan looks, the loathsome and completely one-dimensional Ralph Fiennes, who stands to become the incessantly dewy-eyed cinematic successor to the unrelentingly dewy-eyed Omar Sharif...

I started this review well prior to the release of AI, even before watching any trailers for the film (in one of which, I should add, Hayley Joel does that staring-up-into-white-light thing), and I will finish it three weeks before the release date, because I do not believe it's necessary to see it (though at some point, after loading up on happy pills, I will doubtless drag myself off to the multiplex for a matinee, if for no other reason than to test my endurance). I can tell you right now that the money will be on the screen as regards the production values, and that between that every highly paid critical pimp that ever there was will be screeching "Oscar, Oscar!" for the waiflike Hayley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), and that the film will be lauded for its many virtues by the clones of Joel Siegel, and that none of this will have any meaning whatsoever, because AI will have all the illuminative value of a neon suppository. As far as entertainment value goes...well, picture a waffle made of styrofoam inundated in a gallon of heavy syrup.

If I am wrong, I will retract these unkind words.

But that's a serious long shot.

One clue to the film's quality is the idiotic tag line attached to all promos:
Hmmm, I thought on first seeing this, Spielberg may be offering an ontological argument here, i.e., God is dead, but his legacy lives in us as love, blah blah blah... But upon further deliberation I have decided that, No, alas, it's not even that swift—Steve was being literal. Which presents a problem, Like, okay...I get he means that Haley Joel's character is a machine, thus unreal (I personally think that machines ARE real; however, Stevie had a bad experience with a mechanical shark and may still be in denial). But how the hell is his love real? Because his program is uploaded from a human mind, and thus real? How real is that? Having not seen the film, I'm left to ponder, for all the sense the copy makes, it might as well read:
Tag lines aside, what this film is about, really, is not whether Haley Joel the cute machine lad is or ever will be a genuwine boy. Naw, it's about combining the right mix of mushy strings with a sad wittle pookie guy and a harsh cold unfriendly world and then just when you think it's all so mean and nothin's fair... Whammo! A bullshit transcendent ending and a soaring theme that will send a kazillion or so tear-stained hairless monkeys streaming toward the exits believing they have thought something, when actually all that has happened is that they have paid eight-to-twelve bucks to take another foreign object up the yin-yang.

It may seem that I'm being too hard on America's most talented billionaire, and maybe I am. I'm sure that Steve's love is real, equally sure that he is not, and that he's a prince of a guy with a Cinemascope-sized heart who doubtless spoonfeeds his children the same vitaminless pap he feeds the world. So fucking what? He's no less a schlockmeister for all that, and to anyone with a living brain who believes the radical notion that entertainment should not be absent of intelligence and should have at its core a soul, a passion, and not a happy face painted on a balloon, and that stories can be told in which the noble and the inspiring are expressed honestly, vigorously, in terms of the common measure of the human spirit, without resorting to the Welch Men's Chorus humming a glorioso passage in the background to cue our tears... To anyone who feels this way, Spielberg must be considered the high priest of Moloch or whatever god it is that has risen from the ashes of literature and art to inundate civilization with its vomitus. Every cretinoid producer and director in Hollywood who worships at the Mel Gibson Memorial Blockbuster Temple of Explosive Faith has a statue of Spielberg on his or her mantle and each night sacrifices a virgin cockroach in hopes that someday they may become a demiurge like Him. In other words, He (along with His chief minions, Robert Zemeckis, the perpetrator of Forrest Gump, and Chris Columbus, the artiste behind Mrs. Doubtfire and The Bicentennial Man) is spawning others like himself. I know I'm only talking about a lousy film director guy, an ordinary guy named Steven, but seriously, folks, if you care about maintaining literacy or having your grandkids grow up in a society where books can be found outside museums, or even if you merely want to take up rational thought as a hobby, for all intents and purposes, His name might just as well be Legion.