Superficial Intelligence 

Exploring the ongoing debate between critics and audiences over A.I.

Exploring the ongoing debate between critics and audiences over A.I.

Audiences may have lost interest quickly, and early reviewers may have rendered a split decision and then moved on. But even as it disappears from the box-office charts, the furor has yet to subside over Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Last month, the Los Angeles Times ran a controversial piece that suggested film critics were hopelessly out of touch with their audiences. Exhibit A: A.I., which the piece suggested was appreciated only by pointy-headed morons. That opinion was seconded last weekend in The New York Times, in an article that argued the worst movies were often the ones with the highest ambitions. Here A.I. took another sock on the jaw—this time from no less an authority than the director of The Toxic Avenger. At the same time, academics and cultural observers have been invigorated by Spielberg’s curious sci-fi epic—which the Timesers may feel just proves their point.

Between the Sunday op-ed pieces that have been running for the past month, and the countless papers that will be presented at conferences in the coming years, anthropologists of the future may come away with the idea that A.I. was the most popular movie of 2001. It’s not true, of course—A.I. is problematic, easy to dislike, and will end among the year’s biggest disappointments for box-office analysts and casual filmgoers alike. But it is true that the depth and meaning that many have found in the film indicates that dismissing it as a flop or calling it “plainly awful” (as some pundits have) is unfair and short-sighted. If anything, the divisive reaction to A.I. shows not that critics and audiences are in different worlds, or that pseudo-intellectuals can find merit in anything. Instead, it shows that different people have different ways of enjoying movies—and that the critical model that offers only an upraised or down-turned thumb may be irrelevant.

Why the continued fuss over A.I., and why has it raised this supposed divide between viewers and reviewers? Ask the average filmgoer what he wants out of a movie review, and he’ll answer that he wants to know what the movie is about and whether it’s any good—“good” meaning entertaining. He doesn’t want to hear analysis of themes, or opinions about the acting, editing, camerawork, or dialogue. The average critic, though, sees about 10 times as many movies as the average filmgoer—which means that the average critic may be easily bored by what the average filmgoer finds novel and delightful, and vice versa. If the critic tries to compensate by giving what he thinks is the audience’s opinion, he runs the risk of condescension and dishonesty.

In the end, though, what value does a simple “good” or “bad” verdict have, with no context? Maybe the average filmgoer would prefer that movie reviews were simplified, just so they can more easily dismiss opinions with which they disagree. But the result of this emphasis on opinion over analysis is a drift toward meaninglessness in film criticism, especially since the popularity of the Internet has reduced the power of individual reviews. Now they’re toted up and quantified, in the case of sites like Rotten Tomatoes; the average is more important than any single detailed analysis.

As a result, quite a few critics argued neither for nor against A.I in their columns, beyond offering a flat thumbs-up or -down. The champions of the film tended to talk about the dazzling design and effects, lending credence to the opinion that critics are easily distracted by shiny things. Meanwhile, the detractors tended to blast the inconsistent tone, a rambling narrative, and an excess of sentimentality. Few on either side have engaged what the movie is about. One critic wrote that Spielberg highlights his themes in bright, gaudy colors, but that critic couldn’t be bothered to articulate what those themes are.

For the record, here’s my take. A.I. is about human selfishness, as manifested in our propensity to create monuments to ourselves and to assert our will with little regard for the long-term consequences. Spielberg, with his late collaborator, Stanley Kubrick, extends this theme of misguided self-absorption to the way we raise children, programming them via kiddie stories to be cute love machines, ultimately unable to cope with the harshness of the real world. The director even implicates himself, referencing images from Close Encounters and E.T. in unsettling new contexts.

There are problems with this reading—most notably the film’s concluding scenes, which present disturbing images with a syrupy John Williams score, effectively muddling the filmmakers’ intentions. But there’s enough evidence in the film itself to support the idea, and Spielberg’s oeuvre is strewn with films in which human vanity is confronted in subtle ways. Did Spielberg really intend the film to be taken the way I take it? Perhaps not, but how many times are movies perceived exactly as they’re intended? Many Hollywood films that weren’t intended to be funny now seem amusingly quaint; many that were meant to preach tolerance now seem paternalistic and even racist. Messages don’t have to be intended to be sent. They can change with time, or even bubble up from the subconscious of the artist. Either way, it’s more fruitful to debate whether my reading is off base than to close the discussion by saying I’m a moron for enjoying the film in the first place.

I understand that some people can’t engage A.I.’s themes because they find the package that contains them distractingly unattractive. But when critics only complain about (or praise) the surface, it becomes too easy to shrug off their opinions as merely a matter of taste, rather than something worth reading and thinking about. I’m not saying that ambition should be its own reward. But when the rare film of ideas rolls around, it’s worth acknowledging what those ideas are. I happened to find A.I. witty and exciting as well as intellectually stimulating. I’m willing to acknowledge that others may well disagree, so long as they’ve made the same effort to figure out what they didn’t enjoy.

Not every movie needs much more than a review that assesses the originality and/or provenance of its thrills and jokes—although even then, there’s room to examine a film’s place in the cinematic continuum, or its place in the culture at large. A critic should be honest about his reactions, but also willing to meet a film on its own terms. But movies as ambitious as A.I.—and audiences who want them—are poorly served by an entertainment marketplace that values snap judgments over thoughtful examination. Critics shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that the sheer volume of films they’ve seen is enough to give their “yea” or “nay” weight. At the end of the day, it’s just an opinion, and no indicator of whether their readers will enjoy the film in question. America is a nation too wrapped up in finality, and too flummoxed by dissent. What is needed is for critics to apply their expertise to a deeper understanding of the films they review, so that even if they can’t change anyone’s mind, they can at least help start a discussion—and shape a culture where dialogue and honest disagreement are prized more than consensus.

—Noel Murray

Bump in the night

Unless they’re used in the subtlest of ways, special effects are the kiss of death for horror movies. The reason is simple: Horror movies wreak havoc with our fears of the unknown, and the minute those fears are made literal—the minute that shadow behind the door is revealed as a man in a monster suit—they tend to lose their potency. The remake of The Haunting spent a small country’s GNP on digital effects like morphing headboards and evil trees, but it didn’t contain a single image as disturbing as the original’s signature shot: a door buckling under pressure from the unimaginable horrors on the other side. The most memorable horror movies, from the original Cat People and The Innocents to The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, terrorize audiences most with what they can’t see.

So does The Others, an eerie old-fashioned ghost story in the spirit (so to speak) of The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. In those stories, the line between supernatural and psychological disturbance was kept deliberately vague: Were the ghosts really there, or were they projections of a tormented psyche? Thus The Others offers Nicole Kidman, a dazzling wraith in confining floor-length dresses, as the neurotic mistress of a mansion where the curtains are permanently drawn, lest the sunlight damage her two photosensitive children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Then comes a family of new caretakers, at roughly the same time the children start to complain of strange visions—and beyond that, we shouldn’t say too much more. (You should even stop reading until after you’ve seen the movie.)

The writer-director, Alejandro Amenábar, who also composed the shivery score, made some nifty thrillers in his native Spain: a clever shocker called Thesis, about the link between movies and violence, and the mind-jolting fantasy Open Your Eyes, which has just been remade by Cameron Crowe with this film’s executive producer, Tom Cruise. Amenábar delights in the tropes of haunted-house movies: He gets tremendous mileage out of mysterious presences, off-screen thumps and bumps, and light spilling under closed doors. Yet he grounds them in psychological detail rather than special effects, so that we’re kept guessing whether the surrounding terrors are real or imaginary. As in the original The Haunting, the house’s locked rooms and darkened hallways suggest the chambers and corridors of a troubled mind. Needless to say, the house holds terrible secrets; up until the ending, we’re left to wonder whether they belong to smothering mother Kidman, to her unnervingly precocious children, or to the caretakers, played with chilling calm by Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and Elaine Cassidy.

The movie’s meticulously paced setup and lack of bloodshed are bound to frustrate viewers weaned on slasher movies. The most off-putting aspect, though, is that all the characters are so strange we have a hard time identifying with them—we’re never sure whether they’re victims or culprits. But that only heightens our curiosity about the resolution, which practically demands a second viewing. Elegant and insinuating, The Others preys upon moviegoers’ most vulnerable parts—their imaginations.

—Jim Ridley

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