“Is it a Game?” Faith, Despair, and Cosmic Loneliness in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Note: This article reveals important, even climactic plot points necessary to our analysis of the underlying themes of the film. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know any "spoilers," please come back to this article after having seen the film.
By Chris Otsuki and Steven D. Greydanus
Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, now out on VHS/DVD, was one of the most ambitious and provocative films of last year, and also one of the most puzzling and off-putting.
Developed as a story idea for years by legendary perfectionist Stanley Kubrick before being turned over to Steven Spielberg, A.I. is as difficult and challenging as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as shrewdly observed and obsessive as Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
One of the film’s key moments finds David Swinton (Haley Joel Osment) and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) — a pair of "mechas" or artificial beings — standing outside a Catholic shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, paradoxically situated in the midst of the cesspool of decadence that is Rouge City.
"Those who made us," Joe explains to David, with a glance at the statue of the Blessed Mother, "are always looking for the ones who made them."
Seeking the maker
David doesn’t know it, but his own quest will ultimately lead him to his own maker — mecha engineer Professor Hobby (William Hurt) — though that meeting will not prove the transforming revelation he longs for.
What David is really searching for is the key to his origins as an emotional being: Programmed to love when his surrogate mother Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) imprinted herself on him, David is unable to recover from her rejection, and seeks to become a real boy so that he can win her approval and love.
The theme of searching for one’s maker carries into the movie’s far future, glimpsed in a chilling third act in which human beings are long since extinct and the world is inhabited by strange beings: beings who bear a strong resemblance to the tall alien from Close Encounters, but who in fact seem to be super-evolved mechas in a long line of mechas built by mechas built by mechas.
These super-mechas have no living memory of mankind, yet like humans themselves they yearn for their own makers, seeking and cherishing any remnant of mankind that they can resurrect. When they discover David, they take great interest in him, for he is like a sacred relic to them — a mecha actually built by human hands.
A.I. begins in a world inhabited by lonely humans seeking comfort and love from robots of their own fashioning. It ends in a world inhabited by lonely robots seeking comfort and love from humans of their own fashioning — flawed, short-lived clones, such as one of David’s mother Monica that the super-mechas create for David at the very end of the story.
Neither arrangement is ultimately satisfying. Human efforts to seek the benefits of personal relationships with artificial beings end in heartbreak and failure, while the quest of the super-mechas for their human creators goes on. Though David himself lives out his last moments in happiness with the Monica clone, viewers of the film can hardly take comfort in the wrenching pathos of his situation. A.I. is a vision of desperate loneliness — of a lonely universe devoid of enduring comfort for men or machines.
But A.I. isn’t really about machines. It’s the human condition that’s really at issue in this film, as in most worthwhile works of art. The quest of the mechas for their makers, David’s quest to become a real boy, are symbols of our own quest: our human longing to be whole and complete, to be truly human, to know and be known by our maker and fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts.
In a word, the lonely mechas are ourselves, as much so as the lonely humans. The close relationship of man and mecha is underscored by the sibling rivalry between young Martin Swinton, Monica and Henry Swinton’s real son, and the mecha-child David, whom the Swintons adopt while Martin lies comatose in some sort of medical stasis tank.
Chosen and cast out
The rivalry between Martin and David Swinton takes on an almost biblical character, echoing the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brethren, David and his brethren. Essentially, the issue is who is the true or firstborn son, who has the primacy, the primogeniture.
It’s probably an accident that Martin and Henry Swinton have the same names as two prominent Reformers, Martin Luther and Henry VIII — and that Henry Swinton, like Henry VIII, breaks God’s law to get a son, while Martin Swinton claims to be the true heir, as Martin Luther claimed to be the heir of true Christianity. Even today, many Protestants regard Catholics as Martin Swinton regarded David: false brethren, not real members of God’s family.
Yet David is the name of God’s anointed. David Swinton has been chosen as a son, both by Henry, who brought him into their home, and by Monica, who awakened him to filial love by reciting a string of code-words in his presence, like St. Monica praying her son Augustine into the family of God.
This raises the possibility that, as in so many biblical stories in which a firstborn son is supplanted by a younger, worthier brother, David, who is without guile and innocent until Martin teaches him hatred and jealousy, will prove to be the true firstborn son, or at least a true member of the family.
But no. The Swintons have made a terrible mistake. David should never have been brought into their house, never programmed to love and to need Monica’s love. He doesn’t belong there. He doesn’t belong anywhere.
After being chosen, David is cast out, and the Swintons drop out of the story. Is Martin happy living with his parents after David’s expulsion? Are they happy living with him? A.I. neither knows nor cares. The story isn’t about the Swintons, but about David. Martin has the primogeniture after all, but A.I., unlike the biblical stories, is concerned with the story of the outcast, not the primogenitor.
Interestingly, toward the film’s end David suffers a fate eerily similar to Martin’s condition in the beginning: enclosed in a confined space similar to Martin’s holding tank, in a sort of degenerative robotic coma — a condition that in more ways than one is the culmination of his quest to be human.
An icon of hope
For obvious reasons, David has a strong identification with the story of Pinocchio, the little wooden boy who becomes a real boy through the magic of the Blue Fairy. In fact, David thinks there really is a Blue Fairy, and spends the bulk of the film in search of her.
His hopeless quest finds a pathetic if literal fulfillment at the bottom of the sea, in a place that was once Coney Island before the polar ice caps melted and the sea level rose. There David finds an amusement-park woodwork statue of the Blue Fairy - and, trapped in a small vessel on the sea floor, David prays to the Blue Fairy to make him real.
Lacking any sense of boredom, frustration, or disappointment, no more able to abandon his quest than to stop loving Monica, David goes on earnestly praying to the statue of the Blue Fairy for years, centuries, even millennia — two thousand years, the film tells us — as the seas around him continue to rise, then freeze. All the while, the statue seems to gaze at him, welcoming, maternal, enigmatic.
The specifically Catholic and Marian resonances of this haunting, near-climactic image are hard to miss. David "prays" (the film’s word) before the statue for 2000 years — the same time-frame as the length of the Christian era. Prayer before a statue, of course, evokes Catholic spirituality, since statues are frowned upon in other Christian traditions (Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy).
Moreover, this particular statue — a blue-robed female figure with arms lovingly extended — bears a striking resemblance to familiar painted statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even the undersea location resonates with the name of Mary, which in Latin means "sea."
As if all that weren’t enough, the film actually foreshadows this scene with a literal statue of the Blessed Virgin, and a pointed reminder that the devotion she represents is part of the human longing for "the one who made" us, just as David’s prayer represents his quest to be united with the one of the race that made him, who awakened him emotionally.
Yet the Blue Fairy is a sham — a lovely but fragile illusion that, when David is finally awakened by the super-mechas after 2000 years of waiting, shatters into bits at the slightest touch.
Christians also have been waiting for 2000 years, and Christianity itself now appears to some unbelievers as an illusion falling apart in this, the "post-Christian era." Of course the Church cannot be destroyed, yet certainly the worldwide ascendency it has enjoyed for centuries has faded, and may fade further still.
Significantly, while the Blue Fairy — like Monica, David’s other mother-figure — lets him down and leaves him devastated, David never really even knows either of his fathers: Henry Swinton, Monica’s husband, or Professor Hobby, David’s creator. Likewise, the super-mechas of the future have no first-hand knowledge of man, their creator. (Absent, distant, or irresponsible father-figures are a recurring motif in Spielberg’s films, a fact surely not unconnected with Spielberg’s own absentee father.)
Thus, A.I. is not only about mothers who betray us, but also fathers who are remote, uncaring, unapproachable. If the shattered Blue Fairy represents the loss of faith, these remote creator-fathers suggest a view of God himself as distant, uninvolved, unknowable. Professor Hobby, in particular, identifies himself and his work with the work of God: "In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam [in order for Adam] to love him?" Yet whereas God wanted Adam solely for what God could do for Adam, Hobby wants mechas for what they can do for us.
Longing for redemption
In spite of all this, it’s hard to dismiss A.I. as a mere anti-religious tract. For one thing, it’s got too much pathos, too much raw, aching need. This is neither a triumphant affirmation of humanistic ascendancy like 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor a comforting vision of a revelatory experience of the mysteries of the universe like Close Encounters. This is a fairy tale struggling with the desperate horror of life in a lonely universe — of life without God, or faith, or love. It’s an example of what John Paul II was talking about in his Letter to Artists when he wrote, "Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul… artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption."
David longs for redemption, for love. Yet Gigolo Joe warns him that humans can never love mechas; that they love only what mechas do for them. If the mechas are mere machines, of course, it’s quite right that humans should not love them as persons; yet here also the plight of the mechas is really our own plight. Gigolo Joe is valued solely for his ability to give pleasure to women — yet in the real world men and women use one another as means to their own gratification. The hedonism of Rouge City exemplifies our society’s love affair with the self-gratifying sins of contraception, fornication, prostitution, adultery, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, abortion, and so on. These sexual sins, as Paul VI warned, have led to the objectifying of women, children, and the entire human race: We treat one another like commodities… like mechas.
The theme of human dignity is raised in a terrible way in the nightmarish scenes at the Flesh Fair, in which human-looking robots, clearly imbued like their creators with a desire to live, are demolished to delight a crowd that espouses "the dignity of life."
The juxtaposition of the Flesh Fair’s borrowed pro-life rhetoric with its brutal scenes of concentration-camp style mayhem evokes the two greatest crimes against man in the twentieth century: the Holocaust and the legalization of abortion. In so doing, the film makes us think both of Judaism, the target of the Holocaust, and of the Catholic Church, the moral center of the pro-life movement.
What is the significance of this juxtaposition? How does it play out in this film, and in the mind of its creator, Jewish director Steven Spielberg?
Steven Spielberg’s earliest experiences of Catholicism were in anti-semitic mockery from Irish kids in his childhood. Yet in his filmmaking he has at times embraced signs of goodness and hope in Catholics and in Catholic piety.
In the powerful Schindler’s List, he paid tribute to the heroic acts of a less-than-saintly German Catholic, emphasizing Schindler’s religious identity in a coda showing the descendants of the "Schindler Jews" memorializing their savior by piling rocks on his gravestone — in the process creating a cross shape.
In Amistad, Spielberg showed a willingness to use Catholic sacred images ("graven images"!) in a positive way. In one scene, a sympathetic Catholic judge prays before a crucifix before heroically sacrificing his career to serve justice. There are also prayerful anti-slavery demonstrators gripping rosaries. Another scene depicts a pair of illiterate prisoners discerning the basic shape of Christianity — with surprising sympathy — solely from illustrations in a Bible.
Now, in A.I., we find a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the midst of the flash and chaos of Rouge City, as well as a Mary-like Blue Fairy in the dead amusement park of Coney Island (evoking, perhaps, Spielberg’s encounters with Catholicism in the midst of Hollywood, a type of Rouge City). Yet this time no hope or virtue is seen in connection with the statue of Mary, and the Blue Fairy is seen to be a manifest sham.
Like so many of Jewish descent, Steven Spielberg is haunted by the horror of the Holocaust. In his Shoah Foundation and in Schindler’s List he has perhaps tried to come to terms with it; yet inevitable questions remain: How could a loving God allow such a thing to happen to his own chosen people? Where was God when six million Jews were being murdered?
All right, so Oskar Schindler, a Catholic scoundrel, got a conscience and saved a few thousand. Perhaps other Catholics did some good as well. But what about the six million who weren’t saved? Didn’t God care about them? Does he care about any of us? Is he a loving Father? Is it a game? A hobby, perhaps, like Professor Hobby building his mechas?
Questions like this are understandable, even necessary. The world needs films like A.I. that ask hard questions: that show us, like Ecclesiastes, what life is like if there is no love or faith or hope.
Yet questions are incomplete without answers; and it would be tragic to stop where A.I. does, with shattered faith, despair of enduring or timeless love, a lonely universe of needy beings, and comfort found only in unreal comforts and loves that end in death and acceptance and oblivion.
For there is a love that does not change or die or fail, a truth that does not shatter to the touch, a Father who is not remote or uncaring. Like David, we have been made for love — not programmed, as David was, for we are not slaves to programming - but made for love, made for God, and are no more capable of true joy and peace apart from God than was David apart from Monica.
And our need for love isn’t hopeless like David’s. David’s need to be loved by whomever he bonded to (in this case Monica) was a terrible, arbitrary dependency imposed upon him through human fault; and Monica could not ultimately love David as he needed her to. But our need for God is as natural and necessary as our need for food and water or air and sleep; and, as surely as food fills our belly or air fills our lungs, God really can fill, and fill forever, the God-shaped hole in our hearts.
God doesn’t wait somewhere far away for us to find him, nor does he ask us to wait endlessly in some prison praying for a revelation that never comes. Rather, in the Church he beckons us out of our prison into communion with him. Nay more, he enters into our prison and sets us free.
In A.I., it’s the super-mechas — David’s own brethren, more advanced and enlightened than he, but ultimately just as empty and lonely — who free him from the undersea craft. The mechas are ourselves; the picture is of man being set free by man. Yet A.I. doesn’t pretend that this "freedom" is anything other than another sort of prison, or that whatever illusions of happiness it may offer are any more real than the illusion of hope David had trapped in the craft.
Steven Spielberg’s films sometimes bespeak a genuine spiritual hunger. A.I. bespeaks the moral and spiritual famine of our age. May it sharpen the hunger of all who see it — and all who were involved in its making — that they might seek out the true food. The false Blue-Fairy hope shattered in this film is only a caricature of a living reality, and there are welcoming arms that are not dead wood, loving eyes that are not painted on, a mother’s ears that hear our prayers.
Mary, Star of the Sea, ora pro nobis.