Faith, Despair, and Cosmic Loneliness in A.I. Artificial Intelligence

See review of A.I. on Catholic Exchange.

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.

See part II of this article on Thursday, April 4, in Catholic Exchange's Arts & Entertainment Channel.

© 2002 Chris Otsuki and Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.

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.

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.

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