A.I. in Depth
by Jon Bastian
An in-depth analysis of the symbolism and meaning of Steven Spielberg’s most thought-provoking film.
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WARNING: The following article presumes that you’ve seen A.I., and really won’t do you much good if you haven’t. As such, it’s loaded with spoilers. READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM AND DON’T WANT EVERYTHING GIVEN AWAY. You have been warned.
Stanley Kubrick, who created the story from which Steven Spielberg directed A.I., always worked on several levels at once in his films. Perhaps this is why the most common criticism of Kubrick by people who just didn’t get him was that his films were cold and unemotional, that his people didn’t feel real. That was because his people were always highly symbolic, and his stories were frequently allegorical. The Shining is a perfect example—Kubrick wasn’t just telling a Steven King horror story. He was analyzing the human penchant for focusing on darkness and gore as a reaction to the trauma of childhood. The Shining wasn’t about supernatural terror. It was about child abuse and its scars. 2001 was about the entire history of the human race, from their first invention of tools to their ultimate entrapment by them, and their evolution beyond. Oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in that entire film is not flesh and blood, but the computer HAL 9000. Even Eyes Wide Shut, largely misunderstood by both critics and the public, wasn’t a simple tale of adultery real and imagined. It was a film about the power of jealousy and fantasy, and how one neurotically stunted the other, turning harmless daydreams into dangerous nightscapes of paranoia.
A.I., despite bearing another director’s name, follows the Kubrick mold almost perfectly, failing him only at the very end (more on that later). It appears to be a story about a robot boy trying to recapture his mother’s love. In reality, it’s a deep allegory about humankind and their relationship to God in a post-existential world. The historical territory covered by A.I. is as broad in scope as 2001, but the timespan is mostly metaphorical. The entire allegory is given away in a single line, spoken by Professor Hobby (William Hurt) in the prologue. “Didn’t God create Adam in order to love Him?” This single sentence sets the terms for everything that follows.
In this allegory, human beings represent the divine creative forces, and the robots, or mechas, represent mankind. In the Beginning (of the film) Professor Hobby decrees the creation of a loving mecha, and so it is done. David (Haley Joel Osment) is born and given to his human parents and, for a while, he lives in Eden, adoring his creators.
The second part of the film is the story of Adam, Eden and the fall of man, skewed through a filter of gnosis. At this point, David has never met Professor Hobby, the true God. He only knows his mother, Monica (Frances O’Connor), but focuses all of his love upon her, especially after she commands it by running his imprinting program, a program that is, significantly, invoked by the recitation of seven words. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch all of the words as they were being said, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they related, in order, to the days of creation as enumerated in Genesis. Additionally, at least in Judeo-Christian theology, God is often refered to as “Logos,” Greek for word, and seven is, of course, a mystical number. The whole program is capped with Monica repeating her name—perhaps a Kabalistic reference, since the full name of God was supposed to have magic powers, according to that belief system.
David’s life, at least as far as he is concerned, is idyllic, until another life-form comes into the garden. This is Martin (Jake Thomas), the real son of David’s adoptive parents. Martin has been in cryogenic suspension, pending a cure for whatever disease has put him there. Now, remember the comparison above: Humans equal the divine, mechas equal humans. Martin, being a human child, is a divine being and, given his actions through the rest of this part of the film, there’s only one divine being he can be. You know him as Lucifer, or the Serpent, the jealous angel responsible for the downfall of mankind.
Martin resents David’s presence from the start, and does everything he can to lead him astray, lying to him and inducing him to do things that will alienate him from his parents. Particularly telling is a scene in which Martin cajoles David into eating food, something mechas cannot do. David is warned not to eat by his super-toy teddy bear, Teddy (Jack Angel) with the words, “You’ll break,” but David ignores him. Teddy is a significant character to mention in the context of this whole allegory, too. On one level, he is Jiminy Cricket in the whole superimposed Pinocchio story. But he was also Martin’s toy before he was given to David. Teddy is the divine spark within mankind, nothing less than the human soul and human conscience. It’s a very interesting and appropriate coincidence, indeed, the surname of the actor who gives voice to the bear—Angel.
David’s second “sin” is the truest metaphor for that famous apple. Martin convinces him to steal a lock of Monica’s hair while she sleeps, and David complies. Unfortunately, Monica wakes up while David is standing over her with a pair of scissors. God has been threatened by mankind in the act of trying to steal a piece of divinity. That lock of hair becomes significant in Spielberg’s ending in bringing God back, and at least on that level, the metaphor holds. After all, God’s big fear over Adam eating the apple was that mankind would “become as us, with the knowledge of good and evil.” The midnight threat with the scissors marks a big turning point in the relationship between David and his parents, but it’s not quite the final straw.
The camel’s back is broken and David commits the act that ultimately gets him banned from the garden when he drags Martin down into a swimming pool with him as he seeks protection from a group of bratty children. The very action of David pulling Martin into the water is physically reminiscent of the fall of Lucifer but, more importantly, it causes his mother to abandon him in the woods, alone with Teddy. Mankind is tossed away by God, left with only his conscience and soul. The place where he is left is itself emblematic of the same dark wood in which the narrator of Dante’s Inferno finds himself stranded halfway through his life—a poem that was written very near the end of the dark ages, and which is all about mankind’s fall and redemption.
Monica drives away, leaving David alone, and so the second part of the film ends and we move into the third, which I can best describe as The Martyrdom of Mankind, or God’s Caprice.
Easily the darkest part of A.I., this is where David falls in with a hapless group of mechas who are rounded up to be destroyed for the amusement of humans in the so-called Flesh Fair. The punishments meted out to the robots are as nasty and bizarre as anything dreamed up by Nero in persecuting early Christians, and almost none of the mechas we meet are spared. One of them is even crucified, after a fashion. This is where we move into Old Testament land, as an angry God persecutes and slaughters his creations left and right. Think Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah or any of a thousand other tales of fire and brimstone. Mankind has fallen and God is pissed.
An additional bit of metaphor: we see damaged mechas scavenging through a pile of refuse which is made up of the parts of destroyed robots. They pick and choose and find what fits from the detritus of their forbearers, much as human culture has evolved, by the selective preservation of past traditions and ways that fit the mindset of their current users. Think, if you will, of all the old pagan rituals that were subsumed into Christianity, or all the later political systems that modeled themselves on the fallen Roman Empire.
It’s also during this part of the film that David meets up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a lover mecha whose function in context might not at first be clear. He would seem to be the most secular of characters, going around as he does to service human woman. However, we’re given the big clue to Joe’s real identity in his very last scene, when he is literally taken bodily up to heaven. Okay, he’s finally tracked down and arrested by the police for a crime he didn’t commit (murdering an adulterous human woman, i.e., destroying a false god), but the image is still there—as Joe is lifted away by a giant magnet, he declares, “I am. I was!” He rises out of sight and his whole function snaps into focus. Joe is the Prophet who guides mankind, the prophet who has preached against false gods, and so been persecuted by the followers of that god.
As we see in his first scene, with a client, Joe is the perfect lover not because of his hardware, but because of his software. His talent is in telling his customers exactly what they want to hear—they are beautiful, they are perfect, they are loved. He is the man who stands on the hill delivering the Jeremiad about God’s perfection. And, significantly, he is accidentally saved in the Flesh Fair because David grabs his hand when he gets scared. David could have latched onto anyone at that moment, but he grabs onto the Prophet, the voice of hope that God still loves mankind, that Monica can still be found.
As for David being saved from the Flesh Fair, it’s an entire sequence fraught with symbolism. He is ultimately saved because he comes to the attention of the humans running the show. This happens because Teddy gets loose and is picked up by a human child. The divine nature of mankind is brought to the attention of the gods, they take pity, remember how we are like them, and so both man and the prophet are spared. The end of this sequence could almost represent the transition from Old to New Testaments, especially because we have another telling line. The Flesh Fair’s ringmaster cries out, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and someone in the audience does. Of course, only a deity can be without sin, and soon the ringmaster is being pelted left and right. To avoid a riot in heaven, David and Joe are let loose and they flee back into the forest. Thus endeth the third part of the film.
In the fourth part, David uses Joe to help him achieve his goal: find the Blue Fairy, become a real boy and regain his mother’s love. Note the source of the Blue Fairy: Pinocchio, a story that Martin/Lucifer induces Monica to read to them. David takes it to heart and is so misled, but Lucifer is not dubbed the King of Lies for nothing. The gnostic idea of a true and false creator rears its head again. I won’t go into the entire theology here, but the short version is that the Gnostics believed that what humans know as God is not the true creator of the universe, but a usurper. The true creator is far beyond, and unknowable by, mere humans. David knows Monica, but he has never met Professor Hobby, indeed, doesn’t even yet know his name.
David follows Joe’s advice, and soon the two of them are in Rouge City, a decadent, neon-dappled playground, seeking information from Dr. Know, a genius who can answer their every question. We have reached the Age of Enlightenment, a secular world in which mecha and human seem to exist on equal footing. Given the geography of the piece, Rouge City is most likely Philadelphia, birthplace of the United States, the Constitution and the idea that all men are created equal. It is the ideal playground of freedom. Ironically, David and Joe escape from here on their quest via a police helicopter, after Joe is almost arrested and David sets him free by accident. And don’t forget that Joe says earlier that, in order to reach Rouge City, they must follow the moon, across the Delaware (shades of George Washington), the moon itself having been established as a symbol of the vengeance of the gods in the Flesh Fair sequence. In other words, mankind must conquer its fear of the gods and cross the river that was symbolic of the great battle that gave the Founding Fathers their freedom. They seek the Blue Fairy in Rouge (red) City. Only the white is left out (though we first see David dressed in white), but the implications all lead to the age of the rationalists, the freedom from all gods, the birthplace of modern Democracy. What David doesn’t realize and what Joe doesn’t mention is that, in Rouge city, the mechas, mankind, will become as gods, without punishment. There’s that apple again.
Rouge City is also where the Blue Fairy is explicitly related to an image of the Virgin Mary, but is explained by the prophet as a false connection. After all, by this point, Joe has moved from being an Old Testament prophet to a post-reformation prophet, denying the institutions of the church and looking for other answers.
The two try to find their other answers in the realm of Dr. Know, who is ultimately nothing more than a fast-food, pay-per-question computerized service. It’s subtle, but it’s also obvious: Dr. Know is a form of mecha himself. The gods of the past have given way to mortal philosophers. However, mankind’s failings come across in this scene. After querying in the categories of “Flat Fact” and “Fairy Tale” and not getting a satisfactory answer, Joe fiddles around with the terminology, asks for a combination answer from both categories, and gets a direct clue to the location of the Blue Fairy. We’ve reached the age of Do-It-Yourself religions and cobbled-together philosophies, the combination of fact and fairy tale in an effort to solve the riddles of the universe. Mankind is still deluded, but cannot see it because they trust their prophets.
Joe and David continue onward to the now-flooded Manhattan, and David finally meets his creator, Professor Hobby, face-to-face. But first, he is confronted by himself, and his ego can’t handle it. In a fit of rage, our David destroys false David, and meeting his creator is his reward. The payoff is short-lived, however, and this is where David hits his big existential crisis, learning that he is just one of many mass-produced, identical robots, all designed to love humans, all the same, not individual. Mankind is not special. Mankind is just a product from an assembly line. Hello, Charles Darwin and the Big Bang; there is no meaning to life.
David’s reaction is to attempt suicide, casting himself into the ocean (echoing his earlier downfall which brought Lucifer with him), but it’s underwater that he suddenly finds the Blue Fairy. In giving up all faith in his creator, he is pushed toward an answer. Joe is taken up into heaven and David and Teddy find the Blue Fairy, but become trapped. Teddy warns David here, “We’re in a cage,” but David ignores him, and so the fourth part of the film ends and we move onward to the fifth part, in which both Spielberg and Kubrick take their biggest risks.
You see, David and Teddy remain trapped on the bottom of the ocean, staring at and praying to a statue of the Blue Fairy, for two thousand years. In the meantime, the oceans freeze and mankind becomes extinct, replaced by a race of very advanced mechas. They dig David and Teddy out twenty centuries later, and A.I.’s most daring statements are buried in their deepest level of metaphor. Human beings—i.e., the gods—are extinct, and mechas have advanced beyond all previous expectations. They have also evolved to all look identical, which I think is a comment on the true equality of humans only being obtainable when there are no theological distinctions between them. But these mechas dig up a relic, a mecha who knew live humans, but who has been frozen in place for two millennia. I don’t think the number two thousand is any accident. This is a direct comment on the behavior of mankind since the birth of Christianity—stuck on ice, praying to a fairy tale, they have not moved in that long a time. Our hero, David, has become an anachronism and a tragic figure. He still wants the love of his god, and won’t give up in looking for it, even though it has not materialized in so long a time. Indeed, when he is thawed from the ice and touches the statue of the Blue Fairy to whom he has been praying for so long (the same mantra, over and over, “Make me a real boy,” Ave Maria, Ave Maria…) she falls apart, hollow inside. The combined fact and fairy tale illusion cannot be sustained under the light of pure reason.
The advanced mechas take sympathy on him, and this is where Kubrick’s vision and Spielberg’s story diverge, the former being the much stronger ending. In the movie, the mechas are able to clone Monica and bring her back to life for a single day, and they do so, using that stolen lock of hair which Teddy has preserved for so long. David has his perfect day with his mother and at the end of it, falls asleep in her arms, able to dream for the first time. This is where the metaphor falls apart, and where Kubrick’s version was so much stronger.
Originally, this is what happened: the advanced mechas were not able to clone Monica and bring her back for a day. All they could do was create a hologram. David finally sees the image of his mother again, thinks he’s about to get what he’s been seeking, but when he goes to hug her, cannot touch her. All of his efforts to reach God, all of his religious fairy tales, have been a nonexistent illusion. Science has tried to show sympathy for faith, but cannot recreate it. Knowledge and belief—or fact and fairy tale—are incompatible. The Spielberg message is unnecessarily muddled and doesn’t fit what’s come before, which is where I think A.I. has its biggest failure, betraying all that has preceded it. The Kubrick ending said it all about everything that had come before, but that’s typical of Kubrick. Of course, it doesn’t help that Spielberg’s design of the advanced mechas look suspiciously like the aliens from the end of Close Encounters and cause audience confusion. In Kubrick’s story, the advanced mechas were invisible—sufficiently evolved man, with no need for gods, were not even comprehensible to those still trapped in the ice of dogma.
Speaking of ice, various elemental images appear throughout the film, beyond the above noted philosophical allegory. The world of A.I. is overrun by water due to global warming. The polar ice caps have melted, and the world’s coastal cities have been inundated. When we first meet the Swinton’s real son, Martin, he is on ice in cryogenic suspension and, of course, David winds up trapped under ice for two thousand years, awaking in a world that has fallen victim to another ice age. The metaphor seems to be that of terrible forces held at bay—the water that floods the world, Martin’s jealousy, David’s obsession to regain his mother. Paralleled with this is the image of water. David’s fall happens when he drags Martin underwater with him, he finds Professor Hobby in a water-logged city after locating the “place where lions cry”—huge leonine statues that spout water from their eyes. David tries to kill himself by falling from a great height into water, and winds up trapped in that water, despite his conscience warning him, “We are in a cage.”
Air is another elemental image in the film. David’s first memory is of what he thinks is a bird, which is actually also the first image of the film, echoing our first glimpse of David; an image out of focus and distorted, warped by air, in a sense. David is captured for the Flesh Fair by hunters flying in the air, but his escape from Rouge City also is via the air, in a stolen helicopter. The holographic information from Dr. Know that leads to Professor Hobby is also related, being projected in the air around David and Joe. Air seems to represent freedom and knowledge. The Flesh Fair hunters might seem to contradict this but, being human, they are gods, after all, suspended by the moon, with the ultimate freedom. Mystically, air is related to the concept of creation, and the creative spirit of God is often related to God’s breath. The Greek word for God’s spirit, “pneuma,” after all, gave rise to all words related to air, pneumatic and pneumonia among them. This reinforces the ice and water imagery, too—there is no air underwater, no creative spirit, which is why Martin is so endangered by being dragged under, and also why a mecha can survive quite well without air. Without spirituality. (But not, in Spielberg’s version of the ending, without imagination; without dreams.)
The element of earth seem underrepresented, but the forest in which David is abandoned by his mother is a very earthy location, as is Gigolo Joe’s occupation. Fire shows up in the Flesh Fair, where much of the destruction involves flames or acid, a sort of liquid fire. When David is freed from the ice, it’s his body heat that destroys the statue of the Blue Fairy, and when he’s reunited with his mother for a day, they celebrate his birthday, complete with cake and candles. Significantly, it takes David three breaths (that pneuma again, and a mystic number) to blow them out.
And, finally, two of mankind’s most well-known religious epics and one fairy tale are wrapped around the structure of the film. Pinocchio is pretty clearly stated in the film and there’s no need to go into it here. But everything up until David is dumped in the forest parallels Milton’s Paradise Lost, which recounts the fall of man and the rebellion of the angels lead by Lucifer, and when David lands in the forest, it is clearly the dark wood described by Dante at the beginning of his Divine Comedy. Indeed, David’s journey from that point takes him through Inferno (the Flesh Fair and Rouge City) upwards into Purgatory (Manhattan and the wait under the Ice) and finally to what he considers to be Paradise, the reunion with his mother. But, of course, in Kubrick’s dark view, David never really makes it to Paradise. After all, in Dante’s Inferno, it was Satan waiting at the bottom of hell, trapped forever in ice. The best that humans trapped by belief can do is reach Purgatory and think they’ve gotten to Heaven.
All of the above is floating around in A.I. Trouble is, your typical mall audience won’t look and won’t see the obvious and will be damn confused when no one explains it all to them in the final reel. In a way, they’re all like David while he’s trapped in the ice: thinking they’ve found an answer, repeating the same mindless mantra over and over, wanting their solutions to the big questions spoon fed to them. A.I. is one of those rare films that has only gotten better in my mind in retrospect, a heavily symbolic, very deep work that is quite suitable for analysis far deeper than this. Then again, everything Stanley Kubrick did was like that, and it’s a great testament to his power that he was able to pull off a masterpiece, one last time, from beyond the grave. It’s also a great testament that, for having had the experience, Steven Spielberg has made a quantum leap as a filmmaker. I can only hope he continues to move forward in the footsteps of the one true modern American master of cinema, the only filmmaker worthy, indeed, of the title “God.”
Jon Bastian is a TV, film and stage writer who lives in his native Los Angeles. He once spent a year living on Mr. Spielberg’s dime, has seen every single Stanley Kubrick film too may times (even Fear and Desire) and, in fact, was dragged into this whole silly business because 2001 impressed the hell out of him when he was nine years old. A re-release screening, thank you, not the first run…
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