A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Warner Bros.

Christians have argued for centuries that God gave us free will, with all the potential for sin and pain that that entails, because he wanted children who would love him, and not mere robots who would do whatever they were programmed to do. But these days, as neurologists and psychologists develop maps of the brain, many people consider themselves machines. This has profoundly influenced how we understand such concepts as love, free will, and the soul.

The flip side of this mechanistic view of human nature has become popular in science fiction (the genre in which the implications of our scientific theories get fleshed out): to treating artificially intelligent machines as persons, with the same rights as people. These issues are explored in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, a new film about a robot child who is programmed to love.

Steven Spielberg wrote and directed A.I. from a concept that Stanley Kubrick spent years developing (who died in 1999). Kubrick's concept was based, in turn, on the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss.

A.I. is set in a dystopic future, when global warming and rising oceans have drowned many of the world's cities, and married people cannot have children unless the government picks their names in a lottery. Robots of various sorts have existed for decades, serving as butlers, nannies, and prostitutes, but when the film begins, no one has yet created a robot for childless couples.

That all changes when Professor Hobby (William Hurt), an entrepreneurial scientist, proposes making android children to offer genuine love to the parents who adopt them. These children, he says, will have real emotions and even a subconscious mind, and they will have dreams and desires that were not built into them. At the same time, they will be hard-wired to give their adoptive parents a perfect, everlasting love.

One of Hobby's assistants asks whether the scientists, or the broader society, will have a moral responsibility to these robots, should they ever be rejected by their parents, but Hobby dismisses her concerns. After all, he says, "In the beginning, didn't God create Adam to love him?" Thus the film raises the disturbing, if not entirely original, question of whether creators, including God, owe anything to their creations, or whether they may abandon their creations at will.

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Robophobic Horrors

The prototype for this new line of artificial children is named David, and he is played with a sometimes eerie sensitivity by Haley Joel Osment. David is sent to live not with one of the planet's many childless couples but with the parents of a real boy who is frozen in a cryogenic coma.

David's new mother, Monica (Frances O'Connor), objects that there can be no substitute for her son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who is, after all, not dead yet. But she quickly overcomes her objections, and although David's behavior is anything but natural, she activates the program that will bond David to her for the rest of his life.

But then Martin is miraculously cured and comes home, and the sibling rivalry that ensues between him and David leads to a couple of life-threatening incidents that finally compel Monica to send David away. By the time she abandons him in the woods, it is clear that, just as Monica has imprinted herself on David's heart and mind, he has imprinted himself on hers; their separation tears them both apart and is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in recent memory. Determined to win back his mother's love, and inspired by Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, David decides to track down the Blue Fairy and ask her to make him a "real" boy.

But first he must deal with the prejudices of his robophobic society. And yes, the film does suggest that those who believe there is a qualitative difference between humans and androids may be harboring an attitude that is tantamount to racism. Although the film encourages a reductive view of robot behavior—the robots that preceded David are little more than "sensory toys," Hobby tells us—it also suggests that robots are people too. By extension, one might wonder whether the filmmakers would encourage a reductive view of human behavior, and, like some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists in our own day, explain all of our instincts away as mere biochemistry.

David is captured by religious rednecks and taken to the Flesh Fair, a festival in the woods where humans who feel threatened by androids take sadistic glee in torturing the machines to death. One of the robots in the holding pen mutters that history is repeating itself, and the line evokes memories of Schindler's List and Amistad, two previous Spielberg films that dealt with systemic racism. To make sure we don't miss the point, the first android victim we see has black features and the voice of stand-up comic Chris Rock.

When it is David's turn to be destroyed, one of the fair's ringleaders, a burly Irishman named Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), tells the crowd that scientists have made androids as part of a "grand scheme" to replace "all of God's little children" with machines. Then, to goad the crowd into participating in David's demolition, he quotes, out of context, one of Jesus' most famous sayings: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Jesus, of course, said this to point out that none of us is free of the taint of sin, and thus, we have no right to condemn each other.

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But Johnson-Johnson says this to flatter his audience, to persuade them of their superiority over robots and those who build them. Ironically, sin is a quality that belongs only to fully conscious beings such as humans and angels, so if Johnson-Johnson is correct, and robots do not have souls, then the humans at his fair are the only sinners there. Conversely, if robots do have a sinful nature, then who knows? God may have given them souls after all. (One wonders if the Christians in this futuristic society have ever tried to evangelize the robots.)

A Gigolo Guide

The film's use of religious themes and images continues as David escapes from the Flesh Fair and resumes his quest for the Blue Fairy. He is helped by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), an eager-to-please android who has been framed for murder by a jealous husband and is now hiding from the law.

The relationship between these two perfectly captures the film's central tension between Kubrick's cold, cynical rationalism and the warm-and-fuzzy spirituality typical of Spielberg. David is convinced the Blue Fairy exists, but Joe is not so sure. Joe argues that David's belief in her may be nothing more than an "electronic parasite"—or a "mind virus," to use the term favored by outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins—and the way Joe sees it, selfishness and sensuality are all that really exist, in the end.

When David asserts that Monica might still love him, Joe replies that he merely fulfills her emotional needs: "She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what I do for them." And as he stands outside a chapel in Rouge City, a high-tech red-light district populated by robot hustlers, Joe declares that, although those who made the robots are always looking for their own Creator, in the end, most humans settle for the empty physical pleasures provided by androids like him. "I've picked up a lot of business in this spot," says Joe.

If Joe's view of human nature sounds bleak, Spielberg does try to hold out the hope that there is a spiritual dimension to our lives that takes us beyond ourselves. But the concept of love that David is supposed to represent is fundamentally flawed. If love is characterized by personal sacrifice and selfless acts, then David's love is not quite real, no matter what the ads for this movie say.

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In a word, David is not free. To borrow a concept from Paul, he remains a slave to his synthetic flesh, and as far as this film is concerned, there is no liberator—no savior—in sight.

Peter Chattaway reviews films for Books & Culture and BC Christian News.

Related Elsewhere

A.I. is based on Brian Aldiss's short story, Super-Toys Last all Summer Long.

The film's official Web site has storyboards and features on robots and the film's art. Plus a neat "Chatbot" will actually hold conversations with visitors.

RottenTomatoes.com gives a quick-look guide to A.I.'s critical reviews. Read full reviews from Film Forum's Jeffrey Overstreet, Roger Ebert, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Focus on the Family, and Salon.com.

Supersphere has an interesting account of the story behind A.I., which includes Eyes Wide Shut's enigmatic Teddy Bear. Other articles on the making of the film ran in: Wired, Entertainment Weekly, and The Guardian.

In marketing of the film, numerous cryptic Web sites began popping up in some sort of mystery game existing in the same setting as A.I. The dozens of sites branch out from each other so look for links and working phone numbers.

Christianity Today Film Forum has looked at A.I.:

Spielberg and Kubrick—The Brothers Grimmer What Christian and mainstream critics are saying about A.I., crazy/beautiful, and Baby Boy, plus readers' video alternatives. (July 5, 2001)

Right, Wrong, and Rated 'R' | Is nudity a no-no? Also, what critics and readers are saying about A.I., Cats and Dogs, Kiss of the Dragon, and Scary Movie II. (July 12, 2001)

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Directed By
Steven Spielberg
Run Time
2 hours 26 minutes
Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor
Theatre Release
June 29, 2001
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