Like many people, I am a fan of the work of director Steven Spielberg. Whenever I get the chance I enjoy watching his films, and catching various “behind the scenes” programs and interviews where this talented director speaks about his craft.
There are a few of his films that I have never seen, but have heard quite a bit about. One of them is A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. I had heard that it did not do well at the box office, and I was curious as to why. This weekend while channel surfing I was fortunate to come across this film just as it started and I decided to give it a viewing. I’m glad I did, but after doing so it is easy to see why it was not a box office smash as this science fiction adventure is very different from anything previously done by Spielberg, whether the light-hearted E.T. or the more serious Minority Report.
A.I. tells the story of a young couple with a son who is suffering from some type of terrible disease. His illness appears to be incurable, and while he is in cryogenic suspension his father, who works for a cyber-technology company, decides to bring home an experimental piece of artificial intelligence in the form of a young boy named David. The family eventually decides to activate his software that bonds him to the family in love, but this turns out to be problematic in that the couple’s natural son (an “organic”) soon recovers from his illness and returns home. Now the couple is faced with their real son and David (the “mecha”), and everyone’s adjustment to this situation turns out poorly, eventually resulting in the mother deciding to abandon David in the forest rather than returning him to the production company for destruction. This abandonment sets the stage for David’s journey through the rest of the film which echoes Pinocchio in that David believes if he can find the blue fairy and she turns him into a real boy his mother will love him once again.
This film is complex and intriguing on a number of levels. Not only does it address the ethical issues surrounding artificial intelligence and the questions surrounding the issues of mind and personhood, but it also raises serious questions that relate to spirituality and the interpretation of reality. After viewing this film and desiring more critical reflection on it I pulled an article from my research files by Frances Flannery-Dailey titled “Robot Heavens and Robot Dreams: Ultimate Reality in A.I. and Other Recent Films” from the Journal of Religion and Film 7/2 (October 2003). Flannery-Dailey’s article focuses on “A.I. as an illustration of intelligent, postmodern myth-making that constructs a multi-layered reality by interweaving dreaming, technology, ontological confusion, non-linear time, religion and myth.” And as if this wasn’t multi-layered and complex enough for a film, Flannery-Dailey’s article goes on to consider nine possible endings for it that are possible through consideration of various interpretive possibilities that engage the film’s symbolism and cinematic devices.
After surveying the possible endings and interpretive possibilities Flannery-Daily offers some final reflections.
“A.I. is a paradigm of the postmodern allegory in that signs/signifiers (objects the viewer sees) point to multiple significations (meanings the viewer construes from this viewing). Each strand of possibility points the audience not only in clever but also in meaningful ways towards important questions worthy of deep consideration regarding technology, ontology, the nature of the real, and morality. It would be impossible for me to delineate all interpretations of the film, since each viewer actively and repeatedly participates, if only unconsciously, in constructing the narratival flow of the film as well as its meaning. In my subjectivity, A.I. is a supremely intelligent film that successfully articulates the theme of ultimate reality as a nested, multi-layered one by using the language of hypertexts: religion, myths and dreams.”
The author continutes with a mention of the film’s lack of critical and popular acclaim and suggests possible reasons for it and the unease that viewers likewise experience with the film:
“The film draws on ancient traditions such as Genesis and on mythic artchetypes, but recasts them in a postmodern way: there is no God that watches over us once we are expelled from the garden and the moon is not really the mother of the world. We are left only with our own psyches as the transcendent referent to repair profound loss, with a pastiche of possible interpretations of our past at hand. I believe many people find this message unsettling, and A.I. further exacerbates the tension by falsely casting this complexity in a fairy-tale ending. That is, postmodern films that wrestle with ultimate reality have succeeded in deconstructing reality for us, in turn also deconstructing many of the religious and mythic referents on which they draw.”
Regardless of whether this film makes you feel uneasy as you watch it critically, or whether you are content to accept the simple fairytale interpretion ending suggestion in the first of Flannery-Dailey’s interpretive options, this film is rewarding as a piece of art and cinema that wrestles with some of the key issues of the Western world in late modernity. Perhaps Spielberg might be considered not only a gifted filmmaker and storyteller, but also a budding armchair philosopher.