A.I.: Atheist’s Inferno

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My youngest son was asking me what my favorite movie of all time was, and without hesitation I told him 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I saw it as a child, I certainly didn’t understand its depths, but I intuited the importance of it. There are such strong mythic elements to it–there is a kind of scientific, secular spirituality to it that resonates with me yet.

Fitting, then, that a later film that would affect me similarly would be that brilliant, maddening work that Stanley Kubrick never quite made, but was made for him, shortly after his death, by Steven Spielberg. That is, of course, the film that perfectly bookends 2001: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (which was released, of course, in the year 2001).

Much has been written about the religious meanings in both 2001 and A.I., and the symbols are not subtle. 2001 is, among other things, a simple parable of the transfiguration of humanity to something greater, with David Bowman leaving the realm of the man, to become a post-human Child.  A.I. is the attempt of a different David, David the not-human Child, to become humanized. With its relentless and merciless attack on the pointlessness of faith and the inhumanity of Creators to their Created, it is the most thorough allegorical argument for atheism ever put to film.

In a religious allegory, we might start by looking for the character that represents God. Professor Hobby, who designs David to be as human as a robotic child could possibly be, certainly plays a God-like role in the film. But the “mecha” David that is delivered by Hobby to the family that desires him as a surrogate son has not undergone the emotional bonding process. He is still a robot. He is Adam before the fall. He is certainly nothing like a human.

The humanization process is initiated by his surrogate mother, Monica, not by his designer. In that sense, she is God – she gives David the capability to feel and experience human emotions. And she does this because she is lonely for companionship, to fill the void left by the departure of her own child. But when she gets her real son back, she abandons David, fittingly, in the forest (the Wilderness Beyond Eden, or Dante’s Dark Wood of Error). Before sending this new human down into the abyss that is life, her last words to him are, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.”

So God (Monica) has given Man (David) the capacity to love and feel pain, casts him out, gives him an unending thirst to be reunited with his Parent, and then leaves the scene. God is the ultimate Deadbeat Dad, or Deadbeat Mom, in this case. And as David undergoes his odyssey, and escapes the various perils of the unfriendly world he finds himself in, he only thinks of returning the that very Agent that rejected him. The painful spectacle of him praying in vain to a graven image, with as much reward for his pains as we’d expect–that is, none–is an ultimate kind of hell. It’s a very powerful image, David faithfully and pointlessly begging the inanimate Blue Fairy for salvation. But by a stroke of luck, a post-human race arrives after thousands of years and gives him the option to experience a single, simulated day with a fabricated version of his mother/God. The moral of the denouement seems to say that the best that faith-based thinking can offer is an illusion.

In some ways, A.I. is an incredibly depressing film, as it unflinchingly shows us the hollowness of our wishful thinking. But here’s the silver lining: David was a child. And we are still in our childhood as a species. And to paraphrase the Bible, there is a time to put an end to childish things. If David had been allowed to mature before the end of movie, he’d have eventually realized that the One that abandoned him doesn’t deserve his love, and he can move on, and get around what Professor Hobby states as man’s fatal flaw: His ongoing insistence on hoping for things that don’t exist.

Let’s hope that day when we all grow up comes sooner rather than later.

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One Response to “A.I.: Atheist’s Inferno”

  1. I just finished watching AI for the first time and I immediately began to see symbols and themes of atheism. Of course I searched for similar keywords to find this excellent blog post. Your ideas certainly do supplement my own.

    Despite this film coming to fruition under Spielberg’s direction, I see both his auteur style, but more so that of Kubrick’s. I could easily see AI being a complement to 2001, particularly the denouement.

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