A.I. Artificial Intelligence is many things–a retelling of Pinocchio, a meditation on what makes us human, a story of childhood innocence struggling to survive the cruelty of the adult world–but above all else it is a story about love. All of its other themes and influences are subservient to this; indeed, they are tools used to deepen the film’s thematic core.
David is a robot, a prototype. He exists in an unspecified future that looks like our present, but we are informed that this is after the ice caps have melted. Coastal areas are flooded, resources are limited. Childbirth is regulated for the good of society. This is where David comes in. He is a Mecha, a child-substitute for couples who cannot have biological children. As his inventor explains, he has been programmed to love his parents, just as a human child would.
Henry and Monica have a child, Martin, in a vegetative state, doomed never to recover. They live with the grief, unable to have another child. But Henry works for Dr. Hobby, who has developed a child-Mecha to fill this void. Hobby knows the pain of a lost child; David is modeled on his own lost son. He allows Henry to bring home a prototype for Monica.
She resists initially, explaining that there is no substitute for a real child. Time and familiarity with David wear her down, and eventually, she decides to program the Mecha to love her. Following an instruction manual, she utters a string on unrelated words, triggering a program within him. For the first time, David calls her Mommy.
Monica: Cirrus, Socrates, particle, decibel, hurricane, dolphin, tulip.
How do we first experience love? The cliché of love at first sight is woefully simplistic and inaccurate. No, love–the kind that binds us to another person, the kind that enables us to see past the faults in another’s character–develops over time, as Monica learns to accept (and then love) David. We interact, observe the other, and finally choose to love that person. In retrospect, this process appears as stream-of-consciousness imagery, individual pieces that are meaningless on their own but add up to form the emotion we feel.
Consider the way love is described in Western culture, in songs and films. Songs describe hair blowing in the breeze, the feeling of a kiss, the touch of two young hands intertwining. Movies show relationships growing through montage, each image pregnant with romantic idealism. We have been taught from childhood that these brief sensory experiences constitute life. Like David, we are programmed to respond.
Of course, complications ensue when Martin comes back from the brink of death. He knows immediately what David is, explaining to his counterpart about the difference between Mecha and Orga (natural) life. In a fit of childish cruelty, he asks his mother to read Pinocchio as a bedtime story, and he lets David know that Mechas aren’t Real.
Real, to the humans in the film, means “biological” or “natural.” Even though David is very real (and has the intelligence to know it), he is man-made and therefore not Real. Like an adopted child encountering the blunt ignorance of strangers, he is forcibly reminded–over and over–that Henry and Monica are not his “real” parents.
After a series of increasingly dangerous misunderstandings, Henry decides that David should be returned to his manufacturer. Because Monica has already imprinted on David, he cannot be resold. The company will destroy him. Unlike her husband, Monica has chosen to love David; she cannot allow her child to be killed, even if that’s just a matter of disconnecting circuitry. She drives David deep into the forest and tearfully abandons him there with his supertoy, Teddy.
Remembering the story of Pinocchio and the climactic moment where the wooden puppet is transformed into a Real boy, David and Teddy set out to find the Blue Fairy. If he becomes Real, Monica will have to love him! What follows is a hellish nightmare.
David is captured by anti-Mecha trackers who run a Flesh Fair–the equivalent of robot-lynching as carnival. Crowds cheer the destruction of humanoid machines, wallowing in their prejudice and clapping as shit blows up real good. He escapes with Gigolo Joe, a Mecha prostitute who takes him to Rouge City to search for the Blue Fairy among the many women seeking sexual pleasure.
Joe is concerned with love, too, but he does not understand it as anything more than orgasm. (Actual intimacy being beyond his job description.) Judging by the crowds in Rouge City, many humans don’t grasp the distinction, either.
Following the advice of a Siri-like information source called Dr. Know, David, Joe, and Teddy travel to a water-logged Manhatten to find Dr. Hobby. Here, David realizes that there are dozens–hundreds–of robot children exactly like him, awaiting completion and purchase. His individuality and sense of self are destroyed. He has followed a goal set for him not by an owner, but by his own artificial mind. For all intents and purposes, he is as Real as Hobby or any of his designers, not that they see him this way.
Finally, he travels underwater to Coney Island, where he finds a statue of the Blue Fairy. An accident traps him there, looking at her day after day, praying constantly to become Real until his power runs out.
Here, the film jumps forward in time two millennia, to a time when SuperRobots are all that remain. They are trying to reconnect with ancient humanity, and David represents the best link to that past. They read his memories and speak to him through a Blue Fairy, finally granting him the chance to reconnect with his Mommy, albeit only for a day.
Being a robot, David’s love for Monica is pure and unflagging. Despite the dangers of his journey, he never questions his devotion to her. His final day with her is the best of his life, a reconstruction and simplification of the film’s early scenes. In A.I.‘s final moments, he climbs into bed with her as she drifts off to sleep, never to wake again.
We can never achieve a love so all-encompassing. The film’s humans are weak, selfish, lustful, hateful, cruel–as we all are. Mechas have been created to serve our needs. They cook, clean, fuck, and–yes–love us, but rarely offer anything in return beyond a sense of creator’s entitlement. We cannot handle something as pure as David’s love. In the end, we discard such things and move on.
Gigolo Joe: She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you David, she cannot love you. You are neither flesh nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat, or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us, and that is why you must stay here, with me.
God, we are such assholes.
Next up for Cigarette Burns:
Jesse delves deep into Carnal Knowledge and I (heart) I (Heart) Huckabees.