The current hit movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence is stunning cinema—just what a moviegoer would expect from two of the silver screen's greatest architects, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick.
The acting is also first-rate, particularly the performances by child prodigy Haley Joel Osment as the robo-boy David and Jude Law as the aptly named Gigolo Joe. The beautiful veneer, though, conceals a disturbing blemish—and I'm not referring to the film's acceptance of two popular gloom-and-doom scare theories of the day, global warming and overpopulation.
In a post-apocalyptic world starved of resources, David is created to be the perfect child for parents who cannot get birth licenses from the government. Once David “imprints” on his parent, he is programmed to love that parent unconditionally, irrevocably, forever. David imprints on a woman whose son, Martin, has been cryogenically frozen because the medicine of the day cannot cure his illness. But a cure is discovered, Martin wakes up and David proves to be a danger to the family.
When Martin manipulates David into cutting a lock of his mother's hair, she wakes up in the act and her husband misconstrues David's act as a sign of underlying malevolence. Next, while defending himself against Martin's bullying friends, David latches on to Martin, begging for protection. Hysterical, David drags Martin over the edge of a swimming pool, nearly drowning him.
David's mother agonizes over what to do with David before deciding to let him go. Then follows one of the most upsetting scenes on the screen in recent memory.
The mother takes the robo-boy into the woods. When David begs her not to leave him there, promising to do anything so that she will love him again, she throws him to the ground. David looks on in shock and horror as she takes off. David then embarks on an odyssey to find the blue fairy who, as he read in Pinocchio, may be able to change him into a real boy.
Spielberg proves himself a master of emotional manipulation: One would have to be inhuman indeed not to feel for the figure Haley Joel Osment cuts as a lost child. And David's quest is, after all, the most human quest possible—the search for unconditional love. In spite of my awareness of the director's heavyhandedness, I found myself involved in the plight of this appealing character.
Feeling Is Believing
A.I. works as stirring cinema, all right, and a big part of its success is that, as a fantasy, it never has to explain how it is that a machine can flawlessly mimic love, the most complex and human of all emotions. Just as he convinced us that a robotic shark was a real fish in Jaws, Spielberg here convinces us that a real boy is a robot is a real boy (got that?).
And why wouldn't we believe what we see with our own eyes? Spielberg has cast a charming, cute, bright-eyed little boy and then used all the tools at his disposal, including some of the most amazing and expensive special-effects wizardry ever invented, to draw us deeper and deeper into his illusion.
When the little boy is dragged through the mud of the plot's heart-tugging devices, and the audience sees his tears and hears his cries for mommy, it is impossible not to care deeply about this David.
So why is this a bad thing, from a Christian point of view? Because our succumbing to the story's emotional seduction is strong evidence of our predilection toward functionalism.
We, too, tend to equate humanity and personhood with what one can do rather than with who one is. David is the perfect flip side to the abortion debate. He is not a human—but he looks, acts and sounds like one.
Meanwhile a blastocyst (a days-old human conceptus) is human, but certainly does not look, act, or sound like one. As Spielberg sees it, the Davids of the world, if they ever come to be, will be more human than many humans.
In this way, A.I. divorces the notion of personhood from that of dignity. The functionalist accords dignity only to a being who fulfills a preconceived idea of what a sentient human is. The Princeton utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer argues for exactly this divorce, even to the point of condoning infanticide. The problem is that most people base their ideas solely on everyday contact with the people in their lives, who fall within a limited range of appearance and capability. Anything radically outside of that experience does not meet the common expectation of a functional human.
Of course, early-stage fetuses and embryos look nothing like the people we see around us. If we rely on subjective feelings and our narrow ranges of experience, we will not accord them the dignified status of personhood. They don't look like any person I've ever seen, so they must not be a person at all.
As dignity and personhood go, so go rights.
Because the unborn do not fit the mold of everyday experience, the functionalist concludes that they are not persons and have no rights. Hence, the slippery slope leading to abortion, infanticide and embryonic stem-cell research.
On the other hand, we have David to deal with.
David does fall within the normal experience of what it means to be a functional human being. So moviegoers are able to sympathize with a nonhuman machine. How many of those same viewers are able to sympathize with the human embryo, so much harder to relate to?
In order to believe that life really begins at conception, we need to go beyond the prejudices of subjective experience into the realm of principle, where appearances are not all that matters. Sadly, there do not seem to be too many people capable of doing such a thing. Why resort to reason when feeling is so much more immediate and familiar?
Even if one does come to the principled conclusion that life begins at conception, David still looks a lot more human and worthy of rights than the indistinct blastocyst, no matter how firmly one thinks the opposite.
In other words, David pulls on our heartstrings when we should be using our heads. And Hollywood continues to reinforce prejudices that engage our sympathy for what only appears human while riding roughshod over real human beings.
Tom Harmon is a researcher and writer at the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.