Journal of Religion and Film

Robot Heavens and Robot Dreams:
Ultimate Reality in A.I. and Other Recent Films

by Frances Flannery-Dailey
Hendrix College

Vol. 7 No. 2 October 2003

Robot Heavens and Robot Dreams:
Ultimate Reality in A.I. and Other Recent Films

by Frances Flannery-Dailey
Hendrix College


Numerous recent films understand ultimate reality to be multi-layered. This article examines the various formulas films use to express this idea, such as heaven, dreams, technology, temporal loops and altered mental states, while also exploring the various religious and philosophical traditions on which these "ultimate reality films" draw. Next, I suggest a postmodern framework as a way of accounting for the ubiquity of the reality theme across filmic genres and I argue that film is a unique medium for expressing this epistemology. Finally, I turn to an extensive analysis of A.I. as a case study of a postmodern, multivalent "ultimate reality film" and illuminate nine possible endings that combine myth, religion, Freud and Jung with themes of technology and ontological identity.


[1] Every age has its anxieties. Ours has produced a particular shade of angst, one colored by apocalyptic fervor over the millennium as well as by postmodern specters that have crystallized in the last century like never before in history. We are now on familiar grounds with terrorism, war fought with weapons of mass destruction, worldwide environmental devastation, rampant consumerism, technological advancement without ethics, and globalism without community. Whether an attempt to foster escapism or to offer a genuine solution, Hollywood has responded with a particular epistemological answer: this material world of suffering that we perceive is not the only world. Drawing on an array of both "Eastern" and "Western" religious and philosophical traditions - including Buddhism, Hinduism, Neo-Manichean dualism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Descartes' mind / body dualism, and Jewish Kabbalah - several recent cinematic releases articulate an understanding of true reality as a multi-layered one, sometimes with and sometimes without an identifiable ultimate level.

[2] In the article that follows, I argue this orienting (or disorienting) worldview of a multi-layered reality lies at the core of numerous recent films, although the formulas for articulating the scheme vary widely.1 I further submit that although many of the films draw on ancient religious and philosophical themes to express this notion, at its root, the cinematic focus on questions of ultimate reality constitutes a postmodern response to a troubling period of modern "progress." I also suggest that film is a uniquely qualified medium for expressing this cosmology. Finally, I explore 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.

Formulas for Ultimate Reality

[3] Depending on the film at hand, the formula for what constitutes ultimate reality varies, as does the mechanism for accessing alternate levels. A short illustrative survey of the presence of these themes in thirty films, mostly from around the turn of the millennium, suffices to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these notions in recent cinema.

[4] Several films frame reality as untrustworthy from within the subjective vantage point of the human mind, as in Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Minority Report (2002), Waking Life (2001) and Vanilla Sky (2001). In these cases, the gateway to accessing another reality could be mental illness (Fight Club), mental defect (Memento) or dream states (Minority Report, Waking Life and Vanilla Sky). Other films present ultimate or alternate planes of existence in a more literal fashion. In Pleasantville (1998), a television and a deus ex machina Don Knotts facilitate entry into a parallel sitcom universe, while in Dark City aliens conspire to keep a group of humans imprisoned in a false world which repeatedly changes while they are asleep (cf. The Truman Show [1999] and EDtv [1999]). In time-travel films such as Kate and Leopold (2001)2 and the remake The Time Machine (2002), technology offers a way into our world set in another time, which thus becomes another world. The theme also pervades children's films: Monsters, Inc. (2001)3 explains that closet doors are really portals into another dimension filled with capitalist monsters.


[5] However, most "ultimate reality films" go further, massaging the boundary between our seemingly objective, external reality and internal, subjective reality. Sixth Sense (1999), Spirited Away (2002) and similar films assert that another ontological reality is nestled in amongst ours; this "Land of Spirits" is accessible by a shift in consciousness (as well as by death). Jesus' Son (2000) offers hallucinogens as the gateway to altered mental states and, apparently, to genuine glimpses of the future. In scenes that resonate with The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) depicts simulated parallel universes within space-time that are created by technology and accessed through technologically induced shifts in perception. Being John Malkovich (1999) presents another twist by entertaining the possibility of literally entering another person's mind, thereby intertwining certain characters' "external" reality with John Malkovich's "internal" reality. Still another of Charlie Kaufman's films, Adaptation (2002), ingeniously calls attention to the falseness of reality as well as of film itself by cleverly conflating the filmic narrative, the mind of the screenwriter, and "real life" outside of the film. Furthermore, films such as Defending Your Life (1977), A Life Less Ordinary (1997), What Dreams May Come (1998) and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (1997) completely collapse ultimate, exterior reality and subjective reality by asserting that heaven is a mental projection of whatever one imagines.  Finally, some films create a multi-layered perspective that defies the identification of any definitive ultimate level. Whereas The Matrix (1999) ended by calling into question the illusory material world that human minds make real by virtue of the software program of the matrix, The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) ends by calling into question the boundaries of the matrix itself, as Neo is able to manipulate the material world in what the viewer thought was the "real" world of Zion and the Nebuchadnezzar.


[6] The most popular formula for suggesting that material reality is an illusion entails the metaphor of dreaming. Films such as A.I. (2001), the visionary Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, A Waking Life, Jesus' Son and Mulholland Drive (2001) explore dream life and waking life and conclude that distinctions between the two are often blurry or indiscernible. Other films play on the epistemological trope by suggesting that insomnia brings an alternate understanding of reality not available to those who sleep (Fight Club, Dark City). The dream metaphor is so apt for expressing the wavering nature of reality that numerous films have employed it more subtly through incorporating images of sleeping or beds in the mise en scène (apparent in numerous films, e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968], Eyes Wide Shut [1999], Blade Runner [1980], and of course The Matrix).


[7] Films which adopt a multi-layered perspective of the cosmos often draw on a host of ancient religious and philosophical traditions - both "Eastern" and "Western" - in order to articulate their epistemology. A relatively great deal of attention has been paid to one facet of the ultimate reality issue in film, namely the "Body and Soul" aspect,4 particularly in terms of Descartes' mind-body dualism.5 But a philosophical framing of the question of reality is not the only possible one. Most recently, The Matrix and The Matrix: Reloaded have received public and scholarly attention for their thoughtful syntheses of Neo-Platonism and Baudrillard's postmodern philosophy with Gnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jewish mysticism, Christianity, Neo-Manicheanism, and the theology of the Cathars.6 Other "ultimate reality films" utilize similar syncretism (albeit without the über-successful fusion of cyberpunk, computers and slick leather). For example, Neon Genesis Evangelion utilizes Christian, Kabbalistic and Gnostic themes in a heavy-handed but interesting way; Jesus' Son combines overt Christ figure imagery with more restrained Buddhist and Hindu themes of karma, temporal loops and reincarnation;7 and Susan Schwartz has noted that What Dreams May Come fuses a European appearing heaven with South Asian religious themes, particularly the concept of maya or the illusion of the material world.8


[8] What these various films have in common is a distrust of the senses in favor of some essence that makes us human - be it called mind, spirit, intuition, non-rational perception, or soul. It is this essence, they suggest, which allows us to access alternate realities. For instance, The Matrix and The Matrix: Reloaded proclaim the slogans, "Free your mind," which allows one to perceive the false reality of the matrix and, judging from the second film, of successive layers of the matrix.9 Like several films that precede them, the series also gestures towards the question of whether humans alone possess this capacity. Since mind is not equivalent to the brain or organic flesh, (as expressed so beautifully by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in What Dreams May Come), artificial intelligence such as computers or robots might also possess mind. Beginning with Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and catalyzed by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), numerous films have explored this nexus of technology, ontological identity, and multi-layered reality, including: BladeRunner, Tron (1982), Iron Giant (1999), Pi (1999), The Matrix and The Matrix: Reloaded, Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, A.I., and Tezuka's Metropolis (2001).


[9] In sum, whatever formulas they utilize - be they heavens, dreams, matrices, split personalities, hallucinations, time travel or artificial intelligences - and whatever religious and philosophical referents they make, the many aforementioned films share the assertions that reality is multi-layered, that our sensorial reality is unreliable, and that we are able to transcend our immediate perceptions in order to access ultimate reality.

Postmodernism, Film and Ultimate Reality

[10] This survey surely elicits the question of what drives these myriad formulations of a multi-layered reality in recent cinema. On his website for Christian spirituality and film, Doug Cummings comes closest in my view to seeing the larger picture when he states, "the rejection of reality, the 'breaking through to the real,' and the mind/body problem are all interrelated to our culture's desire to establish new paradigms for living."10

[11] In other words, the cinema is positively exuding postmodernism and offering up multiple realities as one solution, as several scholars have noted in the case of The Matrix series11 There are as many definitions of postmodernism as there are scholars of postmodernism, but I find most helpful that of Terry Eagleton, who describes postmodernism as "a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, or the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation."12 Postmodern sensibilities arise out a supreme dissatisfaction with the idea of modern "progress" and often result in not only a severe critique of modern hallmarks such as technology, capitalism, nationalism and urban life, but also in a deeper suspicion of any given absolute. When Eagleton notes that postmodernism rejects the very notion of singular perspectives and "ultimate grounds of explanation," he may as well be describing the plots of Hollywood's most recent offerings. In terms of semiotics, each sign (or object depicted on screen) points to multiple signifieds (or meanings construed by the viewer). Moreover, the viewer actively participates in creating meaning in a layered text, but the postmodern viewer's psyche is fragmentary, thereby adding layer upon layer.13

[12] Of course, it is not the case that filmmakers are universally versed in semiotics, postmodernism, or Baudrillard. Rather, the best myths express what a society already feels but has perhaps not yet fully recognized - and films both utilize and create myths. Our public at large senses the disjointedness of the easy answers modernism presents, particularly around the turn of this millennium. Filmmakers sense this brokenness, too, and articulate our collective unease and displeasure by pressing postmodernism to its logical extreme, rejecting a singular, flat reality in favor of other planes of perception, existence or being.14 This can be a "post-postmodern" stance, in that the ultimate ground of explanation has shifted, but remains; some films defy pinning down the ultimate nature of reality, a truly postmodern move.

[13] Although postmodern expression abounds in literature and art of this century, I would argue that among the arts, film has a unique capacity for expressing a postmodern framing of a multi-layered reality in a manner accessible to the general public. Film is able to alter space through mise en scène, lenses, special effects and so forth. Like paintings, film can visually insert symbols that convey the idea of multiple planes of reality. For instance, Vanilla Sky, A.I. and The Matrix are each sprinkled with reflective objects such as mirrors, reflective sunglasses, windows, spoons and mirrored buildings. The Matrix, The Truman Show, EDtv and Pleasantville utilize televisions as a symbol of unreality - with The Matrix Reloaded employing them as representations of all possible space/time vectors of choice in the Architect's Room.

[14] In addition to altering space, though, film can, like literature and music, create surreal perceptions of time - an important dimension of reality - by repeating or foreshadowing themes that refer the audience backwards or forwards. Moreover, film alone is able to manipulate time through montage, using juxtaposition of shots, dissolves, double exposure or multiple images. Audiences have become savvy at grasping cinematic codes that bend time backwards (flashbacks) and forwards (accelerated montage, a change in lenses or filters) or that slow time (slow montage) or stop time altogether (freeze frames). All Hollywood films in fact construct an altered perception of time, in that the plot does not proceed in "real time" over a period of two hours.15

[15] Finally, film has an array of unique special effects allowing it to create multiple planes of reality and of time. The Matrix series has made "Bullet Time" famous, and these and other films may employ a host of special effects (computer animation, digitization, blue screen, matte shots, pixilation, and so forth) to convey the notion of a multi-layered reality. Thus, the fact that film is able to suggest multiple planes of existence in such effective ways accounts in part for the explosion of this theme in postmodern cinema.

[16] I turn now to an extended example of one of the most complex and widely misunderstood films to treat the theme of a multi-layered reality - Spielberg and Kubrick's fantastical A.I.16  This film employs many of the motifs utilized by other ultimate reality films, including dreams, technology, ontological confusion, altered mental states, and heaven. Moreover, it interweaves these themes with specific referents from myth (Pinocchio), religion (Judaism and Christianity), and dream theorists (Freud and Jung) in order to present a construction of the world that defies any attempt to pin down reality definitively. In this film, reality is not merely nuanced in terms of the "hard" reality of waking life versus the "soft" reality of dreams,17 rather, all reality is soft. Each viewing reveals conflicting and complementary layers of reality or strands of the plot.

[17] Perhaps the most obvious religious referent in the film is the creation story in Genesis.18 The plot shows humans thoughtlessly acting as God / the Creator by constructing a robot boy, David, who can love,19 without due regard for the responsibility that creation entails. The principle Creator is named Dr. Hobby, pointing to the capriciousness of his act, since he ignores the fact that the human object of David's affection is destined to be incapable of loving a robot unconditionally and will die long before the robot wears down, leaving David alone and fractured for eternity. Abandoned by his mother in the woods, alone except for a "Supertoy" named Teddy, David goes on a journey to become "a real boy" like Pinocchio and thus win mommy's love. Further conflict ensues when he is captured in a Flesh Fair in which humans destroy mecha for entertainment. Here his storyline meets up with another mecha's, "Gigolo Joe, Whaddya Know," a "love mecha" or mecha designed for prostitution who is unfairly framed for murder.

[18] This portion of the plot serves merely to introduce the film up to the point at which reality becomes soft and undulating. In fact, A.I. presents at least nine possible endings, several of which send the viewer back to the beginning to reinterpret the plot synopsis just provided. Each strand of the film interprets David's quest to find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio who will make him a "real boy" so that his mommy will love him; thus the question of reality is articulated in terms of technology, ontology, moral capacity and relationships. The film rejects a definition of realness based on organic flesh, pointing instead to mind as the essence of genuine existence. In Cartesian fashion, A.I. gives the impression that brains (whether organic or mechanical) are merely the host for mind / soul which in turn gives "real boys" the capacity to love, dream, intuit and hope. Thus, myths captured in stories such as Pinocchio may be more real than material reality - especially if Rank is correct in asserting that myths are collective dreams.20

[19] Like a dream itself, the film offers a pastiche of possibilities along multiple narratival pathways, explicitly calling on the viewer to participate in constructing the reality of the film itself. I will discuss nine proposed endings in turn, with a focus on the question of ultimate reality.

A.I. - Ending One: One Perfect Day in a Reconstructed Material Reality

[20] Even in the most obvious thread of the film (if anything about this film may be said to be obvious), the questions of reality, mind and ontology are central. David, Teddy and Gigolo Joe escape the Flesh Fair, proceed to Rouge City, and journey to Dr. Hobby's office in Manhattan. There David learns he is one of many David robot boys, causing him to jump off a building into the sea. After being rescued by Gigolo Joe and Teddy in an amphibicopter, David must escape once more with Teddy underwater. There he finally discovers Pinocchio's Blue Fairy underwater in a flooded Coney Island, where he and Teddy remain in the amphibicoptor for two thousand years. During this time, the earth freezes and all humans perish, including David's mommy, while mecha (robots) continue to evolve. Several beneficent mecha find David, revive him, and in a display of apparent mechanical telepathy, collectively use their mechanical minds to access the contents of David's mind.

[21] Unlike the extinct humans in the film, the mecha have evolved into caring, moral beings, begging the question of who ever had authentic existence in the film - humans or mecha. These loving mecha want to provide David with fulfillment. Using his mental files, they simulate the Blue Fairy, and in this form they grant David's wish and reconstruct his ideal reality: his home with mommy and Teddy, "without Henry or Martin." Although in the logic of this ending of the film Monica has long since died, the evolved mecha are able to revive her by using a strand of her hair that Teddy had preserved. This version of Monica, a clue to the multiple possibilities of the film, can only live for one perfect day. She lavishes David with affection and declares her love for him, only to die as night falls. David then lies beside her to sleep and to dream for all of eternity, fully satisfied in this level of nested dream reality, while Teddy the faithful companion keeps watch by his side.

[22] This level of the plot explicitly draws on Judeo-Christian motifs of Creation from Genesis. Like David, the advanced mecha crave contact with their Creator; thus they developed the technology to "resurrect" the bodies of humans for one day from samples of DNA, in the hopes that humanity's essence or "spirit" will somehow appear as well.21 This points the viewer back to an earlier scene in which Gigolo Joe, standing in front of the "Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart" church, asserts that humans are always trying to find the One who created them. In fact, the Blue Fairy's costuming is close to the iconography of the Virgin Mary, the "Mother of God." Thus, Ending One is far from simple, interweaving mommies (Virgin Mary, Monica), Creators (God, Virgin Mary, Dr. Hobby, humans, and the mecha who create Monica), myth (Pinocchio's Blue Fairy, Genesis, dreams), and technology of different sorts (David, Teddy, the evolved mecha, the reconstituted Monica and the simulated Blue Fairy) - all of which are centered around questions of ultimate reality. Although the dénouement of Ending One declares that the mecha, David and Teddy are all "real" because of their capacity to love, the means by which the mecha help David explicitly involve an illusory world with a duplicate mommy, a Virgin Mary-esque simulated Blue Fairy, and David's endless dreaming - multiple layers of reality.

A.I. Ending Two: One Perfect Day in a Dream

[23] Ending One, although the patent conclusion to the plot, contains a number of loose ends. Only the most unobservant, non-critical viewers were left satisfied with the saccharine fairy tale ending of "happily ever after," since David lies sleeping next to his deceased mother as Teddy watches on for eternity. The otherworldly, disembodied, fairy tale voice-over by Ben Kingsley merely increases the inherent tension of this ending. As I heard one woman remark in bitterness upon leaving the theatre, "That was no E.T."

[24] At the outset of the film, David is created to be the ultimate robot, "a mecha with a mind, with neuronal feedback." Dr. Hobby's detailed description of the robot series provides a clue to the proper lens for viewing the film:" ... love will be the key by which they acquire a kind of subconscious, never before achieved, an inner world of metaphor, of intuition, of self-motivated reasoning, of dreams."

[25] Ending Two is a dream sequence, available to more perceptive viewers through Spielberg's use of a cinematic code for unreality. The transitory scene occurs with the fade to white space that frames David's slowly opening blue eyes, which appear to float unnaturally in white space. This key scene is the one that appears most on the film's posters and trailers. Before the point at which the mecha close David's eyes in order to read his mind, an eerie David (acted to perfection by Haley Joel Osment) had never before closed his eyes, not even to blink. This symbol represents an awakening to a new plane of perception, a waking dream.

[26] Serious glitches present themselves that deconstruct Ending One and point to Ending Two. Since the final sequence in David's home takes place within his mind, Monica cannot "actually" be revived from DNA. Similarly, the question of how Teddy is able to be present in David's mental construction arises. In fact, we do not actually see Teddy revived; he may be "dead" or broken down in the amphibicopter.22

[27] Given the mecha's decision to "give [David] what he wants" and the Blue Fairy's declaration that "Your wish is my command," the entire linear explanation within the house sequence becomes unreliable wish-fulfillment. From the moment we see David's blue eyes in white space we witness his Freudian Oedipal fantasy made true:23 he does away with the father (Henry) and sleeps with his mother (Monica). Teddy is only as real as the Blue Fairy or the house; they are present in David's dream only through the manipulation of the minds of the advanced mecha.24

[28] Much in the way our own dreams replay images from the past, so too David's dream recasts problematic images. 25 Whereas formerly Monica shut David in a closet out of fear, with David asking, "Is it a game?", now David and mommy hide playfully together in the closet because it really is a game that they play on Teddy. Earlier Monica had feared David when he cut off a lock of her hair; in the dream the secret lock of hair is the means of reviving mommy. Again, whereas formerly Monica avoids helping him change clothes and becomes angry when David sees her on the toilet, she now helps groom him after his shower (echoes of Freud). In the first part of the film, David declares he has no birthday, but in his dream his mommy throws him a birthday party complete with cake, thereby also transforming his earlier trauma in which he broke when he tried to eat food. Earlier in the story, children taunt him by asking him if he can "pee," which he could not do; now, however, David is able to shed a tear. In fact, the entire "perfect day" is an oneiric healing of that final day when Monica abandoned him, about which she promised, "Tomorrow's going to be just for us, okay?" In his dream, David fulfils his last words to Monica: "Mommy, if Pinocchio became a real boy and I become a real boy can I come home?" All healing is complete when mommy can finally say "I love you David. I do love you. I have always loved you."

[29] This dream, then, shapes the entire plot in terms of a gigantic temporal loop. The lighting in the dream house itself is slightly different than the first, and reflections and fractured images - symbols of nested layers of reality - abound. Interestingly, the "real" house was also full of reflective images (fractured glass doors, the lids of coffee jars, mirrors, countertops), both evoking the dream house to follow and perhaps suggesting that the first house is also not the ultimate one. Monica, whom we see studying herself in a mirror, is symbolized by a reflective image - a mobile containing a mirrored woman with what can be considered either a heart or the negative space where a heart should be.26 Similarly, she last sees David in her car's mirror after she abandons him. These two reflections of Monica and David, like the reflections in the house, both point forward to the "dream David" and the "dream Monica" and suggest that the outward appearances of orga (organic humans) and mecha (robots) are illusory. By beginning the dream sequence with David's opening eyes the film asserts that we wake up to reality, which is an imagined one.

A.I. Ending Three: One Perfect Day in a Dream within a Dream

[30] A.I. explicitly evokes not only the dream theories of Freud, but also of Jung, who argues that dreams, myths and childhood thinking are all examples of non-directed, associative thinking that shed light on one another.27 Mythic referents from Disney's Pinocchio28 structure much of the imagery beginning with David's plunge off Dr. Hobby's building into the water, suggesting that David has a mental disassociation from "reality" when he finds the multiple copies of himself hanging on pegs. The mental stress of meeting a version of himself29 makes David comment "my brain is falling out;"30 subsequently he creates a waking dream or "inner-world of metaphor."

[31] Carl Jung maintained that in dreams the sea is a symbol of the unconscious that carries a maternal aspect.31 Accordingly, just after saying "mommy," David dreams of being immersed in the water - his subconscious and the mother of all - and weaves a mythic dream out of scenes from Disney's Pinocchio. The plunge off a high place into the sea, the school of fish that fantastically transports him along and, of course, the Blue Fairy all echo scenes from the film. Again, whereas Pinocchio remains in the belly of a whale with Jiminy Cricket, David is imprisoned underwater with Teddy in the belly of an amphibicopter, in front of the Blue Fairy in the Pinocchio exhibit at Coney Island.

[32] The dream also draws on earlier events in David's life. The underwater scene recalls David's earlier trauma in the swimming pool, an insertion of troubling memory into dreams in the sense that both Freud and Jung describe.32 Further, the global freezing recalls the cryogenesis of Martin, the prototypical "real boy" like whom David aspires to be.33 When David is defrosted like Martin, he is on his way to becoming real as well.

[33] As in his other Freudian dream (which occurs within this dream), David kills the father - humans - who all become extinct, and self-projects himself in the evolved mecha. He then plunges deeper into his subconscious in the scene where the mecha read his mind. When the evolved mecha are able, in the form of a conflated Mary "Mother of God" /Blue Fairy Jungian archetype, to revivify his mommy, the wish-fulfillment is complete.

A.I. Endings Four and Five: One Perfect Day in Heaven

[34] As if this astute layering of myth, religion, technology, Freud and Jung were not enough, Spielberg adds another layer, thus creating more possible strands of narrative. The dreams that David experiences are also depicted in codes normally reserved for heaven, suggesting that David's mechanical body has expired and that his mind/soul has proceeded to "robot heaven."

[35] Ending Four commences with the scene of the fade to white/opening blue eyes, which is flooded with a bright light that steadily infuses portions of the following scenes in David's home. The code of glowing white light has consistently been the most common filmic depiction of heaven regardless of genre (e.g. the scenes of heaven in The Littlest Angel [1969], Defending Your Life [1977], Defending Your Life [1991], Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey [1991], My Life [1993], A Life Less Ordinary [1997] and too many more to mention). Within David's dream house, the use of extremely strong backlighting suggests an unreal moonlight that appears to flood in from the windows, while bright key lights above David and Teddy add to the sense of a heavenly dimension. Many films depicting heaven also employ a blurry, fuzzy effect to indicate an altered reality, and the house scenes are shot with a soft filter. Another standard code for heaven is the metonymic use of the color white to indicate celestial purity, and David wears a white bathrobe while Monica sleeps on glowing white sheets.

[36] Thus, in the logic of this ending David (and perhaps Teddy) did not survive the two thousand years underwater and his good soul has been transported to heaven, where sparkly, angel-like mecha care for him as celestial sounding music fills the air. Indeed, David even says of this "perfect day" that "maybe it will be like that day in the amphibicopter. Maybe it will last forever."

[37] Ending Five simply places heaven earlier in the plot, after David - set against the bird/human/mecha/angel logo of Cybertronics - plunges into the water. Can a robot commit suicide? Apparently so, and the film has consistently asserted that David's true essence is not his mechanical body, which is subject to breakage, but rather his mind/soul. Brightly lit sparkles under the water, extremely strong key lighting above David's silhouette, soft focus and celestial sounding choirs tell us that for David, robot heaven takes place under the water, where he finds the Virgin Mary/Blue Fairy icon, and so the story goes. Of course, these "heavenly" endings complement rather than exclude the "dream" sequences. As in traditional Eastern religions - e.g. Buddhism and Hinduism - and as in some non-traditional Western religions - e.g. Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalah - "heaven" or "bliss" or "nirvana" or "the pleroma" is a state of perception, not a material place located in space.

A.I. Ending Six: It is All David's Dream

[38] Several clues suggest that David's dream begins much earlier in the film, perhaps even at the beginning, which opens with the crashing sea - Jung's symbol of the unconscious in dreams.34

[39] If the entire film is David's dream, he has woven within it a clue to the narrative - Disney's Pinocchio. The plot is driven by David's design and desire to be a "a real boy" in the fashion of Pinocchio the puppet, but other characters and motifs also have their parallel in the Disney film: the guide and companion Jiminy Cricket/Teddy; Geppetto/Dr. Hobby; imprisonment in Stromboli's Marionette Circus /Flesh Fair; a singing and dancing Honest John/Gigolo Joe;35 Pleasure Island/Rouge City (where boys go to party); Pinocchio's plunge into the sea to find his father/David's plunge into the sea to find the Blue Fairy in order to find his mother; and of course the Blue Fairy herself.36 David may "actually" be dreaming his problems by expressing them in the language of the myth of Pinocchio. This possibility is signaled further to the audience by the murals of fairy tales that adorn the walls of the cryogenics hall, particularly "The Emperor's Clothes" - a classic Freudian naked dream.37

[40] An additional clue that the entire film is a dream is that depictions of the moon - a common symbol for dreams and a Jungian archetype of the mother and the abode of souls38 - abound throughout the film. The moon appears in the logo of the cryogenics firm, over David and Martin's bed, in the form of the Flesh Fair's Balloon, on the sign of the Flesh Fair itself, over the horizon of the forest through which David runs with Teddy and Gigolo Joe, and prominently outside the windows in David's "dream house." Consider the following dialogue between David and Teddy after having escaped the Flesh Fair:

Teddy: "I see the moon."
David: "Is it real?"
Teddy: "I don't know, David."

Subsequently, Gigolo Joe informs David that to get to Rouge City, "We will have to journey towards the moon." Perhaps, then, we have dreams within dreams within dreams.

Ending Seven: David Does Not Survive the Flesh Fair

[41] A complement to Ending Six is the idea that at least after the Flesh Fair David's essence is within heaven, which is a dream.39 Gigolo Joe cocks his head a song plays - "Heaven, I'm in Heaven" - perhaps signaling that David did not survive the tortures at the Fair after all.40 In this heavenly dream, David and Joe enter Rouge City/Pleasure Island by driving into giant heads - symbols for accessing deeper layers of the psyche. Once there, the sky flashes advertising reading "Angels" and "Demons," raising the question of whether David is in heaven or hell. Finally, David will ultimately travel to Manhattan - a mythical never-never land in the film "where lions weep" and "where dreams are born." It is there he meets his Creator in the sky, further evoking heavenly imagery. However, given the moon symbolism explained under "Ending Six," this heaven is at the same time a dream. Fittingly then, David encounters versions of himself that send him into more complex soul-work.

Ending Eight: More Ontological Realities: Teddy's Point Of View

[42] All possible endings change if David does not provide point of view in the film, a serious possibility given that the final scene of the film concludes with David asleep and Teddy awake.

[43] Teddy is by far the most complex character in this layered film. Although Teddy is called a "Supertoy" by Monica, David's mother, he himself declares "I am NOT a toy."41 Numerous clues in the film reveal that he is the character most capable of moral reasoning, love, loyalty, and self-actualization, the film's definition of "a real boy."

[44] Genesis 2-3 maintains that being "like the gods" or being self-actualized entails having the capacity to choose between good and evil, that is, to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In A.I., an extended allegory of Genesis, humans normally choose evil, but Teddy consistently chooses the good. He displays this quality in his unswerving loyalty to and concern for David in all possible endings of the film, although David treats him as Monica did David - as a sometimes useful toy or occasional object of affection. But Teddy has free will and is a complex moral being. He calls Monica "mommy," which David is unable to do without his love-programming being activated. He may have the capacity to lie, if it is a lie to tell people at the Flesh Fair that David is a real boy. He obviously loves David, and thus like David should have the capacity to hate.42 We see a hint of this when he growls menacingly at the woman at the Flesh Fair who refers to him as a doll. Moreover, Teddy understands more about the world than any other character in the film, which enables him to teach David ("Teddy made me write this"), to rescue David from the flesh fair (although no one in turn tries to carry Teddy, who must run to save his own life afterwards) and to explain the dangers of the world to David (e.g., he warns him about flying the amphibicopter by stating, "This is not a toy, David"). In addition to moral capacity, Teddy even apparently shares with organic beings an ability to feel pain and to die. For instance, he says "ow" as he falls through the trees, protects himself from sunlight by sitting underneath the shade of an umbrella, and constantly repairs himself with needle and thread. He is keenly aware that he can break, and his voice and demeanor are of an old being.43

[45] The lens of Teddy as the most moral, feeling and sentient being in the film presses the question of ultimate reality further in terms of ontology. It also recalls Harry Bates' 1941 short story, "Farewell to the Master" (on which was based The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951]), which has striking parallels to A.I.44 In the short story, a humanoid alien named Klaatu and a robot called Gnut come to Washington, D.C. Klaatu relays a message of peace, but is shot by humans. A journalist named Cliff describes Gnut as a dog who stands vigil over the body of his master. After Gnut resurrects Klaatu, Cliff tells Gnut: "I want you to tell your master ... that what happened ... was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry." Gnut tenderly replies, "You misunderstand. I am the master."

[46] The lens of Teddy as the "master" makes several of the endings more poignant; Teddy sees David commit suicide by plunging off a building, Teddy slowly dies seated next to David in the amphibicopter underwater, or Teddy watches David dream peacefully for all eternity. This latter scene, one of the last scenes of the film, suggests that Teddy is the actual dreamer from beginning to end. This accords well with Disney's Pinocchio, in which Jiminy Cricket - Teddy's obvious parallel - tells the entire story by opening up a book and jumping into the pages, thereby inserting himself into the story. If ultimate reality is a state of perception, it indeed matters who is doing the perceiving.

Ending Nine: Someone Else is the Dreamer

[47] Finally, since the film does seem to reference both Freud and Jung, I would like to raise the possibility that the entire film is the dream of a dreamer whose identity can only be gleaned in fragmentary ways. The first and last scenes suggest this may be the case. As I mentioned earlier, the film opens with the crashing sea - Jung's symbol of the unconscious. In the final scene, the camera pulls back to reveal David, Monica and Teddy in a house, which in Freudian terms represents the person who is dreaming.45 Indeed, the house looks somewhat like a face, recalling the mask into which David places his face in Dr. Hobby's lab.

[48] Moreover, I suggest that the ego is represented by David, the moral compass or super-ego by the Supertoy Teddy, and the capricious, uncontrollable id by the manipulative Martin and sexually obsessed Gigolo-Joe. The case is most clear for Teddy, who resembles Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio to no small extent. Those who have not recently seen the 1940 film may be surprised to recall that the Blue Fairy dubs the Cricket, "Pinocchio's Conscience, Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong,46 Counselor in Moments of Temptation and Guide along the Straight and Narrow Path." Hardly a better description of Freud's super-ego exists! Thus this super-ego/Supertoy transcends the story that the viewer sees, pointing to a dreamer outside of the film.

[49] There are other hints that David and Gigolo Joe also transcend the film. Early on, a scene in which Monica, Henry and David eat dinner is shot from a high-angle in such a way that David is framed by a halo-like white, glowing light. I take this reference to David's divinity to point to the transcendent dreamer outside of the film. Similarly, when Gigolo Joe is hoisted up to the police helicopter, (thereby repressing the troublesome id), his last words are "Remember ... I am, I was," which eerily evoke the secret name of God in Exodus 3.

[50] In this case, positing David as ego does not mean that David is the dreamer; rather David is a character (Jung's child archetype) who expresses in the main the ego of the dreamer. Thus, David, Teddy and Gigolo Joe / Martin all represent the dreamer, and other characters might as well. I am not an expert on psychoanalysis, but seen from this perspective, the many conflicts and instances of cooperation between these characters drive the plot in different, interior, psychological ways.   The mural of "The Emperor Has No Clothes" that prominently appears early in the film is, then, a metaphor for the film itself, recalling the passage in The Interpretation of Dreams in which Freud elucidates the meaning of this fairy-tale symbolism: "the imposter is the dream and the dreamer is the Emperor."47

[51] Thus the identity of the dreamer of the film remains occluded. Freud's analysis may shed light: "If a dreamer has a choice open to him between a number of symbols, he will decide in favour of the one which is connected in its subject-matter with the rest of the material of his thoughts."48 Given this truism, the dreamer apparently struggles to understand some inner conflict, and therefore may first appear as Sheila, a "robot" who does not understand emotion. Indeed, Sheila is told to undress in public, a famous naked dream.49 The scene of Sheila looking into a mirror (i.e. the dreamer dreaming) is juxtaposed with Monica looking into a mirror. Thus Monica - someone who has lost a child or experienced other severe loss - may represent the primary issue driving the dream, one which also motivates the character of Dr. Hobby, who has lost his son, to make copies of him.50 If the theme of loss indeed drives the film, then the projection of the abandoned child as the ego is particularly poignant, as is his final reconciliation with his mommy. When viewed from this perspective the film is ultimately a tale of healing that brings the fractured parts of the dreamer back together again, resolving inner turmoil. Thus, the dreamer is no longer a "robot" but a "real" person who can love, who has and understands complex emotions and relationships.

[52] I conclude with one final addendum to this ending. Jung maintains that "the theatre" might be understood as "an institution for working our private complexes in public."51 To the extent that this is true, it may well apply both to the creators of film and to audiences. Ronald Roschke, in addition to showing how all textual readings (including film) involve a kind of trance, has pointed out that the dimming of lights in a theater or a movie-house signals a liminal transition to a dreamlike state.52 Perhaps then, we are the dreamers, whenever we the audience resonate with parts of the mythic, religious and psychological motifs of the film.

Final Reflections

[53] 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.

[54] However, this serious study of A.I. cannot fail to note the broad dislike that some critics and viewers in the general public feel for the film, as any search on the internet will demonstrate. I wonder if this is due to the complexity of this film. Ending Nine is no more definitive than the other eight, and there may be others that I have not considered. Yet, many viewers who dislike the film are savvy interpreters and I think there is another explanation to their unease. The film draws on ancient traditions such as Genesis and on mythic archetypes, 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. The ultimate constructions of reality in film, however, remain vague, elusive, puzzling, and often unsatisfying in the end.

[55] Finally, having sketched at least nine possible endings to A.I., I would like to note that even Freud repeatedly warned about the possibility of the over-interpretation of dreams and I recognize this could be the case here.53 Over-interpretation is always a possibility when exploring symbols and myth, given their multivalent nature. But it is also the case that dreams and art frequently contain motifs of which the creators are unaware until they are noted by others. The Talmud succinctly states: "A dream follows its interpretation." Stanley Kubrick similarly concluded, "I would not think of quarreling with your interpretation nor offer any other, as I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself."



2001: A Space Odyssey A.I. Adaptation
Being John Malkovich Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey Blade Runner
Dark City The Day the Earth Stood Still

Defending Your Life (1977)

Defending Your Life (1991)

Dreams aka Yume EdTV
Eyes Wide Shut Fight Club The Iron Giant
Jesus' Son Kate and Leopold A Life Less Ordinary
The Littlest Angel The Matrix The Matrix: Reloaded
Memento Metropolis

Minority Report

Monsters, Inc.

Mulholland Drive My Life
Neon Genesis Evangelion:
Death and Rebirth

Neon Genesis Evangelion:
The End of Evangelion


Pleasantville Sixth Sense Spirited Away

The Thirteenth Floor

Tron The Truman Show
Vanilla Sky Waking Life What Dreams May Come

JR & F
Home Page
JR & F
Vol.7 No.2

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2003
Site Maintained by
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Contact Webmaster about site questions.