It is the far future and environmental disasters have overtaken the planet Earth as surely as its technology is running away from it. Professor Hobby (William Hurt) is at the forefront of robot development and now that they can be made to look as lifelike as possible the next step is something he feels is not only necessary but inevitable. That next step is to provide the robots with emotions as well as intelligence and to that end, his company produces a prototype child machine called David (Haley Joel Osment). He is offered to a couple, Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose son has been in a coma for some time; David has the capacity to love Monica, but will she ever accept him?
By turns weirdly affecting and weirdly uncomfortable, director Steven Spielberg's A.I. was originally one of those Stanley Kubrick projects that the famed filmmaker never got around to creating. Based loosely on Brian Aldiss's short story Super Toys Last All Summer Long, adapted by Ian Watson, it was a science fiction epic that Kubrick decided would be better in Spielberg's hands, although many who saw the final result wished it had been the other way around. It was notable in joining the ranks of the likes of The Graduate: films that many believe have a happy ending when in fact they don't. Scriptwriter Spielberg suffered criticism for that conclusion, but was it justified?
A.I. is odd for being an examination of love from the perspective of machines. Once Monica sets his program in motion, David loves her unconditionally: it's a love both perfect in that nothing will divert it and imperfect in that it is now David's fixation, his sole purpose in life that prevents him developing any further. After she gets used to the idea of such a robot around the house, Monica is happy to indulge him, though more like a pet until he starts asking awkward questions such as how long will she live and what will happen to David after that.
Is David's creation ethical? He certainly makes life difficult for his owners when their son Martin (Jake Thomas) is unexpectedly revived and returns home. Martin displays a cruelty towards his mechanical "sibling" as if he were his now-neglected robot teddy bear and Teddy and David strike up an alliance. But after victimisation from Martin's friends leads to David endangering Martin's life, it is clear the robot boy has to be destroyed, something which Monica's guilt cannot allow her to let happen. So begins the second act and after the cerebral first ends in emotional tragedy, the tone changes to adventure as David, impressed by the tale of Pinocchio, begins his search for the Blue Fairy who will transform him into a real boy.
In a surprisingly effective item of casting, David finds a friend in a sex robot for women called Gigolo Joe, essayed by Jude Law with great flair. Joe has been framed for murder and like his young charge is on the run, so after they escape a "Flesh Fair" where unwanted members of the burgeoning android population are destroyed for humans' entertainment, they embark on their quest. Although it takes thousands of years for David to achieve his fairy tale ending, the theme of love, both familial (David provides that service for mothers) and romantic (Joe provides that service for women) reaches a cynical verdict more fitting for Kubrick than Spielberg. There's a lot that's pathetic in David's all-consuming yearning and while we can relate with his need for complete affection, it's cheapened by association with a machine that cannot grasp motivation which has been programmed into him. Are we really any better?, muses A.I. Music by John Williams.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.