The late Stanley Kubrick originally intended to film A.I., developing the project since the 1980s and planning it to follow Eyes Wide Shut, although before his death he allegedly approached Steven Spielberg about directing it. In bringing A.I. to light, Spielberg describes the film as a posthumous collaboration with Kubrick, and frequently the emotionally attuned filmmaker approaches the material through the prism of Kubrick's cool, cerebral sensibility. As a hybridized "Spielbrick" production, A.I. can be alternately unsatisfying and ingenious.
Based on the Brian Aldiss short story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long," A.I. takes place in a future in which the melting polar icecaps have submerged the coastal cities and near-human androids, or "mechas," are commonplace. A professor (William Hurt) proposes programming a robot child with the capacity to actually love another person, thus letting it evolve beyond its code and essentially giving it a soul, although he doesn't use that word.
With their own son apparently in an irreversible coma, Monica (Frances O'Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards) are selected as the test parents for David (Haley Joel Osment). Literally a toy boy, Osment is initially marvelous at playing a flatly inhuman simulation of life, whether staring implacably at Monica or emitting alien laughter at the dinner table. But when she recites the code words that allow him to "imprint" on and thus love her, Osment conveys a wealth of real feelings, despite still portraying an artificial person.
When the couple's natural son improves and returns home, dangerous sibling rivalry issues develop, although our sympathy lies with David, a true innocent. Taking place primarily in and around Henry and Monica's house, A.I.'s first act is the most overtly evocative of Kubrick's style, especially with its use of pale colors, tight composition and reflected or distorted images (although the late director would never have employed so much John Williams music).
A.I. is sharply divided into three parts, and the first has a poetic precision that's often brilliant, creepy and affecting. The subsequent sections prove more problematic. The second finds David out in the world as he discovers the hostility of "real" people toward machines and the social aspects of the Fellini-esque "mechas." At times, A.I.'s futurism lacks consistency: An anti-mecha rally/circus called Flesh Fair seems all too 20th century, while the neon-lit sextropolis Rouge City is far more highly advanced.
David embarks on a storybook quest a la The Wizard of Oz, only with three Tin Men. One companion is a robogigolo called Joe (a jaunty Jude Law), programmed with snappy patter, dashing moves and even his own serenading soundtrack. The other is a threadbare but talking stuffed bear called Teddy, A.I.'s most nimble scene-stealer.
I won't give away the last act but it involves another drastic change in tone, which some viewers will find analogous to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spielberg requires some enormous leaps of faith from his audience and makes the fairy tale qualities come true a bit too neatly.
While A.I.'s latter acts offer astonishing imagery -- including a drowned city, a sinister artificial moon and a workshop with multiple Davids -- the storytelling becomes less tight and the themes more obscure compared to the pristine control of the first. It doesn't help that the Pinocchio mythos, prevalent in the oft-told tales of robots who want to be real, all but subsumes A.I.'s own plot.
With his relationship with Kubrick and long-standing attraction to explorations of childhood (from E.T. to Hook), Spielberg clearly has a strong personal connection to A.I., writing his first screenplay since Close Encounters. A bid to craft a new fable for the 21st century, A.I. lacks the consistency of a true classic while seeming more optimistic than Kubrick's ingrained cynicism. Still, the film proves so frequently touched by inspiration that the late filmmaker would no doubt appreciate the tribute.