Set in a dystopian but technologically advanced future in which the polar icecaps have melted and flooded most of the earth, "A.I." centers on the emotional odyssey of David (Haley Joel Osment), a new kind of highly-sophisticated "Mecha" (short for Mechanism, the colloquial moniker for robots) who has been programmed to return as well as crave the love and affection of Orgas (short for Organism, the corresponding term for humans). David is given his trial run with a couple (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) whose own son has been all but lost to an incurable illness -- cryogenically frozen until such time as a cure can be found, if ever. The arrangement obviously requires some initial emotional adjustment, but the couple soon become attached to David much as they might with a biological child. That's when the sudden (and incredibly predictable) recovery of their natural son throws the family unit into disarray, reaching critical mass after David nearly drowns his "brother" in a freak accident. It's agreed that David has to go, but instead of being returned to his creators he's simply abandoned in an "E.T."-like wilderness where he develops traumatic separation anxiety, determined to become "a real boy" just like Pinocchio, so that mommy will love him.
It is at this stage that the film entirely abandons its intellectual foundations, opting instead for a traditional fairy tale odyssey that plays like a cross between the aforementioned "Pinocchio" and "The Wizard of Oz." David is even given an archetypal Jiminy Cricket-type "mentor" companion in the person of a an annoying little robot teddy bear (aptly named "Teddy") who, for reasons never fully explained, seems to be both wiser and more intelligent than David. The opportunity to explore a post-apocalyptic vision of the world also proves too much for Spielberg's attempts at restraint. As David wanders through a series of noisy, candy-colored futuristic landscapes that seem inspired by everything from the "Mad Max" films to New York's Times Square, the film literally explodes into a CGI free-for-all, showcasing high-end visual effects at the expense of substantive character development. Only because of Osment's convincing skills as an actor is it possible to tolerate David's incessant whimpering about wanting to become a real boy (which goes on for roughly an hour).
Finally, after a series of wholly unacceptable contrivances, David is befriended by a robot gigolo (played by an underused Jude Law) who helps him find his way to the submerged ruins of Manhattan where, he is led to believe, his quest will come to its conclusion. And conclude it does, although not in the way that many might expect. What's most frustrating is that the much-talked-about finale, which leaps two millennia into the future, does show some initial flashes of the intellectual substance so painfully missing from the preceding two hours. But here, as before, Spielberg is more concerned with emotions than ideas, overindulging the former while employing embarrassingly incomprehensible pseudo-scientific babble to conveniently dispose of the latter. For every difficult, unanswerable scientific and philosophical question, Spielberg offers only obvious, crass sentimentality as an answer. How and why David's emotional programming allows him to disconnect with reality and enjoin his own predicament to that of Pinocchio to the point of actually believing in fairy tale fictions is never addressed. That David's so-called emotions are, even at their most sophisticated, still nothing more than pre-programmed responses, is ignored entirely.
Part of the film's problem is that Spielberg himself wrote the script, only his third overall writing credit and his first in nearly two decades. Since claiming a solo screenwriting credit on 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and a co-screenwriting credit on Tobe Hooper's 1982 "Poltergeist," which he produced, Spielberg has been silent as a writer, a hiatus that has clearly made him more than a little rusty. Beginning with the first scene in which William Hurt offers a numbingly expository lecture on the nature and technology of artificial intelligence, "A.I." is a model of superficiality, a film in which no emotion and no thought is allowed to go unspoken. Subtext, subtlety and ambiguity - the hallmarks of Kubrick's best work - are anathema to the effort here. Whatever intellectual matter remains from the original material - the Brian Aldiss short story and subsequent Ian Watson "screen story" - has been compromised for the sake of mass market accessibility.
It's hard to imagine that, in the end, most audiences won't feel cheated by the film's facile view of "intelligence" as nothing more than the capacity for emotion. The overriding philosophical concerns that Kubrick himself first posed in "2001," the same questions which countless other movies and no fewer than three "Star Trek" series have treated with such distinction and insight, Spielberg scarcely seems to even grasp. In the end, "A.I." isn't all that different from the equally banal "Bicentennial Man" (that film's star, Robin Williams, provides one of several voice cameos in "A.I.") with which it shares a stubborn refusal to confront the difficult proposition that feelings and emotions are frequently the very antithesis of intelligence.
Any lingering disappointment with "A.I."'s missed opportunities, however, isn't likely to last much longer than it takes audiences to realize that "Blade Runner" already did it right. Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Brendan Gleeson and William Hurt. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Steven Spielberg. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg and Bonnie Curtis. A Warner Bros. Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures release. Science Fiction. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and violent images. Running time: 145 min.