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...the way a boy robot might hope that a woman's love could make him human. David is the cybergenic triumph of Professor Hobby (William Hurt). Who wouldn't want this perfect child, years past colic and teething, years before the gonadal eruptions of puberty? The chosen "parent" is Henry (Sam Robards), a Cybertronics employee whose wife Monica (Frances O'Connor) has sunk into remorse because their son Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma. So here's a pick-me-up for a grieving mother: a machine that looks and acts like a kid--the best kid ever.
Monica, initially spooked by this shiny-faced, irrevocably pleasant simulacrum of a boy, comes to appreciate David's virtues; he has no flaws, except that he is not "orga" (organic) but "mecha" (mechanical)--and not Martin. From a closet she retrieves an old supertoy, a stuffed bear named Teddy, who becomes David's most faithful companion. Soon David is calling her Mommy. Bereft of her only natural child, she cradles this artificial one. Bathed in Nativity light, mother and child melt into a Pieta.
A medical advance restores Martin, who is instantly resentful of the new kid in the house. Martin tries to get the cute intruder to break a toy, but David can't. He's being tested and tempted. The real boy tells robo-boy: Try being a kid; it means smashing things.
A few unfortunate accidents persuade Monica to abandon David in a forest. Quick as a face slap, David and the audience are in a strange new world containing refugee robots with half-faces and a jaunty "love mecha" named Gigolo Joe (Law). In Kubrick's script, says Law, "Joe was much more aggressive, more twisted." Here he is, in Spielberg's word, David's "scoutmaster." (This was the section Kubrick could not solve and which Spielberg, in developing it, has softened. The Kubrick version would have been rated R; this film is PG-13.)
Together David and Joe travel through garish landscapes that, as imagined by artist Chris Baker (who was on the project in the early years) and production designer Rick Carter, handsomely evoke every sci-fi dystopia from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to Blade Runner and this year's Monkeybone. Come to the Flesh Fair--a sort of Thunderdome demolition derby where vengeful humans, led by the demagogic Lord Johnson-Johnson (Ireland's Brendan Gleeson), set hapless automatons aflame--and try to get out fast. Spend the night in Rouge City, a city of sensual schlock that is filled with Kubrick-a-brac like a Clockwork Orange milk bar and a sign reading STRANGELOVE's. End up in the grayest place on Earth, a submerged Manhattan, where David will make his home and pursue his dream: not just to love a human but to be loved by one.
Is it so farfetched to think a human can fall in love with a mecha? Multiplex audiences do just that whenever they surrender to the seductive contrivance of movie emotion. (Each tear you shed has been carefully programmed, folks.)
For ages, Spielberg was dismissed as the original toy boy of films--a movie machine, a thrill technician. At 53, he has finally won his share of Oscars. But he still wants to prove that his heart beats, not ticks. Even more, Spielberg needs to show that he can conquer daunting odds; so he runs with a project that a most assured and intimidating director couldn't quite bring himself to film. One might call this an act of devotion. Or possibly hubris.