by Ben Kenigsberg In a futuristic Vegas-like city, robots Gigolo Joe and David stand at the doorway of a church. "The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

In a futuristic Vegas-like city, robots Gigolo Joe and David stand at the doorway of a church. "The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them," Joe explains. The irony of his statement is that humans may have already found their makers. In

"A.I. Artificial Intelligence,"

man has attained near-Godlike powers of creation. Sure, we've played God before, in everything from "Frankenstein" to "Alien." But never have we played the role so well as in "A.I.," Steven Spielberg's haunting new sci-fi fantasy, which tells the story of the first robot able to feel emotions.

Spielberg took over the project from the late Stanley Kubrick. While Spielberg has clearly made his own film -- replete with a John Williams score -- "A.I." resonates like a Kubrick film, ambiguous and unsettling.

David (Haley Joel Osment) is a robot boy with the capacity to love, "articulate in limb, articulate in speech, and not without human response." He's a toy, essentially, but the most realistic one ever created. They make them "to replace your children," says a robot hunter (Brendan Gleeson), one of many humans who feels threatened by the androids.

Indeed, in the future, robots are made to serve all kinds of purposes. There are robot nannies and robot servants. Gigolo Joe (an excellent Jude Law), the most fascinating character in the movie, is a prostitute. "Patricia, once you've had a lover robot, you'll never want a real man again," Joe tells a reluctant customer. It's the film's most disturbing sequence; Joe finds that Patricia has been battered. We know Joe isn't capable of such an action -- robots are benevolent -- but when he invokes jealousy in a client's husband, we learn that robots are indirectly capable of damage.

The robots exceed human abilities in their respective tasks. David is an ideal child for Monica (Frances O'Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards). The couple's natural son, Martin (Jake Thomas), is in a coma. By purchasing David, they can enjoy the pleasures of parenthood without feeling like they're replacing Martin.

And parenthood isn't much of a chore with David. His name, which the company that made him gave to him, suggests Michelangelo's "David" -- inhuman perfection created by human hands. It's what we've always feared from eugenics.

David doesn't eat or sleep. If you tell David to go and play with his toys, he obeys. He isn't infallible like the other robots: he puts on perfume to emulate his mother. In an eerie scene, Monica is too fearful of David to scold him, as she would a real boy.

David is so realistic in appearance and in action that most humans mistake him for real, including his parents. But is he a real boy -- a new kind of Frankenstein monster -- or a machine that's been programmed intricately to think and feel and dream? He may just be a highly effective servant, like the others, whose task is to love. And since David is programmed to love his mother unconditionally, what will happen when she dies?

Thus, "A.I." asks whether the stuff that makes a

homo sapiens

what it is can be created through technology. And once it decides that artificial intelligence, and more importantly, artificial emotions, can seem as real as those of living flesh, the movie explores the struggle between mechanical perfection and human flaws.

Early on, Martin comes out of his coma, setting off some of the most terrifying sibling rivalry in screen history. Martin's a snot -- he's not nearly as thoughtful as David -- yet Monica and Henry prefer him, simply because he's "real." Yet even Martin is not entirely human: he walks with technology-enhanced leg braces, suggesting that he can't function on a normal basis without the help of machines.

With Martin's presence, David finds that he can feel jealousy. David also learns that, although his parents know he has feelings, they'll never believe his feelings are genuine. He's just a machine, after all -- as inorganic as Monica and Henry's elaborate coffee maker.

"A.I." centers on David's Pinocchio-ish odyssey to become a real boy. His journey is indicative of, as Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt, showing less emotion than the robots) puts it, "the greatest human flaw" -- to desire things that are impossible.

Along the way, David has some scary brushes with humans, and begins to learn why they are so fearful of robots. "They made us too smart, too quick, and too many," Joe tells David. "We're suffering for the mistakes they made."

Robots are immortal and will one day overpopulate the earth. To prevent this occurrence, angry humans hold "flesh fairs," where robots are destroyed in front of a cheering crowd. In a sequence that recalls the setting of Kubrick's "Spartacus" and the senseless brutality of "The Shining," we see the Colosseum of the future. It's a war, "mecha" (mechanical) versus "orga" (organic).

Spielberg has fashioned an engrossing and challenging science fiction film, undoubtedly the most stylistically dark of all his pictures. He once again proves himself a technical wizard. Rick Carter's production design includes windows composed of glass threads, which Spielberg sometimes looks through at David, multiplying his image across the screen. There are shots that accentuate David's all-too-perfect motions (Osment's great performance helps), and a subtle shot that allows us to focus on the veins in Monica's hand. (Does biology make us human?) Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes good use of light to suggest rebirth.

Spielberg includes many neat allusions to the great Kubrick's work, including decors reminiscent of both "A Clockwork Orange" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." The screechy music that plays during the monolith scenes in "2001" is present here, making one perpetually uneasy. The coda recalls the Star Child sequence from Kubrick's great sci-fi picture.

Spielberg is also self-referential; in his first appearance, due to an odd light refraction, David's shadow looks like E.T.'s. And for no apparent reason, there's an extended allusion to "The Wizard of Oz," in which Joe and David follow the road to Rouge City.

I once read Charles Van Doren's "A History of Knowledge," in which Van Doren recounted the entire history of Western Civilization. Towards the end of the book, he talked about the future, suggesting that there will be scary implications when computers learn to survive without being plugged in. But after watching "A.I.," one understands a deeper, probably unintentional philosophical conundrum in Van Doren's thesis: if it survives, thinks and feels without a plug, is it alive?