In a future society in which biological reproduction is restricted and humanoid robots ("Mechas") are routinely manufactured to supplement the economic and social needs of humans ("Orgas"), Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) creates a prototype child Mecha, David (Haley Joel Osment), who has "neuronal feedback," the ability to love, and "an inner world of metaphor, self-motivated reasoning," imagination, and dreams. David is given to Henry and Monica, a couple whose biological child Martin is incurably ill and cryopreserved, awaiting a future cure.

More specifically, David is created out of Hobby's own loss and given to aid Monica's mourning for Martin, whom she has been unable to "let go" of as dead. It is thus Monica (Frances O'Connor) who must make the decision to perform the "imprint protocol" that will make David love her. After she stops resisting the desire to love a child (of any kind) again and implements the protocol, Martin is unexpectedly cured and comes home.

The ensuing turmoil sends David, accompanied by a robot Teddy bear, out into a nightmare world of adult Mechas, comprised of both Rouge City, where functioning Mechas like Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) do their sex worker jobs and also the fugitive realm where unregistered, discarded Mechas try to find the spare parts they need to rebuild themselves and elude trappers who take them to reactionary "Flesh Fairs" where they are publicly destroyed as an expression of rage against artificial technologies.

Joe and David, both set up and betrayed by humans jealous of their superiority at performing human functions, join together on a quest to make David "real" and return him to Monica. The quest takes them to a partly submerged Manhattan and sends David and Teddy two thousand years into the future to resolve the dystopic narrative.


Early on in this overtly philosophical film, a character comments that the real question is not whether robots can love humans but "if a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that Mecha in return?" As the film reminds us through direct statement as well as multiple plot, dialogue, and visual allusions, this is an old question in a new container.

The theme of the creator's obligations to the created is regularly thematized in scripture and its literary interpretations (Paradise Lost, for example), in folk and fairy tales, in children's literature of all kinds, as well as in speculative fiction from Frankenstein onward. The film makes energetic use of the desires and fears associated with this culturally overdetermined fantasy of replacement humans. Its ambitions are large and thus unevenly achieved, but AI remains a very rich source for discussion of a host of historic and contemporary issues, both those it addresses literally and those it alludes to metaphorically or by implication.

The former includes robotics, artificial intelligence, cyborgs, cryonics, medical interventions into the life cycle and their impact on mourning, the problem of defining what is "real" or "human," the idea that the capacity for love is the gateway to a full complement of emotional and imaginative capacities, and the possible relationships between time, space, emotion, and materiality.

The latter includes family-building through adoption, assisted reproduction, and gamete donation; centuries-old cultural constructions of maternity and mothers as the site of emotional/moral education; enshrinement of child-mother love as love's purest form; and social hierarchies based on embodied differences.

This would be a useful film to excerpt or show entire in various teaching contexts (general and medical ethics, body studies, history of medicine), possibly paired with films like Gattaca (see annotation) or one of the later versions of Frankenstein; it would also work well with the novel The Handmaid's Tale (see annotation).


Based on the 1969 short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" by Brian Aldiss. Stanley Kubrick initially worked on the film project before Spielberg directed it.

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