I won't say people will either love this movie or they will hate it. I'm sure it breaks down that way to some extent, and the range of opinions expressed about the movie support that notion, but I'm nevertheless also sure there are those out there who are ambivalent or indifferent about it, neither loving or hating it. That's because I'm one who was ambivalent about it after I first saw it in 2001. There was much to like about the movie. Film makers par excellence, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Does it get any better than that? The cast was good too, all of it. Especially Haley Joel Osment. Production values galore. The film is beautifully rendered. But even with all that there was something about it that bothered me, even annoyed me, and whatever it was it got in the way of my enjoyment of it. So I dismissed this movie and didn't even think about again it for years. Recently it popped up on HBO. I took the opportunity to watch it again. I found myself not being as bothered by the movie as I was before. HBO being HBO, I watched it again. And then again. Now there is nothing about the movie I dislike or that bothers me. I now like this movie without reservation. I also figured out why I reacted the way I did in the initial viewing.
My suggestion to those who don't like the movie is watch it again, and give it your thorough attention. Your opinion may change. For a couple of reasons.
First, this is a very complex movie. There's a lot to take in, visually, cognitively, philosophically. I've now seen it four times and I don't believe I've yet absorbed all there is. We're talking Kubrick AND Spielberg here. That alone tells you this movie contains much to behold. I'm not of the school who believes that Spielberg mucked this up after Kubrick died. Yes, Kubrick nursed this project along for over 20 years, from initial writing and treatment through rewrite after rewrite. But it was Kubrick who hand-picked Spielberg to direct it, years before it finally was made, Kubrick leaving his indelible imprimatur, but Spielberg likewise leaving his too was always anticipated, including by Kubrick. Kubrick wanted Spielberg's touch on this movie. Nor do I believe the movie is "20 minutes too long". Those last 20 minutes are not just Spielberg schmaltz, they are important to the resolution of the story. Throughout the first 126 minutes of the movie we are asked in myriad ways to care about David. The last 20 minutes gives meaning to that caring. Without that conclusion there is no meaning, just a cold void.
Which leads directly to the second reason why I recommend repeated viewings, and the explanation for my initial reaction. The story is about a robot designed and programmed to be just like a little boy, who wants to be a real little boy, and who literally spends thousands of years seeking the return of love from his human "mother" who he was programmed to bond with and love. That's the basis from which all manner of questions are asked and explored, about the meaning of love, humanity, and of existence itself. I submit that this storyline told that way --about a child-- ultimately overwhelms the emotional senses. It more than tugs at the heartstrings. It yanks at them. While we might care about the android Data on Star Trek, or about the robot Robin Williams plays in Bicentennial Man, both of which also want to be human, our caring for those "adult" robots is nothing compared to the caring we feel for the child David here. With an innocent child seeking his mother's love it all goes way over the top. Add to the mix that Haley Joel Osment played the role masterfully. With this recipe the movie bluntly manipulates our emotions, something it does too well. It becomes distracting and difficult to watch, let alone to process analytically. Think Bambi, but on steroids. Many of us just shut it down, saying to ourselves, "I don't need this maudlin stuff in my life." Thus affected, the viewer never appreciates the movie's rich themes because the shutdown blocks all that. What I found, however, is that subsequent viewings lessens the distracting effect, and the movie becomes much easier to watch and fully appreciate. Oddly, it appears that Kubrick and Spielberg knew exactly what they were toying with in this respect, and they did it intentionally. It is embedded in the story itself. The flesh fair's barker, as he was getting ready to destroy David, has to keep reminding the audience that David is only a machine, not a real boy, and he implores the audience to not allow their emotions to be manipulated by the machine's child-like appearance. As David tearfully pleads for his life the audience is swayed, giving David an opening to escape. The inner audience, the audience within the story, is is being manipulated the same way we in the outer audience, were being manipulated. This must be a conceit by intent and design.
As a child actor Haley Joel Osment was nonpareil. The Sixth Sense told us that. This was his last role as a child, and after this he became a different actor (see e.g., Secondhand Lions). Puberty did that. His career as an adult actor is just now beginning, and what that holds in store remains to be seen. But as a child he was very very good. Maybe the best ever. And this is him at his best
If you haven't seen it, be prepared to see it more than once. If you have seen it, see it again. This is a movie that gets better each time you see it.