Sixteen years on from release, A.I. Artificial Intelligence remains as big a mystery as ever. When it first hit cinemas back in 2001, the film was largely attacked by critics who saw it as an act of Spielbergian sabotage on Stanley Kubrick’s last great work. While the critical conversation has evolved a little since then, shifting to a more even-handed approach to this delicate and ambiguous work, A.I. remains a difficult film to analyse because critics remain caught up in the perceived difference between Kubrick and Spielberg’s styles. Julian Rice’s new book on the subject doesn’t offer definitive answers, but it does offer useful insight and absorbing commentary that should shift the conversation in some meaningful ways.
Tackling a book that has to explore two of the greatest cinematic artists of all time is no easy feat; how, after all, do you find a balance? Rice takes a chronological approach, beginning with Kubrick’s initial interest in and development of Brian Aldiss’s story ‘Super Toys Last All Summer Long’, and then seguing into an analysis of how Spielberg picked up the threads his late counterpart left behind and turned it into the film we have now. It’s a sensible approach and one that comfortably guides readers through what is a dense analytical work.
Indeed, while Rice follows the production of the film to lay out his structure in a simple way, the book is not just a retelling of how the film came to be (if you want that, my recommendation would be the superb A.I. Artificial Intelligence: From Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg: The Vision Behind the Film). Instead, Rice look at key points of comparison with Kubrick and Spielberg’s other films, and uses them to explore the clear similarities between the two men (there are many) and how they shaped A.I. into the film it is. For Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove is the primary film, while for Spielberg, Rice uses Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T..
Your judgement of Rice’s analysis will depend very much on how you feel about psychoanalytical readings of film. Rice invokes Jung and Freud throughout this book and while I, personally, have had my fill of such readings, Rice’s take is compelling and well-considered. He helps you understand his reading of the film and why he has chosen to take that approach. This means that even for those who take my view of psychoanalytical film theory, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Where Rice is at his strongest, however, is in the close readings of Kubrick and Spielberg’s craft: the storytelling and the camera positions. We tend to view Kubrick as the meticulous craftsman who never composed a shot without giving it exhaustive consideration before, but Spielberg is no less gifted. Rice shows how Spielberg uses his camera positioning and movement to tell the story of A.I. in a rich and subtle way, whilst at the same time drawing comparisons with the cinema craft of Spielberg’s other films. It’s a complex journey at times, but one well worth taking.
What emerges from ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence – Kubrick’s Story, Spielberg’s Film’ is an analysis of a masterful film made by two geniuses of their craft. Rice isn’t overly concerned with applying credit for the film’s successes or dishing out blame for any perceived failures. Instead, he simply crafts a compelling insight into a compelling film that’s endured for so long because of the way its two creators intertwined. Hopefully the book will usher in a new period of study for this film that no longer obsesses over the detail, and instead looks at the film as a whole for the fascinating masterpiece it is.
A complex book that’s not necessarily for newcomers to the sharp end of film analysis, but a rewarding one for anyone willing to take the plunge.