Book Review: Julian Rice: Kubrick's Story, Spielberg's Film: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2017)

By: Edo Muric

To all of us who have been obsessing about Stanley Kubrick’s and Steven Spielberg’s collaboration on A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), that mysterious and a seminal work of modern science fiction, even more relevant today than seventeen years ago when it first came out, it is obvious that the film would eventually gain respect, after being dismissed by most critics at the time. And indeed, the interest in the film is hardly over. But even I was surprised to find out that the film would inspire such a dense academic book, so many years after it came out. Julian Rice is an expert on Kubrick, who has been advocating the theory that Kubrick was far from a cynical misanthrope, as he has generally been presented. In this book of film analysis, which focuses on the importance of the themes and labyrinthine symbolism of the images of A.I., especially in the context of them being a fascinating amalgam of two distinctive artistic visions, he extends the claim even further. And even if the question of who was responsible for which part of the film, and if the more “sentimental” parts were Spielberg’s, while more “cold” ones were Kubrick’s, has been answered years ago, when we got hold of the eponymous Stanley Kubrick Archives, the implications of Rice’s book regarding this are never less than fascinating. So it did turn out that the sentimental parts were actually Kubrick’s. And his original ending was going to be even more a “happy ending”. On the other hand, the harrowing Holocaust references, which constitute the film into its rightful purpose and elevated its meaning, were mostly Spielberg’s. However, Rice’s reply to these questions is that it doesn’t really matter who did what. Both filmmakers shared philosophical concerns that pushed them towards this collaboration. But it is the resulting vision that made the film what it is. A.I. is where the auteur theory is at its most dubious and completely falls apart.

The main thesis of the book is that A.I. is a sublimation of the themes which occur in previous Kubrick and Spielberg films. Starting with the outcry for sanity, which was Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the optimistic and all-encompassing outlook of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and more intimate, yet not less impactful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, all these films are about the fundamental nature of humanity and humanity’s potential for maturity - Kubrick referred to it as “transfiguration”. More precisely, Rice builds a case that all these films are about transcending of the tyrannical compulsions, such as Oedipal attachment and sibling rivalry. A.I., more directly than the other ones, goes deeply inside the human psychology in order to find the root issue and it presents us with the darkest possible outcome of humanity’s inner conflict!

His interpretation of the controversial last act of the film, in which the robot boy David encounters his mother’s replica, after longing for her for two thousand years, is especially eye opening. His one last day with her was often accused of being Spielbergian cop-out in order to have a happy ending. The main defense of the last act, however, has been that it cannot be a happy ending since the boy dies together with his mother. But thanks to Rice’s book I am not sure anymore if that is what happens at all. Also, the very question if the ending was a happy one becomes redundant. The ending is an optimistic one insofar as David (standing in for humanity) has become a real boy, like Pinocchio, through the act of letting his mother go and turning into a nurturer, instead of eternally and selfishly demanding his mother’s love. It is a bitter one because the film shows that every human has to learn this lesson on their way to becoming an adult. Furthermore, it is a terrifying one because the film shows that what is at the stake is actually the survival of human kind. This moment of transfiguration towards maturity is already evident in 2001’s Star Child. But in A.I., due to how artificial intelligence has been turning into a staple of our technology, the implications of failing to mature are devastating. As a ray of hope there is, however, the human spirit itself, often expressed in creativity and art, which is functioning as a strong antithesis to the destructive energy of the uncompensated Oedipal loss. By its definition, creativity is capable of deprogramming the robotic enclosure of human mind, be it racism, nationalism, denial of global warming and other short-circuit narratives that are driving our species towards the extinction.