Terry Gilliam on the Difference Between Kubrick & Spielberg: Kubrick Makes You Think, Spielberg Wraps Everything Up with Neat Little Bows

Fitting, I suppose, that the only creative meeting of the minds between two of the twentieth century’s best-known film directors took place on a project about the problem of nonhuman intelligence and the dangerous excesses of human ingenuity. For both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, these were conflicts rich with inherent dramatic possibility. One of the many important differences between their approaches, however, is a stark one. As many critics of AI: Artificial Intelligence—the film Kubrick had in development since the 70s, then handed off to Spielberg before he died—have pointed out, Kubrick mined conflict for philosophical insights that can leave viewers intriguingly puzzled, if emotionally chilled; Spielberg pushes his drama for maximum emotional impact, which either warms audiences’ hearts or turns their stomachs, depending on their disposition.

In the latter camp, we can firmly place Monty Python alumnus and cult director Terry Gilliam. In the short clip at the top of the post, Gilliam explicates “the main difference” as he sees it between Spielberg and Kubrick. Spielberg’s films are “comforting,” they “give you answers, always, the films are… answers, and I don’t they’re very clever answers.” Kubrick’s movies, on the other hand, always leave us with unanswerable questions—riddles that linger indefinitely and that no one viewer can satisfactorily solve. So says Gilliam, an infamously quixotic director whose pursuit of a vision uniquely his own has always trumped any commercial appeal his work might have. Most successful films, he argues, “tie things up in neat little bows.” For Gilliam, this is a cardinal sin: “the Kubricks of this world, and the great filmmakers, make you go home and think about it.” Certainly every fan of Kubrick will admit as much—as will those who don’t like his films, often for the very same reasons.

To make his point, Gilliam quotes Kubrick himself, who issued an incisive critique of Spielberg’s Nazi drama Schindler’s List, saying that the movie “is about success. The Holocaust was about failure”—the “complete failure,” Gilliam adds, “of civilization.” Not a subject one can, or should, even attempt to spin positively, one would think. As an example of a Kubrick film that leaves us with an epistemological and emotional vortex, Gilliam cites the artificial intelligence picture the great director did finish, 2001: A Space Odyssey. To see in action how these two directors’ approaches greatly diverge, watch the endings of both Schindler’s List and 2001, above. Of course the genre and subject matter couldn’t be more different—but that aside, you’ll note that neither could Kubrick and Spielberg’s visual languages and cinematic attitudes, in any of their films.

Despite this vast divide—between Spielberg’s “neat little bows” and Kubrick’s headtrips—it might be argued that their one collaboration, albeit a posthumous one for Kubrick, shows them working more closely together than seems possible. Or so argues Noel Murray in a fascinating critical take on AI, a film that perhaps deserves greater appreciation as an “unnerving,” existentialist, and Kubrick-ian turn for Spielberg, that master of happy endings.

Related Content:

Terry Gilliam Reveals the Secrets of Monty Python Animations: A 1974 How-To Guide

Stanley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Interview with The New Yorker

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick Makes Predictions for 2001: Humanity Will Conquer Old Age, Watch 3D TV & Learn German in 20 Minutes

Auschwitz Captured in Haunting Drone Footage (and a New Short Film by Steven Spielberg & Meryl Streep)


Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Ralph Melcher says:

    Ever since seeing it for the first time I’ve regarded “A.I.” as Steven Spielberg’s most challenging and interesting film. The creative collaboration between two directors with such different styles (but similar obsessions with detail) is almost diabolical in it’s interweaving. One can almost sense the tension between their approaches in every scene, making every moment a trajectory toward another revelation of the unexpected. Spielberg’s urge toward resolution struggles against Kubrick’s insistence that there are no clear answers to who we are or where we’re going. We never really know whether the affections that surround the protagonist are ‘real’ feelings or merely the programmed responses of an automata, or whether it matters. The unrelenting action of a Spielberg movie becomes the container for a path that leads us toward serious contemplation.

    Kubrick very purposefully handed this project to his friend with a very specific outline (including musical scores) to be completed after his death. One of his underlying themes is to question the very emotional agenda informing the majority of films, and certainly those of Spielberg. On one level the movie is a debate over our motivations for going to the movies, whether to open ourselves to unique points of view or merely to have our familiar button’s pushed?

    The tension comes to a crest in the last scene, which has sparked numerous debates and harsh criticism, but which embodies the movie’s essential paradox. Some have criticized it for catering to Spielberg’s emotional agenda by leaving us on a note that’s overly sentimental. With the exception of this film, I’ve often thought that Spielberg’s films would benefit by cutting out the last 15 minutes of ‘tying it all up.) I believe, however, that this conclusion is inevitable to the degree that we identify with the character of the automata (played brilliantly by the young Haley Joel Osmet) instead of seeing that the overall outlook of the film, from the beginning shots of a drowned city to the final one of the lights going out, is that humanity is quite likely a species doomed to be a figment of memory in an otherwise indifferent universe..

  • Dean says:

    So fuckin sick of that overrated Kubrick. I can’t get through any of his movies without being bored to tears. Gilliam is even.

  • Bill says:

    Comparing Spielberg with Kubrick is like comparing McDonald’s to a five-star restaurant. Those two are not even close to being in the same f..ing league.
    A.I. is kind of proof of that. You can clearly see that the beginning is typical Kubrick hard sci-fi stuff, and then it suddenly veers into “Pinocchio as a robot”.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that Spielberg was a pioneer in a lot of cinematic stuff. He’s often the first to experience new techniques and then everybody else just follows in his footsteps, but when it comes to intellectual content, you might as well try to compare Walt Disney and Friedrich Nietzsche.

  • David Silverman says:

    Fine, Kubrick makes you think. Spielberg makes you feel warm and fuzzy. We will stipulate to this being fact. Still, count me among the many who don’t always want to be intellectually challenged by a movie. Sometimes I like mind candy. This may be horrifying to an intellectual like Terry Gilliam, who I greatly admire and have enjoyed in both his mind candy work with Monty Python and his challenging works like Brazil, but that’s ok. I don’t care. Living a high minded life nonstop is oppressive and sometimes a bit of escapism and even an easy understanding that in pure horror, such as the Holocaust, there were glimpses of humanity it is ok to allow oneself to be dumbed down. That does not make it endemic.

    In other words, get over yourself, Terry.

  • Z says:

    To people who get bored to tears with any of Kubrick movies; go watch iron man or any Marvel crap, those are probably more suitable for you.

  • Sean Mahan says:

    Comparing Kubrick and Spielberg is akin to comparing Lennon and McCartney. Both are great. One is “the thinker,” and one makes “silly love songs.” But both of them are great artists.

    Some people will prefer Kubrick because they like the hidden messages, and because they to be made to think. Some people will prefer Spielberg because he is a master story teller who can tell a story better than anyone. Both are great artists – and some will prefer one over the other.

    Terry Gilliam is a thinker. His movies also make you think – so it is not surprising who he prefers.

  • Ben says:

    This isn’t a zero-sum game, y’all. It is iminently possible to recognize the art of both of these directors without denigrating the other.

  • Hanoch says:

    Gilliam strikes me as the simplistic one in attempting to make his point. He quotes Kubrick, stating that Schindler’s List “is about success. The Holocaust was about failure”—the “complete failure,” Gilliam adds, “of civilization.”

    Well, of course, the Holocaust is about about human failure. But only someone with a very shallow mind could miss that, even within the midst of horror, there can still be found tremendous acts of human greatness and, yes, success. Those stories should certainly be told.

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