Spielberg at 70: dark futures, nuked fridges and the 2000s

Our salute to Steven Spielberg at 70 moves to the 2000s: A.I, Munich, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can & Crystal Skull.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

By the end of the 1990s, Spielberg found himself in a position of unparalleled luxury. As an executive, he’d set up Amblin and DreamWorks and was enjoying success with both, while as a director he’d ridden through an uneven decade to achieve the critical success he’d longed for. Where do you go from there? What do you do when you’re the film-maker who’s done everything? Well, Spielberg himself never seemed sure of how to answer that question because during the first ten years of the new millennium he hopped from genre to genre, covering sci-fi and historical thriller, retro caper and fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s one of the most eclectic decades of his career and, in my opinion at least, the best as he probed America’s post 9/11 anxieties and worked to undermine some of the assumptions about his own career with astonishing success.

It’s the second of these that informs his first film of the Noughties. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is perhaps the most divisive films of Spielberg’s career, even today, fifteen years on, attracting as much criticism as effusive praise. It’s a strange film and a challenging one, asking critics and fans to reassess some of the assumptions they make about two of cinema’s most celebrated directors: Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, who got the project underway before handing over to Spielberg. To suggest the darker elements of A.I. are purely Kubrick’s and the lighter purely Spielberg is to misunderstand both directors. Kubrick shows elements of Spielbergian humanity throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spielberg shows Kubrickian cynicism throughout Jaws. The reason A.I. works so well is because of the way their instincts blend into one another.

The film touches on many things (hope, fairy tales, corruption of innocence), but above all else, A.I. is about love. Or, more precisely, the things we’ll do for love. David’s journey to find the Blue Fairy is driven by his desire to win the love of his Mother despite her rejection of him. It’s a heartwarming one that elicits unequivocal sympathy for the character and seems to have a happy ending. The advanced mechas grant David’s wish, his mother is returned to him, and he ends the film in her arms in a perfect image of familial harmony. It remains a controversial ending and one that’s been credited as being of Spielberg’s creation. However, it was in place since Kubrick was on the project and Spielberg did nothing to change it. It indeed a perfect ending, but contrary to many people’s’ thoughts not a happy one.

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When David’s mother Monica is initially introduced to him she’s horrified by the prospect of ‘replacing’ her biological son Martin (who’s in a coma) with a robot substitute. But as the prospect of Martin ever emerging from his coma dwindles, she comes around to the idea and activates David. She needs him. She needs a son to love and look out for and David fills that role. In a way, that’s rather sweet and moving: love makes the world go round. We all need to experience it and we all need to help others experience it. But it’s also quite chilling, an unnervingly pragmatic way to approach something as chaotic, emotional, and plain illogical as love. And so it proves. When Martin awakens, David’s purpose fades. He struggles to fit in, Martin jealously sets him up, and Monica decides to get rid of him.

As the film closes, Monica and David have switched roles. It’s now he that needs love and she’s the life form that’s artificially created to give it to him. She has no free will during these final scenes, just as David doesn’t during the rest of the film. She’s been resurrected with a limited lifespan and with one goal in mind: to show David the love he craves. It twists the entire film into quite difficult territory. If we see Monica’s decision to activate David as a morally questionable one, then surely we must see David’s decision to resurrect Monica in the same light. He’s become Monica. More importantly, he’s become human. He’s so utterly desperate to achieve the love he needs that he’s willing to break moral codes, to create life for utterly selfish reasons. It’s why that finale is such a perfect and strangely unhappy ending, a defining statement on humanity. Sometimes we do the worst of things for the best of reasons.

It’s a lesson Spielberg took to heart because it informs almost all his films during this decade. Munich, his darkest and most controversial film of the period (perhaps even of his career), is based entirely on the concept of doing the wrong thing in order to set something right. As Avner gets drawn further into a campaign of violence and retribution, his moral centre is corrupted and the very things he was trying to defend – the dignity of his home and the safety of his family – drift further and further away. By the end of the film, he stands alone in a New York park, adrift from those he undertook the campaign with and feeling disassociated from his family. “Break bread with me,” he asks his handler Ephraim. “No,” comes the simple, devastating response. The comforts of home and identity seem further away than ever.

The Noughties marked Spielberg’s first collaborations with Tom Cruise after many years of failed attempts. Minority Report and War Of The Worlds may seem like safe options for these two Kings of the Blockbuster to team up on, but Spielberg was in mischievous mood during the Noughties and takes great joy in undermining Cruise’s movie star persona. In both films, he has Cruise play morally ambiguous or flat-out dislikeable characters. Minority Report‘s John Anderton is willing to hypocritically undermine a system he’s helped create and defend to prove himself innocent, while Ray Ferrier bickers violently with his son, shows complete ignorance of his daughter, and most shockingly kills a man in War Of The Worlds. This is most certainly not the vision of Tom Cruise: Action Hero that we’re used to.

Spielberg delights in playing this subversion out literally as well as emotionally. Cruise is put through the physical wringer in both films, Spielberg disfiguring him on multiple occasions. In the War Of The Worlds, for example, he’s smothered in the ashes of people who’ve been incinerated by the Tripods (this, incredibly, isn’t even the darkest thing in the film), while in Minority Report he has his eyes removed (chasing after one of them in a moment of bleak slapstick) and literally rearranges his face with drugs in order to evade detection. In Jurassic Park, Spielberg portrayed the blockbuster as a theme park gone horribly wrong; ten years later, it was a moral black hole, a dark fantasy that warps everything our characters hold dear and true.

Concepts of reality and fantasy also drive Catch Me If You Can. Propelled by Janusz Kaminski’s candy-coloured photography and John Williams’ jazzy score, this story of 60s conman Frank Abagnale is a joy to watch, and you expect to make. Spielberg’s camerawork is more expressive than it had been in years, as he draws you into Abagnale’s tricks and has a huge amount of fun referencing everything from James Bond to The Flash. Indeed, it’s difficult not to see a certain admiration for Frank in Spielberg, who famously conned his way on to the Universal lot as a youngster and spent much of his childhood finding outrageous ways to prank his family and friends. If Spielberg had needed to, he’d have no doubt concocted some of the creative disguises than Abagnale does here.

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But the film itself is a con, an expression of regret and melancholy that uses its candy-coated visuals like the Yankees use their pinstripes: pure distraction. Catch Me If You Can comes on like a sister film to E.T. Like Elliot, Frank is a child of divorce struggling to cope with his broken home. While Elliot finds the escapism he needs in E.T. and ends up a more mature person for his experiences with the alien, Frank forces his escapism, striking out on his own, manipulating anyone he can lay his hands on, and exploiting the system in the vain hope he can get his old life back. There’s real tragedy here, and it’s not for no reason that the film plays out major scenes at Christmas. Frank, like young Spielberg during the festive season, is desperately reaching out for something to feel a part of.

The Terminal explores this idea too, but adds greater social significance to it. Another film overlooked due to its light and fluffy surface, Spielberg’s third collaboration with Tom Hanks smartly uses the actor’s all-American image to critique the country’s treatment of immigrants and what that treatment says about the American Dream. Viktor Navorski arrives in the titular airport needing help, but what he finds is a microcosm of an America that’s succumbed to petty self-interest. People refuse to lend a hand and when he tries to help himself, using the resources to hand, he’s thwarted by Stanley Tucci’s promotion-chasing airport chief Frank Dixon. Who cares about humans when there’s money to be made?

Yet Viktor persists. A total inversion of Abagnale, he chases dreams (the American Dream in this case) through hard work and dedication. Spielberg’s relationship with America has always been a complex one, but after the anger seen in the 70s, his later years would bring remorse and regret. As he’d explore a decade later in Bridge Of Spies, there’s a vision of America as an open, welcoming country dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves a fair shake. And then there’s the America that’s slipped into existence: a cruel, bullying nation that seeks to crush anything different from the norm. The Terminal slyly celebrates the former by lamenting the emergence of the latter.

If Spielberg had spent the decade playing with our preconceptions of his career, the image of popular action heroes, and the position of America in the world, his final film of this stint would blend them all together in what remains one of the most contentious films ever. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is not a great film, but nor is it the disaster the internet would have you believe. For all the things that don’t work (the extra-dimensional beings, the saggy middle act, the finale that never quite goes anywhere), there are plenty of things that do (the superb Nuketown sequence, Indy’s relationship with Abner Ravenwood, the return of Marion). If you’re still obsessed with that fridge, you probably need to consult to Temple Of Doom’s equal idiotic life raft sequence.

Perhaps one of the reasons the film wasn’t received well is simply because it dares to question our hero’s position in the world. Just as Spielberg distorted Cruise’s star image in Minority Report and War Of The Worlds, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull plays with Indy’s action hero status. The fridge escape is the desperate act of a desperate man and there’s tremendous meaning to be found in the shot of Indy utterly dwarfed by a mushroom cloud after the A-Bomb explodes. Our hero is a relic – finally, he really does belong in a museum – and as the film progresses, we see him distrusted by government agents, captured by Russians, and finally at a loss as the ‘beings from the space between spaces’ shoot off for the ether in a scene that replicates the mushroom cloud shot.

The extradimensional beings, we’re told, represent knowledge, hoarding it like treasure, so by framing their exit from earth in the same way he framed the mushroom cloud, Spielberg is lamenting a society that values paranoia over knowledge. It’s why the film’s 50s setting is so appropriate and why, beyond the science fiction elements of the plot, the film as a whole doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the Indy series. If the first three films were about our hero’s pursuit of greater knowledge and respect, Crystal Skull is about his (and society’’s) inability to achieve it. Like Viktor before him and Bridge Of Spies’ James Donovan after him, the Indiana Jones of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is an out-of-fashion hero adrift in a world that no longer values him.

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Perhaps Spielberg felt the same as Crystal Skull’s release was followed by an extended three-year period of inactivity. When he did return, the years of experimentation seemed to come to an end and he snapped his focus on another American hero: Abraham Lincoln.