Dark Dreams - Spielberg's Last Decade

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Bullock

Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn marks a significant moment in the director's career for two reasons. Firstly, it's the realisation of a long-held ambition. Spielberg first read the escapades of the Belgian boy reporter during production on Raiders of the Lost Ark and has been trying to bring them to the screen ever since. Secondly, it’s the first film of the director's fifth cinematic decade (sixth if you count his early homemade features). Spielberg has gone from Movie Brat wunderkind to one of the venerable old men of Hollywood, guiding through as many films as producer as he directs, but there remain critics.

Check the IMDB message boards, go through the talkbackers on Ain't It Cool News, take a browse on Spielberg fansites and you'll see a growing fear mounting about the director’s career. Has he lost it? Is Tintin make or break? Is that trademark Spielberg wonder dead? The answers to these questions are: no, no and yes. But that's no bad thing. The first signs of change came with 1985's The Color Purple and he's continued to evolve ever since, releasing Empire of the Sun two years later, Schindler's List in 1993, Amistad in 1997 and Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The type of wonder he perfected in the 70s and 80s has certainly gone, but it's been replaced by something much more interesting and it made his last decade of work his best ever.

The decade began with the release of AI: Artificial Intelligence in 2001. The project, an adaptation of the Brian Aldiss short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, began life in the hands of Stanley Kubrick, but the great director could never make the story of a mother and her android son work. Contemporary special effects couldn't keep pace with his imagination and he struggled to find a young actor who could convincingly convey the pseudo-humanity of the central robot replica. Rather than abandoning the project though, Kubrick passed it onto Spielberg, whom he felt was a better fit for the story’s themes and whose effects work on Jurassic Park Kubrick had been impressed by. Hesitant at first, Spielberg eventually took the project on after Kubrick’s death in 1999 and so began an unlikely fusion: cinema's Peter Pan with its Captain Hook. It couldn't work. Could it?

It could and it does. Seamlessly. With its parent-child plot, AI is classic Spielberg, but the story is laced with a Kubrickian darkness that makes it a very different proposition to other sci-fi films in Spielberg's cannon. Expanding Aldiss's tale, the film introduces us to Henry and Monica Swinton, a married couple whose son Martin has a life-threatening disease and has been put into suspended animation until a cure can be found. To fill the hole left in their life, they adopt David, a first-of-its-kind Mecha child who has been created by the recently bereaved scientist Professor Hobby and who looks, thinks and feels like a real boy. They live a perfect life for a time, but problems emerge when Martin recovers and a dangerous sibling rivalry eventually forces Henry and Monica to abandon David. Alone, he is left to travel a labyrinth of locations, including a concentration camp-like Flesh Fair, the debauched Rogue City and finally a submerged Manhattan, in search of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, who David believes will make him a real boy and finally win him the love of his mother.

AI is a fairy tale then, but a twisted one - a fairy tale without the fairies. Spielberg shoots the film with a glacial realism, his camera remaining ghostly still, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography sucking the colour from the bleached-out screen. Indeed beyond the pale blues and muted grays that dominate the picture, the only time any colour encroaches into AI is during the scenes in Rogue City and those at the Flesh Fair. On both occasions, the wonderful splashes of colour are man-made and representative only of danger and perversity and certainly not of Close Encounters-esque wonder. This is not a world for a child. It is grim, bleak and scary, and Spielberg trades on the audience's understanding of that. We know that David does not. He’s not in a fairy tale. The Blue Fairy does not, and cannot, exist. He will never find what he’s looking for. He will never be loved.

In this sense, David becomes like Jack Torrence in The Shining or A Clockwork Orange’s Alex. He's stuck in an infinite maze. Alex will never be cured of his ultra-violence, the Overlook Hotel will always claim another victim and David is doomed to live in an eternal fantasy. This happens literally in the film's disputed ending, which seems to suggest the Spielbergian cop-out many critics feared when the project was announced. Stranded in a submerged Coney Island, staring and praying to the Blue Fairy statue that occupies the fairground, David is rescued far in the future by a group of advanced Mechas and taken off to be studied and analysed. The water of New York has frozen into ice, all human life has been eradicated and the Mechas scan the city looking for what so tragically evaded David: humanity.

They still can’t provide that, but they do grant one of David's wishes and bring his mother back to life for one final day. Now Monica is finally able to dedicate her love to David, but she's a fantasy based on his favourable memories, as false as the Blue Fairy herself. Watching on, the Mechas take note and so, not for the first time, David becomes a lab rat, an experiment in humanity. First he was created by Hobby to help him recover from his son’s death, then he was adopted by Henry and Monica to perform a similar task. Now he’s again being used. Spielberg plays on this in his final shot as he gradually tracks out from the picture postcard image of Monica and David reading a story. It looks like a dream, but it’s really a nightmare. David is trapped, his house a cozy prison, his fantasies separating him from reality, the Mechas’ dreams of humanity forcing them to enslave another sentient being. Their road to evil has been paved with good intentions and it’s a road Spielberg would travel throughout the rest of the decade.

For his follow-up to AI, Spielberg made another film about lost children, but the innocents of Minority Report don't even get their predecessor’s illusion of free will. Loosely based on the short story by Philip K Dick, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as John Anderton, poster boy Captain of a new form of policing called PreCrime, which uses three precognitive siblings (Agatha, Dashiell and Arthur) to predict murders before they happen. The precogs spend their lives lying motionless in a pool of water, their slumber only interrupted by nightmarish visions of crimes to come. Even more than David, they are lab rats, housed in a cage, tended to by a doctor and never allowed to leave. The film poses a classic moral dilemma, positing the freedom of three orphans against the security of millions. Is it worth it? Spielberg offers no easy answers. PreCrime works, murder is at an all-time low, and the precogs’ dream-like state keeps them oblivious to their position in the world. In Spielberg’s last decade though, reality, no matter how bleak, is paramount. Dreams are dangerous.

Anderton is a willing participant in the dream, indeed arguably the key dreamer. Like Hobby and Monica, he’s a bereaved parent whose son was kidnapped during a visit to a public pool. He spends his life stuck in the past, watching dreamlike holographic home movies of his son and estranged wife during happier times. He literally relives the moments, reciting his part in them as if his words are dialogue in a play. PreCrime is Anderton's way of atoning. Here, he can ensure history never repeats itself by controlling the future, but like all of Spielberg’s heroes from this decade he becomes trapped in his own fantasy. When the precogs foresee a crime perpetrated by Anderton, the cop is forced to go on the run. During these scenes, which constitute the film's second act, Spielberg plays with perception and reality, repeating a common motif of sight and putting Cruise through the physical ringer, replacing his eyes and reconfiguring his face. Here, and in War of the Worlds three years later, Spielberg turns Hollywood's most recognisible leading man into a monstrous mutation. The fantasy of the Hollywood star, the dream we aspire to be, is subverted.

The maze finally ensnares Anderton when he stumbles across Leo Crow, the man who he comes to believe kidnapped his son and who he is fated to murder. With Agatha in tow, Anderton is presented with a choice: confront Crow and fulfill his destiny or leave and deny it. In one of the film's most enduring images, Spielberg frames Anderton and Agatha in a close-up, Agatha's head resting on Anderton's shoulder; her looking behind him begging him to leave, him looking ahead determined to stay. She has become his conscious, a human Jiminy Cricket, literally perched on his shoulder, trying to persuade him to do the right thing - the dreamer begging for reality, the ‘realist’ focusing on the dream. He ignores her, proceeds and eventually kills Crow, albeit accidentally. Before he fires his fatal bullet, it’s revealed that Crow is a stooge and the real kidnapper is still at large. The gun goes off accidentally and Anderton has submitted to the dream of PreCrime, his fate at the whim of destiny. The dream has become a nightmare.

Spielberg returns to the dreaming metaphor when Anderton is sentenced. Once convicted, offenders are put in a sleep-like state of suspended animation. "Some say they have visions," explains Tim Blake-Nelson's warden, Spielberg making explicit the link between PreCrime and dreams. Except, the fantasy can’t last. It’s built on a falsehood and in the film’s final reel, the net unravels. Anderton’s wife discovers the truth behind the organisation’s establishment, outing PreCrime’s Director Lamarr Burgess as a murderer who killed Agatha’s mother to kidnap the child and set the division up. The revelation takes place at a ceremony designed to honour PreCrime’s success. As a memento, Burgess is given a gold-plated Civil War gun, recognition of the violence that had gone before and a symbol of hope that such a weapon will never be needed again. Following the revelation, Burgess uses the gun to kill himself. The symbol of the dream’s success, now used to literally blow a hole in it. The dream over, Anderton and the precogs awaken, Anderton reunited with his wife, the precogs relocated to an idyllic country setting. Only when we acknowledge dreams for what they are and live in reality, Spielberg says, can we ever hope to progress.

This theme is writ large in Spielberg’s next two films, which are ostensibly comedies but have central themes in common with AI and Minority Report, both focusing on the dissolution of the self and the power of dreams to trap people. The first film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jnr, a young man who copes with the divorce of his parents by fleeing into the fantasy life of a con-man. He’s a kindred spirit to Elliot, but while Elliot’s fantasy life with ET proves beneficial, Frank’s fantasy is anything but. It’s a danger, damaging not only to himself but to the people his cons affect. Frank‘s fantasy is more tangible than David or Anderton‘s though - it‘s the 60s. Cultural icons from that decade litter the screen: Frank reads The Flash comic books, he parties to the sounds of The Kinks, he takes fashion tips from Sean Connery’s Bond. Even Tom Hanks’s federal agent looks ripped from a film, decked out in the pristine black-and-white suit and horn-rimmed glasses of a thousand fictional government stooges. The film opens with the black-and-white fuzz of a TV and that‘s what Catch Me If You Can is - a fiction, a dream.

The cold reality of Frank’s life resides back where Elliot’s warm fantasies emanated from: the home. While Frank takes to the skies, his father remains decidedly grounded and in one of his smallest but most memorable performances, Christopher Walken strips away the grandeur associated with his acting and turns his character into a broken husk of a man. His wife’s left him, his son’s gallivanting around the globe and gradually the financial realities begin to close in. He’s committed tax fraud to try to make his business work and the FBI is onto him. In one of the most devastating scenes Spielberg has ever shot, we learn of Frank Snr’s death in the same way his son does – second hand. Frank’s father, we are told, died when he fell down a staircase at Grand Central Station. It’s a sad and futile death for a decent man deserted by his wife and child. Could Frank have saved his father or at least made his life a little easier if he had stayed with him? Spielberg never answers this question, just affirmatively hints, making Catch Me If You Can a singular effort. The man who made films about parents abandoning children had made his first about a child abandoning a parent.

During all this, Frank’s mother is absent. As the film proceeds, Frank resolves to track her down, like David hoping for closure. He gets it, but not the kind he’d like. Instead of finding a woman eager to revisit the past and reunite with her ex-husband, Frank locates his mother on an idyllic snowy Christmas. She’s at home, enjoying the festivities with her new husband and their young daughter. Frank watches the scene from outside, the cold blue of his surroundings contrasting sharply with the warm reds and oranges of inside. Frank is trapped on the outside of his own dream, an onlooker to a fantasy he can never make real. It’s a key image for this film and many more Spielberg movies in this decade - the hero locked out of his fantasy. Spielberg would return to it in War of the Worlds and Munich, and base an entire film around it in The Terminal. Ostensibly a cute rom-com, The Terminal is a sly and duplicitous film. It’s as bleak as Minority Report, as hopeless as AI, and the first of three Spielberg movies to explicitly deal with the effects of the War on Terror.

Our hero is Viktor Navorski, a classic fish-out-of-water character struggling to get by in an alien world. Except here the fish hasn’t just been plucked from the bowl, he’s been thrown into the frying pan. In the film, Navorski finds himself homeless and alone after a revolution in his homeland Krakozhia took place during a flight to New York. With no official country, Viktor is refused entry to the US, meaning he’s got nowhere to go except the airport. He spends the film trapped here, a shimmering microcosm of modern Capitalist America littered with big brands and consumerist delights. Indeed, the film was fiercely criticised at the time of release for its abundance of product placement, but accusations of corporate shilling are false. Spielberg uses brand names so satirically it’s a wonder he ever got permission to include them at all. The Terminal may be dressed as a whimsical rom-com, but it’s one of Spielberg’s most political films, a fierce criticism of money-hungry America and an impassioned defence of immigration.

When Viktor arrives at the terminal, he is greeted with Capitalist excess – a landscape dominated by Starbucks and Burger Kings where the most common sound is that of the ringing cash till. It’s a whirlwind of modernity, a consumerist dream, and when Viktor asks what he should do to pass the excess of time he now has, he‘s bluntly told: “The only thing you can do here: shop”. But Viktor has no money, and the consumerist dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Stanley Tucci’s Customs and Border Protection Head Frank Dixon is his key oppressor, roaming through scenes in a sharp suit that bears an American flag pin. He‘s close to promotion, but Viktor, who has only flown to the States to gain the final autograph in his late father‘s jazz collection, is causing him a problem he doesn‘t need and Dixon thwarts the visitor at every turn. The country that once vowed to take “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is now refusing a simple act of familial love for a pay rise. America, Viktor is told, is closed.

Against this backdrop, Viktor becomes the spirit of everything that America once stood for. Befriending a melting pot of ethnicities, Viktor embodies the American Dream. He is a man left with nothing, except quite literally the shirt on his back, and manages to make a life for himself. He beats off hunger by scrounging condiment sachets from burger joints, he keeps clean in the airport toilets, he finds a job in construction after inadvertently helping builders with their work. Viktor is presented with a nightmare dressed as a dream and turns it into the American Dream - America as it is and America as it wants to be. Both are prisons though. Like David, Frank and John before him, Viktor has become trapped in fantasy. It’s only in the film’s melancholic coda that he escapes and triumphant reality returns. He is finally granted access to New York and after achieving his goal he hails a cab, saying simply: “I want to go home”. Even war-torn Krakozhia is better than fictional America.

Delusion rather than dreams plague the characters of Munich and War of the Worlds, the other two films in Spielberg’s unofficial War on Terror trilogy. But when reality descends on Ray and Avner, it arrives with the tremulous thump of an explosion. In Munich, the story of the vengeance mission Israel embarked upon after the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games, the delusion is one of morality, Avner and his team pursuing their path of destruction with the unwavering assertion that they are right. Spielberg’s final image, where he frames the characters against a hazy New York skyline in which the World Trade Centre stands in ghostly remembrance, suggests far more ambiguity. Black and whites such as right and wrong, good and evil, are fallacies, Spielberg reminds us with this final shot, as fantastical as David’s Blue Fairy, but more real and therefore far more dangerous.

In War of the Worlds, Spielberg casts Tom Cruise as Ray, another failed family man. Here Cruise’s delusion is that he’s anything but a failure. An absent father, he believes he can ingratiate himself to the children he barely knows and guide them through the Martian attack. However, when his daughter starts having panic attacks, it’s his son rather than Ray who steps in to take care of her, and when his son demands to fight the aliens, Ray is powerless to stop him. The arc that normally accompanies such characters is notably absent.  Brody in Jaws and Alan Grant in Jurassic Park are similarly flawed fathers, but their heroics in protecting their children (surrogate in Grant’s case) against a monstrous menace help strengthen their relationships. For Ray, however, that remains an unattainable dream. The Martians defeated, Ray returns his kids to their mother and stepfather. We never see inside their house, we are never witness to a heart-warming reunion. Ray isn’t even invited in. The family remain outside, among the desolation, defeated but alive. In Spielberg’s last decade, that’s the only dream we can make real.

With the release of The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg will have bookended the turn of the decade with two anomalous throwbacks, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being the other. It’s telling that these two films, driven by nostalgia, look like they will return the sanctity of the family and the dream to Spielberg’s filmmaking. Indy 4 ended with our hero finally settling down with Marian, while Tintin is likely to form a father-son bond with Captain Haddock. Both films are set in the 40s and 50s and time-hopping will be a feature of Spielberg’s movies for years to come. After Tintin comes the World War One drama Warhorse and Lincoln will follow next December. Futuristic sci-fi Robopocalypse is scheduled for 2013, while space odyssey Interstellar is on the cards some time after that. Spielberg currently has no films set in the present day on his slate. And perhaps that’s the only way he can dream again. The present is dark and scary, riddled with uncertainty. All we can do for hope is reminiscence about the past and dream about the future. Spielberg has turned us all into David, sat motionless, waiting and hoping for something better to come along.


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