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Over the Past 20 Years, Steven Spielberg Has Come to Terms With Himself

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“His love is real. But he is not,” promised the poster for A.I. Artificial Intelligence in the summer of 2001. Besides deliberately recalling the tagline for E.T. (“He is afraid, he is totally alone, he is three millon light years from home”), the phrasing cut to the peculiar and problematic paradox at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s downbeat sci-fi drama.

Set in a future several degrees bleaker than even the dystopias of A.I.’s original director Stanley Kubrick—a half-drowned world in which sex has become fully automated and New York City has been reduced to a sunken place—the movie plays out as a knowing riff on Pinocchio in which Haley Joel Osment’s preteen humanoid David becomes obsessed with flesh-and-blood authenticity—a high-tech puppet in search of a soul. But almost a decade after Jurassic Park helped to open the CGI floodgates, A.I.’s chill, mechanistic aesthetics were at once persuasive and alienating. Crisply assembled, impeccably designed, and drenched in a swelling John Williams score, the movie was recognizably Spielbergian but also slightly off in ways that invited discomfort alongside recognition; for much of its running time, it straddled the same uncanny valley between imitation and insecurity as its mecha protagonist.

The past 20 years since A.I. have been a strange time for Spielberg, who occupies a unique pop-cultural space adjacent to both his old pal and self-appointed cinephile crusader Martin Scorsese and the vertically integrated cinematic universes whose architects have long since absorbed and assembly-lined his style. He’s an elder statesman whose early-career innovations in the field of blockbuster engineering remain mostly unchallenged; along with his other old pal George Lucas, the 21st century film industry has been made in Spielberg’s image.

In the 1970s, the narrative around the director was that of a movie brat prematurely on the same wavelength as his inspirations: a precocious newcomer fusing classicism with something ruthless and kinetic. Alfred Hitchcock’s disparaging remarks circa the release of Jaws about “the boy who made the fish movie” belied the younger filmmaker’s mastery of suspense and spectacle. When the normally persnickety critic Stanley Kauffmann called Close Encounters of the Third Kind “not so much a film as an event in the history of faith,” he pinpointed the revelatory qualities of Spielberg’s style, how his compositions and editing guided the audience’s gaze upward in rapturous contemplation.

To keep the story going: In the ’80s, the boy wonder tried to grow up, tackling serious historical subjects in between franchise caretaker duties on Indiana Jones. In the ’90s, after the mid-life-crisis-misstep of Hook—which may have the most Divorced Dad energy of any movie ever made—he succeeded in his mission to find artistic and intellectual maturity, leveraging the box office dominance of Jurassic Park against the awards magnetism of Schindler’s List. By the 2000s—and following a second Best Director Oscar for orchestrating Saving Private Ryan’s nightmarish D-Day carnage—the question was what a 55-year-old filmmaker who’d already accomplished basically everything might want to do next. What peaks are there left to scale when you’re already on Mount Rushmore?

A case can be made that A.I. is still Spielberg’s strongest movie of the new millennium, and the best evidence for that argument may be that when it first came out, so many critics and viewers took it as a low point. There’s something to be said for a peerless populist trying—and, in his way, succeeding—to smuggle subversion into a big summer movie. The key to A.I. is that it is most definitely not E.T.; In E.T., Henry Thomas’s Elliott sublimates his grief over his parents’ divorce—and the resulting distance from his mother—by adopting a figurative brother from another planet, and there’s no doubt in the end that the kid will be all right. In A.I., the hero’s attempts to reach out and touch somebody fall short. David spends most of A.I. trying to reconnect with the adoptive human mother who leaves him in the woods out of guilt, expedience, and an unconscious revulsion at the idea of real love emanating from an unreal person. The wicked Freudian joke at the movie’s core is that their reunion in the final scene is a cinematic fantasy staged by a society of advanced robots indulging in a clinical form of nostalgia for human (and almost-human) life. If the scene of David climbing into bed for one last cuddle with an ersatz version of Mom is Spielbergian, it has a tragic asterisk.

Most of Late Spielberg is similarly booby-trapped, especially the other two entries in an unofficial sci-fi trilogy that includes Minority Report and War of the Worlds, both of which played smartly with Tom Cruise’s star persona—another post-A.I. connection between Spielberg and Kubrick, who’d tinkered brilliantly with the actor’s charisma in Eyes Wide Shut. In Minority Report, Cruise’s John Anderton is a cop who uses “precog” technology to visualize—and by doing so, pre-empt—as-yet-uncommitted crimes; standing in front of a flatscreen, moving and manipulating digital images, Cruise could just as easily be a wired-in millennial auteur as an avatar of law and order. Themes of staging, storytelling, and choreography are all patched into Minority Report’s thematic matrix, and a nightmarish set piece featuring an invading brigade of spidery, retina-scanning robots represents Spielberg’s most explicit attack on his wide-eyed multiplex constituency: After years of showing us things we’d never seen, he turns his hero’s eyeballs into a locus of danger and vulnerability.

Where Minority Report streamlines Cruise’s action-hero image, War of the Worlds turns it inside out. Ray Ferrier is a profoundly ordinary guy, and the film is at its best when he’s forced—along with every other person in the suddenly crumbling, Martian-infested Eastern U.S.—to simply bear witness to the end of the world as he knows it. Claims that the director was to some extent plagiarizing himself in a few of the movie’s set pieces belied the movie’s very strategic revisions of Spielbergian myth: the aural callbacks to Close Encounters of the Third Kind each time the tripods gear up for attacks (these guys do not come in peace); the visual quote of Jaws in an overhead shot of a massive monster swimming underwater. By the time Cruise and his brood are being stalked through a dark basement by a metallic, snake-like probe, the vibe is purely Jurassic Park, except that in Jurassic Park, Sam Neill didn’t have to kill another man behind closed doors in order to protect the kids. As Cruise struggles against Tim Robbins’s paranoid survivalist, a line from Saving Private Ryan comes to mind: “Earn this.”

The dark, startlingly visceral horror of War of the Worlds was complemented by its 2005 sister film Munich, which contains the most unsettling moment of Spielberg’s career: a Mossad assassin informing his colleague to “leave it open” after the latter tries to cover up the nude, bullet-riddled torso of a female target. It’s an image entwining sex and death in a way that feels closer to Paul Verhoeven or Brian De Palma than the guy who made E.T. For every thuddingly simplistic moment in Munich—like the bit where Israeli and Palestinian operatives are mollified by Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” playing on a safe house’s radio—there are scenes and ideas of tremendous complexity, and the overall feeling is of a filmmaker pushing further outside his comfort zone than ever before. From that vantage, all-ages crowd-pleasers like 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin looked very much like retreats, as did the burnished, weirdly rote lyricism of the 2011 World War I epic War Horse.

In terms of official accolades, the most acclaimed Late Spielberg film is Lincoln, which hammered home its transparently Obama-centric allegory about the perils and necessity of bipartisanship in a re-election year; the only thing to do with a performance as carefully studied and skillful as Daniel Day-Lewis’s was to give it an Oscar. But there’s also value to be mined from the mostly dismissed Cold War period piece Bridge of Spies, featuring Tom Hanks’s mild-mannered American attorney sneezing his way through cloak-and-dagger intrigue in Berlin. “The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss,” jokes a U.S. government functionary about his power-tripping higher-ups, a line that’d be a rip-off of A Serious Man if Bridge’s script weren’t partially credited to Joel and Ethan Coen. The film’s fact-based story about nuclear powers horse-trading political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain gives Spielberg an opportunity to enshrine a vision of honest American exceptionalism (primarily through the casting of Hanks), while also suggesting that this myth is essentially artificial around the edges.

Mark Rylance won a well-deserved Oscar for serving as Bridge of Spies steady moral fulcrum, and was rewarded with a star turn in Spielberg’s fully CGI’d Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG, a deceptively throwaway family feature that fits with the filmmaker’s recent tendency toward self-portraiture. For starters, the title character is a literal dreamweaver, colonizing the subconsciousnesses of children and political power brokers alike: the plot turns on the Giant helping to incept the Queen of England with a nightmare that will help England avert potential national tragedy. Without deviating too strongly from the plot of Dahl’s book—or hitting the requisite post-Pixar marks for a demographic-diving animated hit—Spielberg examines his own magical, deceptively innocuous craftsmanship, including a bittersweet coda in which the title character tells the little girl at his side that she’s fated to outgrow him, and that that’s ultimately OK.

The sense of an artist reckoning with his legacy pervades Spielberg’s sixth decade of filmmaking and carries into Ready Player One, the most explicitly self-reflexive film of Spielberg’s career. “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world” confesses Rylance’s James Halliday, a nerdy, unassuming visionary whose legacy is patterned in the movie after Spielberg’s own. The idea that a messianic game designer hid a trio of Easter eggs in far-flung corners of his limitlessly immersive virtual empire is carried over from Ernest Cline’s source novel, but in the context of Spielberg’s career, it’s an invitation to search for meaning amid the heavy machinery. The film is styled as a quest centering on a post-Zoomer Parzival who becomes a “real boy” in a way very different than Elliott or David: In the hopeful, Utopian coda, he gets to make out with a girl.

Ready Player One contains its share of half-dazzling, half-appalling pastiche, like its eerily seamless, self-contained recreation of The Shining (a more fetishistic bit of Kubrick cosplay than anything in A.I.) or a climax uniting several decades (and multiple studios’) worth of intellectual property for a full-scale battle royale, beating Space Jam: A New Legacy to the punch. There’s even a cameo from Jurassic Park’s iconic T-rex, whose full-throated roar could be an attempt to recapture past glory or just a massive heaping of opportunistic nostalgia. What unites Ready Player One with A.I. is its vision of a future whose inhabitants—whether real, synthetic, or somewhere in between—can’t help looking to the past for inspiration and solace, and more specifically to fairy tales for guidance about how to move forward. The difference is that A.I. humbly genuflects before Pinocchio via the image of a submerged statue of the Blue Fairy, radiant yet powerless to grant her visitor’s wish. In Ready Player One, on the other hand, the foundational myths are Spielberg’s own. At this point in his career—and in the history of pop culture—he’s the wizard behind his own curtain.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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