By Michael W. Harris
Steven Spielberg is an interesting director. Often derided by “refined” cinephiles as too commercial and mainstream, not to mention his part in the creation of the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), Spielberg is, in reality, a very astute and sophisticated director whose films have surprising depth when you peel back the surface layer. His works have undergone a bit of critical reappraisal thanks to many YouTube essayists and such opinions are beginning to filter into the mainstream. And with this new criticism has come some re-evaluation of films that, upon first release, suffered from disappointment critically or financially (at least in the public perception).
In my memory (which could be flawed or skewed in this respect), early 2000s Spielberg is and was undervalued by the public, that some thought he had somehow lost a step. Coming off the successes of Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he followed those up with the three films under discussion here: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005)—with Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004) sandwiched in between the latter two for good measure. These are not objectively bad films, they demonstrate a master in full command of his craft. Yet, I never saw any of these three films in theatres, catching them only after the fact on DVD. In my memory, I also do not remember overwhelming praise nor box office (though the internet tells me otherwise). However, they have remained in the back of my head as films that I would like to revisit, especially when taken as an interesting grouping in Spielberg’s career. Three sci-fi films coming in relative proximity, and all adaptations at that.
In reviewing these films, I cannot divorce them of the times in which they were made and released. The early 2000s were a transitional time, one where the optimism of the ‘90s Clinton/Gore years came crashing down upon us. The promise of technology to solve all our issues and inconveniences was revealed to be problematic at best and chilling at worst. The specter of climate change became all too real. And the threat of global terrorism came to home to roost in the West. And these films all confront some of these issues in interesting ways, even though only one of them was made fully in this period from beginning to end (War of the Worlds).
I feel like my memory of these films’ reception is a bit flawed. A simple search reveals that they were all well-regarded and made decent money…but not overwhelming praise except in the case of Minority Report, but maybe, like the recent Ready Player One (2018), they are just not what we are used to seeing or expecting from a Spielberg film, or that maybe we refuse to view them as anything but what we are expecting from a Spielberg film. That we either expect more from arguably the most famous director of our era, or that he is so famous that we expect his style to never change. In rewatching them, I was struck by not only the visual mastery of these films, but also how Spielberg brings out the themes of these films in his, for lack of a better term, Spielbergian fashion: direct, with clarity, and an economy of visual language. A master who is comfortable with the tools of cinema.
So, what do these three films have to say to us? What can we take from them and why should you give them a possibly second or maybe even a first look? That is what I hope to tell you and convince you of here.
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A.I. is a dark film. Let me just say that first. For a movie about a robot boy, a walking/talking toy bear, and one whose overarching theme is love, this movie is, in words of today, “dark AF.” It is also, most assuredly, not one for children. Which makes sense when you remember that this is ostensibly a Stanley “I directed The Shining and A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick joint. Yet for many viewers a disconnect appears when one thinks of the, supposedly, family friendly Spielberg (does no one remember how terrifying E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind are? Or the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?) and the dark and troubling questions posted by A.I. (the Kubrick aspect). However, the other reason people give for not liking the film is that it was too on the nose with its Pinocchio/fairy tale story (i.e. – too sentimental, too Spielbergian, whereas it was not Kubrickian enough). They were reading into it what they thought it should be instead of the hybrid that it is. One would think that with the story of how the film came about so well-known that an audience would be able to disconnect from one side or the other, but perhaps Spielberg is some omnipresent that that is hard to do.
When you get down to it, though, this is a film about love. Love of family. Love of mother for child and vice-versa. But it is not only about love, it is also about the responsibility we have for the love we create (both literally and figuratively). There is also the enduring question of “what is love?” If we are able to program a robot, or any sort of artificial lifeform, to love us, its creators, then what is love in reality and what is our responsibility to those creations? In the film, the robot child David begins in an almost autistic state, not having any conception of social cues or any understanding of the world, he knows only to see the love and approval of another. Even after imprinting on his mother, he still doesn’t quite understand how to exist in the world and fixates on certain things and is easily taken advantage of by the biological son who exploits his love from the mother in horrific ways.
David’s love is also, while pure, overwhelming and, to an extent, one-sided. And the only option when the situation at home between David and his adoptative family becomes untenable is for him to be returned to his manufacturer, where he would then be destroyed, aborted, put down…killed. It is horrifying to think of, but it parallels to how we treat animals, pets, and sometimes our own children, are striking and clear. Many people get pets or start families not fully understanding how much work is required, and in the case of pets they will simply be returned to the shelter or wherever they got them, which are then sometimes forced to “put down,” or some other euphemism for being killed, the animal. (In the case of children, they are sometimes abandoned at hospitals or turned over to care to family members or foster systems.)
When we are like gods, able to create and destroy life and love, what is our responsibility to our creations?
And much like the Judeo-Christian god, flooding the earth and destroying his creation after the fall of man, A.I. plays out against the backdrop of melted ice caps and flooded cities forcing humanity to place severe population controls on the survivors. To even have children you have to get a permit, and if something happens to that child, odds are against you getting a second permit (which is the situation the family who takes in David as a test for the new product finds itself in). However, this is not the point of the film, that is all background and set-up for exploring the film’s true theme of love in its many forms and what responsibility we have towards the life we create (much like the creator gods and spirits of human mythology).
I would talk about the ending at this point, but Mikey Neumann of Movies with Mikey on YouTube already did a great break down of it, so I will just point you to that video. I will say, however, that A.I. asks some troubling questions about the future of technology while also shining a light on issues that often go overlooked, such as pet populations and how we treat those we consider not to be human (see the Flesh Fairs of the film…truly disturbing). Furthermore, it directly asks how, if we treat those we consider less than human (mecha) as unworthy of equal protection of life and security of person, that if we consider them not to be legally not living nor able to be “killed,” then who are we as a species? We have imbued them with consciousness and the ability to be more than just glorified computers, indeed created them in our own image (or the image of a lost child in the case of David), so are they not living in most senses? If we treat them as little more than tools to be used and discarded, are we truly worthy of survival as a species?
In the end, humanity is dead, its work and monuments to themselves frozen in ice, and, if we accept Neumann’s analysis and the synopsis on the Wikipedia page (though one that seemingly blew past most viewers, including myself), all that is left are the mecha. Just as humanity overthrew and outgrew its gods, mecha have outlived theirs.
The children inherit the Earth, and they can have very long memories.
In the end, A.I. is heartbreaking because David’s love is never fully returned, and he is never able to understand why. He just does not “get” how the world works. Why it is so cruel to him and those like him. Unlike Joe, who is world weary, used, and maybe abused, David only knows pure love, it is all he is able to understand. But the world doesn’t work that way, but shouldn’t it?
Why doesn’t it?
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Minority Report was released in June 2002, and where as A.I. can be seen as a commentary on not only technology and climate change in the Clinton/Gore era, Minority Report is most assuredly a reflection of paranoia and creeping surveillance state that was growing in the early 2000s. Yes, production of the film had started long before 9/11 or the USA PATRIOT Act were real things that happened (and which still affect us to this day), but the timeliness of a film about surveillance, trusting a government agency tasked with preventing a crime before it can happen, and essentially prosecuting someone for literally thinking about committing a crime was, well, precognitive.
Doubly creepy are the religious overtones of the film, the deification of the precogs and a population essentially putting their faith in gods and their agents on earth to keep them safe (the criminals are literally “haloed” when caught). It is troubling because what Minority Report essentially shows is a society that, until the flaws in the system (which are “always human” as the film says) are exposed and put on public display, most people are perfectly okay with the notion of “precrime,” essentially trying and convicting a person for committing a crime in the future. The reason for this, as told in exposition via news report, is that America is in the midst of a crime and drug epidemic. The precogs, unbeknownst to the public, are basically “crack babies,” a by-product of this drug problem, with the ability to see a murder before it happens. But this entire system is predicated upon a belief in predestination. A universe devoid of free will and choice. That our futures are writ in stone, unable to be changed. And this is where the film breaks down the barrier between metaphysics and the surveillance state. This future, full of sleek driverless cars, gleaming buildings, and so forth, all rests on a foundation of putting our faith in a system with a shaky foundation…
The minority report. That sometimes one of the three precogs will see events differently.
Or put another way: reasonable doubt.
This is the point in which our current system comes under scrutiny. So much of the surveillance states works only if we believe whole heartedly that thought equals action. That once you set yourself down a path that forever will it dominate your destiny, We essentially have to take away a person’s ability to choose a different way. We have to believe that a person is forever lost.
And this is a thinking that has conquered so much of our justice systems since the “War on Crime” of the ‘60s through ‘90s, and kicked into a higher gear with the “War on Terror” after 9/11. We went from rehabilitation as the aim of the justice system (turn the convicted into “productive” citizens again), to locking them up with little regard to the actual person. That one abdicates their rights to personhood once they are locked away.
Mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, guilt by association, racial profiling. And introduced into the lexicon by the “War on Terror:” waterboarding, torture, extraordinary rendition, and black sites. To say nothing of being held without charge for a military tribunal. Minority Report takes this to the extreme by giving us a system built upon the idea that we do not have a choice in what we do. That once we are set upon a path that we cannot alter it.
The paranoia of government surveillance was something found in the original short story by Philip K. Dick, indeed it was a recurring theme of his, and the original film scripts had been bouncing around Hollywood since the ‘90s, but it hard to watch the film and not read post-9/11 hysteria into it. And now, the targeted ads and tailored suggestions that are seen in one sequence (a predictive systems itself) are a reality of our everyday internet browsing. The film nailed so much of our modern society that it is downright eerie.
However, the plot is a bit confusing/muddled at times, and there are a few moments of, “but if this is true, then how did…” that are better left unasked. Still, it is worth a watch to make you face some of the hard questions that we must ask as our technology grows ever more predictive and the government wants to track and more and more of our lives. Where does the ability to surveil and predict how a person might act actually start to take away our ability to choose our own destiny?
* * *
If Minority Report unintentionally stumbled into topics that would come to dominate the post-9/11 political discourse, then War of the Worlds was Spielberg’s very conscious attempt to confront the realities of the era. From Tom Cruise’s ash and dust covered face and hair to his son’s blind range and desire to run off and fight the aliens who have hurt him, Spielberg took the mixture of fear, anger, terror, rage, and confusion that was the aftermath of that Tuesday morning and stuffed it inside the narrative of one of the classic stories of science fiction. And if the parallels were not clear enough, at one point the director literally drops a plane on top of Tom Cruise and his on-screen family for good measure.
If Robbie’s (Cruise’s son), blind rage to fight the tripods despite every fight that humanity has put up turning futile was so many American’s response to go fight the terrorist without actually knowing who “they” are or how to fight such an enemy, then Ray (Cruise’s character) is so many Americans who went from macho posturing to cowering in fear in just a heartbeat. The fragility of our national identity and self-confidence fully exposed. The film is a potent portrayal of the many varied reactions to that day, none more so than the giving into the mob mentality of the dockside ferry sequence. It was the worst of our humanity on full display.
Watching the film now, 17-years removed from that day, though still very much living through its aftermath, it captures vividly the emotions of it. And the film is quite aware of the parallels. One of Ray’s neighbors even asks if “it is terrorists” again. However, if the film is Spielberg exploring the psychological trauma and response to being attacked without warning from an enemy that most of us, if anyone, was even aware we were already at war against for reasons that are poorly understood at best…
Then what about that ending?
For the film, Spielberg opts for the ending from H.G. Wells novel, that all the aliens are defeated due to the diseases present in our biosphere and for which we are largely immune and can fight. Essentially we are only saved because of a stroke of luck and biology. Or, as Morgan Freeman says in his dulcet toned voice-over, largely quoting the original novel:
“From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate and drank, they were doomed. They were undone, destroyed, after all of man’s weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures that God in his wisdom put upon this earth. By the toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”
It is a strange way to end an allegorical 9/11 film, because the finale manages to say nothing about that topic. It is wholly disconnected from such a statement on the modern world. However, when this film was made in 2005, we had much less clarity on the situation as a whole. Yes, many had already become jaded by the Bush administration’s response: two wars with no clear objectives or possible end points, a foe who was still able attack America and its allies because, like the Tripods, they could stay hidden and buried until it was time to strike, and a military that while overpowering against traditional enemies, was powerless when it came to fighting the war we were actually in. In 2005, there were no answers and no resolution, and now, 13 years after its release, there still isn’t one. And because of that, I am still unsure of how War of the Worlds should have ended.
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These three movies, while by no means perfect, are underrated in the Spielberg oeuvre. Of course, coming on the heels of his ‘90s classics, or the early, career defining, films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s (Jaws, Close Encounters, and the Indiana Jones films), it is easy to see why. Spielberg is a master craftsman and is plagued forever by comparisons to the films that defined generations. But I challenge you: give these movies a try. Look at them with a fresh eye and mind towards some of these deeper and more basic themes. Let yourself be troubled by their rather unsettling questions and the existential horror and dread they create. Allow the films to overwhelm and consume you. Confront them. Discuss them. The questions they pose are worth asking. Plus, you get to watch some truly amazing visual cinema while you are at it.
And to top it off, two of the three films feature some classic Tom Cruise running, and isn’t that, at the very least, worth the price of an Amazon rental?