The Dark Side of Steven Spielberg
Turn of the Century Blues?
Some critics claim that Steven Spielberg’s films became darker at the turn of the century.
And still others claim this turn to the dark side came as a result of the 9/11 attacks, while still others believe that “the world’s greatest contemporary film maker” wanted to dispel criticism over his supposedly fluffy sentimental films of the past.
While Color Purple, Schindler’s list and Saving Private Ryan all had a dark element that showed Spielberg moving in that direction prior to the year 2000, something else occurred in the 1990s to push him along and alter is view of the universe, shifting him away from his Never Never Land perspective and twisted him into a new, darker world view.
AI, Minority Report, Catch me if you can, Terminal, and most importantly War of the Worlds and Munich seem to have a common thread of pessimism his previous films lacked. The characters in each seem even more vulnerable and entrapped than those he gave us in the earlier films.
Although in some ways, the post 2000 films appear merely to better and more intensely reflect fears and themes he has previously expressed.
Spielberg has himself acknowledged the impact of his parents’ early divorce, but perhaps less honestly failed to express the acute level of fear he felt for most of his life, though clues of these often filtered through in films like Jaws, Poltergeist and even his self-proclaimed masterpiece, ET.
Monsters of every sort, friendly and not-so friendly invaded safe places and put at risk all those things the heroes of his films loved.
The problem is that in the 1990s and early turn of the century, Spielberg’s worst fears came true.
Diagnosed and treated for cancer (not to mention possible other ailments), Spielberg was also stalked by dangerous people at times when other celebrities such as George Harrison were assaulted in well-guarded houses.
9/11 -- and even the escalating conflicts in the Middle East – appears to have played a part in pushing Spielberg into created and even darker landscape for his turn of the century films.
The concepts of abandonment and terror become even more vivid on the screen as real life stirred up old fears with new devices that the unimaginable can indeed come true.
Spielberg thus revisited old themes with a new vengeance.
Spielberg’s attachment to AI is all the more understandable in this light. Sure, we know from other films about his fear of abandonment. While Empire of the Sun shows this theme as well, it gives us a positive outcome, AI presents us with almost no hope (see the upcoming essay: AI and Frankenstein),
Minority reports deals with murder and a criminal’s ability to get away with it at a time when Spielberg just suffered a series of stalkings. And while Spielberg upgraded the security has his various estates, the wounding of George Harrison proved that no security is absolute. Some believe the construction of the Naples estate was an effort to find a more secluded hide away, as if Spielberg could go anywhere without notice, even using as close a friend of cable TV tycoon Alan Gerry to cover his tracks or keep Spielberg and his family safe from abduction (look for more essays on this aspect later).
Of the collection of post turn of the century films, Catch me if you can seems on the surface the most positive, although Spielberg may indeed be reflecting on the hide-and-seek game he must play with the public and those who pursue him. It would be curious to know if Spielberg deep down really feels responsible for his own persecution in the way this film implies (more later when I look more closely at this film in this regard).
Terminal seems to reflect the ugly reality of Spielberg’s new life the way the 1964 film Hard Day’s Night did the fate of the Beatles, popularity trapping him in a smaller and smaller world, despite his great wealthy He like the Beatles must live his life in a box, and the film may indeed express some of his frustration at being locked up when would-be killers are free to roam the country side around him.
It is most difficult to disguise the great fear Spielberg clearly expresses in War of the Worlds. While critics claim it is a 9/11 film, it appears to fully embody the rising paranoia resulting from being stalked, especially with his apparent use of German Expressionism and dream sequences to show how external conflicts echo inner fears.
When the Dakota Fleming character convinces herself in the back seat of a fleeing ban that she is safe within her own space, we almost hear Spielberg saying the same thing from behind the gate at his estates in California or Florida.
Fear often leads to anger and for this years, Spielberg may have been drawn to the source material for Munich simply by the title: Vengeance.
This aspect of rear and retribution is most likely to color the production of the new Raiders movie as well.
The Lincoln film Spielberg plans will likely dwell on how trapped the great American president felt in his own life and how fate seemed to take control of him and lead him inevitably to the Ford Theater and doom.