A.I. and Minority Report

(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. First up: A.I. and Minority Report.)

“What if Peter Pan grew up?” pondered the tagline of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy Hook. It was an intriguing premise: what would happen if the perpetual child – the boy who refused to get older – embraced the cold, stark, finite nature of adulthood? Of course, the compelling concept of this tagline is all but forgotten in the runtime of Hook, where the adult Peter Pan quickly reverts to childhood in order to save the day. Still, what a notion!

Sometimes, life imitates art. In the 21st century, Steven Spielberg, the perpetual child – the pop culture impresario who found a way to turn childhood and nostalgia into a lucrative, highly entertaining art form – did something remarkable.

In the 21st century, Steven Spielberg grew up.

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What If Peter Pan Grew Up?

One could argue that the experience of filming 1993’s Schindler’s List changed Spielberg. The overwhelmingly bleak subject matter took a toll on the director – he would return to his rented home from the set and literally break down sobbing. After the arduous experience of making the film, Spielberg would go on to say, “I feel I have a responsibility…I want to go back and forth from entertainment to socially conscious movies.”

Yet as the 21st century arrived, Spielberg’s filmography blossomed into something different. Rather than succumbing to the “back and forth” way of making movies – juggling between pure pop entertainment and socially conscious message movies – the filmmaker found a way to combine both. Here was something new from the most popular director in history. A brave new world of movies that walked a precarious tightrope; movies that sought to thrill and alarm. To entertain and challenge. The end result might just be the most interesting, most rewarding period of Spielberg’s entire career.

While he had his career ups and downs, box office success was never an issue for Spielberg. He invented the blockbuster, after all, with Jaws. But through his meteoric rise to become the most popular filmmaker in the history of medium, a fear of illegitimacy plagued the director. He may have trafficked primarily in pop, but he wanted to be taken seriously. Awards were important. Spielberg was so sure that Jaws would land him a Best Director Academy Award nomination that he hired a TV crew to come film him watch the nominations be announced. This plan backfired when Jaws ended up with a Best Picture nom, but not a nomination for Spielberg – something that clearly upset the wunderkind director. He wanted to be more than the king of the blockbuster. He wanted to be an artist.

And this longing was something his peers noticed – and exploited. In a 1976 Playboy interview, director Robert Altman observed, “I think Steven Spielberg will endure, though it’s tough when a picture like Jaws brings you a lot of success and money overnight that may not strictly be related to the merit of your work. I am not knocking Jaws, which was a magnificent accomplishment for a kid that age. But will he now be able to go off and make a small personal film?”

spielberg schindler's list set

In her New Yorker review of Spielberg’s first big screen directorial effort, The Sugarland Express, critic Pauline Kael wrote: “If there is such a thing as a movie sense — and I think there is, Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else. There’s no sign of the emergence of a new film artist…” Years later, Spielberg would admit he agreed with Kael. “She was right!” he enthusiastically says in Susan Lacy‘s HBO documentary Spielberg. “I hadn’t grown up yet.”

“People kept accusing me of trying to prove myself,” Spielberg said recently, reflecting on his career. “And they wouldn’t have been wrong. It was important for me to prove myself in genres that I wasn’t known for…I had only been making films for wide public consumption. There were other more – quote-unquote – adult stories that I wanted to tell. And the critics weren’t kind to me. I was moving outside of the box they had placed me in.”

Spielberg had peppered “adult” movies into his filmography before the 21st century. There was 1985’s The Color Purple, and 1987’s Empire of the Sun. After Schindler’s List, Spielberg returned to blockbusters with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, only to then create two adult-oriented dramas: Amistad and Saving Private Ryan.

Ryan was, perhaps, the first hint of what Spielberg’s 21st century filmography would become. It’s a grueling, hyper-violent, emotionally wrought war drama. But it’s also an exciting, entertaining action picture. It’s the live-action realization of the quote (often attributed by Roger Ebert to Francois Truffaut) that it’s nearly impossible to make an “anti-war” film, because movies make battle sequences look so exciting.

It wouldn’t be until the 2000s, though, that Spielberg really hit his stride combining entertainment and enlightenment. In the 21st century, he would go on to craft a roster of films that blended cerebral-ness with edge-of-your-seat thrills. There will always be a contingent that pines for the pure entertainment of Spielberg’s early films. Indeed, one of the primary selling-points of Spielberg’s Ready Player One seems to be that it’s a “return” of sorts for the director. A return to pure-pop; to mindless fun. To the Spielberg of old.

Yet to only long for this type of movie from Spielberg is to ignore the truly stunning work he’s created in the 2000s. While the films he’s crafted in the 21st century don’t always succeed, they are, without question, always interesting. And they are the summation of everything Spielberg had done up to this point. Over the course of several articles, we’ll plunge into Spielberg’s 21st century work, and reveal the movie magic lurking within.

Part 1: Back to the Future – A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report


AI David

Supertoys Last All Summer Long

“They made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us.”

The filmography of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick could not be more dissimilar. Spielberg is a humanist; a storyteller who retains his faith in humanity, no matter how terrible things may get. Kubrick, in contrast, crafted films loaded with cruel, detached irony. Spielberg is the type of filmmaker interested in stories about people who can, and will, save the world from total annihilation. Kubrick was happy to turn the mushroom-cloud laden destruction of the planet into a darkly comedic punchline.

This contrast in tone makes 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence all the more curious. Here was Spielberg picking up where Kubrick left off, crafting a film that wasn’t quite Spielberg and wasn’t quite Kubrick, but something in between. This film is the sliver of green flora poking up from the radiated rubble of a bombed-out wasteland.

Kubrick had been trying to turn Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long into a film since at least 1976. The filmmaker would meet with Aldiss off and on over a period of years, all the way up until 1990, discussing ways to turn the story into a feature. For Kubrick, the one hindrance was technology. He wanted his Pinocchio-like tale of a robot boy struggling to be real to star an actual robot. A child actor simply would not do – Kubrick wanted something actually artificial to play artificial. Yet the cinematic technology simply was not there.

That changed in 1993, when Kubrick laid eyes on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Kubrick and and Spielberg had been friends ever since Kubrick’s The Shining and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark shared a set. In 1984, Kubrick told Spielberg about his dream of adapting Supertoys, and Spielberg in turn thought it would make a great film. After seeing Jurassic Park, Kubrick had a eureka moment. The film’s history-changing computerized dinosaurs convinced Kubrick that the time had finally come to create the artificial boy at the heart of Supertoys.

Yet even though Kubrick felt the time had finally come, he also seemed curiously ready to hand the project off to Spielberg. He told Spielberg in 1994, “I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine.” Soon after, the directors set up secret fax machines – direct lines to each other, in which they’d fax script pages back and forth. Just as those script pages went back and forth, so too would the directors themselves. Spielberg insisted Kubrick make the film while Kubrick insisted Spielberg should take the project off his hands. Hours and hours of behind-the-scenes pre-production work was done – storyboards, rewrites, test footage. Yet there was no real consensus on just who would direct the film that eventually became A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

That all changed in 1999. On March 7, 1999, Stanley Kubrick died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Spielberg was one of the people who gave a eulogy at Kubrick’s funeral. But he was already planning a much bigger tribute to the late director – he would finally make A.I. a reality.

Where does Kubrick’s influence on A.I. end and Spielberg’s begin? It’s an ultimately fruitless question, but one that still plagued audiences and cinephiles when A.I. hit theaters in June of 2001. Surely, some reasoned, the darker parts of the film must belong to Kubrick, and the lighter be the product of Spielberg. Surely the film’s “happy” ending was Spielberg’s idea, right?

Here’s the thing: the ending was actually Kubrick’s idea. Here’s another: the ending of A.I. isn’t actually “happy”, despite what some may think.

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