How Steven Spielberg Made Us Feel Okay About Our Doom

By  · Published on June 30th, 2016

There’s more to his filmography than light and dark periods.

With the release of The BFG this July 4th weekend, we are celebrating by Deconstructing Spielberg, exploring five decades of his influence in the world of entertainment.

If there’s one big misconception about Steven Spielberg, it’s that he has a lighter period and a darker period. His earlier, supposedly innocent family friendly stuff can be pretty bleak, and his post-millennium pessimistic nightmare features tend to have upbeat endings. The truth is, he’s always given off a mix of excitement and fear when it comes to the unknown, which of course includes the future and technological progress, and other elements of science fiction. He shows us the scariest of circumstances and prospects but tries to conclude with the belief that everything is going to be alright.

Consider his career-long interest in aliens, a branch of sci-fi not always aligned with the future but still fitting into the arena of things that could happen someday. His first feature to deal with extraterrestrial visitors, the amateur production Firelight, is the prototype for Close Encounters of the Third Kind but has a more sinister ending in which the aliens plan to imprison humans in a zoo. Close Encounters itself isn’t all that optimistic either. After all, its seemingly peaceful creatures have kidnapped tons of people, including a little boy, and we never learn why.

Sure, War of the Worlds is a more plainly terrifying invasion and disaster movie, but it’s really similarly just interested in the survival of one father while, hey, never mind the terror and misery of anyone else – only the later movie is actually kind of more comforting because the guy is with his kids this time, not just out for himself alone. And the ending is of course more certainly a happy one. By the time he made the H.G. Wells adaptation, Spielberg had also already dealt with nefarious aliens, in the TV miniseries Taken and the Men in Black films he produced. It’s rare that he would make something with only good creatures from space, such as in his directorial effort E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and his production of **batteries not included. Otherwise, he’s typically into there being both the good and the bad. As in Gremlins and the Transformers franchise.

The same combination of optimism and pessimism can be found in those movies that do look into the future. Innovation always has a negative result, as seen in the plausibly practical but soulless futurist designs of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. In one, humans are surrounded and then replaced by manufactured substitutions for love and life, and in the other, a system that has eliminated murder completely turns out to be corrupted and it’s proposed that maybe it’s a better world after all if people are killed by other people sometimes. Long before these alleged “dark period” thrillers, Spielberg directed an episode of The Name of the Game titled “L.A. 2017” depicting a grim future ruined by pollution and capitalism, but of course it winds up all just being a dream (or is it?).

Although he seems to appreciate science and scientists, he never appears to be interested in how they can make the world a better place. Science projects are either for his characters’ personal interests or the realization of an individual’s dream or the means to an adventure. To quote the character Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” It’s obviously the case for the creation of dinosaurs in that movie (and its sequels, including the Spielberg-helmed The Lost World: Jurassic Park), and is such with the miniaturization in the Spielberg-produced Innerspace, the human child androids of A.I., the scientists attempting contact with aliens in Close Encounters, and the time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy.

We’ll never see him make one of his historical or biographical dramas about an important scientist of the past responsible for a life-saving vaccine or the discovery of the double-helix (his histories all tend to involve the worst of humanity, too). However, he did have a hand in producing Errol Morris’s Stephen Hawking doc A Brief History of Time. You also won’t see his fictional characters going back to kill Hitler or resurrecting recently wiped-out species for the sake of education or the ecosystem rather than for entertainment and profit. The best he’s got, perhaps, is the tornado researchers in Twister, for which he served as an executive producer. They aim to save people with their storm-predicting device.

That’s why it’s strange that Spielberg has chosen to make Ready Player One. Despite its apt ominous outlook of a future where reality stinks (apparently in his version it’s a future where Spielberg movies don’t exist, for instance) and so everyone prefers to spend time in a digital realm, its main characters are young idealists who ultimately want to improve the lives of everyone, not just themselves. Spielberg has proven in his work, if not life (where he supports liberal politicians and their platforms), to be interested in a different, more self-involved yet more complex character type. Maybe he finally actually is entering a lighter, more optimistic phase.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.