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Spielberg Out of the Spotlight: Stark Sci-fi

by on October 22, 2012
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In the weeks leading up to the November 16 release of the much-hyped “Lincoln,” Sam Watermeier will look back at director Steven Spielberg’s less popular films, his work outside the spotlight.

The year 2001 did not turn out as director Stanley Kubrick envisioned. But it did bring the kind of Steven Spielberg film he long expected.

In 1995, Kubrick handed Spielberg the reigns to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” — a project Kubrick developed in the ’70s and shelved until the right magician came along to bring its artificial lead character to life. Who better than Steven Spielberg, a man who has defined movie magic with such groundbreaking spectacles as “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park?”

Oddly enough, Spielberg didn’t have to pull any of the technical tricks Kubrick anticipated to bring this story of androids to the screen — a large credit to his strong connection with actors.

To some degree, “A.I.” is about the very dichotomy in which Spielberg is trapped — between reality and simulation. It’s about a world threatened by robots and one’s dream of becoming a “real boy.”

The film is ultimately a prime example of what Spielberg does best — injecting eye-candy with ideas. Take this scene in which Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) eloquently explains humans’ simultaneous hatred and envy of robots.

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Now this monologue seems rather prophetic, foreshadowing the tension between live-action filmmaking and artificial creation. All the while during the film’s exploration of this tension, it delivers magnificent spectacles — from moon-shaped ships to a robot slaughter-fest.

But, in the end, the film’s soulful characters and thoughtful ideas make it memorable.

4 Yaps

“Minority Report” (2002)

Here’s another film in which substance miraculously triumphs over arresting style. Although “Minority Report’s” futuristic setting is dazzling, it never distracts from the human drama unfolding within it.

“Minority Report” grabs us with the premise of a world in which crime is punished before it is committed. The film’s austere otherworldliness merely serves as a mirror of Police Chief John Anderton’s (Tom Cruise) mindset when he is convicted of a future murder.

Although Cruise certainly does his fair share of running, shooting, and fighting, the film’s popcorn moments are character and idea-driven. The stakes come down to one man’s mortal fate.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “Some directors place their trust in technology. Spielberg, who is a master of technology, trusts only story and character, and then uses everything else as a workman uses his tools.”

5 Yaps

“War of the Worlds” (2005)

Here, Spielberg captured the zeitgeist with laser precision, opening recent wounds with this story of a foreign invasion. As Tom Cruise’s character dusts off the destruction, you can’t help but see the ashes of 9/11.

Like “A.I.” and “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds” embodies New Spielberg in that it’s a spectacle of darker, grittier magic and ominous wonder. Many forget Spielberg’s storytelling ability in the midst of his technical feats. These films are great reminders. As Ebert wrote in reference to “Minority Report,” “At a time when movies think they have to choose between action and ideas, Spielberg works on our minds and our emotions.”

“War of the Worlds:” 3.5 Yaps

In some ways, the Aughts were one of Spielberg’s most experimental eras, at least tonally speaking. But the period also embodies his pattern of interests, moving from otherworldly spectacles to sweeping historical dramas and populist fables.

Next week, we’ll follow him into the light with the breezy crime drama “Catch Me If You Can.”