Spielberg is THE founding pillar on which contemporary blockbuster cinema is suspended, being most renowned, and rightly so, for his family-friendly blockbusting master-works such as E.T, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
Being one of the most prominent, if not THE omnipresent Hollywood director of the last thirty years, you wouldn’t expect there to be any of his films that have slipped through the cultural net, but actually there seems to be three, in a row, and arguably all lost gems of the big man’s CV.
At the turn of the noughties, Spielberg began to explore new avenues, away from his previous well-worn areas; big money family blockbusters (Indiana Jones, The Lost World) and often war based period piece dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), areas that had earned him more than enough kudos to satisfy a life’s body of work. Spielberg started his experimental faze with A.I: Artificial Intelligence, a peculiar film that was understandably approached with caution at first, and often still is. He continued down this route, exploring different tones and textures on a more consistent, consecutive and interesting basis than his previous fleeting forays into the unknown (Hook, Amistad, The Colour Purple). Exploring other areas would often mean a director going darker, deeper and more challenging, but Spielberg had already done plenty of that. For him, ‘different’ was lighter. He began to make a consecutive trilogy of films that have since slipped through the cracks between the giant behemoths of his resume, despite the fact that these three films are arguably huge achievements for him as a film-maker, showing a versatility that was previously unseen.
The first of this ‘Lost Trilogy’ was Catch Me If You Can (2002).
Catch Me If You Can is a stylised biopic of Frank Abagnale Jr, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was a significant perpetrator of bank fraud in a period before his 19th Birthday around 1968/69. Tom Hanks plays Carl Hanratty, the detective charged with tracking the slippery Abagnale down.
While this crime-based chase movie doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it actually has a rather light touch; a comic book, caricatured vision of Frank’s journey, which grips you idly but irresistibly in a similar way to such films as Forrest Gump, with the feeling of such a broad timeline.
Spielberg does not fail in adding his trademark pathos to the mix with emotional beats, helped by a wonderful DiCaprio displaying, for one of the first times in his career, his ability to span charming comedy and affecting drama in the space of one film. He portrays Abagnale expertly, showing the journey from from school kid to most wanted.
Despite these positives, Spielberg’s name itself possibly mis-sold the film, with the world still yet to adjust to his new direction. It enjoyed a modest box office, a certainty with the big names attached, and modest reviews, but nothing more. With all the plaudits Spielberg harvests upon every release, this was, relative to that, a bit of a dud, and for that reason has wrongly slipped into obscurity. If you haven’t seen it, try it. If you have seen it, try it again.
Spielberg’s next outing was another with Tom Hanks, this time as the main character Victor Navorski in The Terminal (2004).
The Terminal is a movie about Hanks’ Navorski finding himself trapped in an airport terminal, not a citizen of the U.S.A, nor his native Krakozhia due to an outbreak of war as he was airborne. It tracks his goings-on in the terminal while he waits to be allowed into America.
The Terminal was an even deeper excursion into the realms of the light and frothy for Spielberg, with arguably his first ever romantic-comedy; Navorski’s relationship with Catherina Zeta-Jones’ character providing the romance. While being lengthy for a film of that genre at a handsome 128 minutes, The Terminal again spans a significant amount of time, and keeps your interest throughout in this way as so much is packed in. The film plays out sometimes as a montage of ideas, sketches and set pieces, with a number of 10/20 minute periods devoted to one aspect of his stay.
The thorn in the side of this film was always going to be, and still is, how little it resembles a typical Spielberg outing. With essentially one location and a low-key plot, its some distance from the likes of Jaws and Schindler’s List. Audiences seemingly went for the Spielberg name and came out disappointed, leading this film to be only the 20th highest grossing movie of his career.
It can be argued that the disappointment of audiences, although justified with the weight and expectation that such a name brings, is unfounded upon further viewings when looking at the film relative to other romantic comedies, and not Spielberg’s back catalogue. The film shows a visual and tonal versatility to the director, that is perhaps more starkly felt with his switches from family blockbusters to adult drama in the past, but never more impressive and understated. Many directors succeed with sprinklings of comedy amidst their fun loving summer action romps, Spielberg included, but to succeed as he does here with, albeit not an out-an-out, laugh-out-loud comedy, but a gentle, pleasing one, is impressive. There are certainly some lively, quirky characters and comedic scenes in The Terminal that Spielberg handles with aplomb. This is a display of the breadth of his talent and is exactly why the movie may deserve more than it received upon release, critically and financially.
More of a slow burner than Catch Me If You Can, if you’ve already seen and disregarded this one, it really is worth another go.
Following the frankly dismal financial return for The Terminal, Spielberg clearly had missed his old self as the blockbusting entertainer, as he made his next film an adaptation of the War of the Worlds (2005).
War of the Worlds is a sci-fi action movie based on an alien invasion, starring Tom Cruise as a Dad trying to get his two children through the jeopardy. It’s not quite as fun loving as some of his previous works, and because of this one wrongly overlooked.
There are many things to be admired about the film. First of all, in his second outing with the movie star of noughties cinema, Tom Cruise, he manages to portray the actor as, yes still the hero, but merely a hero on a family level, and a hero with severe weaknesses. This is not the Cruise of Mission Impossible, Top Gun or even their previous collaboration Minority Report, saving the entire world it seems. His character is a normal Dad, not especially strong or intelligent, and one who you think may not make it. From a Spielberg perspective, that is a huge achievement to succeed in restraining Cruise’s hero instincts to those levels.
Secondly, Spielberg attempts something very brave. For a director of such experience, he should know that a long period of any family blockbuster spent trapped in a basement isn’t the most enthralling for the target audience, but in this period of the film he expertly fleshes out the father-daughter relationship, as well as instilling a sort of intimate, claustrophobic terror that initially looms outside with the machines but that slowly creeps inside in the form of a crazed Tim Robbins. It’s a fantastically downbeat and tense period of what turns out to be a visceral adaptation of the book. With stunts like this Spielberg may shirk charming a younger, or more impatient, demographic, but he in no way shirks depth or quality and that is something to be praised.
In hindsight it seems this is the main issue with the film. A 12A Spielberg action blockbuster attracts a certain crowd, but it seems he didn’t want to make that film, for those people, at least on the basis of some of its content like the aforementioned basement sequence. Or even if he did, he made something else entirely, potentially something better. The ending to the film is rushed and this could have contributed to people leaving with slightly hollow feelings, and could have led to the weak public opinion of the film since release, but its one to recommend to try again. Don’t go back and watch it as ‘that film made by the Jurassic Park guy’, go back and watch it as a War of the Worlds adaptation, with all the tension and darkness that must come with that.
So there you have Spielberg’s ‘Lost Trilogy’, spanning a critically and financially patchy three years for the director between 2002 and 2005.
Do you agree with the points made? Do you love any other lost Spielberg films or know of any other forgotten gems from big directors?