The Narrative Nonsense of Steven Spielberg's Movies

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
Jan. 30 2012 5:00 AM

Steven Spielberg’s Narrative Nonsense

You want to know what really drives me nuts about Steven Spielberg? His lack of interest in narrative coherence. It started out being a tic. Now it’s one of his hallmarks.

Herewith, A few examples.

In Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfus finds Melinda Dillon amid a crowd of people on a mountain road. She pulls him away, for no apparent reason. The minute they get somewhere else … she has to run back to find her kid. Why did she leave him in the first place? (And I’m putting aside the question of the Dreyfuss character ultimately leaving his kids behind.)

In Empire of the Sun, the boy, played by a very young Christian Bale, has grown up in Shanghai, but for some reason, when he and his parents are driven through town, he’s stuck to the car window like one of those suction-cup Garfields, gaping in wonder.

In Always, one of the exciting recurring dramatic moments involves a daring airborne firefighter who—get this—keeps running out of gas!

Even in Spielberg’s more sober films this laxness creates recurring moments of narrative illogic. Most often, they come about in his pursuit of a false tension. Once you get wise to this trick of his, you can see it in all of his movies. In Munich, our hero, Avner the Assassin, is sleeping in his bedroom. One of his cohort comes in and wakes him ... and suddenly Avner leaps around and points a gun at him! Tension city!

Except … How did the guy get into Avner’s house? Why didn’t he just ring the doorbell? Why didn’t he knock at his bedroom door and say, “Hey Avner, it’s me, Rodney?”

Advertisement

In A.I., there’s the Flesh Fair scene, where a heavy-metal crowd cheers robots being ground into bits. (It’s not really clear what they have against the robots—it’s not like they’re disco records or anything—but never mind.) The crowd balks when the cute little Haley Joel Osment robot is brought out. (Now there’s someone you’d like to see tossed into a threshing machine.) But in the A.I. setting, highly anthropomorphized robots were already common. What’s unique about David in the film’s cosmology is his capacity to love, not any outward appearance. A few minutes later, at a place called Rouge City, Osment—a child robot who says “Mommy?” a lot—is somehow able to steal a police helicopter and rescue Jude Law from the clutches of the cops.

(A.I., we’ve been told ad infinitum, was a Kubrick project Spielberg picked up. Kubrick, too, would have liked to put Osment in a thresher, and his animatronic teddy bear, too. Spielberg is insufferable about his closeness to Kubrick. In John Baxter’s biography of Spielberg, an editor of Kubrick’s recalls the late director saying, “Steve’s a jerk.” In Frederic Raphael’s memoir of working on Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick says, “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”)

One of the hyped aspects of Minority Report, a sci-fi thriller based on the Philip K. Dick story, was how Spielberg called together a whole bunch of visionary thinkers who helped him create the film’s futuristic world. In the movie, when Tom Cruise walks through a mall, the advertisements, reading his identity, call out his name in a cacophony as he walks through. This makes no sense even by Spielberg standards. Are the calls vocal? Is everyone getting shouted at at the same time? Or is it telepathic? And either way, uh, in what universe—even in the scary future—would a company think that this was a good idea? Who wants to walk past an ad that shouts at you? This may have been one of the big ideas his group of big brains dreamed up, or it might just be a way for Spielberg to go after luxury advertisers for product-placement bucks. Also in Minority Report, Tom Cruise has a lot of fun playing around with those clear screens, looking like CNN’s John King on election night. But … why does he still have to move data back and forth from desk to desk with that glass optical disk? Didn’t they invent networked computers yet?

On one level those are picayune points, sure. But Spielberg’s basic plots, the narrative foundations of the films, as a rule don’t make sense either. Minority Report has to do with three people, held by the government, who can see into the future and thus prevent murders—except one of them sometimes gets it wrong. That’s the “minority report” of the title, and that’s in the Dick story. In the movie, after one act of murder, this split is used by the bad guy to get away with another murder for reasons that are too convoluted and boring to get into. But, since that was an entirely different murder, why didn’t that get visualized as well by the people who can see into the future?

And then we have The Terminal. This was based on the story of a oddball Iranian who ended up living in a Paris airport for nearly 20 years because of an immigration imbroglio and his own stubbornness. The version here has Tom Hanks as a visitor from a fictional Eastern European country who hits the airport just as a revolution occurs in his homeland. This allegedly leaves him stateless and unable to leave, except … why in the world would that happen? The plane he was on presumably came from that country; why weren’t all his fellow nationals on the plane in the same fix he was? And why weren’t there people like him in airports all over the world?

But the worst offender of all is War of the Worlds. Tom Cruise plays a working-class stiff so lame his own kid barely deigns to play catch with him. He just got off the night shift, so he goes in to take a nap. He goes to the window to pull down the shade … and pulls it down half way. Who does that? Ten minutes later, this loser, as so many Spielberg heroes do, unaccountably takes charge. From that point, virtually nothing in the film isn’t designed around him. Unspeakable chaos has engulfed the world and disabled all the automobiles, but for some reason our Tom is literally the only guy in the whole world who figured out how to make his car run. The freeways are of course frozen with stalled vehicles, yet Cruise can still zip his SUV down the road at top speed. He takes his kids to his ex-wife’s suburban manse, and then we get a big dumb show about how there’s nothing for his kids to eat other than the peanut butter and crackers he’s brought along. (Look in the pantry, Tom!) A plane crash devastates the neighborhood. Cruise doesn’t notice this until the next morning (!). There are no bodies or fires around, however, and when he wants to leave, a tidy little trail through the wreckage has manifested itself into existence for his magic car.

The group gets to a chaotic ferry terminal and lose their vehicle in the mass violence. Suddenly Cruise and his kids are sitting in a quiet diner. How’d they get there? Why was no one else doing that? Then comes a long extended set piece in the basement of a house, where the alien tentacles rope in and down and around corners as Cruise and his daughter avoid detection. At the end Cruise comes out of the house and looks around; the monsters have devastated everything to the horizon. But for Tom’s house, they took a little tea break to spend 20 minutes peering into the basement … and then leave. I bet they’re steamed later when the guy in the one house they didn’t vaporize comes back and kills one of them!

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.