The attention of the modern cinephile is often cyclical. If you spend enough time on a social network like Twitter, on any given day you’ll see people listing the best films they saw for the first time that month, or ranking their favorite films by a beloved auteur, or debating whether or not O.J.: Made in America is a movie or a TV show (it was released in theaters first, so it’s a movie; case dismissed). The cycle expands annually, depending on which filmmaker or filmmakers have a movie out after years away. 2016 brought us a new film from the Coen brothers, as well as the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, and a new Paul Verhoeven drama, and so on. Next year, Film Twitter will no doubt get excited for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film, flock to the latest arthouse fare from Sofia Coppola, gear up for political debates inspired by Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of race riots in Detroit, and once again debate the merits or lack thereof of Christopher Nolan upon the release of Dunkirk. But the cycle is different for one of our greatest filmmakers and arguably the most influential of his generation (one that included Coppola, Lucas, and Schrader). Steven Spielberg, who turns 70 this Sunday has stacked his projects in such a way that on four separate occasions he’s released two films a year.
The markings of a Spielberg film, great or merely good, are evident in all of these modern films, along with films like Bridge of Spies and The BFG (which opened in separate calendar years, but were released within 9 months of each other). From the iconic “Spielberg face” to fractured father-child relationships to epic stories that define this country’s past, the 15 films that Steven Spielberg has directed in the last 20 years are not only among his finest, but they suggest that he isn’t weakening as he enters his golden years as a director. Arguably, the strongest single stretch of films he made in a compact period of time came in the early 2000s: in an 18-month span, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can were all released in theaters. Though the three films are fundamentally opposed to each other, they all encapsulate the modern and retro Spielberg in just about 7 hours combined.
AI: Artificial Intelligence famously started with the late Stanley Kubrick in the director’s chair, before he died in 1999. Kubrick, long identified as the cold and distant clinician of a filmmaker, wouldn’t seem to have much cinematically in common with the more sentimental and warm Spielberg. However, the film’s warped take on a Pinocchio story is a chilly triumph, and one that may well have appealed to the part of Spielberg inspired by “When You Wish Upon a Star” to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 1977 science-fiction drama shares at least one similar scene with AI, when the ostensible head of the family abandons their brood. In AI, of course, the circumstances are much different: Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) is abandoning her robot “child” David (Haley Joel Osment) in the forest to save “him” from being destroyed. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary leaves his family behind to pursue the vision of a mysterious mountain where aliens will eventually visit and make first contact. It is difficult, nearly 40 years later, to see that scene playing out in quite the same way—Roy doesn’t have the same outburst of emotion that Monica does. The scene with Monica and David is emotionally wrenching, all the more so because both halves of the equation—mother and “son”—feel fully realized in ways that Roy Neary’s kids don’t (intentionally so).
AI is in general a film whose darkness feels more apt to Kubrick than Spielberg. Even the final 30 minutes, leaping centuries into the future as David waits patiently for the Blue Fairy to come to life so she can turn him into a real boy, is extraordinarily bleak. David’s long-awaited reunion with Monica is hollow, in part because she was only “revived” for a day by extraterrestrial life forms. It’s the inverse of Monica’s first meeting with David, a hollow machine waiting to be brought to “life.” David gets one more moment to interact with humanity, except it’s not even real humanity as much as a best-case facsimile created by aliens, and it’s being experienced by a character made of wire and bolt, who can’t even eat broccoli without his face melting.
There’s something close to a face-melting scene in Spielberg’s next movie, Minority Report, which opened one June after AI. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the 2002 action film is set in the near future of 2054, when police officers are able to stop crimes before they occur in Washington, DC courtesy of three pre-cogs: three young people who have been gifted/cursed with the power of seeing crimes occur before they happen, thus providing the necessary information to cops like John Anderton (Tom Cruise, in his first film with Spielberg). The twist is both a surprise and totally inevitable, when Anderton finds out that the next pre-cog crime is one that he will apparently commit. And so he’s on the run, with one of the three pre-cogs (Samantha Morton, marvelous as ever), to figure out why he’s being accused of a crime he presumes he’d never commit.
AI and Minority Report occupy a lot of the same space, not only because they’re both housed in the science-fiction genre like the pre-cog criminals are housed in a permanent holding facility. Both films have extended finales that initially suggest a more upbeat closer—Minority Report specifically could have turned extremely dark had it closed on Anderton being caught and locked away with the other criminals. Both films allow their heroes to get some form of closure on the surface: David has one more day with his “mother” and John Anderton is able to reveal a vast conspiracy essentially orchestrated by his mentor and clear his name. But Minority Report, like AI, is a movie that all but thrives in a scuzzy sensibility; its highlights are those of grime and dirt and disgust. AI’s masterful middle section lets David explore the world outside that of his “parents” to discover the sleaze underneath. Minority Report pushes its lead to the limit to the point where he’s getting an eye transplant from a slimeball doctor whom he had thrown in jail in the past. (Said doctor is played by Peter Stormare, because really, who else?) Both David and Anderton get a kind of redemption, of sorts, but the darkness underneath their journey doesn’t fade away at the end. It lingers like fog in the air around Anderton’s old home in the country.
And then there’s Catch Me If You Can. Where AI and Minority Report portend the slick darkness of War of the Worlds and gross-out intensity of the weaker Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Catch Me If You Can is a hybrid of the historical epics Spielberg’s gravitated much more towards in the last 20 years or so with his lightest-touch fare from The Terminal to this year’s The BFG. Based, naturally, on a true story, Catch Me If You Can details the early life of Frank Abagnale, Jr., played wonderfully by Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s never better than when he’s forced to find a variation of notes on the theme of desperation. Frank Jr. should be on top of the world: he’s an attractive young man who’s smart enough to fool a lot of people into thinking he’s an airline pilot, a doctor, and a prosecutor. But the loneliness at his core, formed by his relationship with his shifty father (Christopher Walken, because again, who else?), makes him so empty inside that he’s even willing to reach out to a makeshift father figure: the man chasing him across the world for check fraud, played by everyone’s makeshift-father figure, Tom Hanks.
Hanks and Spielberg have had a long and fruitful collaboration, making four movies in the last 18 years that are all at least rooted in reality. Even when Hanks is playing a combination of characters or a type (as in Saving Private Ryan), he fits in perfectly as an avatar of pure, American goodness. In Catch Me If You Can, of course, he’s playing something of a Javert figure so he’s not quite as easy to love. (The film’s greatest joke, and one of the great jokes in any Spielberg movie, involves Hanks’ Carl Hanratty being nudged to do his best and tell a knock-knock joke. Hanks’ delivery is dynamite, and it speaks volumes as to why Hanratty’s so alienating to his peers.) The core concept of Catch Me If You Can allows Spielberg to be at his most playful in years, outside his 2011 Tintin adaptation. His other real-life dramas of the last 20 years, from last year’s Bridge of Spies to Munich to Lincoln, are all vast and intense and heartfelt, darker journeys into the human soul than this movie, which opens with a game-show reenactment.
As he approaches 70, Steven Spielberg unsurprisingly remains one of the most vital filmmakers alive today. Leaving aside his massive influence on so many filmmakers, writers, and actors, Spielberg’s filmography suggests someone who hasn’t sat on his laurels or earlier successes. Even films of his that may not completely hit the bull’s eye, like The BFG, have moments few other directors could pull off. (In that new film, it’s the elaborate fart joke at Buckingham Palace, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, but somehow very, very funny.) So many of his films set an example for younger generations, but the trio of films he made in 2001 and 2002, working with some of the biggest actors of the era, some of the biggest stories of the past 50 years, and grappling with the notion of identity in each one, portended the present, where a 70-year old filmmaker can be as exciting as someone half his age.