I tweeted this theory earlier today and it seemed to go down pretty well (Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams from Awards Daily retweeted it!), so I thought I’d expand upon it here.
To explain: I think Spielberg uses science fiction in the way John Ford used the Western - as a canvas to tell large scale stories about contemporary America.
Spielberg is, of course, a huge fan of Ford’s, and has spoken repeatedly of the influence of The Searchers on his career. There is a notable reference to Ford’s The Quiet Man in E.T. and, a little less directly, in the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which uses a craggy Western landscape as expressively as Ford used Monument Valley.
Spielberg’s use of science fiction as a canvas on which to tell stories about America can be seen in all his sci-fi films. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, can be seen as a story of American hopes and dreams, the story of a man who looks up into the stars and receives the call of extra-terrestrial life.
If Ford used the craggy landscape of Monument Valley to represent old, unshakable moral values, Spielberg uses the mysterious, star-spotted expanses of space to represent optimism. John Williams’s quotation of When You Wish Upon A Star only emphasises this point. “Anything your heart desires will come to you…”
Spielberg performs a similar trick in E.T., showing Elliott’s salvation as, quite literally, descending from the stars. Here the use of the blue-black expanses of space as a representation of hopes and dreams is more explicit, with Spielberg openly admitting that he was drawing on the ‘Mother Night’ sequences of Fantasia to create a night that was “very inviting” and comforting.
E.T. also makes use of terrestrial nature to represent life (think of the flower that wilts and blooms again when E.T. dies and is resurrected), and Spielberg does the same again in his two Jurassic Park films, which show the invasion of man into nature. Both films are indictments of Capitalism gone awry, both are dark twists on the optimism of Close Encounters and E.T., showing what happens with optimism loses touch with pragmatism.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report show the responsibility we must take for our ambitions. Here, space, and indeed nature as a whole, is notable through its absence, or twisted and dark (think of the Moon-shaped air balloon in A.I. or the living garden owned by Pre-Crime innovator Iris Hineman in Minority Report). It has been done away with, replaced by wondrous technology that humanity shows precious little accountability for it - robot children are abandoned and clairvoyants enslaved under the guise of keeping the public safe.
And when the public can’t be kept safe - as in War of the Worlds - Spielberg shows the anger that arises. Robbie’s story is one of desperate rage and futile revenge. He wants to defeat the Tripods, to do to them what they have done to us, but it’s pointless. The Tripods are destroyed not by the might of armed retaliation, but by chance and biology. The clear black skies of Close Encounters are here covered by the dust, dirt and debris of a country crumbling into ashes.
Spielberg, of course, explores America in other genres (see Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln), but sci-fi seems to hold a particularly significant place in his heart. It is a genre he has made his own, and one which he uses to turn a mirror on the country he came from.
“You ask such silly questions, David. Nobody knows what ‘real’ really means. Let’s go indoors.”
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is based on a 1969 short story by Brian Aldiss called Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.
The story was posted in full on Wired’s website a few years ago, and it can be read here.
Aldiss followed this story up with two more Super-Toy installements in 2001: Super-Toys When Winter Comes and Super-Toys in Other Seasons.