The decade following Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan was Spielberg’s weakest, full of ambitious films but none on the level of his best work. Although there were a few gems worth watching.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) was based on the Brian Aldiss 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long and it stars Haley Joel Osment as an android who looks like a child and was programmed with emotions. Stanley Kubrick acquired the rights to the story in 1970 and was originally going to make it, but it was stuck in development hell, partly because the CG technology was not up to Kubrick’s standards. Following his death in 1999, Spielberg (who Kubrick first asked to direct the film in 1995) decided to finish it. The film was dedicated to Kubrick.
Minority Report (2002) stars Tom Cruise and was loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story The Minority Report. The film takes place in the year 2054 at a police department that prevents crimes before they occur based on the foreknowledge of the psychic “precogs.” The writing explores themes like free will versus destiny as well as government, media and technology’s place in society. It was one of the best reviewed films of the year and made some critics’ Best Films of 2002 lists.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a con artist and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent who hunts him down in a story based on the autobiography of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale. How true Abagnale’s accounts are can be debated, but Spielberg’s cat-and-mouse crime film is still solid fun.
The Terminal (2004) stars Tom Hanks as an Eastern European man stuck at JFK Airport in New York and denied entry in the United States, while at the same time unable to return to his home country due to a military coup. Partly inspired by the true story of Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri who lived at an airport terminal for 18 years (from 1988 to 2006).
War of the Worlds (2005) stars Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning as a father, son and daughter trying to survive a deadly alien invasion in a story loosely based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. It featured narration by Morgan Freeman and some spectacular visual effects.
Munich (2005) is a historical thriller based on the 1984 book Vengeance by George Jonas, which tells the account of a secret retaliation operation against the Palestine Liberation Organization carried out by the Israeli government to assassinate the terrorists responsible for the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. It stars Eric Bana as the agent chosen to lead the mission. The film earned several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was set in 1957 (19 years after Last Crusade) and told a story that pits Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) against Soviet KGB agents (led by Cate Blanchett) who search for the Crystal Skull which…I think is telepathic and has some kind of connection to interdimensional space? (I honestly don’t remember what the deal with the Crystal Skull was). It also featured the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood and introduced Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s son Mutt who was a motorcycle-riding, switchblade-wielding greaser.
All seven of these films were fairly well received by both critics and audiences at the time of their release, although the only ones I thought were close to being masterpieces were Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. All the others were held back by flaws and story issues. Fortunately Spielberg continued producing other people’s films in this period through Amblin and DreamWorks and many of those films I thought outshined his own filmography, including Memoirs of a Geisha (2005, Rob Marshall), Flags of Our Fathers (2006, Clint Eastwood), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood), Monster House (2006, Gil Kenan), Transformers (2007, Michael Bay), True Grit (2010, The Coen Brothers) and Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams). But that was going to change in the 2010s, which saw a steady string of great films from Spielberg.
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) was based on Belgian artist Hergé’s comic book series of the same name (in particular The Secret of the Unicorn) and it is also the first animated film directed by Spielberg. It features the voices and motion-capture performances of Jamie Bell as Tintin, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thomson and Thompson and Daniel Craig as Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, the main antagonist and descendant of Red Rackham (the rival of Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis Haddock). This was a highly entertaining (and high-grossing) adventure film that I personally think did a better job being Indiana Jones than the last Indiana Jones. Plus it was the first non-Pixar film to win the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. Spielberg and co-producer Peter Jackson originally intended to make more Tintin films together but those plans stalled indefinitely. Which is a shame because this film is among my favorites from Spielberg.
War Horse (2011) is a war drama based on the 1982 British novel by Michael Morpugo (and the 2007 play famously showcasing a horse puppet) which follows the tragedy of World War I through the eyes of a horse who moves from owner to owner. Another Best Picture-nominated, critical and commercial success from Spielberg, who always told World War II stories but never tackled World War I until now. It also starred Jeremy Irvine in his film debut.
Among Spielberg’s biggest artistic triumphs was the historical biodrama Lincoln (2012) starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and focusing on the final four months of his life and his efforts to abolish slavery in 1865 by passing the 13th Amendment. It also featured an all-star cast including Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Hal Holbrook as Republican politician Francis Preston Blair, Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens as well as James Spader, Gloria Reuben, Adam Driver, Jared Harris, David Oyelowo, Colman Domingo and Jackie Earle Haley. The film was widely acclaimed by everyone, highly successful financially and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The acting and writing were so good that watching the film felt like seeing history come to life before your eyes.
Bridge of Spies (2015) is a cold war drama starring Tom Hanks as lawyer James P. Donovan who tries to negotiate with the Soviet Union over the release of Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. Air Force pilot whose spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, in exchange for convicted Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on the Glienicke Bridge between Potsdam and Berlin. Another commercial, critical and Best Picture-nominated success from Spielberg which I was fully entertained by.
The BFG (2016) is a fantasy based on the 1982 novel by Roald Dahl, starring Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill as the orphan girl who befriends him. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison was behind the script (her last film before she died in 2015). The film had some charming elements, but not enough to charm audiences who largely ignored it at the box office, although film critics were kinder.
The Post (2017) is a period drama set in 1971 that stars Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as longtime Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and tells the story of the Post’s attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers (classified documents detailing the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam prior to the Vietnam War) and expose the fact that the Johnson administration lied to Congress and the public. It also starred Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons and David Cross in supporting roles. The film received comparisons to the Trump administration at the time of its release with its plot about lying and corruption in the government, which led some critics to call it timely as well as engrossing. It was also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Ready Player One (2018), based on the 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, was one of Spielberg’s most spectacular films. Starring Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts aka Parzival (his virtual reality avatar), the story is set in the year 2045 in a virtual universe called the OASIS and follows Wade’s journey across cyberspace trying to solve a riddle and hunt a prize left behind by OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) following his death. It also stars Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller and Simon Pegg. The film received some criticism for underdeveloped side characters, but its target audience (gamers, nerds, sci-fi fans) made it a box office hit. Just like in the book, viewers had fun spotting the film’s many pop culture references, and those who read the book enjoyed seeing the OASIS fully realized on the big screen.
Spielberg’s next film was an adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet-inspired 1957 stage musical West Side Story featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It was originally planned to be released in 2020 but the pandemic delayed it to 2021. Starring Ansel Elgort in the role of Tony and Rachel Zegler (in her film debut) as Maria, the film received critical acclaim and proved that Spielberg could not only direct historical dramas and sci-fi blockbusters but also musicals. Some critics even found it to be superior to the classic 1961 adaptation by Robert Wise, which is no small accomplishment.
Spielberg will co-write his next directorial effort The Fabelmans which is set to be released in 2022 and is loosely based on his own childhood in Phoenix, Arizona and features Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Paul Dano in starring roles. Totally makes sense to me. Abraham Lincoln biopic? Cyberspace treasure hunt? Musical about rival street gangs? Why not throw in a personal story based on your own life? I’m sure it will be great as usual, because if Spielberg has proven anything in his 50-year career, it’s his ability to tackle a variety of genres with an equal amount of passion. It’s one of the reasons why he is one of my favorite directors.