Steven Spielberg is among only a handful of directors who successfully jackknifed their careers through several film genres, posting a classic in each one. However, genre and intentions aside, Spielberg again and again and again shows himself as a man with no end game. From his worst to his best, far too many films come to a screeching halt, make a cut that’d knock the cleats off Barry Sanders and dive into the warm embrace of absurdity. Fair warning, there will be several spoilers in this post, but the movies are all popular enough that I feel even modest film aficionados will be safe.
NUMBER SIX: Jaws
Starting with an early work, this suspenseful film helped create the summer blockbuster as we know it thanks to its summer-oriented setting. By the climax, our three sailors saw the fabled shark decimate the steel cage containing the egghead Cooper. From here, the far-too-small boat takes on water and begins to go under, with the meathead Quint being brutally tickled by the Great White. Next, our hero Chief Brody slides toward the shark, but manages to do what the shark-hunting expert could not: stay out of the shark’s mouth. Brody then finds a rifle and shoots a (obviously?) underwater shark that has an oxygen tank stuck in its teeth like a piece of parsley.
When all hope is lost and the main character is doomed, things just start coming together in improbable, and impossible, ways. It would actually make more sense if Brody was eaten and in his last flickering moments of agony a few synapses fired in his brain orchestrating his vision of heaven. It was a millisecond “what if I had done this” fantasy for the dying man.
Just a normal happy ending?
An impossibly happy ending. Because after the shark BLOWS UP, Brody sighs and an entirely-alive Cooper surfaces, giddy that he was apparently able to escape the steel cage, out-swim the 50-ft shark and just hang out underwater for the last ten minutes. The two friends smile and swim to shore, knowing that neither had to make any sacrifice nor lost anything at all during the whole adventure.
NUMBER FIVE: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
This film was going to be a Stanley Kubrick film before that crazy man died, so Spielberg decided to the complete the film in the memory of his old friend. Given the subject matter (cold, dystopian future with hooker-bots), a Kubrick film is actually easier to imagine than a Spielberg film. David, a robo-boy, struggles to be loved by a human woman who is too freaked out by her quasi-son to really love him back…if robots can love in the first place. Toward the end, the robot (not Jude Law) gets stuck in a loop, wishing to travel back in time, until his battery dies. Then aliens show up, revive him, and send him, psychologically, back in time to have one last, perfect, afternoon.
In this case, the protagonist actually does die and the end credits damn near start rolling when all of a sudden there’s yet another scene! The emotional power of the ‘wishing scene’ is completely washed away when aliens magically grant the wish. It’s like Muhammad Ali had his opponent on the ropes, falling even, and then not only didn’t throw a conclusive blow, but actually helped the guy back up and called the fight a draw.
Just a normal happy ending?
Nope! This ending has baffled so many people that Spielberg-apologists argue that the ending was originally Kubrick’s idea. Considering Spielberg actually has a writing credit for the film and Kubrick went to such lengths to avoid aliens in the mind-molesting film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” I find it a hard argument to believe. Again, the ending just makes more sense if one accepts that David died and the aliens are his mind’s own creation, a last act of remaining battery life.
NUMBER FOUR: Minority Report
For three-fourths of an exciting and compelling film, Tom Cruise struggles to prove his innocence against Pre-Crime—an immaculate crime-fighting organization that has pegged him for murder. Go figure, Cruise “murders” somebody and gets thrown in a futurist jail that sedates criminals but lets their minds wander free. Then Cruise breaks out of prison, finds his framer, reveals the truth to all and lives happily ever after.
What’s insulting about this ending is how explicitly the jail guard foreshadows that prisoners live out impossible dreams while rendered immobile. Furthermore, Cruise’s escape from prison makes no sense off-screen when the entire movie up to this point was about him trying to escape the police (specifically with the barrage of eye-scanners). Continuing, Cruise upon eluding the system once again, convinces several technicians to aid him. Really?
Just a normal happy ending?
After Cruise’s plan works out perfectly, the “real bad guy” commits suicide, Cruise rekindles with his ex-wife and the mystic pre-cogs get to live in a safe house, the multi-billion dollar organization is scrapped? Come on now. The federal government wouldn’t pursue a project just for the science? Is Pre-Crime just an allegory for NASA? God, I hope so!
NUMBER THREE: Jurassic Park
In “Jurassic Park,” a velociraptor is one-third lizard/tiger/hawk and two-thirds blending machine. And at the climax of the film, our injured heroes (including two, presumably tasty, children) are caught in between two of them. So distracted by their inevitable disemboweling, nobody points out the elephant in the room. And actually an elephant would have been harder to spot, as there was a Tyrannosaurus Rex in room. The T-Rex then goes to town on the puny velociraptors and the people run away, instantly finding a jeep, pick up two more critically injured/old people, and get into a helicopter to fly away.
Staggeringly, the original ending just had Sam Neil channeling Theodore Roosevelt and shooting the two velociraptors with the shotgun he had one scene earlier. However, Spielberg saw how well the CGI T-Rex looked from scenes earlier and thought he needed to bring the special effects centerpiece back into the mix.
Just a normal happy ending?
With several people already turned into dino-poop by this point, it’s ridiculous to imagine that a lone helicopter came to the island rather than, say, the better half of the 82nd Airborne division—after all, we’re talking about rich, white people dying here. The people then ride the helicopter in the heavenly sunset. Yeah, right. The last five minutes make absolutely no sense unless, you guessed it…the characters actually died and what we saw as “reality” was just Sam Neil’s nonsensical imagination.
NUMBER TWO: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
This movie doesn’t really have a dumb ending, unless the ending is the last 110 minutes of the film. Incredibly, like the other films, the titular character is placed in a hopeless situation and finds an impossible solution that goes several more steps beyond necessary to achieve a ridiculous end. Specifically, early in the film, Indiana Jones survives a nuclear explosion by hiding in a refrigerator and survives the radiation by being blown no less than ten miles away and survives the fall of several hundred feet by…landing on his head.
After this obnoxious intro, Indiana learns that he has a son, his son (tragically) resembles Shia LeBeouf and they find the cognitive remnants of several alien species—who can still fly some antique space ship.
Just a normal, well, at least…a…ending?
Here’s an easier pill to swallow: Indiana Jones died in the atomic explosion and, unable to accept his own mortality, let his mind create a baffling delusion that he could reclaim academic standing at his university, pass the fedora unto progeny, rekindle a lost romantic interest and save the world yet again.
AND THE NUMBER ONE: War of the Worlds
In no other Spielberg example does the basic motif of the film break so perpendicularly with the overly happy and unapologetic contrivances. For ninety minutes, Tom Cruise and his family do absolutely nothing special. They hear reports on the radio, watch news coverage, hide in basements and talk to other confused, occasionally dust-covered, civilians. The source material is from 1898, but the 9-11 imagery is there is full view. Make no mistake, this is not an “Independence Day”-style, Cold War threat-down alien invasion with nuclear devastation. No, this is about personal loss and fear of the unknown attackers. And then Tom Cruise saves everybody.
In a scene reminiscent of “Sophie’s Choice”—but with more explosions—Cruise let one child go get killed in order to save the younger child. Cruise spends the next sequence guilt-racked and filled with murderous fear. Eventually, he and his daughter are abducted, the little girl become unresponsive and Cruise gets sucked into the aliens’ pulverizing hose machine. Then, with one hand, Cruise explodes two hand grenades, downing the tri-pod and sending the human prisoners, in a metal cage, falling (safely?) a hundred feet to the ground. From here, the uninjured survivors walk to Boston and discover the alien weeds are dying. Cruise then points out to the weary G.I. Joe’s that the tri-pods, unexplainably, have no shield anymore—as the Earth pathogen should only affect lifeforms, not machines. Regardless, the troops bring down the aliens and humanity continues to add patties to fast food burgers.
Just a normal…ah, forget it. This ending sucks.
That is, until Cruise and company finally arrive at the in-laws, who were apparently ready to sit down for a nice Thanksgiving meal. Oh yeah, and the boy that Cruise let go to his doom? Alive and well. “Incredulous” doesn’t even begin to describe this ending if the audience has to believe everything at face value. Even the ending monologue articulates that man had paid a hefty price to maintain dominance of Earth, yet this is a story about a man who made no sacrifices, had no relevant expertise or had any special experience. The only thing that could combat this Joe Everyman’s social impotence in the face of worldly tragedy was a flicker of an idea, moments before being liquefied into Martian fertilizer. An inane and stupefying idea that he was uniquely capable of survival.
Had the movie—or any of them—created a reflective ending, or at least only a moderately happy ending, the notion of humanity’s inability to deal with mortality wouldn’t be so violently thrown in my face. So, yeah, thanks a lot, Mr. Spielberg, you pessimistic jerk.