Steven Spielberg’s Movie Magic Has a Dark Side

And no one knows it better than he does.

Steven Spielberg sitting in a darkened theater
Ryan Pfluger / NYT / Redux

The final act of Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, revolves around what should feel like a triumph for its teenage protagonist, Sammy. A budding filmmaker in early-1960s California—and an obvious Spielberg analogue—Sammy screens a movie during prom that he shot of his classmates. The project’s apparent “hero” is Logan, a Teutonic athlete whom Sammy depicts as a golden god, even though Logan has tormented him all year.

“Why’d you make me look like that?” a distraught and bewildered Logan asks Sammy after the screening. “I’ve been a total asshole to you. I broke your nose. And then you make me go and look like that! What’s wrong with you?” Sammy’s reply is simple: “All I did is hold the camera, and it saw what it saw.” But it’s also a lie masking a far more complex reality, which is why this scene has stuck with me. Sammy’s film, and his exchange with Logan, captures a bigger tension that runs through the entire back half of Spielberg’s oeuvre—casting a skeptical light on his reputation as a purveyor of pure movie magic.

During the press tour for The Fabelmans, Spielberg has meditated on why he, as a kid, portrayed his bully as a hero. “I really felt that my movie camera was both my way into acceptance and also could be used as a defensive weapon,” he said during a podcast. “I wasn’t doing it to make [Logan] emotional. I was doing it so this anti-Semite, just once at the end of the school year, could say … ‘Hey, thanks!’ and walk away.” Or, as Sammy tells Logan, “I wanted you to be nice to me for five minutes! Or I did it to make my movie better. I don’t know.” In The Fabelmans, Spielberg is working through troubled memories of the collapse of his parents’ marriage, but he’s also interrogating his own desire as an artist to entertain, whatever the cost. Sammy turns Logan into a star to try to make him happy, but also because he can’t help but make the crowd-pleasing choice.

That’s the reputation that has dogged Spielberg since he emerged as a filmmaker almost 50 years ago. His preternatural talent for visual storytelling was immediately apparent. “He has a knack for bringing out young actors, and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy,” the film critic Pauline Kael said in her review of his theatrical debut, 1974’s The Sugarland Express. “He could be that rarity among directors—a born entertainer.” But after the raging success of his follow-up, Jaws, followed by world-conquering smashes such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., Spielberg was tagged as the ultimate populist, the man who helped throw cold water on the radical risk-taking of Hollywood’s early 1970s by practically inventing the modern blockbuster.

By 1981, Kael had soured on her old favorite, calling Raiders a “machine-tooled adventure” made with marketing in mind. “There’s no exhilaration in this dumb, motor excitement … Raiders is so professional and so anxious to keep moving that it steps on its own jokes,” she wrote in The New Yorker, grousing that the director’s talents were being wasted: “It isn’t beautifully made—not like Spielberg’s other pictures, anyway.” (For the record, Kael was wrong on this one.) Spielberg, of course, went on making hit after hit. He amassed Oscar nominations with prestige projects such as The Color Purple before finally winning the Academy’s approval with his 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, released the same year as Jurassic Park.

As much as I love many of Spielberg’s early works, there’s not much new to say about them. The projects he’s pursued since winning an Oscar are knottier, often melancholic, and far more fascinating. The Fabelmans is the culmination of this era of his career, during which Spielberg has felt freer to ponder his own commercial legacy and artistic influence. In that film, his avatar, Sammy, is only beginning to understand how a camera can throw up a force field between him and the world. And his interaction with his bully is the clearest acknowledgment that Spielberg sees within himself a tendency to take the easiest route to get the biggest cheers.

Another recent film of Spielberg’s that can be read as self-critique is 2018’s Ready Player One, an adaptation of a best-selling sci-fi novel about a teen nerd named Wade who spends practically his whole life in a virtual-reality video game called the OASIS, which is assembled out of decades-old pop culture. It was a swerve for Spielberg, who had gravitated toward more Boomer-friendly content, including his presidential biopic, Lincoln; the historical Tom Hanks features Bridge of Spies and The Post; and the World War I drama War Horse. Ready Player One was a throwback to Spielberg’s days as a box-office king, laden with CGI effects and in-jokey movie references—a challenger to the hegemonic superhero universes that now rule over theatrical receipts.

Ready Player One was a bona fide hit, making almost $600 million worldwide—not as much as a top-shelf Marvel movie, maybe, but no slouch, especially given its mixed reviews. Indeed, I softly panned it when it was released (like my idol Pauline, I was wrong). But upon multiple rewatches, I’ve been intrigued by how scathing the movie is about contemporary pop culture’s eternal navel-gazing. The film follows Wade as he zaps around the OASIS on a treasure hunt, trying to understand the mind of the game’s creator, James Halliday. As he explores, Ready Player One rolls out beloved characters from a million other movies, even turning the hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining into a VFX playground for Wade and his pals to roam.

The stream of callbacks feels cheap, but it’s supposed to; Wade and his friends live in an echo of an echo, a headache-inducing blockbuster arena that’s transformed a world of art into loud wallpaper to play pretend in front of. Spielberg seems a little disgusted with this imagined state of affairs, but there’s genuine pity on display too. For one, the Earth of 2045 that Wade is escaping from is a dystopian hellscape wrecked by climate change. But Spielberg also appears to be recognizing that he himself is part of the problem, given that so much of what Halliday was obsessed with, and what Wade worships, comes from an era that Spielberg influenced and dominated commercially.

As Wade solves Halliday’s puzzle, he gets to talk with the (deceased) creator’s avatar, who mumbles at him, “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal. Because reality … is real.” It’s goofily blunt stuff: The ending sees Wade gain control of the OASIS and close it on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage people to go outside. It’s sweetly patronizing, as if Spielberg is prodding Gen Z cinemagoers to maybe turn their phones off once in a while and get some fresh air. Yes, all of these movies and video games can be fun, Ready Player One is saying, but they can’t be the whole world.

Again and again, whenever Spielberg has cast his gaze to the future, his cinematic vision has been a cynical one. The 2002 cyber thriller Minority Report masterfully renders a world full of surveillance tech that we’ve accepted for the sake of convenience, culminating in a police state where people are arrested for crimes they haven’t committed yet. His 2005 film War of the Worlds, a reimagining of the sci-fi classic, is a chilling distortion of 9/11, a tale of American survivalism being tested by foreign invasion.

One of Spielberg’s best-ever films is 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, set in the 22nd century, in which humanity brushes up against godhood by creating life in the form of a robot boy who’s designed to love. But the boy is a commercial creation, made to be sold as a replacement son for grieving parents. Not knowing what to do with the emotions he’s been burdened with, he lives for thousands of years knowing only that he misses his mother—an ending so devastating it’s grimly hilarious to think that it was largely dismissed as saccharine at the time.

Spielberg’s more recent historical films, although aimed at older audiences, are tinged with similar wariness, the kind that was far less prevalent in his early works. Lincoln is a stirring portrait of our 16th president, yes, but Tony Kushner’s script takes pains to depict the sub-rosa, often brute-force politics with which Lincoln achieved his goals. Bridge of Spies is a chilly parable about an American prisoner swap with the Soviets in the 1960s that takes pains to underline how easily our government ignored its supposed democratic ideals in pursuit of Cold War victory. Even Spielberg’s zippy adaptation of West Side Story, for which he again collaborated with Kushner, puts the musical’s racial tensions in a much starker context.

Through so many of these projects, I’ve been struck by how intent Spielberg has become on presenting narratives that swerve away from crowd pleasing, and foregrounding heroes who are flawed and often unsympathetic. But I still didn’t expect The Fabelmans, his exploration of his parents’ relationship and his own childhood memories, to exemplify that approach so profoundly. The protagonist is prone to typical teenage callousness but seems fundamentally removed; he’s always thinking about how he might frame a shot even during the most traumatic moments of his life.

Making movies is Sammy’s means of controlling the world and making sense of his feelings. When he’s scared by a train-crash scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, he re-creates it with his own train set and home camera to make it less daunting. But his discerning eye often fails him, both in his confrontation with the bully Logan and in his filming of his own family on vacation, when he accidentally captures footage that reveals that his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is having an emotional affair with his father’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen).

Spielberg says that’s something that actually happened to him—a dark secret that only he and his real-life mother (who died in 2017) knew, until now. That he’s putting it on-screen feels distressingly vulnerable. The film literally demonstrates how in all of his years, Spielberg has never stopped using the medium to process his emotions and thoughts, including his own doubts about the narratives he’s made of glorious heroes and daring adventures. In The Fabelmans, when Logan confronts Sammy, he begs him to never reveal just how upset he was by the film. “I won’t,” Sammy says. “Unless I make a movie about it someday.”