Steven Spielberg is known for revisiting similar themes in his films (families divided and reunited, small bands against giant threats, etc.), but his big-screen work usually transcends the vaguely sanitized, family friendly clichés many associate with his brand. Even when you look at his earliest films, you see that they're much more complicated than the stereotypes imply: E.T. is a lot darker than you remember; Close Encounters of the Third Kind is mysteriously open-ended; and even Raiders of the Lost Ark, while willfully old-fashioned, could still give the best horror movie a run for its money in the gore and shock department. And yet, when it comes to his TV fantasy-action series — Seaquest DSV, Falling Skies, and now Terra Nova — the filmmaker's tropes can conform to the worst generalizations of his work. You feel like you're watching the result of an executive yelling at some TV journeyman, "Gimme something that feels like Spielberg!" except that the executive in this case is Spielberg himself.
Here are four major Spielberg go-to themes, and an examination of how nuanced they are in his films, as compared to the two-dimensional TV variations.
Keeping the Family Together
This is, of course, the Great Spielberg Theme, and as presented in his films (for the most part), it’s quite compelling. There's E.T.’s iconic, weighty vision of a suburban single-mom-and-three-kids family that sticks together. You really do hope that this family will make it, and the way that E.T. helps make their lives whole again has a power that still resonates to this day. But Spielberg can also complicate this vision of family. Think of how one family (Melinda Dillon’s) tries desperately to reunite itself in Close Encounters, while another one (Richard Dreyfuss’s) is split apart. Or the way that the robot boy David in A.I. becomes attached to his family even as they begin to consider discarding him. Or consider the looming figure of John Adams, who haunts the epic final speech given by John Quincy Adams in Amistad.
And now, look at the TV shows. Terra Nova is just two episodes old, and we can already see how this is going to go. The Shannons are the Family That Must Not Be Separated, no matter what, and the only reason they were separated in the first place was because they ran afoul of evil futuristic population control laws by having a third child — in other words, they had too much family! Their survival as a family already feels like a given; we’re rooting for them not because we particularly like them, but rather because we have to. In Seaquest DSV, Roy Scheider’s Captain Bridger actually lost his family years ago, and as a result wound up forging a familial bond with the crew, particularly with young Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis) and Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham), and later Dr. Wendy Smith (Rosalind Allen). It was like a big underwater Christmas card. And Falling Skies is all about Tom Mason’s (Noah Wyle) dedication to keeping his family together at the expense of pretty much everything else. It makes us think: If Close Encounters were a Spielberg TV show, Richard Dreyfuss would basically see those UFOs flying over him and say, “Huh, interesting. Some single guy should probably investigate that, I've gotta get home for the barbecue!”
The Search for the Lost Child
This variation on the keeping-the-family-together theme gains thematic resonance all its own in Spielberg's films. Consider the chilling moment near the end of A.I. when William Hurt’s Professor Hobby is revealed to have created the robot David in his own dead son’s image. Even the disappearance of the children in Hook (one of Spielberg’s least-liked films) is given a terrifying dramatic urgency just by virtue of the way it’s shot: The camera and the parents follow a deep groove torn into the wall by the Captain's hook, leading up the stairs to the children’s empty bedroom — as if a terrifying fairy tale has suddenly become all too real. The entire dramatic arc of Saving Private Ryan — with its mission to save the last surviving Ryan brother — is basically just an entire nation/family trying to redeem its last innocent.
In the TV shows, the search for the lost child loses most of its depth. In Falling Skies, Tom Mason’s attempts to retrieve his son Ben from his alien captors and reintegrate him into human society are just a hook to keep us watching; plotwise, he could just as well be searching for an antidote or an anti-alien ray gun or some E.T.-B-GONE spray. And when an authority figure has a lost child on these shows it rarely feels real, because they eventually turn up just about every time. We’re told Seaquest’s Bridger lost a son in combat but he's later revealed to be alive. Falling Skies’ Captain Dan Weaver (Will Patton) lost his family during the alien invasion; it is later revealed that they may be alive. Terra Nova’s Nathan Taylor (Stephen Lang) lost a son in an earlier settlement, and all indications at the end of episode one are that he is still alive. Boy, the parents of Rosie Larsen on The Killing probably wish their show had been produced by Spielberg.
Science vs. Authority
Spielberg’s films are often full of heroic scientists and doctors who have to contend with military and/or police and/or other types of authoritarian figures. But it’s never so simple. For example, the scientist in Close Encounters, even though he’s played by Francois Truffaut, is kind of an ambivalent figure. (You'd think Spielberg would have cast the auteur as a hero, right?) The scientists and G-men in E.T. are working in cahoots — and as such are ambivalent and unfeeling toward our characters. Meanwhile, the scientists in Minority Report turn out to be far more evil than the cops, who are just the unthinking arms of a police state founded on science.
The TV shows, however, stick to the formula that scientists are the forces for good while the cops or military leaders are the stubborn dopes who need to be convinced not to just hit things with a stick or the firearm equivalent thereof. Dr. Westphalen and Dr. Smith in Seaquest were kind, pretty, and dutifully presented the scientific side in debates with the uptight Commander Ford (Don Franklin). In Falling Skies, Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) must make doe eyes at Tom Mason while dutifully presenting the civilian side in debates with the militaristic Captain Weaver. Terra Nova has it both ways: The scientist and her hero, tough-guy husband are on the side of good; however, there's also the gruff Commander (Stephen Lang) who seems to have a nefarious secret. Hit him with a test tube bottle!
Kids on Their Own
With broken families come children who have to fend for themselves. Sometimes they’re just spiritual orphans: From the resourceful Jim (Christian Bale) in Empire of the Sun who has to survive the invasion of Shanghai and a Japanese internment camp during WWII, or Catch Me If You Can's Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) who flees home and strikes up a lucrative career as a con man (all in an effort to somehow reunite his broken family, of course). Sometimes they’re orphan orphans: The Lost Boys in Hook, or the precog Agatha in Minority Report; in all these cases, though, there’s a real sense of tragic incompleteness — which Spielberg uses to give his stories a kind of moral force.
On the TV shows, however, being an orphan, much like having “lost” a child, is used either as a simple plot contrivance or as instant, just-add-water character development. In Seaquest, there was a lame episode in which the crew encountered a ship full of orphans and had to well, not exactly do battle with them, but just kind of convince them not to resist too much. In Falling Skies, the teen orphans Karen Nadler (Jessy Schram) and Lourdes (Seychelle Gabriel) gravitate to the Mason family: Friends 4-eva! And in Terra Nova, we can already sense that the beautiful teenage loner Skye (Allison Miller) is going to become a love interest to the brother and a big sister figure to the girls in the family. Will the show be able to do more with this character? We hope so, but if history has proven anything, it won't. And her parents will probably turn out to be alive, too.