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Steven Spielberg's string of refreshing and challenging films comes to an unceremonious halt with The Terminal, which represents every negative instinct of Spielberg's prodigious filmmaking skills. Everything about this film feels as constructed as the movie-set airport replica of JFK he impressively built from scratch with production director Alex McDowell (Minority Report) and shot with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. But when the set triumphs as the star of your film, you're in very big trouble.

Spielberg's recent run of films (Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can and even parts of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) showed a star director apparently refusing to rest on his laurels. And even the idea of The Terminal -- an eastern European traveler (Tom Hanks) finding himself stranded at the airport, his visa invalidated when his country collapses in civil war -- displayed Spielberg's fondness for risk-taking. If only he and his screenwriters (Jeff Nathanson and Sacha Gervais, both working on their sophomore efforts) could present a story that wasn't drowning in the cheap sentimentalism, obviousness, language-barrier humor and limp romance.

Hanks' Viktor Navorski is as homeless as E.T. and his own Cast Away, but also as trapped as Catch Me If You Can's Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) was weightless. Spielberg has always been interested in characters in limbo, but can't fight through the implausibilities of Navorski's situation (very loosely based on an Iranian who suffered the same fate). Instead, he settles for a series of set pieces that at the very least show off Hanks' considerable physical-comedy prowess, and for a romance with a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is trapped in her own special way. The one man who best can help Navorski, airport security official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), is curiously turned into an Inspector Javert, but instead of seeking to capture his prey, seems obsessed with keeping this nuisance imprisoned.

Why? Beats me; it's one but a few of the story's gaping plot holes that Spielberg hopes won't get in the way of his latest alien from discovering the wonders of our world while trying to phone home. Please, Steven; just give him the freakin' quarter and let him make the call.

The friendly grounds: Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks, right) strikes up a friendship and possible romance with flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in Steven Spielberg's latest, The Terminal.
  • The friendly grounds: Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks, right) strikes up a friendship and possible romance with flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in Steven Spielberg's latest, The Terminal.

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