Escape With Reality: Steven Spielberg’s Dangerous Virtual Worlds

Steven Spielberg’s decision to film an adaptation of Ernie Cline’s virtual reality novel ‘Ready Player One’ was greeted with a certain amount of disdain when the announcement was made in 2015. While beloved by some, the book has been attacked by many, who view the prose as pedestrian and the story as overly-nostalgic. Wherever you stand on these criticisms, Spielberg’s interest in the material should come as no surprise. In the 70s and 80s, he was among the first to latch on to the ascendant video game craze and as his career progressed he gradually focused on technology and the role it plays in our everyday lives in films like Jurassic Park, A.I. and Minority Report. His virtual worlds aren’t always of technological origin though. Spielberg is fascinated by all kinds of fictions and the way they impact on our real lives.

To understand how and why you need to go back to the 80s and a key quote that’s mentioned in Tony Crawley’s 1983 book ‘The Steven Spielberg Story’. “I don’t want audiences to escape from reality,” Spielberg is quoted as saying, “I want them to escape with reality.” It’s a nice mantra and one that Spielberg’s loyally stuck to. Despite his reputation as a weaver of cinematic wonder, Spielberg rarely whisks his audiences away into far-off worlds. Of course, Hook has Neverland and The BFG has Giant Country, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule; and even The BFG has its roots in reality: Giant Country features the craggy hills of Skye in Scotland and Dream Country revolves around a magical tree. For Spielberg, the real world is the most important source of wonder and transformation.

It’s for this reason that he locates his most explicitly extraordinary stories (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Poltergeist) in suburbia. While question marks remain over Spielberg’s involvement in the direction of Poltergeist, he certainly had a key role in shaping the story and script, and its thematic and narrative links with E.T. underline its importance to him. This significance is heightened by what the film represents. Poltergeist marks the first time Spielberg painted a form of technology (in this case the television) in a negative light, and it’s telling that it’s a form he had an affinity for as a child. Spielberg was fascinated by the TV in his youth and he’d spend so long tuning in that his parents had to devise ingenious ways to keep him away from it.

“I was ten years old and forbidden to watch TV. They knew that at night, when the babysitter would be there, I would sneak and turn the TV set on and watch late movies. And so they would put a blanket over the screen and arrange plants and things on top with the precise measurement. Sometimes my father would attach hairs in exact positions so he could tell if I had lifted up the dust ruffle over the RCA nineteen-inch screen and snuck a peak [sic] at The Honeymooners or Dragnet… I always found the hair, memorised exactly where it was and rearranged it before they came home.”

Spielberg called Poltergeist “my revenge on television” and at the film’s end, a set is removed from the motel room the Freeling family has been forced to stay at. It’s a meta-textual moment that captures both a revulsion towards and an affection for television. Referencing the closing credits of ‘The Flintstones’, in which Fred takes a sabretooth tiger outside, the scene asks us to break free of television’s virtual world and engage with the real world, while still acknowledging the power it holds. Even if it unleashes hell, the draw of television, and the cosy comfort it provides, may just be worth the risk.

This sentiment switches in E.T., which features a famous moment in which Elliott and E.T. bond over a TV airing of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Ford is one of Spielberg’s favourite directors, and so it’s no surprise that, in itself, this moment is presented positively. E.T. (at Elliott’s home) and Elliott (taking part in a science class at school) are bonded by the movie, with E.T. forging a psychic connection to his friend. The boy then plays out the film’s famous kissing scene with a girl in his class, E.T. encouraging him to do so because of what he’s seeing on screen. If this moment portrays the virtual world of film in a positive light, it’s only because of the impact it has on Elliott and E.T. in the real world. Film is a pathway to empathy, Spielberg suggests, and by connecting through it, Elliott and E.T.’s friendship – and Elliott’s ability to connect with others in his class – grows stronger.

Indeed, so strong does it become that Elliott matures through his connection to E.T.. In the film’s early sections, Elliott is fascinated by E.T. and treats him like a pet: luring him into his home with Reece’s Pieces and declaring that “I’m keeping him” to his brother and sister. He connects through fantasy at this stage of the film: not only through The Quiet Man, but also the Star Wars action figures he shows his friend. This sense of fantasy reaches its peak during the famous bike ride, which finds E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon. The pair are dressed in their Halloween costumes – another form of fantasy – and completely alone. This is their escape and the moment is drenched in an other-worldly blue colour that Spielberg uses frequently (in different ways) and which was inspired by Disney’s Fantasia. In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Michael Sragow, Spielberg said:

“It is Mother Night. Remember in Fantasia, Mother Night flying over with her cape, covering a daylight sky. When I was a kid, that’s what night really looked like. The Disney Mother Night was a beautiful woman with flowing blue-black hair, and arms extended outwards, twenty miles in either direction. And behind her was a very inviting cloak. She came from the horizon in an arc and swept over you until everything was a blue-black dome. And then there was an explosion, and the stars were suddenly made of this kind of animated sky.”

In other words, the blue-black of E.T. is a comforting fantasy that we (and Spielberg) are attracted to. However, it’s one we need to carefully reject. His love for E.T. makes Elliott realise that he can’t keep him: that he has to help him return to his home planet. It’s empathy and connection, but also an acknowledgement that we must wake up from our dreams. Spielberg underlines this at the film’s end where he references the earlier bike flight, but instead of flying alone across the face of the moon, Elliott and E.T. are riding alongside their friends across the face of the sun – a common symbol for connection and emotional epiphany for Spielberg. By engaging in something real, something disconnected from fantasy and ‘Mother Night’, Elliott has found real comfort and real love. He’s found what a virtual world could never deliver.

At the same time he was exploring the wonder of suburbia, Spielberg was also delving into the supernatural world of Indiana Jones. The Indy series may be Spielberg’s most obviously escapist group of films, with our hero pursuing grand mythical relics, but the message is much more grounded: humility and hubris are dangerous things. Indy begins each film full of certainty – that the Ark is just “superstitious hocus pocus,” that the Sankara Stones will grant him “fortune and glory,” that the Holy Grail doesn’t exist – but ends them by having to accept that he doesn’t know it all. The Indy series tells us that the matinee idols we put so much faith in aren’t always right and can’t always save the day.

Spielberg makes this escapist link explicit by tying the final set pieces of each of the first three films into forms of entertainment. In Raiders, the finale is laid out like a film set, with Belloq, Dietrich and Toht placed as the actors, the Nazi soldiers acting as the crew and Indy and Marion as the audience. In Temple of Doom, we have a literal cliffhanger as Indy, Willie and Short Round are left clinging for their lives to the crumbling rope-bridge. Finally, in Last Crusade, we have a role-playing computer game, with our hero using instructions to guide himself through a maze of traps and challenges. If hubris is the sin Indy must overcome, it’s a hubris learned from escapism and the virtual worlds that escapism is delivered to us in.

This thesis continued with Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which narrowed the target of Spielberg’s ire. Satirising blockbusters specifically, Spielberg’s Jurassic films show what happens when our desire to escape reality takes over from our desire to engage with it. Central to this is John Hammond, who Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp softened considerably in comparison with Michael Crichton’s source novel. Many critics saw weakness in the change, with Spielberg nodding towards, but lacking the courage to crystalise, a link between himself and the park impresario. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Spielberg’s Hammond is a man so wrapped up in his virtual world that he can’t see the real one. By attempting to create “something real, something people can reach out and touch,” Hammond has ignored and endangered the things that actually are real: his grandchildren and the natural world he claims to have an affection for.

This second point is an important one that links the lush worlds of the Jurassic franchise and the dusty landscapes of the Indy series. From the bright roaring suns that appear at the ends of Duel and The Sugarland Express (and throughout many more films besides) to the raindrops that fall on leaves like bombs in Saving Private Ryan, nature is a dominant force in Spielberg’s film-making and even in his favourite films. Speaking to Laurent Bouzareuz in a documentary for a home video release of Lawrence of Arabia, Spielberg discussed why the picture – one of his favourites – means so much to him.

“Phoenix, Arizona [where Spielberg spent a large part of his childhood] is a desert community and I was raised in the desert, so I had an affinity for Lawrence’s love of the desert. I understood his obsession with how clean the desert was. That’s what I always thought: the desert was cleaner than the city and the neighbourhoods. Nature just swept all the debris out of the desert and kept it pristine. It was that moment of Lawrence and nature at one with each other that I really could relate to on that very natural level.”

Indy’s quests always involve claiming a lost artifact and bringing it to civilization: in other words, moving one of the desert’s pristine pieces into the city. (He always fails, of course, finding instead a much more important emotional prize.) Meanwhile, by setting up a theme park in a lush tropical paradise, Hammond is attempting to drive some of the debris of the city back into the desert, only for the desert to reject it. For Spielberg, the splendour of the natural world must remain untouched by the corruption of the man-made world because while nature brings man closer to himself and others, the city alienates us, dividing our sense of self and separating us from each other and reality itself. Speaking about Duel in 1978, Spielberg underlined this point by saying:

“It begins on Sunday; you take your car to be washed. You have to drive it but it’s only a block away. And as the car’s being washed, you go next door with the kids and buy them ice cream at the Dairy Queen and then you have lunch at the plastic McDonald’s with seven zillion hamburgers sold. And then you go off to the games room and you play the quarter games Tank and The Pong and Flim-Flan. And by that time, you go back and your car’s all dry and ready to go and you get into the car and drive to the Magic Mountain plastic amusement park and you spend the day eating junk food.

“Afterwards you drive home, stopping at all the red lights, and the wife is waiting with dinner on. And you have instant potatoes and eggs without cholesterol – because they’re artificial – and you sit down and turn on the television set, which has become the reality as opposed to the fantasy this man has lived with that entire day. And you watch the prime time, which is pabulum and nothing more than watching a night light. And you see the news at the end of that, which you don’t want to listen to because it doesn’t confirm to the reality you’ve just been through prime time with. And at the end of all that you go to sleep and you dream about making enough money to support weekend America.”

In this sense, any man-made location is a virtual world in Spielberg’s eyes, or at least one that’s more cluttered and less pure than the natural one. It explains much about Spielberg’s film-making: why the greatest fear lingers beneath the water, why alien visitors arrive in vast plumes of clouds, why E.T. and Elliott cycles across the faces of the sun and moon. Nature is wondrous. If The BFG‘s Giant and Dream Countries are utopian places because they exist outside of the real world but adopt certain natural elements of it (Dream Country’s dream tree, for example), Jurassic Park is a dystopia because it attempts to replace the real and natural world with a man-made world: “weekend America”. Hammond escapes from reality and sacrifices it to do so. Sophie, on the other hand, escapes with reality and returns from her fantasy world with a greater understanding of how to deal with the real one.

As his career developed, Spielberg evolved his presentation of fantasy to include more than just literal fantasies. By 1987, he was aiming to move away from genre cinema, and having already filmed an adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, he released another literary adaptation: J.G. Ballard’s World War II novel ‘Empire of the Sun’. Here, Spielberg delivers one of his richest explorations of the limits of virtual worlds. Struggling to cope with the reality of war, our child hero Jim Graham looks to escape into a fantasy of it. He pictures the mercenary Basie as a flying ace from a comic he carries with him, yearns for the comfort of home as depicted in Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Freedom From Fear’ painting, and gazes upon the fighter planes that pose an eternal threat to him with an awestruck reverence.

This disparity between Jim’s vision of the world and the objective reality of it becomes Empire of the Sun‘s driving force. Early on, he spots a light blinking out Morse code and, thinking it’s a game, he uses a torch to blink back, resulting in an attack on the hotel he’s staying in. Later, he watches as a Japanese fighter plane he’s just saluted takes off, flies across the face of the sun (like Elliott and E.T.) and is then blown up by an American plane. Finally, towards the film’s conclusion, he sees a bright light flash in the sky and believes it to be soul of a fellow internment camp prisoner leaving her body and ascending to heaven; a radio broadcast later reveals it was the Atomic Bomb hitting Nagasaki. It’s no coincidence that these moments involve uses of light. Spielberg, who once said that “light is life” and uses it as a defining part of his mise-en-scène, was looking to undermine the transcendence it had previously represented.

Jim’s failure at clinging on to fantasy (and Spielberg’s success in removing the life from light) is underlined in one of the film’s final scenes, in which Jim is reunited with his parents. It should be a happy moment,but it’s shot through with melancholy. At first, the Grahams don’t recognise the boy, his father walking straight past without noticing. His mother finally catches on and they hug in a somewhat cold and distant embrace – Jim needs to touch her cheek before deciding that it’s really her and she’s really here. His glassy, ravaged eyes close, but there’s no sense of calm or comfort here. It’s like he’s falling asleep and sinking into a dream (an idea supported by the film’s repeated use of the Welsh lullaby Suo Gân). When the war has so ravaged his sense of wonder though, what dream is there to sink in to?

Spielberg asked this question again many years later in three films that can be loosely bound together and which I have dubbed The Running Man Trilogy. A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can are thematically linked by the concept of fantasy. David believes in the Pinocchio fairy tale and pursues the Blue Fairy in the hope that she can turn him into a real boy and help him win his mother’s love. John Anderton believes in Pre-Crime in the hope that it can help him solve (or at least alleviate his guilt for) the disappearance of his son. And Frank Abagnale Jnr believes in the cons he creates in the hope that they can help him reunite his parents and bring back the familial harmony they had before their divorce.

David, John and Frank’s virtual worlds play like dark inversions of Elliott’s, with the fantasies they engage in harming, rather than helping, their place in the world. John, for example, is so devoted to the Pre-Crime ideal that he refuses to accept the moral paradox he’s chained himself to: it’s an almost literal fantasy in which people are imprisoned because it’s predicted that they’ll commit a crime, even though they haven’t actually committed it yet. Hailed for its unnerving prescience about the perils of surveillance, Minority Report is much more about perception and what happens when our ability to process the real world is fundamentally altered by new power. Spielberg draws this theme out by repeatedly warping John’s appearance (he takes a drug to morph his face and is shorn of his hair when he’s finally caught) and emphasising the importance of eyes: John’s are illuminated by pupil-recognition technology early on in the film and at one point they’re replaced to help him avoid such detection.

In A.I., David is a victim of man’s hubris: a creation designed specifically to fill emotional holes in our lives. He’s activated by his adopted mother Monica in order to love her unconditionally after her biological son Martin falls into a coma he’s unlikely to recover from. When he does, however, and David is seen as a threat, Monica abandons him, leaving him to pursue Monica’s love through fantastical means: the Blue Fairy. It’s a dream that we, as a savvy audience well-versed in fantasy and the Pinocchio story the film is drawing from, know can never come true in the way David thinks it will, and indeed it’s not until many centuries in the future that he’s finally given the opportunity to get what he wants. However, it’s not through magical wish-fulfilment. Instead a group of advanced Super-Mechas present themselves in the form of the Blue Fairy and revive the long-dead Monica. The film ends by following mother and son as they enjoy a perfect day together, but it’s a fallacy. This heartwarming familial scene is being played out by two synthetic creations – replicas of human beings – who compromised their morals and used each other to fill emotional voids. By chasing his dream, David has become everything we deplored in Monica.

On its surface, Catch Me If You Can is lighter than A.I. and Minority Report, but it’s a fake-out. While those films are aiming to build distance between audience and characters, Catch Me If You Can draws the audience in: in other words, it’s meant to be light because it’s conning you into ignoring the bleak conclusions it makes about its virtual worlds. The link to E.T. is strongest here. Like Elliott before him, Frank is heartbroken by the divorce of his parents and longs for a time when they’ll reunite. Also like Elliott, he’s drawn into a fantasy world of fun and wish-fulfilment. But while Elliott’s fantasy is a healthy one that builds empathy and which he ultimately lets go of because of that empathy, Frank’s is a toxic one that separates him from the real world and which he refuses to let go of. Instead, he jumps from one con to the next: from airline pilot, to doctor, to lawyer. They achieve nothing though and his chances of his dream coming true finally end when Frank Snr dies alone while running to catch a train. The money (and the virtual world it’ll pay for) drives him on though. “You know why the Yankees always win,” father says to son in an early scene. “‘Cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.”

As with all of the virtual worlds in this thematic trilogy, it’s the image, rather than the reality, that counts.

Immediately after Empire of the Sun and the Running Man trilogy, Spielberg made two low-level comedies, Always and The Terminal, and it’s with these films that I want to end this essay. Dismissed as empty, fluffy efforts, they’re flawed films that nonetheless probe dark territory. The Terminal, for example, is one of Spielberg’s grandest virtual worlds. Standing in for Capitalist America, the eponymous location becomes a Kafka-esque nightmare in which we’re told the only thing anyone can do “is shop”. Our hero Viktor is stranded there after a coup in his home country and because he’s an anomaly (who can neither return home or go out into wider America) he’s cast off by the airport’s customs director, Frank Dixon, who’s desperate to brush him under the carpet in case his presence threatens a pending promotion. As Viktor goes about his business, he builds a life for himself, essentially reigniting the American Dream, only to have it extinguished by the very same people who are supposed to be preserving it. The twist of this virtual world is that it’s actually preferable to the reality.

Always, meanwhile, takes us back to the arrogance of John Hammond with a lead character (Pete) who’s self-obsessed and refuses to quit his dangerous job as an aerial firefighter, despite the wishes of his girlfriend Dorinda. Pete pays for this with his life and has to spend the rest of the film helping Dorinda move on and begin a relationship with another man. It’s another twist on the virtual world. By living so arrogantly, Pete created a world in which he was always right and would always cheat death – and in particular, the elements themselves. By returning as a ghost, he becomes a virtual world in himself, and Spielberg refuses to allow him to transcend it. At the film’s conclusion, Pete’s succeeded in helping Dorinda move on, and as he bids a lonely goodbye to her, Spielberg captures him in a medium close up. He’s framed against a midnight blue/Mother Night backdrop (just like the colour that so dominated E.T.) and he considers the world around him – and more. Looking at the boundaries of the film frame, he’s considering the artifice of cinema itself. Pete indulged in a virtual world so long that he can now only accept that he’s a part of it and solemnly move into it, which he does by walking into the distance.

The message for Spielberg is clear and it applies equally to all of his characters who get caught up in virtual worlds: engage with reality and not an image of it. Those who don’t will be left trapped in the dream they created with no hope of the escape they created it for.  ?

Learn More…

Find out more about the films mentioned in this essay by visiting From Director Steven Spielberg’s Filmography section. A list of the books and sources referenced can be seen below, alongside other recommended reading.

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