The Terminal (2004)

So the big Spielberg/Hanks movie is not doing as well as originally expected. Why is this happening – the movie got great reviews, and the star power is attractive. What went wrong? Here’s a few ideas that have crossed my mind as I watched “The Terminal” this past weekend.

Right off the bat, I admit I’m a Spielberg junkie. I may not know his birthday or the names of his kids, but I really love most of the movies he makes, and have been caught defending failures like “Amistad” and “A.I.” Why? Because he’s a man with a vision, who just happens to be very successful, and allows that success to blur his vision from time to time. I can live with the occasional hiccup, as long as it’s followed by stronger, more entertaining film. That’s why I defend Spielberg’s weaker movies – they’re the in-between projects that still make for good entertainment, just nothing extraordinary.

I was excited to see him paired with Hanks again (was moved by “Saving Private Ryan“, saw most of “From Earth to the Moon“, and have ordered the complete series of “Band of Brothers“). I think it’s the sentimental note in both men that makes their work so appealing. And, getting ahead of myself, it’s most likely the same thing that’s responsible for The Terminal‘s so-so performance at the box office. Too much sap.

Two weeks in, this movie is #4, and is probably not even going to break even. I saw it yesterday, and while being overall impressed with the story, the set, and the acting (naturally), I couldn’t help feeling that people won’t get the movie. They won’t identify with it. What gave it away? A few times, when a Kafkaesque situation was unfolding on the screen, I was laughing out loud at their audacity, while the audience sat there, shocked. See, people won’t identify with Viktor Navorski (the main character, played by Tom Hanks) because they are not recent immigrants to the US or Canada, or they simply don’t remember how THEY got here. Which is unfair, since I believe that Canada and US have lots of immigrants (first- or second-generation) who pass these stories on. Heck, both countries were practically populated by foreigners, i.e. people from other countries.

It’s not the best experience to tell your kids, but nevertheless, if it happened to you, why not cherish it? My family remembers their immigration, with all its highs and lows, and having been a part of that transition, I’m going to remember it for a long time as well. Viktor’s story is, one that’s common to all of us. And while The Terminal adds a lot of elements for dramatic effect, the simpler, more accessible version is this: you’re a stranger in a strange land. A whole new world of opportunities, restrictions, second-chances, and people – kind, suspicious, greedy, oblivious, lucky, and hard-working people. You must blend in, crawl up, dig your way out of the place you’re in. You have to establish new roots, and learn a new language along the way. A typical immigrant experience. Why wouldn’t it be compelling?

Maybe in addition to forgetting our own similar experiences, we cannot feel sympathy for Viktor because he’s not abusing the system the way we’re all used to. He doesn’t leave the airport and take his chances on the streets of NYC. He stays put as he was told, and learns the ways of the new world – how to earn for food, how to communicate successfully, how to be “like you people”. Viktor is a straight arrow in a world where a person’s life has little value. The analogy is great as an immigrant as well as an office worker in a big company. People should relate to it.

Maybe another reason we cannot find the movie compelling is the lack of typical happy ending. SPOILER WARNING: Viktor doesn’t get revenge on Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who’s a self-serving bureaucrat, mocking Viktor along the way, using him when needed, and discarding him right afterwards. In fact, Frank successfully moves up in his career, no doubt having stepped on more people than Viktor. The main character also “doesn’t get the girl”, which is another typical scenario that Spielberg avoid here. No need. I think the relationship between Viktor and Amelia should be no different than that in “Lost in Translation” – two lost souls, finding comfort in each other in a strange place.

I liked the movie even more for these exact reasons – ability to skip the cliches, and tell the story as it would unfold. There’s nothing unusual in the way Viktor finds work or friends – he has an open disposition, and generally, people like that. There’s also nothing wrong with him getting a hero-like status when he stands up for another poor passenger who knows no English but has to explain a life-and-death situation to the customs officers. It takes guts to stand up to absolute authority.

The movie goes over the top for many things – the East European accent, the strange limp, the conspiracy-fueled custodian, the product placements, and the romance. But that only adds flavour to an already interesting story. And it only emphasizes a wonderful, elaborate set that was built for the movie. It really takes a few fly-by shots to grasp the detail and its sheer size. If you build something like that, you might as well fill it with people, and their own sub-plots. That part works and must be admired.

As for Spielberg’s constant need to get a tear out of you – well you probably knew this going in. Despite what The Terminal makes over the next few weeks, I’m glad it was a summer release, and offered something different from the cavalcade of loud, explosive blockbusters. This was something I talked about on the way out, something that reminded me of my own “coming to this country” experience, and something I will certainly recommend to my parents. Over the top, yes, but at least it’s about something, and has a few morals along the way.

Go catch it in theaters.

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