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Spielberg In The Aughts: The Terminal (2004)

You might have thought that Tom Hanks had a crazy accent in Catch Me If You Can, but that was merely a prelude to the ludicrously silly sort-of-Slovic voice that Mr. Hanks puts on for his role as Viktor Novorski in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just arrived to New York City from the Eastern European country of Madeupistan.  Er, excuse me, Krakozia.  Unfortunately, his country undergoes a military coup while Navorski is in the air.  By the time he arrives in New York City, all relations between the United States and Krakozia have been severed, and due to a variety of legal permutations, Mr. Navorski is unable to enter the U.S. but is similarly unable to return to Krakozia.  In short, he finds himself stuck, indefinitely, in the airport.

Let the comic hijinks commence!

I commented in my review of Catch Me If You Can on my feeling, when I first saw the film back in 2002, that it was a surprisingly slight film for Mr. Spielberg to make.  That probably caused me to dismiss the film a little too quickly at the time.  Well, if Catch Me If You Can is slight, then The Terminal is practically nonexistent.

That sounds harsh, which isn’t my intention.  There’s certainly some fun to be had in The Terminal. It’s just that while Catch Me If You Can was a light, fun film, it did have a pretty dramatic emotional core.  The Terminal sort-of shoots for that as well, but there’s just not much there.  What’s left is a fun, frothy film, but one without a whole heck of a lot to say.

(My wife thought that Viktor’s predicament — in which he is forced to go to some extreme lengths in order to adapt to survive the stranded situation in which he finds himself — reminded her of Mr. Hanks’ role in Cast Away.  I’d never thought of The Terminal in that way, but she’s right!  The difference, of course, is that The Terminal doesn’t have any of the dramatic underpinnings of Cast Away.  That’s putting it mildly!)

The Terminal has a fairly episodic structure.  Through a variety of vignettes, we see Viktor adapt to his crazy situation and somehow make for himself a remarkably pleasant life living in the airport.  He gradually bonds with several of the other off-beat but kind airport employees — played by Chi McBride (Boston Public), Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk), Gupta Rajan (just as entertaining here as he was in The Royal Tenenbaums), and a pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana (and, by the way, it’s a riot to see Ms. Saldana play a Star Trek fan in this film, several years before she’d go on to be cast as Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot!) — with whom he forms an ad hoc family.  He also comes into conflict with Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the high-strung administrator in charge of the airport.

The Terminal is a little long — it’s episodic nature didn’t quite sustain my interest throughout.  But it moves along fairly briskly, and the episodic structure didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did, say, in the early Harry Potter films.  For the most part, Viktor’s different adventures flow smoothly one into the next.  With one major exception.

There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that is all about Viktor’s involvement in the courtship between Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana’s characters.  It’s a decent sequence (even though my wife and I were both unclear as to how Saldana’s character knew that Viktor wasn’t trying to woo her himself during all of his visits to her on behalf of her mysterious, unseen secret admirer), but just as that story builds to a conclusion it’s dropped, and we don’t see Saldana or Luna again until much later in the film.  I guess Mr. Spielberg was trying to build some suspense as to how their story turned out, but to me it felt as if the movie just forgot about those characters for way-too-long a while.

But where the film really drops the ball is in the relationship between Viktor and the flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Their flirtation, filled with just-missed opportunities for each of them, is probably supposed to provide the emotional through-line to the movie.  But I just didn’t believe their romance at all.  I didn’t buy that Amelia would have anything to do with this weird Eastern European dude who’s always hanging around the airport!  I also felt that Ms. Zeta-Jones was the weak link in an otherwise strong cast.  She’s not terrible, but I didn’t find her to be particularly interesting, either.  She doesn’t bring a lot of layers to the character of Amelia.  The woman is all surface, and as such she I didn’t root for her as a good match for Viktor.

And, despite the superficial tone of the entire film, one does wind up genuinely rooting for Viktor, and that’s probably the film’s biggest strength.  This happens almost entirely because of how unrelentingly winning Tom Hanks is in the lead role.  I continually find the man to be great fun to watch, even in a lesser film such as this one.  There’s a twinkle in Mr. Hanks’ eye right from the first moment we meet him (I love the moment, towards the very beginning of the film, when we see Viktor cheerfully shaving while standing in line at the airport terminal), and that carries him (and the viewer) through the film.

There’s not too much more to say about The Terminal.  It’s cute, but not particularly memorable.  Mr. Spielberg has certainly made worse films — The Terminal is certainly not a catastrophe like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — but it’s also far from the top of the director’s greatest hits.

Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: Catch Me If You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad (1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).

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