The Terminal
Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kumar Pallana, Zoë Saldana, Diego Luna, Chi McBride, Barry Shabaka Henley, Valeri Nikolayev, Eddie Jones, Michael Nouri. Screenplay: Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (from a story by Andrew Niccol).

The Terminal is the story of a man who is trying to accomplish an obsessive but honorable personal task when he is suddenly and cruelly waylaid inside an oversized, hypercapitalist fortress that seems to block his every move and crush his every dream. Something, as they say, has gotta give, but nothing's going to, not so long as this gleaming maze of easy money and glossy surfaces is being directed by a megalomaniac who thinks he's doing his job, when in fact he is embarrassing himself and killing the spirit of his own fellow man.

Wait, we're going too fast. Okay, from the top: the name of the stranded person is Andrew Niccol, possibly already known to you as the proficient if recurrently paranoiac screenwriter of Gattaca and The Truman Show. For those of you who don't know Mr. Niccol, the first of these movies is about a man training for a space-flight program who is nonetheless doomed to the ground because, in the viciously eugenic near-future, his DNA makes him too much of a have-not for such a prime gig. The second of these films concerns a man who dreams of flying to Tahiti but is conspiratorially prevented from leaving his hometown; this is because, in the even nearer future, his DNA was purchased by a multi-media conglomerate that raised him within an enormous and camera-filled biosphere, allowing the rest of the world to observe every second of his life. Deferred plane flights seem to haunt Mr. Niccol the way car accidents haunt Alejandro González Iñárritu, or the way glowing glasses of milk did Alfred Hitchcock. So now, he's devised a movie about a would-be air traveller in the future-so-near-it's-now, whose country is sundered by a violent coup during his trip, leaving him unable to return home or to enter any other nation with his newly invalidated passport.

Off in his lonely writer's garret, furnished only with a typewriter and a cardtable and a photo of Rod Serling tacked to the wall, Niccol finished his script and packed it in a portfolio and decided to take it to DreamWorks Studios. But when he got there, he discovered—much to his horror—that there had been a violent coup in the heartland of American commercial cinema, and that the people who greenlighted and supported subversive, culturally attuned projects like Gattaca and The Truman Show had all been fired, retired, or mentally colonized. "But that can't be!" cried Mr. Niccol, heartsick. "Gattaca was an Academy Award-nominated critical hit, and The Truman Show made over $100 million! In the middle of the fucking summer!" The people at DreamWorks, well-groomed and honey-voiced, attempted to soothe the inconsolable Mr. Niccol, who thought, surely this was how Luke Skywalker felt upon learning that his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been pulverized while he (a frustrated pilot!) was out buying robots. "Yes, yes. Luke Skywalker," said the fresh-scrubbed young DreamWorks interns, the memory of billion-dollar blockbusters lighting their eyes and their cheeks from within.

Distraught and confused, left without a home, Niccol thought he might try to venture to another Hollywood studio to see if effects of the coup had traveled there, too. "Oh! No, no," said the DreamWorks people. "You can't go back to Subversive Cinema Land, but now that you're here, we really can't have you wandering all the lots of Hollywood, either. We're afraid you'll have to park yourself here at DreamWorks for a spell while we go get our boss." They impounded his screenplay and vanished. Dazed and barely speaking the language, sick with the smell of coconut-flavored lattés, Niccol pushed some canvas directors chairs together and tried to get comfy enough to at least tinker with an outline of his next project, maybe something on Amelia Earhart. But then The Boss showed up, this little man who unctuously spouted folksy, down-home rhetoric about liberal values and the beautiful innocence of children, even as the electronic fences and alarm systems of the DreamWorks-industrial complex beeped and whirred all around them. "Mr. Niccol, don't you worry," said the plutocrat from behind his sunglasses. "I'll take good care of your screenplay. You just hold tight. After all, you're at DreamWorks now, the official home of the Greatest Generation®, the Free and the Brave."

Recognition slowly dawned on Mr. Niccol as he regarded this bearded man—he was a film director! And he had made that movie about a teenage layabout, a little nobody who by simply impersonating a pilot had managed to fly all around the world! As though it were that easy—putrid, indulgent thought!! Everything Mr. Niccol stood for was grossly belied by that breezy little film, which had co-starred Tom Hanks.

"Ack!" screamed Mr. Niccol. "Tom Hanks! The man who made that movie about being an astronaut, where they all survive even though their whole craft busts and they're just drifting around in space! The one who made that other movie I liked for a while, about the guy whose plane crashes and strands him on an island, until he builds a raft out of coconuts and sails home, quite easily, with his... with his... pet volley... oh, NO!"

"Mr. Niccol," said some DreamWorks grounds control officers. "We're going to have to ask you . . . ."

Mr. Niccol awoke inside what seemed to be a large theater, where a nervy, arrhythmically edited montage of post-millennial airport travelers was radiating from the screen. His heart jumped into his throat: it was all okay! They had made The Terminal after all. This witty cinematographer, Mr. Kaminski, he seemed to know just how to balance a main bit of action on the teetering edge of a frame, and to bounce glaring light all over the dizzying, reflective surfaces of the airport. "Yes, that's how it feels today, in our airports! Little pockets of furtive unrest happening in the corner. Lines. Waiting. People staring at each other, not sure what to do. By God, it is all right, they've made my—"

But then, there, suddenly, was Tom Hanks, still poised at any moment to bounce Abe Lincoln from the five dollar bill, and he seemed to be playing...a foreigner? Someone from someplace called Krakhozia. Now, this didn't make sense: why would someone build this grandiose, deliriously pricy set, the absolute last word in simulated realism, and then start inventing fantasy-land places like Krakhozia? Wasn't this story being set up as a parable about the unease of international travel, of fretful ticket-buyers and helpless detainess in the era of Ashcroft and Osama? Was this going to work when the lying word "Krakhozia" and the man who played Forrest Gump immediately put all realities to the side and all fears to rest within moments of the movie's starting? Mr. Niccol turned in his seat and peered as near he could into the origin of the projector's blinding white light. "Is anybody up there?" he asked. "Can someone turn this off? What have they done to my movie?"

What indeed. The screen grew crowded, crammed to the very edges with brand names and product placements, Brookstone and Starbucks and Ritz Camera and, repeatedly, Borders. "Yeah, har har, I get it: Borders," Niccol harrumphed, truly dismayed by the inanity of what he was seeing. Here, a cuddly little Indian who juggles. There, a couple of strangers who, though unknown to each other, wed in an old-style arranged marriage, or something, all engineered by this bizarre Krakhozian persona of Mr. Hanks', who learns and forgets the syntax and sounds of the English language as needed. Meanwhile, a ravishing star actress showed up and fell down a lot, and spoke a lot of non-sequiturs about Napoleon and Josephine while the glassy countertops of Au Bon Pain twinkled in the background. The guy from Flashdance was there, too, in a silent role. Various characters passed around a plastic swordfish, and a Russian-speaking man fell to his knees in front of Tom Hanks, who then told a bare-faced lie about a goat, before this little maniac did a Vulcan death-grip on him and xeroxed his hand. Later, the little Indian came back and jogged up to a taxiing airplane, pluckily stopping the landing gear with his little mop, and creating a diversion so that Tom Hanks could sneak out to a jazz club. Mr. Niccol almost took heart, because on first impression, his script—while not quite recognizable as his script, or as any script—seemed to have won the attention of some true master of the surreal, perhaps Mr. David Lynch.

But wait, this was no nightmare. This was no blue-box hallucination. This was some implied version of some sort of reality. "Hey, what is this about?!" Mr. Niccol screamed into the darkness behind him, while the radiant logos of Sbarro and The Body Shop warmed the heart of the once-despondent exile-detainee on screen. From deep within the darkness, the Director's voice called back, "It's my movie, Mr. Niccol. Or, it's your movie. It's our movie."

"But it doesn't even make any sense!" cried Mr. Niccol. "Why have you spent millions upon millions of dollars making a soupy, disconnected, diamond-bright version of my dark little Twilight Zone knock-off, that's supposed to capture all the isolation and dislocation in the world? Who in their right minds would make a puff-pastry little romance in an international airport terminal, of all places, in 2004? Give me back my screenplay! Why won't you let me leave?"

"Don't worry, it isn't a romance," said the director. "The characters don't wind up together, and they don't even really know each other."

Mr. Niccol was confused, but powerless. The megalomaniac director, now returned to his invisible office in some picture-windowed corner of some higher floor in some remote building of this gated DreamWorks community, would never address his misdeeds, would never account for his own neurotic insistence on turning a perfectly straightforward, concept-driven tale into a fuzzy, rambling, un-centered, implausible little character sketch that manages both to sell out completely and to deny the audience the conclusion it wants. His star was similarly invulnerable, forever insulated by some cultural brainwashing that continued to allow him a lauded and profitable career even after six misfired performances in six preposterous live-action movies in a row. No one would feel any pressure to explain or excuse the nine-figure price tag that had been recklessly expended on a nonsensical and internally inconsistent picture that could have easily been made for a tenth of that cost and still wasn't likely, after all that spit and polish, to win too many fans.

And now Mr. Niccol himself was the slave of DreamWorks, trapped inside its walls, beneath the crescent moon where that precious little boy fly-fished all day and night. Whose head would roll when this larkish little film about homeland security failed to play Peoria? Probably not the director's, though probably it should. And if he ever did get work again, what would it be? What would this studio think of next? A remake of The Red Balloon set in Tikrit? How about Sunday in the Park with George relocated to Guantánamo, and starring Jennifer Garner as a plucky Pakistani? Or a remake of The Stepford Wives where the women are as hateful as the men? (Oh, wait, DreamWorks had already checked that off their list.)

In the distance over Mr. Niccol's head, a plane flew by. He sure wished he were on it. He wished he were anywhere but here, watching this. Grade: F

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