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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

It seems somewhat appropriate that the week that sees Steven Spielberg celebrate his 65th birthday (which was on Monday) also sees the release of two new films from the director, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most famous, filmmakers of all time. The director has always been something of a workhorse, with 29 feature films across a 40-year career (that’s one every 18 months, more or less), all without mentioning his early TV credits, his countless producing credits and even helping to run an entire studio.

And it’s doubly appropriate that the two films, “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse,” are quite different; the former, which opens today, a CGI performance capture rollercoaster ride, the latter a serious-minded WWI drama that aims straight for the tear ducts. While his movies are always instantly recognizable as being birthed from his brain, they do seem to fall into two distinct camps, albeit with some crossover: jaw-dropping action-adventure spectacle, often with fantastical elements, and more serious minded films, generally period pieces to one degree or another. That’s not to say that “Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t have thrills, or that “War of the Worlds” is without smarts, but there does seem to be a neat division, often within the same year; “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” were released mere months from each other, as were “War of the Worlds” and “Munich.”

As such, when it came time to look over the Bearded One’s career, we decided to split it up. To mark the release of “The Adventures of Tintin” in theaters today, we’ve examined his more escapist fare, while the opening of “War Horse” on Friday will see us look at his dramas in part two. Check back then for more, while the director will continue his split with his upcoming projects: 2012’s presidential biopic “Lincoln” will be followed in 2013 by the megabudget event movie “Robopocalypse.” In case you’re wondering, part two, the serious side of Mr. Spielberg, can be found here.

Duel” (1971)
Based on a Richard Matheson short story (itself based on a Richard Matheson life experience), “Duel” is an appropriately spare adaptation, especially given its TV movie origins. (Spielberg would go on to shoot 15 additional minutes to qualify the film for theatrical play overseas, where it was well-received.) We’re out on the open road with nondescript businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) when he begins to be tormented by the inexplicably aggressive, perpetually anonymous driver of a gas tanker. It starts with tailgating, then chicken, before escalating into a full-blown cat-and-mouse game, with the trucker endangering nobody else and nobody else believing David’s stories. The protagonist’s name lends itself easily enough to interpretation: David vs. a nameless, faceless Goliath, pitting a cheery red compact car up against a hulking rust bucket and an oblivious white-collar worker against a seemingly resentful blue-collar figure. Then there’s Mann, minus an ‘n,’ impotent at home (as spelled out with a phone conversation with the missus, inserted after the fact) and enabled by a vehicle’s power and protection to regress to a more confrontational state. (Surely, there’s a reason that “road rage” wasn’t around in the age of the horse and carriage.) Or maybe it is what it is: a generally effective, occasionally monotonous feat of daytime terror, an apparent predecessor for the hide-and-seek tension of “Jaws” and Spielberg’s much-needed calling card to graduate from the small screen to the big time. [B]

Jaws” (1975)
Like it did for so many viewers, “Jaws” had such a strong effect on this writer that we remember being frightened to swim in the deep end of pools for fear that a shark would indefinitely swallow us up. A near-perfect film that is, more or less, responsible for the way summer films are made, distributed and marketed today. Yeah, most summer flicks suck nowadays, but we don’t blame Spielberg for making a great film. He hardly needs a defense, though, as the film stands on its own as a great piece of cinema – thrilling, scary and funny with a killer cast (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss are all in top form) – “Jaws” is one of the all-time great horror/adventure films ever made. It reminds what he does best: capture your imagination through big spectacle while grounding it all in likeable, three-dimensional characters. Too few present-day blockbuster directors can make the same claim, and unlike most tentpoles, it’s the smaller, more intimate moments we remember most fondly: Chief Brody’s young son mimics his downtrodden, drunken father after a family dinner; Brody and his wife wanting to “get drunk and fool around”; Robert Shaw giving one of the most terrifying, enthralling monologues in film history when he tells of his experience on the USS Indianapolis. For all the bloody deaths (try getting this movie rated PG today, it would never happen) and scares, those moments really count, especially when the body count rises. [A+]

Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
In recent years, Spielberg has said that he never would have stuck to the ending of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” if he made the film today. And indeed, watching it now, the site of (spoiler alert) formerly loving husband and father Richard Dreyfuss board an extraterrestrial craft, leaving behind all of his earthly responsibilities, is shockingly selfish and sort of a dick move. But it’s also the fulfillment of his character arc, a justification of all the batty stuff he did in the previous two hours of the movie. And it remains one of his most emotionally fulfilling movies because Dreyfuss makes that leap of faith. ‘Close Encounters’ is oddly novelistic, both in its epic scope (climaxing with a coordinated UFO landing) and its tangential plot elements (like François Truffaut‘s French investigator), a sensation that is even more expanded when you watch the various versions of the film (all packaged for its definitive Blu-ray presentation). ‘Close Encounters’ fits snugly into the sub-genre of ‘average dude being overtaken by an otherworldly obsession,’ which more recent films like Spielberg protégé David Koepp‘s “Stir of Echoes” and more recently, this year’s “Take Shelter,” have explored. We can also blame ‘Close Encounters’ for popularizing the figure of the little glass-eyed grey alien, which every country bumpkin claims mutilated their cattle and probed them anally. [A]“1941” (1979)
“I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie,” Spielberg confessed to the New York Times, thereby admitting his film’s failings with honesty and a smidge of regret. But how bad is this 1979 war-comedy, featuring the stacked cast of Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, and many others? That depends on your tolerance for comedies that aren’t particularly funny. Proceedings kick off with a parody of the director’s own “Jaws,” in which a skinny-dipping woman discovers a Japanese submarine lurking in American waters. Then, following a decision to bomb Hollywood (one can almost hear the in-jokey off-camera laughter), the narrative is immediately carved into myriad tiny little stories: Wally (Bobby Di Cicco) would rather dance than fight and hopes to prove himself at an upcoming dance; Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson) pines for the loins every woman he sees; Ward Douglas (Beatty) is forced to house an anti-aircraft millitary weapon; Wild Bill Kelso (Belushi) accidentally blows up a gasoline station… and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, while there are strong moments, nothing ever meshes together, comic timing is seemingly absent, and the filmmaker’s penchant for theatrical set pieces and explosions only makes things worse. But without berating it too much, the film was only a “flop” in comparison to its preceding films (and try to follow those two…) and it is, by all means, a very competently constructed movie – it’s not like the man had a lapse in skill for a year. Even so, its “cult status” is a little too forgiving (and, at worst, delusional), with most giving props to its lack of sentimentality in counterpoint to the usual criticism of the director’s gooey-centredness. But we like it when Steven makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t we? [C-]

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
For 30 years now, Indiana Jones has been a pop culture phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. Spielberg, hot off his first bomb with “1941,” was hungry for another hit. He needed something great, and found it earlier in George Lucas’ 1973 script “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” another modern-day take on the movie serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s that so heavily influenced the two wunderkinds. Spielberg had always longed to make a Bond movie, and with this script, which he proclaimed as “a James Bond film without the hardware,” he found something even better. After a smart name change to Jones, the two intrepid young filmmakers set off to make a quick and dirty picture in the style of those old Saturday matinee serials. If you haven’t caught up with the first film in the series in some time, or haven’t seen it at all, then you need to stop reading and put it on now. It’s a perfectly paced and tightly scripted action film, with a lead character that’s far more interesting and complex than James Bond, or any other lead character in the wake of countless copycat movies that have come since (“The Mummy” or “National Treasure” series come to mind). Strangely enough, it’s in this franchise that Spielberg has made one of his very best (‘Raiders’) and easily his worst film to date, but more on that later… What’s so sad about the fourth movie is that Spielberg and Lucas clearly forgot what made the first one so special. For one, there’s the hilarious gag, improvised on set by a dysentery affected Harrison Ford (brilliant and iconic in the lead) wherein he decides to simply shoot a man wielding a huge sword. Moments like this show ‘Raiders’ and its filmmakers to be working on a level of intelligence not often seen in the average blockbuster, where spectacle almost always trumps logic. [A]

E.T.” (1982)
While his films traditionally appeal to all ages (bar the R-rated fare), and kids adore the likes of “Jurassic Park” and “Indiana Jones,” “The Adventures of Tintin” arguably marks only the second time that he’s made a film specifically aimed at younger audiences. The first? One of his finest films, “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.” Famously derived from a much darker horror-tinged project by John Sayles entitled “Night Skies” and passed on by Columbia, who called it “a wimpy Disney movie,” only to look on as the film became the biggest-grosser of all time up to that point (it still stands at No. 4 once adjusted for inflation), the film is the simple tale of a boy and his new best friend. But of course, Elliott (Henry Thomas)’s pal is something different; an alien who’s been left behind on Earth. It’s a true coming-of-age tale, arguably the only time the director’s gone to that well, as Elliott gets drunk and kisses a girl for the first time thanks to his strange new friend. There’s real pain, too, both in the classically Spielbergian fatherless family unit, and the devastating climax (which traumatized this writer as a child, although not enough to prevent it from becoming a favorite), but the sense of innocence and wonder, so often present in the director’s work, means it never gets too heavy; the handling of tone is masterful. And what wonder; E.T. holds up amazingly well to this day as an effect, always a living character rather than a puppet, while Elliot’s bike soaring above the trees is one of the director’s most seminal and genuinely felt heart-in-mouth moments, so much so that it became the logo of his production company Amblin. It’s certainly the director’s first truly sentimental film (far more so than the more cerebral ‘Close Encounters‘), but it’s proof that the word ‘sentiment’ doesn’t have to be a perjorative one. [A+]

The Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983) (segment: “Kick The Can“)
Originally, Spielberg’s segment for “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” was an original piece written by “Twilight Zone” regular and writer of the source material for “Duel,” Richard Matheson, and involving a neighborhood bully who gets his comeuppance when the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween spring to life. The creatures were going to be created by Craig Reardon, who had impressed Spielberg with his work on “Poltergeist,” but ultimately the dark tale was scrapped after the death of Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese children who were killed shooting John Landis‘ segment. Spielberg supposedly got so upset that he didn’t want anything to do with the movie, but was contractually obligated. After the Halloween segment, Spielberg set his sights on remaking the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” But again, Spielberg felt it was too dark for a film that had now been branded by very real horror. So he decided to do “Kick the Can,” based on an episode nobody gave a shit about. The resulting segment reflects this halfhearted approach and the mediocrity of its source material, with a bunch of senior citizens who are given a chance to return to their youth. It’s anchored by a nimble performance by Scatman Crothers but is the epitome of all the things Spielberg’s critics make him out to be – saccharine, cutesy, chock full of phony uplift and cinematography that glittered with gleaming shafts of light. It’s unimaginative, manipulative and blank and unlike most of Spielberg’s work, you don’t feel a damn thing. [D]“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984)
Or: what happens when you make a movie while your two creative principles are going through simultaneous divorces. First conceived of as a film set primarily in China (set pieces included a motorcycle chase on the Great Wall and the discovering of an untouched prehistoric world not unlike “Jurassic Park“), after Chinese authorities denied producer George Lucas access to filming locations, it was reconceived as an old timey ghost story with our intrepid professor/adventurer trapped in an English haunted house. Spielberg, having suffered through the ordeal of “Poltergeist,” quickly nixed the ghost castle idea (but traces of it turn up in the third film), and the two decided on, um, whatever the hell “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is. Largely set in India, it introduces a number of moth-eaten clichés and features splashes of shocking violence, particularly when a cult leader rips the beating heart out of someone’s chest. The movie was so intense, in fact, that it led to the creation of the PG-13 rating (only Spielberg could get away with that). On another historical note, it actually takes place before the events of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (supposedly so the filmmakers could avoid using Nazis as the bad guys), making this the first (and relatively painless) George Lucas prequel. As far as set pieces go, this movie has a couple of dynamite moments (the opening musical number/melee, the mine cart chase complete with sound effects from Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), but the overall tone is too oppressively dark (human sacrifice and child slavery are two of its sunny concerns), while the attempts to balance out with comedy are crippled by Indy’s new companions; shrill Kate Capshaw and irritating child sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). It lacks the jovial frivolity of the other films, playing like a two-hour exploration of why Lucas and Spielberg really needed to be hugged. [C+]

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)
Spielberg may not have made his Bond film, but he does Ian Fleming one better by casting the most iconic James Bond – Sean Connery – as the father of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Circumventing the darkness of ‘Temple of Doom‘ and even threatening to improve upon the genius of ‘Raiders,’ “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” remains one of the most entertaining, enduring films in a strong filmography. It begins with a prologue that casts River Phoenix as a young Indy, and from there, it centers on Jones’ dual search for the missing Henry Jones Sr. as well as the holy grail. We may marvel at Spielberg’s creation of fantastic set pieces (a chase through Venetian canals, the deadly obstacle course of the finale) and settings (Nasi-era Berlin and Petra, Jordan), but they never eclipse the people. Ford’s Jones has good chemistry with Alison Doody’s conflicted Austrian Dr. Elsa Schneider, as does Connery’s Jones (wink, wink), and she’s a welcome step up from the screeching Willie Scott of ‘Temple of Doom.’ This third entry in the series also brings a few beloved characters back in Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhy-Davies), but it’s Ford and Connery (aided by a consistently funny script from Tom Stoppard) who make this the joy it is. We love that Junior is a hero here, but above all, a human one who is capable of permanent scarring, near-fatal mistakes, and turning into a teenager whenever his father is around. [B+]

Hook” (1991)
Spielberg may have recently said to Vulture that “I’m Tintin. I’m also a Goonie,” but he’s also clearly a Lost Boy who never wants to grow up. That’s rarely been more clear than in “Hook,” where the director indulges his inner child a bit too much. Robin Williams is remarkably restrained at first, playing aging lawyer Peter Banning who has no time for fun or his family. He forgets that he spent his childhood as the Peter Pan of J.M. Barrie’s stories, flying through Neverland with the Lost Boys. But when his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman, who makes a meal out of the elaborate scenery), Peter has to return to Neverland and learn how to be a child again to save his son and daughter. Clearly, Spielberg is enjoying being a child with no rules, and the excess sometimes pays off (in the Oscar-nominated set design) and it sometimes doesn’t (the film runs a nap-inducing 144 minutes). The film is rife with Spielbergian tropes including absent fathers, childlike wonder and an abundance of John Williams-fueled sappiness. And if it feels a bit too much like a musical to you at times, that’s likely due to the fact that Williams had written a Peter Pan musical and used the themes for this film. “Hook” is an overstuffed family film without the grown-up appeal of the Indiana Jones movies or “E.T.” but there a few entertaining moments that get the eight year old inside to giggle. Apparently, hearing someone called a “nearsighted gynecologist” actually gets funnier as you get older. [C]

Jurassic Park” (1993)
A roar. A crane shot. That unforgettable John Williams melody. There’s a certain generation that responds to those signifiers within milliseconds, often with mile-wide smiles. And yet, time has illuminated the flaws in “Jurassic Park,” particularly the logical jumps that ensure, in typical kid-flick fashion, the T-Rex will arrive at the proper time, the kids will be smart enough to use the computers, and the adults will make a host of lethal mistakes. But it’s easily to forget those issues when Spielberg so matter-of-factly has the audience by the balls. After a violent, barely-seen raptor attack at the beginning, Spielberg keeps his dinosaurs hidden from view, instead building Michael Crichton’s charmingly heroic characterizations through screenwriter David Koepp’s blockbuster machine. We aren’t exactly chomping at the bit about the possibility of Dr. Alan Grant (a delightful Sam Neill) not surviving, though there’s an unshakable charge to the dinosaur attack sequences. And, brilliantly, many ‘JP’ dinosaur moments (which feature special effects still superior to those seen in many more contemporary films, particularly Joe Johnston’s “Jurassic Park III”) are scored with the triumphant Williams’ score, save one: the moment the tyrannosaurs sneaks out of its paddock and begins to stalk Dr. Hammond’s helpless grandkids. Letting the soundtrack sit it out, Spielberg is free to shoot the star monster stalk his prey with a mixture of curious grace and bloodthirsty chaos. While Spielberg has made more dynamic and challenging films since, most would argue this was the last time we saw the old magic sputter to life one more time. [A-]“The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997)
Diminished returns, by way of Spielberg. Adapting only the bare skeleton of Michael Crichton’s slim thriller sequel, the Bearded One now seemed like a different filmmaker. Since “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg had won massive acclaim with “Schindler’s List” and began a career-long dedication to the Holocaust. The new version of the legendary auteur was a bit more serious, a bit less compromising. Could it be all that time spent with Nazis had dulled any affection for humans? “The Lost World” is loaded with characters that are vain, stupid and needlessly wasteful, many of them meeting absolutely horrific PG-13 ends. Nevertheless, the Spielberg of this era was an absolute master at building suspense and action sequences, and the raptor-heavy sequel did not disappoint fans looking for intense dino actions, even if the characters were far less likable than before – replacing Dr. Grant with the sullen, disillusioned Ian Macolm means not only humoring that character’s endless cynicism but following him on a tired subplot about the daughter he abandoned. All that would be fine, given that “The Lost World” works as a dark, sometimes-electric actioner, until Spielberg swings for the moon, taking the mutated version of Crichton’s source material and tacking on a Fourth Act that finds the T-Rex arriving on the mainland. What seemed like the product of dino-lovers’ dreams was dampened by a weirdly comic view of the incident, perhaps to avoid the very un-PG-13 visual of humans being torn limb from limb. As such, suddenly our star dinosaur has the sneak-and-attack abilities of Batman and we’re forced into a cheap “Godzilla” knock-off, maybe the least advisable final moments of any film in Spielberg’s body of work. [C]

Minority Report” (2002)
Tom Cruise stars as John Anderton, the head of a Pre-Crime unit in a futuristic Washington D.C. in charge of preventing criminals before they act thanks to the visions of three imprisoned “pre-cog” psychics. This was the first of Spielberg’s films dealing with the War On Terror – moreso than any blockbuster director of the era, he became instantly fascinated with the topic, as it subtly resurfaced in almost all of his post-millennial contemporary works. Here, his viewpoint isn’t nearly as evolved yet, as he subscribes to Anderton, who pledges allegiance to the Pre-Cogs, as someone needing a taste of his own medicine. Anderton ends up on the run when the pre-cogs envision him committing murder and smoothie super-agent Colin Farrell leads a strike force dedicated to attempting to do what Tom Cruise does best on-screen – running! To his credit, Cruise hasn’t been shy about sublimating his on-screen persona for some filmmakers, and he gives Anderton an angry edge that keeps the audience on their toes as to whether he’s capable of cold-blooded murder. However, while the original Philip K. Dick source material is instantly skeptical of the Pre-Crime system, Spielberg’s fawning heavy tech interpretation seems to surmise, “Ah, if only it worked!” Digressions like the last half hour spent in hard-boiled noir-ville and a brief visit with a grotesque eye doctor (Peter Stormare) that plays like an early Peter Jackson outtake only show Spielberg not necessarily trying something new, but rather reaching to the past to see what worked. There’s a whole lot of great action packed into “Minority Report,” but there ain’t a whole bunch of brains. [B-]

War of the Worlds” (2005)
The ashes of the dead, the rupture of the contemporary family, the fears of virulent outsiders – Spielberg packs most, if not all of his late-career interests in this bare-bones adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. Using only brief signifiers to illustrate the frayed relationship between dock-worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, running) and his children, Spielberg doesn’t linger before it’s time for the all-out carnage. “War of the Worlds” is absolutely ruthless, instantly vaporizing people to the point where Ray returns from the initial attack covered in ash, a terrifying reality New Yorkers had lived through only a few years prior. At no point does the film let up, and works as a suitable companion piece to something as interested in dyspeptic inhumanity as George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Spielberg and writer David Koepp just can’t manage to divorce themselves from common movie plot conveniences, but when it’s working on all cylinders, it’s terrifying – in its intimacy, the momentum of ‘WOTW’ feels more immediate than the swath of found-footage horror films that prey on the fear of the unknown and inability to explain the horrifying. It reaches its peak not in those moments when Cruise and his children are overwhelmed by an angry mob in pursuit of their van, but when we hear the sickening off-screen gunshot to suggest their car-jacker immediately met an unkind fate. As the trio sit in a diner afterward, the sickening truth that death has brought them all together is brilliantly unexplained: it’s all over Cruise’s face. [B+]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008)
This fourth entry in the ‘Indiana Jones‘ saga had been in development, at least theoretically, since the early ’90s. Originally the plan was to do an all-out alien invasion movie, along the lines of the ’50s B-movies of the period, but after “Independence Day” opened, Spielberg tried to talk George Lucas out of this line of thinking. All it did though was cause Lucas to modify his original intent, thus an all-out alien invasion was changed to resemble the historical rewriting of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” and the aliens became “inter-dimensional beings” instead of visitors from another world. More damningly was Lucas’ refusal to use an ace version of the script by Frank Darabont, which closely resembled the final product in terms of structure and the fundamentals of the story (Indiana Jones reunites with a young man played by Shia LaBeouf, later revealed to be his son, and they journey to South America in search of a mystic treasure) but had richer characterization (including a heartbreaking scene where Indy has to choose between all the knowledge of the cosmos or the love of Marion), better villains (including a Nazi bad guy who had been hiding out in South America), and more dynamic set pieces, including a harrowing aerial dogfight. The “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that we were left with was leaden, awkward and unfunny, with gaps in logic you could fly a UFO through and a villainess, played by Cate Blanchett, whose psychic abilities do nothing to forward the plot or even help her in her quest. It’s a painful experience both to watch and see it sully the quality films that came before it. Further proof that George Lucas can’t leave well enough alone. [D-]

— Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez William Goss, Oliver Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Erik McClanahan, Christopher Bell

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