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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 21, 2011 2:00 PM
17 Comments
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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."

"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"

"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]

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17 Comments

  • Matthew Bradley | December 30, 2011 11:16 AMReply

    An excellent summation of DUEL. Matheson has taken issue with many adaptations of his work, even some of those he scripted himself...but this isn't one of them. He has praised Spielberg for both remaining faithful to his teleplay and adding his own unique magic, making this a prime example of the collaborative art. DUEL not only opened the door for Spielberg's feature-film debut but also, in his capacity as a producer, led to such other career intersections as AMAZING STORIES and the recent REAL STEEL. How apt that Koepp's excellent STIR OF ECHOES is based on a Matheson novel. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

  • Nolan | December 23, 2011 2:14 PMReply

    I recently rewatched "Crystal Skull" for the first time since it's initial release. It's not quite as bad I remembered. Full disclosure: I don't like Shia, I don't like the aliens, yet the infamous fridge scene doesn't bother me in the least.

    Surprisingly, I actually found the film to be pretty thematically strong. Jones is presented as a character who has always been willing to, more or less, ransack the sanctity of cultural artifacts in the pursuit of knowledge, and "Crystal Skull" is more or less about him trying to make things right--about coming to grips with the idea that knowledge isn't everything. Indy realizes here that his adventuring ways have caused him to abandon the only woman he ever loved and a child he never knew he had, and in attempting to bring the skull back to where it belongs he aims to make good.

    Granted, this isn't all presented in a neat, cohesive way. I guess that's why it's so frustrating. There really is a dynamite film there, they just didn't execute it.

  • MishuPishu | December 22, 2011 12:54 PMReply

    I agree with the bell curve on most of these, although I would drop each one by at least a half a grade given that Speilberg is one of the most overrated directors. A couple of exceptions -- Jaws was outstanding and easily his best. It's slow burn intensity redefined how to make a thriller in the modern age of film. Too bad he's forgotten that all great filmmaking allows the viewers imagination to blossom, which he completely fails to do with War of the Worlds, one of the worst movies ever made, no imagination whatsoever and every scene feeling more ridiculous than the one before. And last of all, I'm going to go out and say something sacrilege. E.T. is a very mediocre film. It has it's moments and we all remember it fondly but I watched it again this year with my kids for the first time in a long long time and it just feels really dated. But most importantly it's just lousy filmmaking, clunky and manipulative, for all of Spielberg's accomplishments with creating style and wonder in his films of the 80's, it stands out as one that feels like he phoned it in.

  • dariuscmd | December 22, 2011 10:16 AMReply

    it's not that i love robert but when i watched twilight breaking dawn on-line @ twilight-breaking-dawn-streaming.info i understood that he was better in twilight eclipse..

  • James | December 21, 2011 6:52 PMReply

    MINORITY REPORT deals with themes touching on the "war on terror" only by pure coincidence. Although released in 2002, it was shot in the summer of 2001, before the events of 9/11.

  • JD | December 21, 2011 6:38 PMReply

    Hey, a Steven Spielberg article! Great, another opportunity for the Playlist to scream about how much Crystal Skull sucks! Because you gotta hate George Lucas or you're not cool, right? For god's sake, somebody change this broken record.....

    By the way, A). The Darabont script is an in-jokey mess that Lucas must have thrown across the room in frustration. It reads like fanfic, complete with somebody loudly proclaiming at one point "Adventure still has a name, and it's Indiana Jones!" Yes, let's have a character qoute the poster of Temple Of Doom. Brilliant idea. Of course, I'm sure the anti-Crystal Skull-ers probably would have loved it. B). There never was anything resembling a 1973 script by Lucas called "The Adventures of Indiana Smith". Nobody ever wrote a word of any script involving Indiana Jones until Lawrence Kasdan got hired in the late 70s. C). There were never any plans to do a full out alien invasion movie. D). The idea of inter-dimensional aliens and Erik Von Dainaken type chariots of the gods is present in the Raiders story conference transcript. It's always been part of the vision for the character. E). Crystal Skull is VERY far from Spielberg's worst movie. It's a whole lot better then Hook, The Color Purple, and Last Crusade.

    And, last but not least, everybody who wants to complain about Crystal Skull and how terrible it is should take a look at some of those many rejected drafts for a fourth Indiana Jones films. I'm thinking particularly of Chris Columbus' truly awful script, which was called something like "Indiana Jones And The Monkey King". This makes the Darabont script look like Robert Bolt's draft of Lawrence Of Arabia. You don't like what's in Crystal Skull? Be glad you didn't get the Columbus moment where a gorilla drives a tank.

  • Connor | December 22, 2011 8:19 AM

    My respect for you sir has skyrocketed. I don't get why fans complain so much these days about films like Indy 4 & Star Wars Ep 1. Audiences are too demanding for top notch entertainment these days. If you don't like the look of something, Don't see it.

  • rotch | December 21, 2011 6:26 PMReply

    If anything in his filmography deserves a solid F, it's that Twilight Zone segment.

  • James | December 21, 2011 5:49 PMReply

    You might want to make clear that Stoppard didn't receive screen credit on LAST CRUSADE, so people don't get confused. On the other hand, does anybody honestly think one of the credited writers came up with "I WAS the next man!" or "I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne..." :)

  • James | December 21, 2011 5:44 PMReply

    PPOLTERGEIST might make an interesting addendum to this list, since many of those involved (like the late Zelda Rubenstein) have been admitting that he directed a great deal of it, as was always suggested, in addition to writing, producing, and running post-production, as was always acknowledged.

  • James | December 21, 2011 5:45 PM

    Oops, POLTERGEIST, I'm writing with a stutter. Shame we can't edit comments.

  • Mark | December 21, 2011 4:37 PMReply

    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is awesome, particularly the final 30 minutes. Pure cinema.

  • Cde. | December 21, 2011 6:05 PM

    Yep (though it's not actually 'pure cinema, which is way overused these days). I thought more people would be sticking up to it by now.

  • hank | December 21, 2011 3:39 PMReply

    where does "Sugarland Express" fit in? highly underrated film and one of his best, in my opinion.

  • WG | December 21, 2011 6:49 PM

    The feature's next installment.

  • weeee | December 21, 2011 3:08 PMReply

    Peter Jackson looking all kinds of fly and sexy

  • jimmiescoffee | December 21, 2011 2:17 PMReply

    'temple of doom' is awesome. otherwise, agree with everything.

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