Spielberg 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]