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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

by The Playlist Staff
December 21, 2011 2:00 PM
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"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]

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  • 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 (

  • 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 @ 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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