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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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Temple Of Doom

"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+]

Last Crusade
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

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

"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-]

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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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