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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 21, 2011 at 2:00PM

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 eighteen months, more or less), all without mentioning his early TV credits, his countless producing credits and even helping to run an entire studio.
17


Lost World

"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"

"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

"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+]

Crystal Skulls

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

This article is related to: Features, Steven Spielberg, The Adventures Of Tintin


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