The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part One: The Spectacle

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by The Playlist Staff
December 21, 2011 2:00 PM
17 Comments
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"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" (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+]

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

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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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