In the world of weak analogies, Steven Spielberg is the Beatles of blockbuster movies. He literally invented the genre, reconstructed it when it went wonky, and continues to leave a legacy of legitimate popcorn art with every passing decade. This is the man responsible for some of the greatest cinematic entertainments of all time. The list simply boggles the mind: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park, Minority Report. Even his so-called failures - 1941, Hook, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - contain moments of celluloid splendor.
Yet the Fab meta-phor is appropriate since the 62 year old director went through a similar critical reconsideration in the ‘90s, and the consensus was not pretty. As John, Paul, George, and Ringo were marginalized as nothing more than a “boy band” or “pop phenomenon”, reducing their relevance to a Britney Spears video, Spielberg was called overrated, low brow, and mired in the mainstream. His success was his albatross, his talent his very reason for an over-generalized dismissal. Naturally, all of his serious work was left out of the conversation, substantive masterworks like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, or Schindler’s List limited to the flukes formulated by an Oscar desperate hack.
Of course, just like everything else on the Internet, Spielberg’s reputation has started to rebound, and with good reason. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. As his latest offering, yet another installment in the formerly finished Indiana Jones Trilogy, rakes in another box office bundle, it’s time to look back at what this amazing director does best - creating indelible images that transcend time to celebrate cinema in its purest, most potent form. While these ten examples are just the tip of the iconic iceberg, they prove why Spielberg is the best. Few can match his manipulation of the language of film. Let’s begin with:
Jaws (1975) - The Underwater “Discovery”
So much of this movie is engrained in our entertainment subconscious that almost any scene could be picked for inclusion here. But there is one moment in particular, not part of the original Peter Benchley novel, that marks the moment Spielberg announced his intention of being a serious filmmaker. He wasn’t playing around anymore. The combination of techniques - set-up, shot selection, shock value - brings the total terror of what Chief Brody and Matt Hooper are facing directly to the fore. Learning that it was all created in a crewmember’s swimming pool is the sweetest part of its moviemaking mythology.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - The Home Invasion
Some would point to the arrival of the alien mothership as this film’s iconic moment, a sequence where spectacle merged with significance to etch an indelible image into our collective cultural scrapbook. But the better, more powerful scene comes halfway through, when unknown forces attack the country home of Gillian Guiler. Even more frightening, they appear to be after only one thing - her tiny son Barry. Using inference and suggestion to brilliant effect, we arrive at the moment when watching the sky was not just a suggestion - it was a warning worth taking seriously.
1941 (1979) - The Ferris Wheel Fiasco
It was the movie that argued for Spielberg’s retreat from wunderkind status, a big brawling mess of a comedy that was more unfocused funny business than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World War II. Still, there are a couple of striking sequences, with the last act attack on the tiny California suburb one of the best. Of particular note is a scene in which a seaside Ferris Wheel, perched dangerously close to the pier, is suddenly switched on. Without warning, a mortar shell loosens the attraction from its bearings. In pure blockbuster style, it careens down the dock and into the water. Classic.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - The Bar Fight
In a film made up of amazing sequences, many overlook this opening takedown between Indiana Jones, a recently introduced Marion Ravenwood, and a bunch of Nazi-led nasties. Proving once and for all that Spielberg is the king of carefully choreographed chaos, the pieces of this barroom brawl fall naturally into place, each swing of a fist or plonk with a whisky bottle adding another accent to the action. Toss in the natural chemistry between stars Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, and it’s clear that a legendary bond would be formed, one that would finally be explored three decades later.
ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) - The Suburban Bike Race
The late night arrival. The meeting in the backyard. The agents’ flashlights chasing our title creature through the underbrush. The flight past the moon. “I’ll Be Right Here”. There’s a reason this fragile fairytale remained the number one box office draw for years. Spielberg poured all his imagination and vision into this quiet story of a boy and his visiting alien, successfully marrying emotion with event to craft a timeless wonder. Yet for anyone looking for a how-to on intricate chase dynamics, ET‘s escape to the forest via a band of two wheelers is the pulse pounding primer.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - The Mining Car Chase
In a much maligned movie that many site as the series’ worst, Spielberg steps up and does what he does best - combine amazing F/X with brilliant mise-en-scene to forge a heartstopping, breathtaking literal rollercoaster ride. There are so many jawdropping gags here, references to everything from modern amusement parks to the films of Buster Keaton (and his Civil War classic The General, in particular), that it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. By the time Spielberg introduces the stunt work element, a whole new realm of action is achieved…and this is coming from the man who redefined it just three years before.
Hook (1991) - The Pan Discovers How to Fly…Again
In what many think is the director’s weakest film (it gets more vitriol than 1941, but then again, it does star Robin Williams), the story of the little boy who supposedly never grew up gets a surreal, slightly Yuppified sheen. From a fantasyland that looks like a skate park gone gruff to a lead who appears 40 pounds to heavy to play an impish sprite, Hook has its problems…many, many problems. But it also contains one classic moment where Pan, attempting to recapture his happy thought, remembers being a Dad for the first time. Suddenly, he takes flight, and for one magical moment, the movie works effortlessly.
Jurassic Park (1993) - The T-Rex Attack
Anyone who questions the overreliance on CGI needs look no further than this remarkable sequence from the director’s return to blockbuster glory. Thanks to Stan Winston’s miraculous practical creatures, and the seamless integration of the computer generated material, we totally believe in the primitive smackdown occurring before our eyes. Of course, Spielberg’s creative craftsmanship and shot selection add to the scene’s overall power. While the raptor attack would end the film on a suspense-filled high note, the first time we see this massive prehistoric beast lumbering across the landscape still sends the gooseflesh across your arms and the shivers up your spine.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) - The Robots Discover A Submerged New York
Near the end of the Spielberg interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s last project, a pair of humanoid automatons travel to the mythical island of Manhattan to seek out the Blue Fairy. Upon arriving, however, they come across a metropolis semi-submerged in water. As skyscrapers spew overflow and other buildings decay and collapse, the duo tries to locate the last important clue in their quest. Where the movie goes from here has caused lots of online debate, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing the Big Apple literally drowning from nature’s wrath. It’s a stellar moment in a criminally underrated film.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - The Nuclear Age is Born
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Spielberg and crew when asked to revisit this franchise some 16 years after it officially ended was to bring the character and his age-based situation up to date. Sure, Harrison Ford looks and acts older, and he’s surrounded by characters who constantly remind him of his senior citizen status. But leave it to a genius filmmaker to find a single image that instantly captures the essence of this dynamic. Having survived the initial blast, Indy lands outside Ground Zero, and as he climbs a nearby hill, a massive mushroom cloud provides a perfect backdrop. Welcome to the ‘50s, ‘30s serial hero!