[7 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He is one of our greatest filmmakers, and yet he is constantly dismissed for one ever-present and undeniable fact: no one has been more successful as a director than Steven Spielberg. From his career defining work in Jaws to his latter day triumphs of dramatics and depth, he has been unfairly criticized for being more populist than exclusive, working in genres that don’t typically define “art” and avoiding the risk and the experiment to play in more common, commercial territory. He is the very definition of the mainstream, a moviemaker who has understood what the public wants in each of the five decades he has sat behind the lens. Sure, there have been some flops (Always, 1941) and some less than special triumphs (Hook, Catch Me If You Can), but there is one thing that even critics cannot deny—when it comes to the Summer movie season, nobody is a better perennial poster boy.
Looking over his vast catalog, it’s interesting to note how many of this biggest triumphs ended up as part of the May to August rush. A few classics—Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schnidler’s List, Munich—came out during what it usually considered Awards Season, but for the most part, Spielberg is a sunbeam and lemonade film fixture. His muse is specifically set to combine fireworks and emotion into a heady stew of movie magic. It’s with this in mind—and the arrival of the obvious homage Super 8—that we narrow down his oeuvre into the Top 10 Spielberg Summer Blockbusters of all time. Without him, the popcorn season would never have been the same. With him, the entire landscape of the modern movie industry was changed forever. It’s a imprint that continues on to this day (doesn’t it, J.J. Abrams???):
It what was supposed to be the final film in a haphazard trilogy, with everyone’s favorite archeologist given the prologue/epilogue treatment to round out his persona. At the beginning was a flashback featuring a young Indy (the later River Phoenix) just learning the ropes. The ending saw our hero save his aging father (Sean Connery) and ride off into the ultimate quest sunset. As with all good things, it wasn’t meant to last (aliens and their crystal skull saw to that) but Spielberg still delivered the kind of action derring-do which made Indiana Jones a seminal cinematic figure. Blame George Lucas for failing to leave well enough alone.
After the skyrocketing success of Raiders, Spielberg was stuck on where to go next. Audiences demanded more Indiana Jones, and so a script was commissioned and the genre jumping began. This unusual pre-sequel starts out as a musical, works itself back into action, then falls into a slice of surreal Indian folklore involving missing magic rocks, kidnapped kids, and a cult of heart extracting zealots. Oh yeah, and everyone’s favorite hero has a new love and a small Asian kid in his life. Toward the, the spectacle saves the day, including one of the most memorable mining car chases ever. Who cares if it doesn’t always work or make sense? It’s still DOCTOR Jones, doll.
Leave it to the man who made the Holocaust commercial to find a way to infiltrate the popcorn movie season with one of the bloodiest, most realistic war films ever. Audiences just couldn’t get enough of Spielberg’s splatterific opening recreation of D-Day, using it as ballast to break up the rest of the narrative’s necessary non-erotic male bonding. In between, we learn about sacrifice, duty, and above all, honor. One imagines if anyone other than Mr. ET stepped into a studio pitch meeting and said they wanted to make an authentic and brutal WWII war epic for Summer release, they’d be laughed out into the lot. In the case of Spielberg, a new classic was born.
Having already found success working with Tom Cruise in the brilliant high tech future shock thriller Minority Report, Spielberg decides to use the fading superstar for another big picture event. Always looking to expand his repertoire, the famed filmmaker decided to take on HG Wells with one creative caveat. Instead of showing everything with overblown special effects, Spielberg made the movie’s many set-pieces more personal and smaller in perspective. Sure, highways still explode and massive Martian ships still hover over cities, but there are times when what’s just over the top of the hill remains there… secretive… secluded… suggestive… sensational.
More prescient now than it ever was, this cautionary sci-fi masterpiece about technology dictating our existence—even in instances and events that have yet to happen—showed that there was more to Spielberg’s sense of wonder than friendly extraterrestrials and cloned dinosaurs. By melding the substance of science with more magical elements like psychic research and precognition, he managed to fire the kind of necessary warning shot over a populace enamored of the latest privacy robbing convenience. For the sequence of Cruise’s character walking through a bevy of individually designed advertisements responding to his retinal scan alone Spielberg deserves some reality check recognition.
The book was written with him in mind. The movie was only made when strives in digital effects finally caught up with his singular vision. Both came together to create what is probably the ultimate Steven Spielberg experience. This movie has everything—high concept premise, showstopping F/X, benchmark moments of moviemaking, and above all, the director’s love of all things fun and frightening. Sadly, the sequels couldn’t live up to the original’s combination of action and awe. As with most failed franchises, this first foray into the world of reanimated dinosaurs is most indicative of its creator… and the best
Before James Cameron stepped in and swept away the award for most popular movie of all time, this was it. This was the moment when Spielberg went from reliable box office draw to pop culture landmark. This was the movie that begat a working Amblin, that started his stint as a successful producer and provider of outlets for other worthy talents. Sure, the creature work today screams of an era when prosthetics and animatronic figures did all the heavy lifting, but you cannot deny Spielberg’s way with story, actors, or setting. The entire experience is like one big ridiculously sentimental, astounding rollercoaster ride.
Many will complain about the placement of this Stanley Kubrick inspired project. In fact, Spielberg was picked to take on this amazing movie when the late great auteur died suddenly. Argue all you want to about the final act (set several thousand years in the future) but the first two parts are some of the smartest, most assured filmmaking this director has ever done. The message about what makes us human and what it takes to be a parent couldn’t be more profound. Similarly, the introduction of the sex droid Gigolo Joe and the journey to a submerged Manhattan illustrate that, in the realm of technology gone sour, Spielberg is indeed a visionary.
You had to be there. You had to walk into the theater, unprepared, and walk out woozy and drunk on what Spielberg and pal George Lucas had designed. An homage to the serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but with none of those items “same time next week” flab, this muscular, manipulative marvel was like a shot of adrenalin expanded to 120 minutes. From the insane action sequences (which even today continue to set the genre bar) to the novel internal premise (God vs. the Nazis? SOLD!) this was nothing short of a one in a lifetime marvel. Oddly enough, it was business as usual for the outrageously talented filmmaker.
Let’s face it—you can’t discuss the rise of the Summer movie season without it. Similarly, you can’t reference the blockbuster, the successful book to big screen translation, and the rise of commerciality inside the outwardly artistic post-modern movement without mentioning this nature gone wild masterpiece. Faced with a shark that didn’t work and limited budgetary constraints, an untested Spielberg did his best Hitchcock impression, keeping the reveal of his monster secretive and subjective. By the time the main characters had to battle the massive fish, viewers were ready to scream at anything, even a questionable fiberglass beast. No matter—the moviemaking was so skilled and sublime that it turns chum into a championship. Jaws was and is what the popcorn movie season was/is all about. Some 36 years later, it’s still not safe to go back in the water—or question Spielberg’s gifts.