The trouble with encapsulating a director’s career in a boxed set, usually, is the litany of rights issues that arise when a director doesn’t station him or herself at a single studio. Steven Spielberg, being the most commercially successful filmmaker of the past half-century and probably of all time, is a particularly strong example, having worked with all of the current Big Six studios since his feature career began in the mid ’70s. Any of them could put together their own Steven Spielberg Collection; although, granted, the Sony set would look a little slim with just Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, presumably as a bonus feature, Hook.
But Universal Pictures, distributors of the eight-film Steven Spielberg Collection on Blu-ray, is uniquely positioned to offer a long view of Spielberg’s career, as they own the rights to every feature Spielberg directed in the ’70s except Close Encounters, plus other selections from the ’80s and ’90s. All told, the set includes four films that have never been released on Blu-ray: Spielberg’s unofficial debut Duel, an American TV movie that was released theatrically in Europe; The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical film in the U.S.; and two reputed flops of varying notoriety, 1941 and Always. On the more blockbusting side, there’s Jaws, E.T., and the two Jurassic Park movies he directed himself.
Duel, presented in its 90-minute theatrical cut, is one of the most exciting of the Blu-ray debuts. The film provides an early glimpse of Spielberg’s innate technical talents, as well as an extremely effective thriller in its own right. The version here is the expanded cut that played theatrically in Europe, and only occasionally feels padded, in large part because Spielberg shows such skill in withholding. The film opens with a lengthy car POV shot and the movie runs for almost five minutes before fixing on a human face.
The face belongs to David (Dennis Weaver), a beleaguered business man on a drive to an important meeting. He comes across a menacing-looking truck with an unseen driver, and after what seems like a mild traffic-related annoyance, the truck fixes on him, and chases him, relentlessly, across miles of highway. It’s a fiendishly simple set-up, and its few weaknesses coming when Spielberg reaches outside of his established narrative man-versus-truck frame. At a few points, the movie plays David’s thoughts on the soundtrack, a logical way to make a movie with relatively little dialogue more accessible, but these are less interesting than the scenes that make do without the effort.
The movie makes better use of sound elsewhere. For example, the truck — the driver only appears in bits, mostly as an arm waving with unsettling serenity — is always honking, preserving the façade of normal behavior. The incessant bellows of the truck’s horn imply, falsely, that something in this situation can be communicated to David. But the driver remains unknown and unknowable.
The Duel disc includes a brief feature, “Steven Spielberg on the Small Screen”, which covers Spielberg’s early work on television, directing episodes of Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, and, most successfully, Columbo, including an interview with Spielberg and brief clips from the episodes. It’s a fascinating bit of prehistory, but could have used more details, connecting his work on these shows to the Duel TV-movie hybrid (which goes unmentioned in the piece, though it’s briefly visible through clips).
The Sugarland Express is another road movie, and Jaws, still a vital piece of filmmaking after all these years, covers the sea. The relative conceptual simplicity of these early films makes 1941 seem like even more of a drastic overreach: it moves by land, by sea, and by air around Los Angeles following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It could also be called an overreach in genre, as it finds Spielberg making his first — and, depending on how you count Catch Me If You Can or The Terminal, possibly only — broad comedy.
It establishes a silly mood by opening with a spoof of the famous first scene from Jaws, but apart from a few moments, Spielberg isn’t mounting a parody of his own work so far. Though it features then-fresh comedy stars like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd (they share no scenes together, just a single glance) and was written by then-young Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, soon to collaborate on Used Cars and Back to the Future. 1941 most closely resembles outmoded mega-comedies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: overstuffed, overlong, and occasionally inspired. Fans of the film will want the Blu-ray’s dual cuts, the theatrical version and Spielberg’s longer director’s cut, to decide whether it was a better idea to modulate the chaos or just let it ramble on.
Just as Mad World has a showstopper of a sequence where Jonathan Winters lays waste to a gas station, 1941 has at least one terrific sequence: a brawl that breaks out in a dance club where the slapstick choreography is as graceful as any top-tier musical (1941 is the first of several Spielberg movies that flirt with the genre before backing away; The Color Purple is another). Of course, 1941 also has a climactic scene where the big punchline is an impressive, convincing, but not especially funny shot of a house falling off a cliff into the ocean. Comedy depends at least in part on a sense of surprise, and while much of 1941 is a lot of fun, it’s hard for it to score big laughs when taking the time for so many of its elaborate set-ups to lumber into place.
Spielberg followed 1941 with two of his most iconic movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark (not included here, as it’s a Paramount title) and E.T., the only one of Spielberg’s softer fantasies included in the set. (Jaws and Jurassic Park better qualify as thrillers.) E.T. is shamelessly heart-tugging and sentimental, but what comes through on repeated viewings is how idiosyncratic, personal, and just plain weird the movie can be. Spielberg and John Hughes both got a lot of mileage out of semi-mythical every-suburbs settings, but there’s something a little eerier and rougher-hewn about the suburbs of E.T. that pairs well with the movie’s warmth. Despite its fantastical elements, it’s hard to find a smaller movie on a list of the 100 highest-grossing movies of all time, let alone the top ten.
Spielberg spent much of the ’80s making Indiana Jones movies for Paramount and more serious movies for Warner Brothers; he didn’t have another Universal picture until 1989, when he released Always the same year as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The booklet accompanying this Blu-ray set, gathering quotes and factoids about the films, makes the claim that Always represents Spielberg’s “most mature work” up to that point in his career, a ridiculous notion from any angle. Even allowing for the snobbery that considers Jaws or E.T. “immature” for their genre roots, the idea that Always is a more mature film than The Color Purple or, worse, Empire of the Sun is at best baffling and at worst willfully stupid. Of course, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun are those Warner Brothers films, but it’s disappointing that the set’s book can’t see beyond company boundaries.
There’s a sense of continuity to including Always in this set alongside several of his classics, because it reunites Spielberg with his ’70s alter ego Richard Dreyfuss. They got back together to remake A Guy Named Joe, a 1943 picture about a pilot who dies in the line of duty, then returns as a sort of angel to guide a younger man who winds up falling in love with the pilot’s girlfriend. Dreyfuss plays Pete, the pilot, and Holly Hunter plays Dorinda, the girl. However ideally cast as Dreyfuss is in Jaws, he feels equally out of place in Always. He’s 11 years older than Hunter, and with his mustache and gray hair he reads even older, like a colorful supporting character out of the era of the original film.
Dreyfuss and Hunter seem more like bickering relatives than lovers, with Dreyfuss in the role of the rascally uncle. Even in his scenes without Hunter fall flat as he calls out dopey wisecracks to characters who unconsciously sense him but can’t directly hear him. Mystery Science Theater 3000 nonwithstanding, cracking wise to characters who can’t hear you is a terrible gig, especially if the lines are this wan. Spielberg has often proven himself better at choreography than telling jokes, which, as 1941 illustrates, can leave a comedy veering from the delights of intricate slapstick to spectacle that’s supposed to be funny, without much connective tissue in between. Always doesn’t have much slapstick (though it does dabble in it); it’s less bombastic than 1941 but also a lot less fun.
When Dreyfuss keeps more of a lid on it, though, Always manages some affecting moments, such as a lovely sustained shot of Pete as a ghost connecting with the still-human Dorinda. Moments like this, the expertly staged fire-fighting scenes, and all of the movie’s rich colors look great in high-definition. Always may eventually see a slight uptick in its reputation just by virtue of being available in such a handsome-looking package, but it probably won’t ever be rediscovered as an underappreciated Spielberg film like Empire of the Sun. Among other problems, it’s narratively lopsided, spending a lot of time setting up the central relationship, then even more time on Pete fooling around with his newfound powers, then rushing through what should be the heart of the film: Pete’s acceptance of Dorinda’s new life with Ted. Dreyfuss and Spielberg never connect the movie emotionally, so it just looks great and sounds dumb while going through its motions – Spielberg’s worst movie in a walk.
Always began a Spielberg slump that, while brief, nonetheless probably counts as the most substantial of his career: its late 1989 release was followed two years later by Hook, a costly retelling of Peter Pan that did reasonably well financially but has been widely derided, then and now, as the director’s nadir. He mounted a comeback of sorts with Jurassic Park, an adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel that became one of his biggest-ever successes. The movie has more or less been canonized (particularly now that, 20 years later, its many young fans have turned into adults), and it’s terrific entertainment, though it must be said that it’s not as idiosyncratic or elemental as Jaws.
Conversely, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is undervalued for its craft — in its grander, sillier way, it hearkens back to the young Spielberg of Duel, showing off his set pieces without the emotional punch of his best movies. But really, who needs emotional punch when you have such well-timed dinosaur attacks? Story-wise, Spielberg can’t really up the ante on the majestic wonder of introducing a new generation of dinosaurs (and amazing special effects), so he turns his attention to individual scenes, like the one where two T. rexes terrorize Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldbum) and company, trapped inside a trailer.
Simply doubling up a T. rex attack could have been a cheap sequel move, but the logistics of the sequence are fiendishly clever. Spielberg uses cracking glass as a visual motif throughout the film: first for slow-building suspense in a literal cliffhanger, as Malcolm and company dangle over the edge of cliff in the upended trailer and later for an antic playground of a sequence that sees Goldblum rushing in and out of buildings and cars while pursued by raptors that simply crash through glass whenever possible. Spielberg finds smaller visual gags, too, nudging at the movie’s sequel status, like the sly cut from a woman’s horrified scream to Goldblum yawning in a screeching subway car. By 1997, Spielberg had won a bunch of Oscars, entertained millions of people, and earned the right to screw around with his second, sillier dinosaur movie.
The Lost World is underrated as entertainment, but still represents a bizarre stopping place for this set, which mysteriously leaves out just two of Spielberg’s Universal productions, both dramas: the widely acclaimed and award-winning Schindler’s List, and the underappreciated Munich, considered something of an Oscar also-ran in 2005 but nonetheless among his toughest, smartest work. Both of these films showcase a less sentimental and crowd-pleasing side of Spielberg, as well as some of his strongest filmmaking chops, a substantial achievement given the technical prowess of even a movie as erratic and unsatisfying as Always.
If there’s a consolation to this incompleteness even within the Universal sector, it’s the near inevitability that Spielberg will make more movies for this studio and others, and there will be more boxed sets to come. This collection should keep fans busy for a while.