Wishing on a Star: Steven Spielberg, Director
Here are a few words for you: Hitchcockian, Tarantinoesque, Lynchian.
Some directors are so influential that they even get their own adjective. Steven Spielberg is another, but what comes to mind when we use the word Spielbergian? The films of Hitchcock, Tarantino and Lynch sit mostly within a specific milieu, but Spielberg has cast his net wide: in the past half-century he has directed over 30 films in many different genres, veering in tone from rollicking escapist adventure to deadly serious historical drama.
If you’re like me and grew up on his string of hits from Jaws through to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the term Spielbergian evokes a certain feeling rather than any signature style he employs. It was a period of shooting stars and lens flares, kids on bikes, rousing theme tunes, big broad stories with humanistic themes and everyman heroes. Of course, some of his best commercial and critical successes came later in his career, but this stretch from 1975 to 1974 crystalised what we think of when we think of a Spielbergian film. During that time, the Spielberg vibe even extended to movies he was involved in but didn’t direct, like Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies.
Let’s take a look back at the four distinct periods of Spielberg’s career so far…
1970s: Shooting Star
In his biography by Joseph McBride, Spielberg recounted a tale from his childhood about his father taking him out one night to watch a meteor shower. The incident clearly inspired the young filmmaker; at 17, he made an amateur film called Firelight, about an alien encounter heralded by mysterious lights in the night sky. The film would provide the basis for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the early part of his career was marked by a profound sense of exhilaration and wonder.
Spielberg started out working in television, most famously directing the first full season episode of Columbo, before graduating to TV movies. Duel was in many ways a dry run for Jaws, a suspenseful thriller about a hapless motorist menaced by a rusty tanker truck. By keeping the driver largely unseen, the truck because a mechanical monster preying on its victims.
On this significant promise, Spielberg was given the chance to make his theatrical directorial debut with The Sugarland Express, a crime drama starring Goldie Hawn that was also Spielberg’s first collaboration with John Williams. The composer started writing for film and TV in the late ‘50s, with notable works including Valley of the Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and The Poseidon Adventure. He would become a household name for his work with Spielberg and George Lucas, where he created some of the most memorable film scores of all time.
Speaking of which, the Jaws shark theme starts out with perhaps the two most instantly recognizable notes in film history. For much of the film, the music is the shark, along with Spielberg’s subjective POV shots which puts us right in the man-eater’s… fins? Jaws, beset by technical problems and running well over schedule and budget, revealed the young director at his most tenacious and inventive. The pressure might have gotten to lesser heads, but Spielberg turned adversity into advantage, particularly in the case of his malfunctioning rubber shark. Nicknamed “Bruce,” the unconvincing creature would have appeared in the film more if it had worked properly. Thankfully, it didn’t, forcing Spielberg to keep the shark offscreen for much of the movie, ultimately creating far more suspense.
Jaws is my favourite Spielberg film. It’s the perfect combination of technique, story and character work. It’s hard to pick a single wasted shot, with legendary moments like the oft-imitated dolly zoom on the beach, and wonderful performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw as the prickly trio on a shark hunt. It’s a brilliant example of a filmmaker flying by the seat of his pants, struck through with a pure spirit of adventure. For better or worse, Jaws invented the summer blockbuster.
John Williams went from two unforgettable notes to five in Spielberg’s next movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the second $100 million-plus blockbuster in a row for the rapidly rising director. Yet it could have been so much different in tone and delivery. Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, was originally onboard to write the screenplay, while Spielberg originally wanted Steve McQueen for the lead role.
It became clear that Schrader wasn’t right for the material and McQueen turned down the part because he couldn’t cry on cue. The role of Roy Neary eventually went to Richard Dreyfuss (Al Pacino, James Caan, and Jack Nicholson were all considered) and writing duties fell to Spielberg, using the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” as inspiration. You can hear a snippet of the tune woven into Williams’ score during the final encounter with the mother ship. Close Encounters isn’t one of Spielberg’s tightest films narratively, but few match it for sheer wonderment.
1980s: The King of Hollywood
Spielberg followed up his back-to-back box office smashes with a woeful act of hubris, the painfully unfunny war comedy 1941. It wasn’t a flop but the general reaction to it was chastening to say the least. His next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was a course correction, a welcome return to the adventure and magic of his first two major hits.
George Lucas first had the idea of a hero in the James Bond mould as early as 1973 and wanted Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) to direct. The project ended up with Spielberg, who helped streamline Lucas’s concept. Indiana Smith, as the character was first named, was originally a globetrotting alcoholic playboy archaeologist who used the spoils of his adventures to fund his exciting lifestyle. Spielberg reasoned that just an archaeologist and adventurer would be enough, changing the name to Indiana Jones and tapping into a mutual love for old cliff-hanger serials.
Tom Selleck was offered the part but he turned it down. Harrison Ford was cast, tweaking the swashbuckling persona of Han Solo to great effect, making Jones a punchbag hero with a fallibility that made it very easy to root for him in his hair-raising adventures. Raiders of the Lost Ark was an instant classic, winning five Oscars and nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Score. The opening scene alone, where Jones penetrates a booby trapped Amazonian temple in search of a gold godhead, is one of the purest examples of action cinema.
Spielberg revisited the themes of Close Encounters from a child’s perspective for his next film, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Initially intended as a far darker movie about a family terrorised by a malevolent alien, the story was worked into something far more heart-warming by Melissa Mathison. The screenwriter took elements of the idea and merged it with semi-autobiographical details from Spielberg’s childhood, inspired by the imaginary friend he had as a kid while his parents went through a divorce.
E.T. was an enormous box office hit and another Best Picture nominee, featuring a star-making turn from a very young Drew Barrymore. It’s a film I wish I loved more, but it’s a bit too schmaltzy for my taste. I guess it must run in the family, because my six-year-old daughter also turned her nose up at it, after loving Close Encounters.
Harrison Ford swung back into action for a more sinister adventure in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas attributed the dark tone of the story to his relationship problems at the time and Spielberg hated the film, claiming that the only good thing about it was meeting Kate Capshaw, who he later married.
Taking on a subterranean Indian cult was a more horror-inflected quest for the intrepid adventurer, and Temple of Doom is often regarded as the worst of the original trilogy. It certainly goes into weird and nightmarish territory with cultists ripping people’s hearts out, a banquet of chundersome delicacies, and Indy slapping a kid around after drinking cursed blood… great family entertainment, right?? No wonder the film was partially responsible for the MPAA creating a new certificate, PG-13.
That signalled the end of the shooting star phase of Spielberg’s career as moved into more serious territory, tackling two prize-winning historical novels. The Color Purple, a compassionate look at the plight of African-American women in early 20th century Georgia, was largely well-received, although some critics felt it was overly sentimental and lacked the necessary insight. Similar criticisms also haunted Empire of the Sun, his earnest but unengaging tale of a young boy interred in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. The film is most notable these days for giving Christian Bale his breakthrough role.
Spielberg rounded out the ‘80s by dropping out of directing Big and Rain Man to complete his Indiana Jones trilogy. As the funniest and most frivolous of the three movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade returned to the nostalgic, rambunctious tone of Raiders, restoring the reliably hissable Nazis as the bad guys, and pulled off the excellent casting coup of Sean Connery as Indy’s gruff dad. The chemistry between Ford and Connery was superb; the laughs and the stunts just kept on coming in an adventure that capped off the trilogy to enjoyably crowd-pleasing effect.
1990s: Popcorn and Oscars
The ‘90s was an interesting period for Spielberg. Entering the decade in his forties, it was a time when the commercial clout of the blockbuster he helped define went hand-in-hand with his ambitions as a serious storyteller. This was summed up by the year 1993, which saw the release of both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.
Before that dual success was Hook, a bloated update of Peter Pan which squandered a cast including Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, and Bob Hoskins. It was still a hit, but the messy movie full of chaotic set pieces in an over-designed set ranks as one of Spielberg’s worst films. [AotM - but the movie poster is a beauty!]
Then came that big year of 1993. Jurassic Park was up first, a spectacular summer blockbuster that rivalled Jaws for sheer creature feature thrills. It was also key to getting Schindler’s List off the ground; Sid Sheinberg, the Universal head, only greenlit the holocaust drama if Spielberg made the dinosaur movie first. The film was one of the defining movies of the ‘90s, and the T-Rex attack remains one of the highlights of Spielberg’s career. Much like his shark movie, he kept the ferocious beast off camera until that stunning set piece, and the CG holds up remarkably well today.
Unlike Jaws, the characters in Jurassic Park aren’t anywhere near as well developed as their Amity Island counterparts, and the film feels a little like a theme park ride, trundling around on a rail and stopping just long enough at each attraction to deliver the thrills.
December 1993 saw the release of Schindler’s List. The project was a decade in the making after Universal bought the rights to Thomas Keneally’s acclaimed novel in the early ‘80s. Spielberg originally felt that he wasn’t mature enough to direct it, offering it to several directors including Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, and Martin Scorsese. He eventually chose to do it himself, spurred into action by the rise in Neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Spielberg shot on location in Poland, working in black and white with handheld cameras to create a documentary feel. He didn’t film inside the death camps themselves, building replicas nearby instead. It was a harrowing experience for the director, suddenly confronted by his Jewishness and this unspeakable horror within living memory of the survivors.
It’s easy to see why the story of Oskar Schindler appealed to Spielberg, giving him the opportunity to explore the holocaust through a somewhat hopeful story. It was a good choice, raising awareness of the atrocities to probably the widest possible audience for a holocaust drama. While some scenes are a necessarily gruelling and upsetting experience, it is one of the most watchable films about the subject, aided by dignified performances from Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, plus a magnetic Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth, the concentration camp commandant.
Spielberg’s magnificent achievement was widely honoured during Awards season, culminating in 11 Oscar nominations and seven wins, including Best Picture and Best Director.
It would be a few years until the next Spielberg picture, as he was busy setting up his Dreamworks studio with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. He then signed up to direct The Lost World, the disappointing Jurassic Park sequel that ramped up the dino attacks and kills but lacked the original’s sense of wonder.
After that, he took on another historical atrocity with Amistad, the story of a group of slaves who manage to overthrow their captors and take control of the titular ship, and the legal battle that followed. Although it was generally well-received and had a heavyweight cast including Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, and rising star Matthew McConaughey, it didn’t quite match the impact of Schindler’s List.
Spielberg concluded a mostly strong period with another WWII drama, Saving Private Ryan, his D-Day epic that traumatised audiences with its visceral opening battle scene on Omaha beach. No film previously had put the viewer in the thick of the action to such harrowing effect, and I remember sitting in the cinema reminding myself to breathe, shocked almost to tears through the whole scene. The scene has a lot to answer for, inspiring countless inferior shaky cam, mud-on-the-lens battle scenes over the past 20 years. After that sequence, the rest of Saving Private Ryan is merely very good, but a solid way to wrap up the decade.
21st Century: Star Fall
The past two decades have seen a noticeable dip in quality from Spielberg. Prior to West Side Story, he has made 14 films since the turn of the century, and surely only the most blinkered fan would argue that any of them are top tier Spielberg. Sure, there have been plenty of solid movies, but there is always the nagging sensation that they are a step down from his best work.
Spielberg started the early 2000s in sombre fashion. First was AI: Artificial Intelligence, a bitter disappointment for many on first release, but a film that looks a lot stronger in retrospect. It was a long-gestating project for Stanley Kubrick, before Spielberg picked up the reins after the master director’s death. The end result was a flawed, ambitious, thought-provoking sci-fi that begins in Kubrick’s chilly register before dissolving into the worst kind of Spielbergian sentimentality towards the end.
Another syrupy ending also marred the otherwise taut and steely Minority Report, featuring Tom Cruise at the top of his game in a running-and-jumping sci-fi thriller packed with ideas. Once again Spielberg showed his mastery of cutting-edge effects in service of story, rather than just spectacle.
Spielberg lightened up a bit for his next two pictures. First there was the breezy crime caper Catch Me if You Can, one of the most purely enjoyable films of his latter day filmography, with the double whammy of Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most likeable. Hanks starred again in The Terminal, doing a questionable “foreign” accent in a feelgood comedy inspired by Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who got stranded for many years in Charles De Gaulle airport.
The director then went dark again with War of the Worlds, a spectacular yet morose modern update of H.G. Wells’ famous tale. This version made it starkly clear that an attack from a malign alien species would basically be genocide. The point was not lost on the audience when I saw the film on opening night in Sarajevo, the battle-scarred capital of a country still coming to terms with the psychic fallout from the Srebrenica massacre ten years earlier. 2005 also saw the release of Munich, Spielberg’s sober account of the aftermath of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, starring Eric Bana as an Israeli intelligence agent on the trail of the Palestinians involved in the killings.
More than at any point is his career, this period saw Spielberg toggling quickly between serious themes and pure entertainment. He flipped to popcorn mode again for his next two films. First came his long-awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull, with 64-year-old Harrison Ford taking up the famous hat and bullwhip again after a hiatus of almost 20 years.
The film started out well, despite silly moments like escaping a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge, introducing Shia LeBoeuf as Indy’s long-lost son and bringing back Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. It suffered badly from a silly plot involving aliens, Cate Blanchett’s generic villain, and a CG-stuffed third act that made the action set pieces look like lost levels from a Donkey Kong Country video game.
Spielberg went all-in on the CGI for his family adventure, the nostalgic but ultimately rather sterile The Adventures of Tintin, which marked the start of the director’s most mediocre series of films to date. There followed the mawkish War Horse; talky history lesson Lincoln; cosy espionage thriller Bridge of Spies; serviceable Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG; routine Streep-and-Hanks fest The Post; and the fun but completely throwaway Ready Player One. Most of these films had notable features and flashes of Spielberg magic, but they were largely a far cry from the director at his best.
Spielberg isn’t the only high profile Hollywood director whose later career has paled in comparison to his glory years; just take a look at Oliver Stone, Robert Zemeckis, or Ridley Scott. The early buzz surrounding West Side Story suggests that it might be his best film for quite some time. Could this be the point where the evergreen 74 year old recaptures some of that old shooting star magic?
West Side Story is on general release in cinemas now. What are your favourite Steven Spielberg movies, and why? Please let us know!
Thanks Lee! Spielberg's films have been responsible for some of the most iconic movie posters of the last 50 years. You can find all of the movie posters we have for Steven Spielberg's films here.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.