The Films of Steven Spielberg
The Sugarland Express
Jaws (August 12/12)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws details the chaos that ensues within a small island community after an enormous great white shark begins attacking its various inhabitants - with the film, for the most part, subsequently following Roy Scheider's police chief Martin Brody as he teams up with a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss' Hooper) and a grizzled fisherman (Robert Shaw's Quint) to kill the beast. There's ultimately little doubt that Jaws fares best in its opening half hour, as Spielberg, working from a script by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, does a superb job of establishing (and sustaining) an atmosphere of incredible tension - with the movie's justifiably legendary opening paving the way for an engrossing first act that's heightened by both Scheider's magnetic performance and the inclusion of several unbearably tense interludes. (In terms of the latter, it is, in the final analysis, difficult to do much better than the sequence wherein Scheider's Brody anxiously keeps an eye on a beach full of potential victims.) It's only as the movie progresses into its increasingly uneven midsection that one's interest begins to flag, as the narrative, which boasts more than a few lulls (eg Brody and Hooper drunkenly attempt to locate the shark themselves), suffers from a distressingly padded-out feel that's exacerbated by an ongoing emphasis on the three protagonists' uneventful (and distinctly repetitive) exploits at sea. (Quint's justifiably legendary story about his time on the USS Indianapolis is a rare highlight within this stretch.) And although the less-than-threatening nature of the title creature is, admittedly, not as problematic as one might've feared, Jaws is, when everything's said and done, unable to wholeheartedly live up to its place as a classic man-vs-beast thriller.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Raiders of the Lost Ark (May 14/08)
Justifiably one of the most indelible adventure films in cinematic history, Raiders of the Lost Ark boasts a myriad of positive attributes that effectively compensate for the relatively uneventful and overly talky opening hour. While one would have to be flat-out insane to refer to any aspect of the movie as dull, it's ultimately impossible to deny that the pacing within the first half just seems off somehow - as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan initially places a far more prominent emphasis on expository conversations and sequences than entirely necessary. Still, the storyline - which follows archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he attempts to track down the fabled Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis - has been peppered with a number of appreciatively engaging elements that ensure there's more going on here than just a series of brilliantly conceived and executed action set-pieces (with the undercurrent of humor nicely breaking up the tension at certain intervals). At the film's heart, however, lies Ford's virtually flawless turn as the central character; outfitted with Jones' iconic whip and fedora, Ford effortlessly transforms Indy into a figure that's often as cool as he is relatable - a vibe that's undoubtedly heightened by the actor's palpable chemistry with costar and love interest Karen Allen (as Jones' former flame Marion Ravenwood). It's also worth noting that the aforementioned pacing issues inevitably become irrelevant, as there reaches a point at which the increasingly propulsive narrative essentially carries the movie through to its appropriately memorable conclusion. Steven Spielberg's refreshingly (and expectedly) old-school visual sensibilities cement Raiders of the Lost Ark's place as a modern classic, and it does go without saying that none of the sequels have quite managed to successfully duplicate the film's seamless blend of action and comedy (ie the second possesses too much of the former, while the third is almost overflowing with the latter).
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (May 17/08)
While Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an obvious step down from its stellar predecessor, the film generally remains a tolerable endeavor that's elevated by Harrison Ford's engaging performance and the inclusion of several genuinely thrilling action sequences. This time around, Ford's Indiana Jones must battle a sinister cult leader (Amrish Puri's Mola Ram) bent on world domination - with his efforts consistently hampered by his two unlikely sidekicks (Jonathan Ke Quan's sassy Short Round and Kate Capshaw's whiny Willie). Director Steven Spielberg - working from Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's screenplay - kicks things off with a frenetic first reel that's nothing short of exhausting, as the filmmaker bombards the viewer with a barrage of action that just feels needlessly noisy and almost entirely free of context. And while Spielberg slowly-but-surely does manage to draw one into the admittedly thin storyline, there's never a point at which Quan's Short Round and (especially) Capshaw's Willie are successfully able to ingratiate themselves to the audience - with both characters coming off as wholly inferior successors to Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood. Ford's expectedly solid turn as the title figure proves instrumental in allaying their ineffectiveness, however, and there inevitably reaches a point at which the frequent lulls in the narrative are rendered moot by the proliferation of high-octane set-pieces (ie the third act's famed mine chase). Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is undoubtedly heads and shoulders above the majority of its adventure-movie brethren, yet it's ultimately impossible to view the film as anything but a drastic step down from its superior forebear.
The Color Purple
Empire of the Sun
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (May 19/08)
Perhaps in an effort to compensate for the second installment's pervadingly dark vibe, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade has been infused with a breezy sensibility that's often just a little too light-hearted for its own good. And while it's impossible to deny the film's status as the very best of the series' sequels, there does reach a point at which one can't help but long for the relative grittiness of the first installment. Opening with a fantastic prologue revolving around one of Indy's early escapades - in which the character, played by River Phoenix, first dons his iconic fedora and whip, receives that infamous scar across his chin, and discovers his fear of snakes (all in the same afternoon!) - Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade follows Harrison Ford's legendary archeologist as he teams up with his curmudgeonly father (Sean Connery's Henry Jones) in an effort to track down the mythical Holy Grail before the Nazis. It's clear almost immediately that Jeffrey Boam's fast-paced and sporadically irreverent screenplay plays a significant role in the film's drastic improvement over its immediate predecessor, with the inclusion of several thoroughly thrilling action set-pieces - as well as the palpable chemistry between Ford and Connery - ultimately elevating the proceedings to a level of quality that's as close to the original as this series is likely going to get.
Jurassic Park (February 8/12)
A strong candidate for Steven Spielberg's best film, Jurassic Park follows several figures as they're invited to a sneak preview of an island theme park that features living, breathing dinosaurs - with problems ensuing as the deadly creatures, including a Tyrannosaurus rex and a pair of cunning Velociraptors, manage to break free from their confines. Director Steven Spielberg, working from David Koepp and Michael Crichton's screenplay, does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as the filmmaker kicks the proceedings off with a fantastic (and thoroughly engrossing) sequence revolving around the disastrous efforts at moving the Raptors. From there, Jurassic Park just grows more and more involving as it progresses - with the irresistible storyline heightened by the efforts of a seriously impressive cast of characters. In addition to solid supporting turns from folks like Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, and Martin Ferrero, the movie benefits substantially from the nigh iconic work of stars Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, and Sam Neill - with the latter's consistently electrifying performance standing as an obvious highlight within the proceedings. There is, of course, little doubt that Jurassic Park is at its best during its now-legendary action sequences, as such moments have been infused with a tense, palpably hypnotic feel that proves impossible to resist - with the film's high point undoubtedly the engrossing T-Rex attack that comes fairly early on. And although it admittedly does feel a little long here and there, Jurassic Park is, ultimately, as close to a perfect big-budget popcorn movie as Spielberg has ever gotten - with the impressively timeless special effects cementing the film's place as a justifiably unforgettable piece of work.
The Lost World
Saving Private Ryan
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Minority Report (June 24/02)
With Minority Report, Steven Spielberg returns to the futuristic terrain he explored in last year's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. But in attempting to craft a film meant to appeal to a wider audience, Spielberg has emerged with one of his most uneven movies to date. Unlike the majority of futuristic flicks, Minority Report, which follows Tom Cruise's John Anderton and his Pre Crime team as they stop perpetrators before they do anything, presents a future that's not only completely original, but seems plausible. Aside from the whole notion of Pre Crime, aspects of this society seem like the natural evolution of where we are now (example: cereal boxes come alive with cartoons once you handle them) and Spielberg treats this world as though it's the present. We're never treated to loving slow-motion shots of the vast futuristic horizon; rather, the movie plays out as though it could be occuring in any time period. When you get right down to it, Minority Report is a film noir - complete with shadowy cinematography. Shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kiminski, the movie has that same hazy and dark look that made the film noir genre famous. The technology in Minority Report is just as fascinating as you'd expect from those ever-present commercials and trailers. Those bizarre robotic spiders that featured heavily in the marketing of the film are obviously really cool to look at, but they also serve a purpose in the film that doesn't feel forced. Likewise, the various other facets that make up this futuristic society are integrated into the film pretty seamlessly (eg the commercials that address individuals directly). The Pre Crime facility itself looks like a contemporary police station, except it's adorned with expectedly wild-looking advancements. The method by which the precogs present their findings is decidedly low-tech, but still, the whole look of the flick is easily the best thing about it. The movie can easily be broken down into three separate but distinctive parts: the introduction of this world and the whole notion of Pre Crime, Anderton's realization that he's going to be arrested for murder and the investigation/getaway that ensues, and a third act that goes on far longer than it should and throws in a whole conspiracy angle that's not really necessary. The first two-thirds of the flick are astounding - Spielberg's certainly at the top of his game and Cruise has never been more compelling - but that last half hour or so is completely and utterly superfluous. There comes a point in the film where it could logically conclude (with a five minute epilogue, of course), but the film just keeps chugging along for another 30 minutes - throwing in an epic conspiracy and an obligatory happy ending for Cruise's character. It was a struggle to pay close enough attention to follow the myriad of revelations that came fast and furious during this stretch, and truth be told, it was even harder to care. Having said that, there is a lot worth recommending about Minority Report, most notably the fantastic futuristic environment created by Spielberg. Had it been trimmed substantially, the film would no doubt have been one of the best flicks of the year. As it stands, it's still excellent summer fodder.
Catch Me If You Can (December 25/02)
Unlike some of Spielberg's recent films, Catch Me If You Can isn't designed for anything more than escapist entertainment. There are no lofty intentions here; Spielberg's revisiting his roots, in a manner of speaking, by crafting a movie that's fun. Though there are some serious moments, the film, which follows con artist Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he's pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Tom Hanks' Carl Hanratty), has a breezy atmosphere that certainly helps keep boredom at bay - especially during some of the more needless sequences. DiCaprio gives one of his very best performances, here playing virtually the polar opposite of his character in last week's Gangs of New York. Frank is the sort of person that gives into each and every one of his whims, no matter how small or big. It's the sort of character that in the wrong hands could come off as smug and egotistical, but DiCaprio infuses Frank with a sense of wonder that's quite appropriate. This is a kid, essentially, who's doing things that most adults won't experience. Equally good (if not better) is Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, the determined FBI man out to capture Frank. Sporting a convincing enough Boston accent, Hanks is just as charming as ever, even though he's technically playing someone we should be rooting against. The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, from Martin Sheen to Jennifer Garner, but it's Christopher Walken, as Frank's father, who makes the biggest impact. The core of the film is the relationship between Frank and his father, and Walken is completely convincing as this man who's happy for his son, but too proud to accept any of the benefits of his success. But as marvelous as the cast is and though the story is quite interesting, Spielberg doesn't know when to call it quits. Catch Me If You Can is the most frustratingly overlong movie since Meet Joe Black, another film that would've been so much better had it been trimmed down to 90 minutes. Here, most of the scenes go on for a minute or two longer than they should and there are whole sequences that should have been excised. For example, Garner pops up midway through as a prostitute that seduces Frank. It's a six-minute scene that doesn't add a single thing to the film, and could have easily been removed. It's point was likely to show that Frank is doing things that most teenagers aren't, but we've already established that. It's superfluous elements like that which make Catch Me If You Can an entertaining enough way to spend two and a half hours, but with this director and this cast, it should have been so much more.
The Terminal (June 17/04)
Well, the writing's been on the wall for some time now; after several less-than-stellar efforts, Steven Spielberg's finally emerged with a mediocre film. While this isn't to say that The Terminal is bad, it's impossible to shake the feeling that it belongs on the small screen. And coming from a director as visionary as Spielberg, that's certainly not a good thing. The film is comprised mostly of comedic vignettes that aren't all that funny, as the plotless narrative follows Tom Hanks' Viktor Navorski as he's forced to make an American airport his home after his country undergoes a revolution. The screenplay, by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, revels in sitcom clichés and stock characterizations, which ensures that the movie possesses a distinctly sentimental feel. Now, it'd be easy to say that this is Spielberg's attempt at a Capra-esque fantasy, but even Capra didn't play things quite so obviously. This is a movie that not only has a completely superfluous villain, but he's an over-the-top villain to boot. The convenient manner in which the various storylines are resolved is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of these characters are just too cute to be believable. There's nothing wrong with a stereotype here and there, but the movie is overrun by quirky figures - which undermines the occasional glimpses of genuine emotion. Hanks' Viktor should have been absolutely compelling - he still is to a certain extent, thanks primarily to Hanks' expectedly wonderful performance - but the screenplay forces him to interact with these well-cast but ultimately implausible characters. While there's no denying that the set in which The Terminal's been filmed is impressive, Spielberg - along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski - never really takes advantage of its grandeur, except when blatently lingering on some painfully obvious product placement. The film's look is surprisingly bland, in fact; the only real indication that this is a Spielberg film are the many instances of lens flare, a trick the director has inexplicably become obsessed with as of late. About the best thing one can say about The Terminal is that it's cute and inoffensive - not exactly high praise when talking about a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks.
War of the Worlds (July 1/05)
At a running time of around 118 minutes, War of the Worlds is Steven Spielberg's shortest film since the early '90s - yet the film still sports the same sort of uneven pace that's been plaguing his movies for years now. While War of the Worlds does feature a number of genuinely thrilling and surprisingly frightening moments, it's also rife with needless subplots and overly simplistic instances of character development. Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a deadbeat dad who finds himself stuck with his two kids for the weekend. Said kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), clearly aren't thrilled about the idea, but everyone's misgivings are soon rendered moot. Aliens from an unspecified planet have arrived on Earth and have begun systematically exterminating everyone in sight. This leaves Ray with little choice but to grab his kids and make a run for it. The most striking and surprising aspect of War of the Worlds involves the brutal, uncompromising nature of the invading extra-terrestrials. Spielberg doesn't shy away from depicting their deadly modus operandi, something that's made perfectly clear in their first major appearance. After emerging from beneath a city street, vicious tripods (so named because of their three-legged appearance) abruptly begin attacking the awe-struck onlookers - literally vaporizing them to the extent that all that's left are their clothes. It's pretty harsh stuff, and not at all what one has come to expect from Spielberg; to call War of the Worlds inappropriate for small children is a gross understatement, and there's no denying that this is his most harrowing science fiction film to date. What prevents the movie from becoming an instant classic, then, is David Koepp's unusually ineffective screenplay (this is, after all, the guy who wrote Jurassic Park). While Koepp does a nice job of establishing the story and characters, the writer peppers the story with far too many instances of conflict among the human characters. As a result, there seems to be almost as much screentime devoted to the alien invasion as there is to Ray's squabbles with various characters (ranging from a blood-thirsty mob to his own son). Such antics can't help but feel superfluous (there's an entire subplot with a survivalist played by Tim Robbins that's particularly pointless), given the imminent and deadly threat from the tripods. This is compounded by Koepp and Spielberg's heavy-handed use of 9/11 imagery, from the white powder Ray is covered in after returning home following an encounter with the tripods to the walls plastered with posters of missing loved ones. It's fairly obvious that Spielberg and Koepp are attempting to link the aliens to terrorists, but the two go overboard and place the emphasis on similarly over-the-top elements designed to clearly spell out this connection. Likewise, Ray's journey from negligent father to attentive caregiver is far from subtle - yet despite such deficiencies, War of the Worlds essentially remains entertaining throughout. Cruise delivers an expectedly charismatic and engaging performance, while Spielberg does a fantastic job of imbuing the film with an unusually gritty, realistic vibe (Independence Day this is not).
Overlong, ponderous, and erratic, Munich is easily the most ineffective movie of Steven Spielberg's career and only cements the feeling that the director is now more interested in churning out "important" films than in entertaining his audience. Though well acted and impeccably shot, the movie remains curiously uninvolving throughout its ridiculously bloated 164-minute running time. Based on the true story, Munich follows five Israeli assassins - led by Eric Bana's Avner - who are assigned the task of hunting down and executing 11 Palestinians believed to have planned the massacre of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. While there are plenty of individually compelling moments here - particularly the sequence in which Avner and company come awfully close to blowing up a little girl - the distinct lack of dramatic tension effectively prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing any of the central characters or their cause (this is despite the uniformly superb performances, with Bana a clear standout). Spielberg's expectedly heavy-handed approach is exacerbated by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's screenplay, which is painfully unsubtle and filled to the brim with poetic but thoroughly inauthentic instances of dialogue. The final straw comes towards the end with a laughably overwrought sequence in which Spielberg cuts between footage of the Jewish athletes being murdered with Avner and his wife having sex, as the director clumsily hammers home the extraordinarily obvious point that Avner's psyche has been damaged by the killings. The majority of Munich is similarly substandard, and it's difficult to imagine just what Spielberg was hoping to accomplish with this disastrously inept piece of work.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
After an absence of almost two decades, globe-trotting archeologist Indiana Jones returns in an adventure that's admittedly not quite as effective as its immediate predecessor - yet there's ultimately no denying that the film is as thrilling and enthralling as one might've hoped. The storyline - which follows Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and Shia LaBeouf's Mutt Williams as they attempt to uncover the mystery behind the fabled objects of the title - has been infused with far too many needless digressions and subplots, however, and it does become clear that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is surely the most blatantly uneven of the four films (ie enough with the exposition already). This is despite Ford's surprisingly engaging performance and the expected inclusion of several electrifying action set-pieces, though there's little doubt that the movie is at its best during its quieter, more introspective moments (ie a superb sequence in which Indy laments the deaths of his father and mentor). And while LaBeouf acquits himself quite well and Karen Allen's return as Marion Ravenwood is nothing short of delightful, the film suffers from an increasingly erratic pace that's ultimately exacerbated by a finale that feels as though it'd be more at home within an episode of The X-Files. Still, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull generally remains an affable piece of work throughout its undeniably overlong running time - which ultimately does ensure that the film fares a whole lot better than such contemporary big-budget travesties as Transformers, Rush Hour 3, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
The Adventures of Tintin
Based on the comic-book series created by Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin follows intrepid reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) as he and his faithful dog Snowy find themselves caught up in a treasure hunt involving a centuries-old sunken ship - with the pair's efforts eventually assisted by a washed-up captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis). There's little doubt that The Adventures of Tintin fares best in its opening half hour, as director Steven Spielberg, working from Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish's script, does a superb job of immediately drawing the viewer into the briskly-paced proceedings - with the energetic vibe heightened by Spielberg's kinetic, eye-catching visual choices (ie the filmmaker takes full advantage of the movie's animated atmosphere). It's only as the film segues into its progressively (and disappointingly) convoluted midsection that one's interest begins to flag, with the growing emphasis on the decidedly dull mystery at the narrative's core wreaking havoc on the movie's momentum. (It doesn't help, either, that Serkis' character receives more and more screentime as the story unfolds, despite the fact that Haddock is simply not interesting enough to justify the increased attention.) And although the film briefly recovers for an absolutely spellbinding single-take action sequence, The Adventures of Tintin ultimately comes off as a misguided, frequently overblown animated endurance test that's rarely as much fun as Spielberg has clearly intended.
Unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse tells the epic story of a boy (Jeremy Irvine's Albert Narracott) and his faithful horse, Joey - with the onset of World War II inevitably separating the two and triggering an expansive tale revolving around Joey's exploits on and off the battlefield. It's obvious right from the get-go that filmmaker Steven Spielberg is looking to capturing the feel and tone of a classic Hollywood production, as the director has suffused the proceedings with a number of elements designed to hearken back to similarly-themed epics from the past - with, in particular, the lush visuals, grandiose score, and episodic narrative ranking high on the film's list of old-school attributes. The handsomeness of the production is, in the film's early stages, offset by the almost excessively deliberate pace, as Spielberg, working from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis' screenplay, takes his time in allowing the narrative unfold to a degree that's often nothing short of maddening - with the best and most pertinent example of this the long, tedious stretch involving Albert's step-by-step training of Joey. And though there are a few decent sequences sprinkled here and there - eg Albert's father (Peter Mullan's Ted) reluctantly sells Joey to the war effort - War Horse's barely-passable atmosphere remains fairly consistent right up until a pivotal (and thoroughly engrossing) battle scene makes an appearance at around the halfway mark. The film subsequently becomes far more involving than one might've anticipated, as Spielberg places a growing emphasis on interludes of an impressively gripping nature (eg Joey, caught in barb wire, is assisted by two enemy soldiers working together). The narrative's increasingly heartwrenching bent - eg it's virtually impossible to sit through Joey and Albert's inevitably reunion without experiencing a palpable lump in one's throat - ensures that War Horse finishes on an almost incongruously positive note (especially when compared to its first half), and it is, as a result, finally impossible to label the movie as anything more than a sporadically electrifying yet terminally uneven (and overlong) piece of work.