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Dissecting Steven Spielberg!

05.26.2015by: Jake Dee
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STEVEN SPIELBERG!

Oh dear. You think we can find a big enough blade in the world to dissect the untouchable Steven Spielberg? I mean, if anyone seems impervious, it is he. Critically, financially, artistically, commercially...this dude is the King Midas of Hollywood royalty...alchemizing damn near each and every showbiz project into solid gold. After cutting his teeth in television with above par thrillers like DUEL and SOMETHING EVIL, Spielberg would go on to realize some of the best, biggest and most popular films of all time. We're talking JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T., TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE, JURASSIC PARK, LOST WORLD, A.I., MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the list only continues to grow.

Producorially, Spielberg has overseen genre favorites we all know and love...stuff like GREMLINS, POLTERGEIST, MEN IN BLACK, MONSTER HOUSE, SUPER 8, ARACHNOPHOBIA, CAPE FEAR, and again...the list is too lengthy to avoid droning on ad nauseam.

So, as the refashioned tales of both POLTERGEIST and JURASSIC WORLD have serendipitously fallen into theaters three weeks apart, we're taking that as a long overdue cue to give Stevie the AITH treatment he more than deserves. Friends, it's high time we Dissect the venerable genre career of one Mr. Steven Spielberg!

BEST WORK

Get JAWS Here

We can split hairs all we want over how, why and what Spielberg's finest cinematic moment is to each and every one of us. Obviously, given the historical significance and cathartic statements made, movies like THE COLOR PURPLE, SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN belong in a separate category of special. But if we're talking straight up genre joints, you will never convince me that JAWS isn't truly the landmark achievement (watermark?) that history remembers it as. Remember, this movie spawned the phrase blockbuster...yes for the humongous lines of patrons wrapped around the block. Hell, in the own words of star Roy Scheider, you could play the film in New Delhi without sound and people would still get it. Talk about universal appeal!

Of course, the great irony of the success of JAWS is just how troubled the production was during the shoot. Beset with all kinds of scheduling snafus, delays, push-backs, tension between actors (Shaw and Dreyfuss), and yes...an ever troublesome mechanical shark that refused to work as designed. All of these things would normally hinder any other production to the point of ineptitude, yet somehow, under Spielberg's watchful Zen-like direction, JAWS holds up today, 40 years later, as a bona fide masterstroke of horror adventure. Happy birthday Bruce!

It would be so easy to go on to wax superlative about all things JAWS, but I do think it comes down to a case of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. For instance, Robert Shaw and Dick Dreyfuss notoriously did not get along, and their palpable offscreen friction translates to natural perfection onscreen. Or hell, word is Shaw was besotted by booze the entire shoot, so badly at times that production had to be halted on certain days. The pivotal SS Indianapolis story that Quint tells at night as they trio share a drunken good time had to be cancelled one day of shooting because Shaw was apparently too sauced-off to complete the speech. Production wrapped, and after being gravely embarrassed, Shaw came back the very next day and nailed the speech in one take. One. That's movie magic right there folks, and just one of many reasons why JAWS succeeded in spite of itself. Capital CLASSIC!

WORST WORK

Get WAR OF THE WORLDS Here

As for as direction goes, I don't think many can refute that Spielberg's romantic revision of H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS is, if not his worst decisions, certainly his worst execution. Wow. I never thought I'd see the day when a Spielberg film felt so generic, so boilerplate, so unlike everything that makes a Spielberg film stand out as his own distinct brand. The story felt too messy, the characters were schmaltzy and unappealing, and visually, most of the action amounted to a cloudy eruption of indiscernible junk. I suppose we can thank longtime Spielberg scribe David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK & LOST WORLD), who, since the 2004 abomination SECRET WINDOW, has steadily fallen downhill ever since (Koepp directed MORTDECAI for crying out loud). Still, Spielberg should have known better, and not let the rose-tinted love for the original Wells novel blind his view of the script. Thankfully Stevie bounced back in a big bad way the very same year with MUNICH. Talk about redemption!

TRADEMARKS

Get CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND Here

Come on now, our man owns such a distinct visual style that the word "Spelbergian" has become a textbook adjective to connote a likeminded panache of filmic imagery. Hell, the same can be said of the word Amblin-esque, which, in the 80s, came to represent a certain type of family friendly that retained a wildly imaginative way of viewing the world. Such qualities are remonstrated with great verve in flicks like E.T., THE GOONIES, GREMLINS, BACK TO THE FUTURE, ARACHNOPHOBIA, CAPE FEAR, HOOK, JURASSIC PARK, etc. Oddly enough, the one movie that is absent from the list is POLTERGEIST, which, despite being credited to Tobe Hooper, feels much more like a Amblin-esque, Spielbergian masterwork. High and low culture, family friendly and truly horrific, artistically cathartic and commercially viable. The absolute best of what Spielberg is known for!

Beyond that, we can draw the more visible patterns in Stevie's CV. The decades-long collaborative relationship with John Williams, for example, who has scored some of the most famous film sequences of all time. I'm talking JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, E.T., absolute epic sound-scapes that are just as paramount to the film as Steven's trademark visual flare. You know, the dark cavernous nighttime sequences punctuated by shafts of dustily lit fulminations...flashlight silhouettes and the like. Think of the indelible imagery of stuff like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, E.T., JURASSIC PARK, etc. Monumental visual scenarios aided by the premiere FX house in all the land, pal George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.

HIDDEN GEMS

Get DUEL Here

As cool as it would be to strike up a discourse on the merits or demerits of Spielberg's post-DUEL 1972 TV movie SOMETHING EVIL, alas, I've never seen it. Have you? Sounds like it did more than inform what Spielberg would go on to essay exactly 10 years later with POLTERGEIST - a movie we all know he conceived of, wrote, produced, and come on, ghost-directed. Either way, we'll skip that one for now and instead shed some shine on not what I think is Spielberg's most underrated film, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (terrific movie), but instead a movie that didn't even originate in his heart or mind. Yup, I'm talking about the Stanley Kubrick desertion A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

After deeming the technology untenable for this particular story, Kubrick lent A.I. to his pal Spielberg to direct instead, knowing the boy wonder had what it takes to realize such a grand-scale marvel. And that sir Stevie did, and then some. Rated PG-13 for the family crowd, there's not only a certain level of prescience and poignancy to the idea of a conscious machine interacting with human emotions (see EX MACHINA), but there's a subtle subversion to the proceedings, a dual narrative if you will, that follows much in the footsteps of a Kubrick joint. I'm talking the creepy pedophilic subtext involving Jude Law's character in A.I., as he's almost a shadow figure of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) from LOLITA made 40 years earlier. But more, the simple Pinocchio-like fable about a puppet's strong desire to become human really resonates on a universal level. As always, Spielberg blends highly palatable art with thought provoking commerce, and transports us to another eye-popping future world we both long for and loathe to leave at once. And hey, there's a certain poetry in the fact that Kubrick died before the completion of A.I., and never got to see what Steven accomplished in, yes, the year 2001.

Get A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE Here

And not for nothing, but we think it wise to make mention of Spielberg's TWILIGHT ZONE/TALES FROM THE CRYPT-like TV series he oversaw in 1985 called Amazing Stories. Netflix that shite! Only running two seasons from 85-87, Amazing Stories features an array of truly weird tales, many of which Spielberg conceived of and wrote himself, that showcased the talents of many famous actors and directors alike. Steven directed the very first episode of the anthology series, helming the inaugural stint "Ghost Train" starring Lukas Hass. There's an episode called "Grandpa's Ghost" was directed by Timothy Hutton and starred a then hot brat packer Andrew McCarthy, in a tale that saw an elderly apparition continue living after its human body host deceased during sleep. Eerie shit! Other cool episodes of Amazing Stories include "The Doll", "Mirror Mirror", "Mummy Daddy", "Boo" (directed by Joe Dante), "Hell Toupee" and "Remote Control Man" (directed by the late great Bob Clark). All worth checking out!

NEXT PROJECTS

As is usually the case with the most influential power-player in Hollywood, Spielberg currently has many irons in the fire. According to IMDB (that bastion of accuracy), ol' Stevie has more than a dozen producorial credits - across both big and small screen - booked between now and 2017. And the level of involvement varies. Some he's slated to direct himself - a la the widely varied READY PLAYER ONE, BRIDGE OF SPIES, THE BFG, etc. - while others he's simply dolling out cash for, such as ROBOPOCALYPSE, GREMLINS, REAL STEEL 2, JURASSIC WORLD etc. There's also a pair of TV projects SS is supporting; a TV movie called THE TALISMAN and a new sci-fi series The Whispers. A busy, busy man!

So, with all that's headed down the pipeline, let's focus on the most imminent genre-centric of the many Spielbergian wares. Let's dive right in...

While he just saw the effective redo of his original story for POLTERGEIST hit theaters last weekend, due next for a Spielberg credit is the creepy looking TV series The Whispers, premiering June 1st. Peep the skinny:

An unseen force is manipulating society's most innocent-our children-to act in favor of its cause. As the kids unwittingly help this unknown enemy, the clock counts down in this suspenseful race to save humanity.

Due only 12 days later, this time on big-screens across the land, Speilberg has overseen the franchise resurrection of JURASSIC WORLD. Colin Trevorrow is directing this time out, and here's the plotline for you to consider:

Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park (1993), Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. After 10 years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitor's interest, which backfires horribly.

Not to be outdone, one flick we know for sure Spielberg is already at work on is something called THE BFG. Currently filming, THE BFG is definitely more in line with family fare than anything else, but there's sure to be all kinds of evil, monstrous creatures roaming around. Check it:

THE BFG follows the tale of a young girl, the Queen of England and a benevolent giant known as THE BFG, who set out on an adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.

THE BFG currently holds a July 1, 2016 release date.

OVERALL

Get E.T. EXTRA TERRESTRIAL Here

How's this for a sweeping supposition: Spielberg is the most famous and successful filmmaker of all time. Yup, we just went there. The first part we can surely debate, but the second is pretty irrefutable. No single director has netted more hard cash than Sir Steven Spielberg. We're talking about absolute trailblazing, paradigm shifting, industry molding blockbusters like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T., TWILIGHT ZONE, INDIANA JONES, HOOK, JURASSIC PARK, SCHINDLER'S LIST, THE LOST WORLD, AMISTAD, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, A.I., MINORITY REPORT, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, WAR OF THE WORLDS, MUNICH, WAR HORSE, LINCOLN, on and on and on. And those are just the flicks he directed himself. Remember, he's produced three times as many projects as he's helmed. It's simply unfathomable how much success and sway Spielberg has consistently enjoyed over the past 40 years.

And you know what Stevie, here's to another happy and healthy 40 more!

Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite Spielberg flick?

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2:58PM on 05/26/2015

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12:24PM on 05/26/2015
you write 'a TV movie called The Talisman' as though you aren't aware exactly what that is.
you write 'a TV movie called The Talisman' as though you aren't aware exactly what that is.
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11:55AM on 05/26/2015

War Of Worlds Not The Worst.

Its far from a perfect film and the ending is atrocious and some annoying characters and parts. However i thought the opening 30 mins of the film is pretty damn good and intriguing and i always pop in when its on cable cause its pretty entertaining. To me, his worst work is LOST WORLD. An amazing book and the adaptation is just WEAK. After the majesty of Jurassic Park, it was a huge letdown. Whole thing was subpar but when that girl does a gymnast move and dropkicks the raptor out the
Its far from a perfect film and the ending is atrocious and some annoying characters and parts. However i thought the opening 30 mins of the film is pretty damn good and intriguing and i always pop in when its on cable cause its pretty entertaining. To me, his worst work is LOST WORLD. An amazing book and the adaptation is just WEAK. After the majesty of Jurassic Park, it was a huge letdown. Whole thing was subpar but when that girl does a gymnast move and dropkicks the raptor out the window, not only did the theater crack up but it completely lost the audience the rest of the way. It should be his worst work just based on that moment alone. Embarrassing.
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