Three-and-a-half years have passed since the release of the underrated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now Steven Spielberg is back with not one but two new films.
Similar to how he released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993 and The Lost World and Amistad in 1997, this year’s one-two punch begins with a special effects-driven blockbuster (the long-in-the-making The Adventures of Tintin, opening in Montreal this Friday) followed by an Oscar-ready period drama (War Horse, which will reach theatres on December 25).
This seems as good a time as any to look back at The Beard’s filmography, which stretches over 40 years and has unarguably changed Hollywood forever.
Spielberg has come a long way since Duel, a movie of the week which aired on ABC on November 13, 1971. That adaptation of a Richard Matheson story about an ordinary Joe chased by a mysterious tanker truck was an effective but relatively low-key affair. As for The Sugarland Express (1974), a road movie starring Goldie Hawn that felt more like Smokey and the Bandit than Badlands, it was forgettable at best.
The game changer, for Spielberg and for Hollywood as a whole, was Jaws (1975), the movie that is generally credited for having created the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Watching it these days, it doesn’t quite have the visceral impact it must have had back then, but one can still appreciate the way Spielberg keeps the shark unseen for most of the film, how much time and care he puts in developing Roy Scheider’s, Richard Dreyfuss’ and Robert Shaw’s characters and the way those characters play off each other.
Next for Spielberg was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the first of a quasi-trilogy of films involving aliens. Ominous figures in that instance, extra-terrestrial beings were then portrayed as lovable in E.T. (1982) and downright deadly in War or the Worlds (2005). Spielberg also tackled science-fiction in the disappointing A.I. (2001) and, most thrillingly in my opinion, in Minority Report (2002).
Another recurring theme through Spielberg’s oeuvre is the Second World War, which is the setting of not only the two films for which he won the Best Director Oscar, the aforementioned Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998), but also of 1941 (1979), a spectacularly unfunny comedy about post-Pearl Harbor hysteria around Los Angeles, and the so-so Empire of the Sun (1987), which starred a young Christian Bale as a precocious British boy living in Shanghai who becomes a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp. And let’s not forget that two of the Indy flicks, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), are also set during WW2 and feature some of the most satisfying killing of Nazis this side of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds!
Unmentioned so far are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1982), my personal favourite adventure of Harrison Ford’s iconic archaeologist ("Hey, lady! You call him Dr. Jones!"); The Color Purple (1985), the flawed but still rather moving adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the African-American experience; Always (1989), an uneven remake of Victor Fleming’s 1946 romantic drama A Guy Named Joe; Hook (1991), a misguided modern retelling of the Peter Pan story; Catch Me If You Can (2002), a smart, exciting, often hilarious cat-and-mouse caper; The Terminal (2004), a modestly enjoyable fable set almost entirely in an airport; and Munich (2008), a visceral thriller depicting Mossad’s brutal retaliation against the Black September terrorists.
As you can see, there’s no easy definition of what constitutes a Steven Spielberg movie. Over the years, he has gone from the past to the future, tragedy to comedy, intimate stories to epic tales… And going back to this December’s offerings, we have a state-of-the-art, 3D performance-capture animated film in The Adventures of Tintin, and a gloriously old-fashioned World War I picture in War Horse.
The only thing that every directorial effort from Spielberg has in common, the masterpieces as well as the stinkers? Expert craftsmanship from one of the most gifted visual storytellers Hollywood has ever given us.
On December 18, Steven Allan Spielberg will turn 65, but he’s far from ready to retire. He’s currently filming Lincoln, a biopic starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States, and he’s set to come to Montreal next summer to shoot Robopocalypse, a $200-million sci-fi thriller. Here’s to many more years of Spielberg magic on the big screen!