Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Critical List, a quick and handy guide looking at the very best that various genres, series and directors have to offer.
With one of his most revered movies getting a timely re-release in cinemas last week, I thought it was high time we took a look at the best work of one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, Steven Spielberg. In the mid-70s he practically invented the blockbuster summer picture with Jaws, in the 80s he delivered landmark adventure movies along with a timeless childhood classic and throughout the 90s and 00s he released a steady stream of box office hits covering an impressive range of subject matter. Spielberg has successfully turned his hand to hard-hitting war films, futuristic Sci-Fi thrillers and light-hearted caper-comedies.
There are several themes that can be pinpointed running throughout Spielberg’s work. The regular everyman thrust into an exceptional circumstance, wide-eyed childhood innocence and wonderment and strained parent/child relationships, all crop up in an overwhelming number of the director’s movies. Spielberg himself has confirmed that a major reason for these issues cropping up in his work is his own parent’s divorce when he was younger and the difficulties he faced growing up as a lonely kid without a father.
Critics of Spielberg often point to his overly sentimental nature and the high schmaltz content of many of his movies, but then Spielberg has never made any secret of the fact that he seeks to tug the heartstrings and elicit emotions with his films. Many directors have sought to make movies which possess a broad appeal, but to do so with a degree of artistic integrity and with such consistency is a rare thing. While some modern day blockbusters from the Michael Bay School of movie making tend to rely on spectacle rather than story, Spielberg manages to harness the best of both.
Spielberg has made engrossing and captivating movies for several decades now and while his movies aren’t without fault, and there are a fair number of misses alongside the numerous hits, the fact remains that when he’s at his best, there are few mainstream filmmakers who come close to his ability to produce entertaining popcorn cinema.
Let’s start with the movie which prompted this whole list in the first place. It’s quite rightly said that Jaws was the very first modern day blockbuster. The media blitz that accompanied it, including the then unpredicted levels of TV advertising, coupled with a nationwide distribution in the States the likes of which had rarely been seen before, ensured that it soon became the highest grossing film ever at the US box office. It swiftly overtook The Godfather’s impressive total and also became the first movie to break the $100million mark. Jaws would remain the highest grossing movie until a little film called Star Wars came along two years later.
Jaws became the must see movie of the year with critical praise and positive word-of-mouth ensuring that its initial run of appearing in around 400 theatres across the US (already a high number for any movie) soon got increased to around 900, thus setting a precedent for large-scale nationwide releases for big studio pictures. For better or for worse, this was the start of the big summer blockbuster, where a movie wasn’t just a movie, it was an event.
All that being said, there is a good reason why Jaws proved as popular and ground breaking as it was, and that is because it’s an incredibly tense, gripping and often scary thriller. It is at its heart a very simple premise (based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley), a Great White Shark terrorises a seaside resort and the local police chief, a marine biologist and a gnarled shark hunter head off to catch it, but it is expertly executed by Spielberg.
The behind the scenes stories surrounding its production have become the stuff of legend, the spiralling budget was cause for great concern from studio bigwigs and the crews’ on going struggles with the unreliable mechanical shark, nicknamed ‘Bruce’ after Spielberg’s lawyer, were a constant thorn in the director’s side.
The mechanical problems forced the director to improvise and for vast swathes of the movie he only alludes to the giant shark’s ominous presence through the use of underwater tracking shots and via John Williams’ legendary score. In many ways this is what made Jaws such a tense movie, the natural fear of the unknown, of what lurks beneath. The unseen horror which is picking off helpless holidaymakers and leaving little but a pool of blood as a calling card is arguably infinitely scarier than the creature itself ever could be. It was a prescient decision by the director to ensure that we don’t actually see the shark itself until late on in the movie. When we do finally catch a glimpse of the gargantuan shark and Roy Schneider delivers his immortal, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat”, it is just one of many classic scenes which are burned into the mind of anyone who has seen the movie.
Schneider, alongside the excellent Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, are all pitch perfect in the lead roles and some of the film’s best moments are when it’s just the three of them out there on a small boat slowly bonding despite their wildly different personalities. Each man goes out into the big blue with their own motivations for doing so, and the director ensures they are all fully fleshed out characters which the viewer really cares about.
With Jaws, Spielberg announced himself as an entertaining and effective storyteller and he was almost overnight the hottest property in Hollywood.
Classic Spielberg Moment: The still shocking opening scene where a young skinny dipper is suddenly grabbed by something unseen from the ocean’s murky depths. The sight of her body being thrown around and then dragged under the water is a powerful warning of what is to follow.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977):
After the success of Jaws, Spielberg was able to command a great deal of creative control over his next project. Since the early 1970’s, he’d been toying with the idea of a Science-Fiction movie but was struggling to nail down the exact story he wanted to tell. Ultimately, rather than focus on hi-tec battles and intergalactic warfare (he left that to good friend George Lucas whose Sci-Fi effort came out the same year), Spielberg opted to tell a much more grounded and human story from the point of view of a regular Joe.
That regular Joe was the character of Ron Neary, an electrical powerline worker in Indiana who has a close encounter with an alien spacecraft one night whilst working. After first considering the likes of Steve McQueen, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson for the lead role, Spielberg ultimately went for old Jaws alumni Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss may not have been as big of a star as other names that were considered, but he captured perfectly the character’s obsessive nature and sense of amazement. After his encounter, Neary becomes fascinated with UFOs and also starts seeing strange subliminal images of a mountain like structure. This leads to the memorable scene where Neary sits at the family dinner table making a model of the mountain out of a pile of mash potato. The government forces, who are themselves aware of the aliens and are also tracking their whereabouts, eventually decipher an alien message as being coordinates for the Devils Tower Mountain in Wyoming. This prompts the US army to descend upon the area and they try and pass off the commotion as a clean-up operation for a train crash which spilled toxic gas. Roy soon recognises the Devils Tower he sees on news reports as the mountain from his dreams and along with other believers, he sets out to the meeting point.
The films awe-inspiring ending is a triumph both visually and narratively as Spielberg manages to capture the necessary sense of spectacle, as well as delivering a typically heart-warming message. It’s rare that a movie has an alien encounter with such a peaceful and positive message, but in this case it is entirely befitting the director’s family friendly intentions. With that being said though, it is worth noting that we have here an early example of that Spielbergian theme I highlighted earlier, the absentee father. Ron starts neglecting his family and rather abruptly turns his back on his kids as his obsession with UFOs escalates. It’s a strange plot-twist and one which Spielberg himself has since questioned since he has had kids of his own.
Close Encounters is perhaps the first of the director’s movies to really showcase what we all now know as a typically Spielbergian feel. It’s about regular people being thrust into extraordinary circumstance and embarking on a personal quest. It’s a film free of cynicism and revelling in its sense of wonderment. Above all though, Close Encounters, in particular with its magnificent ending, looks spectacular, and in the days before CGI, the final landing of the brightly lit mother ship still looks as impressive as ever.
Classic Spielberg Moment: The whole sequence involving the mothership is something special but it’s particularly magical when the alien craft responds to the human’s musical note sequence, confirming that we have made contact with alien life, and what’s more, they come in peace.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981):
Come the 1980’s, George Lucas had a grand plan to bring back to romping adventure serials he remembered so fondly from his youth. Legend has it that when on a well-earned holiday after Star Wars’ barnstorming theatrical release, he was joined by Spielberg and talk turned to their respective future projects. Spielberg told his friend that he always wanted to make James Bond-like spy picture. Lucas then pitched Spielberg his initial ideas for an adventurous globe-trotting archaeologist and the director fell in love with the idea. After several years of development and numerous script re-writes, (one version had Indy as a weather-beaten alcoholic), the duo finally got the greenlight from Paramount Studios to make their movie and one of cinema’s best loved film franchises was born.
Put simply, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most deliriously thrilling and watchable movies you could hope to find. A mainstay of many a rainy bank holiday afternoon, Raiders, along with its sequels Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, is a fun rollercoaster which never gets old. I’m sure we all know the plot by now, a ruggedly handsome University Professor heads to Egypt to find the Ark of the Covenant before those damned Nazi’s get their grubby mitts on it. Along the way there’s romance, gunplay, fist-fights, brilliantly evil Nazi’s and snakes…..why did it have to be snakes?
Spielberg delivered an exhilarating adventure movie that was made on relatively modest budget and yet looked more impressive than blockbusters five times its size. The director once again perfectly balanced the need for a gripping story and impressive spectacle and as the story zips along, barely stopping for breath; it jumps from one meticulously executed set piece to another. There are so many memorable scenes throughout the movie that you almost take them for granted. Indy’s abrupt ending to a sword fight, his escape from the well of souls, his opening daring escape from a South American cave, the list goes on. These moments of action are backed up by a rousing John Williams (who else?) score and coupled with a script filled with plenty of joviality befitting such a swashbuckling escapade.
The reason the first three Indiana Jones movies have proved to successful, and incidentally, the reason why the fourth one faltered so badly, was that the focus wasn’t on state of the art CGI or exotic locations, it was on telling a fun and entertaining story. Bare in mind that Raiders was made for just $18million, Temple around $28million and Last Crusade for around $48million, whereas the much maligned fourth instalment cost a whopping $180million. Now of course there is various inflation related factors to take into account here, but the fact remains that Spielberg didn’t need a bank-breaking budget to make Raiders work. His and George’s B-Movie homage still feels as exciting today as it did back in 1981.
Classic Spielberg Moment: Spielberg laid his cards out on the table from the outset in Raiders and you know exactly what you’re in for when our hero is risking life and limb and running away from a massive boulder within the first ten minutes or so. Sit back and enjoy.
After the unabashed romp that was Raiders, Spielberg’s next project was an all the more heartfelt affair involving a young boy and his alien pal. After his own parent’s got divorced, a young Spielberg felt very isolated and, so the story goes, even invented an imaginary alien friend of his own for company. When he got a bit older and began developing ideas for future movies, he put this childhood experience to good use. An early idea that he had was called Night Skies, which involved a group of unruly alien’s terrorising a family. This project sat on the shelf for a while until after Raiders was released and Spielberg began discussing his ‘Night Skies’ idea with screenwriter Melissa Mathison. The two of them honed in on one aspect of the story which saw the friendly alien of the bunch befriending a human child after being abandoned on Earth. From here the E.T. story began to develop.
Set in a very Spielbergian suburbia, surrounded by leafy forests and populated by hard-working parents and happy kids riding around on chopper bikes, E.T. took ideas touched on in Close Encounters, namely the idea of a friendly extraterrestrial race, and combined it with the experiences of childhood. After being left behind by his spaceship as government agents swoop on their landing site, one of the alien botanists makes his way to a nearby house and befriends a young boy called Elliott. The two experience an instant bond and soon begin to experience a psychic connection, which leads much drunken alien/schoolboy related hijinks. Eliott tries to keep his new friend a secret but after the government arrives in town intent on taking the alien away, he and his siblings decide to help E.T. get home.
The film itself is easily the director’s most personal story yet, a fact epitomised by its young hero Elliott, a lonely figure with a wild imagination, who is still reeling from his parents divorce and dealing with an absentee father. The whole story is told from Elliott’s perspective and interestingly, to emphasise this point, for the vast majority of the movie Spielberg shot at child-height, with the heads of grown-ups regularly cut out of the frame.
When you watched E.T. as a child, you got caught up by the idea of having an alien friend and defying the adults to help him get home, flying bikes and all. You are touched by the heart-breaking moments and uplifted by others. When you watch it again as an adult, you still remember how it affected you as a child and can’t help but get caught up in it once again. Surely a sure fire sign that a director is doing something right.
It deals with important themes such as friendship, loss, growing up and tolerance and does so in a way which is particularly moving as well. In another director’s hands, this could have been a corny schmaltz fest, but under Spielberg’s guidance it really is a masterpiece.
Classic Spielberg Moment: It’s a film packed full of Spielbergian moments, but by far the most memorable is the sight of Elliott on his bike, with E.T. tucked in his front basket, flying through the sky silhouetted against the moon. It’s an incredibly iconic and magical movie moment, so much so that Spielberg adopted it as the logo for his own Amblin entertainment production company.
Jurassic Park (1993):
Based on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name, with a screenplay co-developed by the author himself, Jurassic Park was Spielberg at his awe-inspiring best. It marked a significant leap forward in computer generated animation and still looks pretty impressive today nearly 20 years on.
Reportedly, Spielberg actually wanted to make Schindler’s List straight after finishing Hook, but Sid Sheinberg, the President of MCA (then Universal Studios parent company), only gave that movie the go-ahead assuming Spielberg first completed this one. It was a movie that Universal had purchased the rights to with their go-to director in mind and before Spielberg turned his focus to the sombre and serious work of his Holocaust movie; they wanted him to deliver one of the biggest blockbuster movies to date. And Spielberg did just that.
The story was condensed slightly from the book, but the basic premise remained the same. An eccentric Billionaire builds a theme park populated with real-life dinosaurs and invites a team of dino experts, a rock-star mathematician (Jeff Goldblum on fine form) and a cowardly lawyer along to test it out. Inevitably, all doesn’t go according to plan and when the park’s security system is shut down by a treacherous employee, the visiting guests are put in grave danger.
The main draw of the film is obviously the fact that we get to see seemingly realistic dinosaurs acting like modern day creatures out in the wild. The first glimpse of that Brachiosaurus munching on tree leaves and Dr’s Grant and Sattler’s dumbstruck reaction is a classic Spielberg moment. As well as the visual delights however there is also a great deal of tense and scary moments in the movie, arguably for the first time in a Spielberg film since Jaws nearly twenty years earlier. The night time arrival of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus was expertly done, with the much-parodied water-ripple affect a masterstroke by the director. Likewise the Velociraptor’s relentless stalking of both the kids Lex and Tim, and of Bob Muldoon’s park warden, are two gripping sequences which really give the film an terrifying edge (clever girl).
Spielberg’s movie was a thrilling adventure with spectacular special-effects which really did herald in a new age in computer animation, as well as pushing the boundaries of animatronic effects as well. It set a new benchmark for what was achievable in motion pictures and a direct line can be drawn from Spielberg’s film to the Star Wars prequels and the likes of The Lord of the Rings. Whereas before some movie concepts seemed too grand and extravagant to bring to the screen, now anything seemed possible.
Classic Spielberg Moment: The T-Rex attack scene never fails to impress, from the ominous pulsating water to Dr Ian Malcom’s ill-advised attempt to lure the monster away. Perhaps the best T-Rex moment though comes when he lunges from nowhere out of the trees and gives swift chase to the fleeing Malcom, Muldoon and Sattler whose jeep comes perilously closed to getting chomped. “Must go faster”.
Saving Private Ryan (1997):
Spielberg had already tackled the terrors of the Second World War with Schindler’s List several years previously, but here he moved away from the horrors of the Holocaust and made a truly epic war movie with some of the most realistic battle scenes ever committed to film. While the director had made his name making family-friendly blockbusters and romping action adventures, this was a brutal and unflinching glimpse into the realities of war.
The opening 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan never fails to make a really profound impact on the viewer. Set during the D-Day landings of 1944, it follows the American army’s landing on Omaha beach in Normandy and in particular Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), the company commander of Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion. Miller and his men are shown waiting for their landing craft to reach the beach, understandably nervous and terrified about what awaits. When the craft doors finally open, they are met with a barrage of bullets and shells as we see soldiers dropping like flies into the water. Whereas in other war films covering the D-Day landings perhaps toned down the terrifying nature of this ordeal, Spielberg fully immersed us into the chaos, taking his camera right into the thick of the action so that we can experience a glimpse of the bedlam that faced the troops.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski also used several neat tricks to make the finished article a far grittier and real experience than in many Technicolor war movies of old. They removed a protective coating from the camera lenses which causes the light to diffuse and become softer, and also used a process called a ‘bleach bypass’ to reduce the pictures brightness and saturate the colours. Spielberg also chose not to storyboard the landing sequence, as he wanted to maximise the spontaneity of the unfolding events, which is exemplified by his roaming camera seemingly drifting from one shattered soldier to another in a uniquely jarring manner. It’s an unforgettable scene and one which was praised by many veterans of the conflict as the most realistic depiction to date.
The rest of the movie is perhaps not as immersive but is nonetheless a highly memorable war movie as Captain Miller and his troop set off across France to find the titular Private Ryan who is the last surviving brother out of four servicemen. The tensions and frustrations of the soldiers as they risk life and limb to find one man is well handled by Spielberg and the climactic battle scene where they defend a bridge against an oncoming superior German force also lingers long in the memory.
Classic Spielberg Moment: The entire opening beach scene in itself is nothing short of breathtaking. One particular stand out moment though comes when Hanks’ Captain Miller becomes momentarily disorientated and briefly we share his loss of hearing and blurry vision. As he scans the carnage before him, including a badly wounded soldier grabbing his own bloodied arm up off the floor, it’s a strange moment of calm before we snap back into the ear-shattering hell of battle.