The contemporary Hollywood blockbuster owes its existence to Steven Spielberg. From the teeth of Jaws to the music of West Side Story, Spielberg has made his impact on cinema, delivering thrills and pathos alike through seven decades of filmmaking. Few directors can claim the success Spielberg has in directing a broad selection of genres spanning science fiction, adventure, period films, and biopics. This month, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographic film The Fabelmans is released in theaters, so we thought there would be no better time than now to look back at a number of our favorite Steven Spielberg films in this November’s Retrospective Roundtable.
Feature debuts from future titans of the craft are always a fascinating curiosity. Some, like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, contain only hints of the motifs and style to come with their later masterpieces, while others such as Blood Simple from the Coen brothers or Eraserhead from David Lynch, are fully realized artistic visions that bear all the foundational DNA, structurally and thematically, of their consecutive features to come. Steven Spielberg’s Duel is somewhere in the middle of these two trends, lacking only in the conspicuously absent, quintessential sentimentality of the blockbuster auteur’s later work.
An astonishingly tight suspense vehicle, the film tells the very simple story of an ordinary man pursued across the dusty California desert by a deranged truck driver. As much a precursor to 80s road thrillers such as Road Games or The Hitcher as it is to Spielberg’s own Jaws, the film is essentially a monster movie, with the villain’s menacing presence hidden and subsumed entirely by his rust-brown leviathan of a truck. Forgoing almost all dialogue and exposition for a purely visual exercise in suspense, the film is perhaps most interesting for how genuinely unnerving it feels to watch Spielberg’s thriller craft operate at full speed without his later qualities of sentimentality (that even Jaws has in spades despite its more explicit bodily horror) to ground the experience. A terrific debut, Duel is a more than worthy start to the career of one of our greatest living filmmakers, and a genuine masterpiece in its own right. – Ben McDonald
Before the release of Spielberg’s Jaws, the summer was a dumping ground for films thought to be poor performers at the box office, and the winter had long been the season for hits. The industry often accredits Jaws for creating the window for summer blockbusters with its instant box office success, which nowadays is commonplace. Jaws recouped its production costs within the first week of its domestic theatrical release and surpassed The Godfather‘s box office total in eleven weeks, then the highest-grossing film of all time. When Star Wars beat the box office takings of Jaws two years later, in 1977, the film industry began to seriously notice the cultural impact of blockbuster movies. Despite a versatile career making films in various genres, Spielberg has been able to since pivot his success into creating some of the most iconic blockbusters and franchises such as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. Many filmmakers have also accredited Jaws as inspiration for their films. Not just those who made ripoffs or mockbusters of the film, but the pitching of Ridley Scott‘s iconic film Alien was “Jaws in space”, and even some of Spielberg’s later films got greenlit because of the initial success he had with Jaws. – Ian Floodgate
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Early in Spielberg’s career, it was far easier to trace the themes that underlay his work – the breakdown of the family unit, the promise and myth of suburbia and the American Dream, and the prevalence of childlike wonder. Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the film that most embodies these themes. For the modern viewer, its special effects, especially the UFOs, may seem primitive. But a sign of Spielberg’s mastery is how much he is able to convey with relatively little. The UFOs may be floating lights, but that is more than enough to showcase their alienness. The scene where Jillian’s (Melinda Dillon) son Barry is abducted is all about lurid lights and devices going haywire, haunted house tricks on the surface, but the way that scene is cut and what the camera actually focuses on (i.e. not on any actual aliens) is still thrilling many decades later.
For people who have never seen or don’t remember this film well, the second third of the movie is dominated by Richard Dreyfuss’ character’s obsession in making sense of the visions that the UFOs have granted him at the expense of his family relationships. It is a darker note that the film never completely absolves him of, but it is also an interesting counterpart to the wonder and spirit of adventure that this film otherwise expresses so beautifully. It is not necessarily a fault of the film. Rather, it is almost endearing to see just how deeply Spielberg’s personal obsessions colored his work at this time. While the ending of the film is not something that has occurred to anyone in real life, the darker storyline still undercuts some of the sentimentality that Spielberg has been accused of, some times more rightly than others. Spielberg may have surpassed himself in many of his subsequent works but Close Encounters is crucial to understanding his creative genesis while still being a rousing adventure meant to inspire wonder. – Eugene Kang
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park was one of the first real movies I ever remember watching, and to me represents both the apotheosis of Steven Spielberg’s career and the platonic ideal of a blockbuster movie. There’s an almost alchemical magic to how effortlessly Jurassic Park balances its various subgenres of horror, science fiction, action, and adventure, translating Michael Crichton’s pulpy airport paperback into not only one of the finest advertisements for special effects filmmaking ever made but also an articulation of pure, universal awe.
Having recently watched the breathtaking new 4K release of the film, what struck me the most on a revisit is how the film’s images seem to transform the novel’s blunt subtext about the intersection of creation and capital and the perils of unchecked scientific progress into an elegant, metatextual reflection on blockbuster filmmaking itself – images like the DNA code projected over the reptilian skin of a velociraptor loose in a laboratory, or Sam Neill and Laura Dern gazing up with us in pure awe at the first dinosaur we see, or perhaps the most iconic shot in the film of the “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” banner falling over a T-Rex as it roars triumphantly. Jurassic Park will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an object of childhood nostalgia and as one of the purest monuments to the love of movies ever created. – Ben McDonald
Schindler’s List (1993)
A number of films can be argued to be Steven Spielberg’s best film, but no other film can be argued to be his most important. Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and the 1,200 Jews whose lives he saved during the Holocaust. It is a story that demanded to be told for decades by Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), a testament to the goodness of man amidst great evil. Pfefferberg convinced author Thomas Keneally to write the novel that became the basis for Schindler’s List and persuaded Spielberg over the course of a decade to agree to direct the film. Part of Spielberg’s motivation to direct the film came from his own heritage as well as an increased prominence of Holocaust deniers following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Spielberg decided to shoot Schindler’s List like a documentary. He opted for the film to be largely in black-and-white to correspond to documentary footage of the Holocaust as well as to allow its small instances of color – the red of a little girl’s dress, the light of a candle – to be symbolically momentous. A scene from the film that demonstrates the magnitude of Schindler’s deed is when at the end of the war, Schindler laments that he could have saved more people. He looks to his car, to his gold Nazi pin, and is saddened he didn’t part with both for the opportunity to save additional lives. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who worked closely with Schindler, tells Schindler that because of his efforts, “there will be generations because of what [he] did”. The scene demonstrates the immense good that Oskar Schindler did by saving these lives, and emphasizes the impact that one single person can make in the face of evil and hopelessness. Spielberg’s filming of Schindler’s List at the height of his career enabled this story to be told and remembered in the years to come. – Alex Sitaras
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
The latter part of Spielberg’s career (2000 onwards) isn’t nearly as acclaimed as his output from the 70s to the 90s, but it was also a time when he got to do bigger and bolder experiments with huge budgets. There’s the sometimes baffling yet provocative sci-fi take on Pinocchio in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a grimly apocalyptic War of the Worlds, and political revenge thriller in Munich to name a few. Perhaps the most successful of these “experiments” is Catch Me If You Can about Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a conman who managed to successfully impersonate an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while making millions of dollars.
It is a frothy concoction that delights in its predominantly 60’s period detail not just in set design but in performances as well. DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are definitely channeling actors like Warren Beatty and Walter Matthau. There’s even one scene that shows Abagnale so taken with being called the “James Bond of the skies” that he goes out to buy the suit and Aston Martin that Bond wore and drove in Goldfinger with scenes from that movie intercut with the action. Clearly Spielberg was having a blast making a film about this time period, when he was a young, budding cinephile while the graceful camera moves around in a way that 60’s Hollywood movies rarely do. Even John Williams gets in on the fun with his jazzy, era-appropriate score, which is actually closer to what his original music style was like before deliberately taking from other sources to score films like Star Wars and others. The film doesn’t really provide much insight into Abagnale’s personal motivations and interior life since it is so fascinated with his chutzpah and how he pulled off his scams, but it’s a fun time nevertheless. – Eugene Kang