Back in June I discussed the early part of Steven Spielberg’s career, focusing on Jaws and what makes that film such an exceptional example of commercial filmmaking. Early Spielberg was characterized by his ability to provoke wonder in the audience. Late Spielberg, a phase that arguably began with Schindler’s List (1993), was more willing to examine that wonder, and use his filmmaking to direct our attention to darker parts of our existence. No filmmaker has ever had a better handle on how to use filmmaking techniques to manipulate a viewer, to inspire wonder or convey energy onscreen. However, starting with Schindler’s List, Spielberg began to use those techniques to a higher end, showing us not just how the world ought to be, but also how it is, and how it (sadly) might end up. He was the wunderkind of Hollywood, and he’ll always have boyish sensibilities about his filmmaking, but he’s also become a mature filmmaker who can grapple with life and death in ways other filmmakers can only imagine.
After the success of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg made the atypical failed comedy 1941 (1979), before rejuvenating the adventure genre with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Raiders and its prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, took up most of his time in the 1980s, along with his beloved 1982 children’s sci-fi film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). However, already in the 1980s, Spielberg began flirting with more mature entertainment. He adapted Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in 1985 and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun in 1988. Both films were serious historical fictions that attempted more than the emotional entertainment Spielberg was known for. Empire of the Sun, in particular, remains significant all these years later for introducing Christian Bale to the world. After Empire of the Sun, he released the more blatantly sentimental films, Always (1989), and Hook (1991), that aren’t indicative of his maturation as a filmmaker.
In 1993 Spielberg had a landmark year that acts as a transition period of sorts. In the summer he released Jurassic Park, which epitomized his ability to combine state-of-the-art technology with old-fashioned adventure filmmaking. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Abyss (1989) had previously used CGI to wow audiences, but Jurassic Park was the first film where the visual effects were the true selling point. It was a movie about a dinosaur theme park where people flocked to the theatres to see dinosaurs that looked more real than anything they could imagine. Predictably, the film was a huge smash, breaking box office records and ushering in a new blockbuster era much like Jaws had in 1975. However, Spielberg didn’t rest on his dependable commercial laurels in 1993. He also released Schindler’s List, a haunting account of the Holocaust that redefined a generation’s attitude towards the atrocities of the second World War.
Schindler’s List is a horrifying film, looking at the Holocaust in a way that Hollywood had never dared to before. Instead of alluding to the horrors of the Holocaust, Spielberg makes us stare at them straight-on, taking us into the gas chambers and crematoria of the death camps in Poland. He shows us the many types of people who endured these atrocities, and the few people trying to do some good with the little power they had. He even humanizes the Nazis running the camps, specifically Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth, never allowing us to think these are cartoonish Hollywood monsters with no human complexity, but actual living and breathing people who did these unspeakable things. And yet, Spielberg has always been an optimist, and he adds moments of grace throughout. What is the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in Schindler’s List if not an example of redemption and grace amidst the most awful period in human history? Spielberg, the king of creating exciting on-screen adventures for the whole family to enjoy, now had a film that confronted massive scale human evil unflinchingly. It’s no wonder this film is mandatory viewing in high schools, as film has a transformative power that allows us to think we’ve experienced things that we never could (or would never hope to) in real life. Spielberg is a master of making the audience empathize with his characters, and here he sends the audience’s empathy back in time, to people suffering atrocities that have become abstractions in our history books. In so doing, Spielberg achieves a kind of cinematic time travel.
After Schindler’s List swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Director, Spielberg took a few years off from directing, clearly exhausted from the process of making Schindler’s List. In 1997 he returned to directing with the undervalued sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which hilariously utilized Jeff Goldblum as a leading man, and Amistad, a historical account of a revolt aboard a slave ship in the mid-19th century. In 1998 he again reinvented the cinematic medium with Saving Private Ryan, following a small troop of American soldiers in World War Two attempting to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and return him safely back to the United States. As a story, Saving Private Ryan is a conventional war movie about brotherhood and heroism amidst the brutalities of war. However, as a piece of filmmaking, it’s astonishing. Along with his director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg reinvented the way Hollywood shoots action scenes, inserting his camera into the action to depict the shell-shocked chaos of war instead of observing the action objectively from a distant perspective.
In the years since Saving Private Ryan was released, Spielberg’s style of shaky-cam action has been endlessly copied, resulting in many incomprehensible action films for every Paul Greengrass film that utilizes the technique well. However, this style of action filmmaking remains exhilarating and appropriately exhausting in its original incarnation, and is a landmark moment for film technique. One need only watch the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, where Allied soldiers land on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day and fight their way up the beach and over the bodies of their fallen comrades to the German bunkers, to understand the cinematic potential for this kind of filmmaking. It simultaneously exhilarates and disgusts the viewer; it’s exciting but also terrifying. It embodies that contradictory truth about warfare: that war is evil and awful, but also thrilling. Again, Spielberg uses the existing tools of cinema—a handheld camera, desaturated filters, lived-in sound design—and combines them in a way others never have before. Like him or not, you cannot deny that Spielberg is a pioneer, and that he has reshaped the industry time and again.
In the 2000s, after Saving Private Ryan won him another Best Director Oscar, Steven Spielberg returned to science fiction filmmaking. He made A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a devastating Pinocchio fable about a robot (Haley Joel Osment) who wants to be a real boy. The film grows more emotionally potent with every passing year, looking at the fragility of the human lifespan and the haunting power of pursuing one’s impossible dreams. In 2002, he made one of his best films, Minority Report, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story about a police force that arrests criminals for crimes they will commit in the future.
Tom Cruise stars in Minority Report as John Anderton, a police captain who finds himself on the run from his own police force when the precogs (precognitive mutants who are able to see the future) tag him as a future murderer. In terms of pure action thrill-making, Minority Report is peerless. Structured as a series of chase scenes around a futuristic Washington, D.C., Minority Report uses the geography of its many locations to create unusual, inventive action sequences that find Cruise’s Anderton increasingly desperate—few filmmakers are as imaginative in their action, utilizing every part of the frame and set to add to the excitement. But beyond the action and the film’s philosophical interest in examining free will in a way similar to a Greek tragedy, Minority Report is so memorable for its ultra realistic depiction of our near future.
The world of Minority Report is much like our own, with middle class families living in comfortable apartments, and citizens worried about how crime will affect their children. It’s not in the broad strokes that Minority Report is radical, but in the details. In the Washington, D.C. of Minority Report, police officers arrest people from dropships that descend on their suburban households, arresting them before they’ve actually committed any crime; retinal scanners identify customers at retail stores and tailor products to their individual identities; people operate their computers through motion sensors, never touching a mouse or stylus in order to control their programs; cars drive themselves along superhighways; synthetic inhaler drugs get addicts high the same way a person with asthma takes their medication; people get cheap sexual thrills through virtual reality simulations; and people get their eyes swapped out to escape their past identities. Everything is thought out and plausible in Minority Report, and not only that, but probable. We will likely live in a world that looks similar to this one. Never before (save perhaps Blade Runner) has science fiction world-building felt so lived-in and real. Spielberg loves to research fringe science theories , so it’s no wonder many of these fictional technologies are coming to fruition in real life.
Minority Report remains the high point of Spielberg’s career, but he’s put out many other good films since. The same year as Minority Report, he released the delightful con-caper, Catch Me If You Can (2002), which reignited Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. In 2005 he made the groundbreaking War of the Worlds, which inserted 9/11 imagery into the popular disaster film (something that has become all the more common in recent years), and Munich, a story of Israeli assassins getting revenge on Palestinian terrorists for the murders at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which only seems more relevant with the constant crises in the Holy Land. In 2008, he made another Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and he finally adapted Hergé to film with The Adventures of Tintin in 2011. Also in 2011 he put out the emotional World War One tale, War Horse, and in 2012 he canonized America’s greatest president in Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role.
Steven Spielberg is busy with much more than directing in the currently Hollywood climate. He produces countless movies and TV shows, shepherding things as diverse as the Transformers films and the TV musical Smash into the world. He founded Dreamworks and originates plenty of high-concept projects, like this year’s Interstellar, before relinquishing them to other directors. Spielberg is an integral part of the Hollywood machine at this point, but it will always be as a director that he best thrives. He is an old-fashioned storyteller with a pioneer’s sense of filmmaking. He pushes forward cinema technology and technique, while making us look back at the darker moments of the 20th century. He’s a kid at heart, but with the technical knowhow of the most accomplished technicians and the emotional wisdom of a saint. He’s a filmmaking prodigy and remains the planet’s premiere filmmaker capable of combining wonder and heart.