An Analysis – Spielberg vs. Spielberg

In 1987, Spielberg seemed to improve a lot from the mistakes of The Color Purple when he released his supremely underrated war epic Empire of the Sun. This film would be his first serious treatment of World War II, though certainly not his last. One thing Spielberg is not credited enough for is his magnificent work with child actors, as can be observed from the almost entirely kid cast of E.T. With Empire of the Sun, Spielberg worked with a prepubescent Christian Bale as the main character, and, like Elliot from E.T., he is a complex character with a real existential arch throughout the film. Working almost like an Oliver Twist story set in Japanese-occupied China, Christian Bale gives an amazing and convincing performance as an upper-class English boy who is struggling to survive in a P.O.W camp. Unfortunately, this film was neither then nor now recognized for its artistic achievement. Concordantly, his airplane-fixated romance Always (1989) equally failed to impress, especially as it was cast under the shadow of the much more positively received Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But the ’90s would prove to be more rewarding for Steven.

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In 1993, Spielberg released two of his best films in the same year: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Though these two movies couldn’t be more different from each other, both of them capture a director at his creative peak. With Jurassic Park, we see Spielberg confidently returning to his roots with photorealistic dinosaurs brought to convincing life with a heartfelt family subplot bubbling underneath, not too unlike his suspense masterpiece Jaws. In Schindler’s List, his mournful tribute to the survivors of the Holocaust, we finally see Spielberg unafraid to leave the popcorn behind and let his actors do the story telling instead of the camera (I respectfully disagree with Terry Gilliam). The black and white gruesome depiction of the Jewish genocide surprisingly was rewarded with a certain mainstream success and led to Spielberg’s long-awaited Best Picture win at the 1994 Academy Awards. Fanboys today complain about Christopher Nolan being ignored by the Academy, but imagine growing up through the ’70s and ’80s and seeing Spielberg lose time and again until that night, almost twenty years after Jaws was released. Schindler’s List was the big winner, but Jurassic Park also managed to clean up a lot of the major technical awards.

Through the years to come we could see Spielberg working hand in hand with both genre movies and serious dramas as well, juggling aliens, dinosaurs, and robots with his other favorite subject, World War II. In 1999, the star-studded Saving Private Ryan was released. Though it failed to win Best Picture, probably only because of his recent win, Saving Private Ryan was another creative and personal milestone for Spielberg. With this film, we can see him reaching another plateau where he can make a serious film on the same thematic level as Schindler’s List but with a blockbuster’s sense of scope and bombast. It rewards as an action film and moving tribute at the same time, combining the two Speilbergs nicely. Shortly thereafter, Steven approached a prolific boom and creative second wind, making a lot of different kinds of ambitious work. Catch Me if You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002) and the flawed but interesting Kubrick project A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) rank as some of his most fully realized and balanced work yet, perhaps still running off the same creative steam from Saving Private Ryan. For my money, Spielberg’s “DreamWorks era” is one of his most important and fruitful after his initial winning streak from the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Saving Pivate Ryan 1

In 2005, the political action-thriller Munich was released alongside a new adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. In grand tradition, Munich was nominated for Best Picture but did not win, and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds was met with a mixed critical reception. Personally, I found War of the Worlds to be a great suspense thriller of a different kind. Though its ending didn’t really satisfy, it was still the same kind of pulp that only Spielberg knows how to deliver with some real humanity, and again we see him tackling the themes of broken homes and fatherhood.

And now we approach another holiday season with the paired release of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. Though being fairly dormant since 2007, when he put out the very unnecessary Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the world seems to be craving the good ol’ days of Spielberg again. This year alone we have had three Spielberg knock-offs/parodies. We had the foul-mouthed stoner comedy Paul (2011), the British creature feature Attack the Block (2011), and the Spielberg-produced/J.J Abrams-directed Super 8 (2011), all of which owe much of their themes and visual style to his early work like E.T., Close Encounters, and other films of the “Amblin era.” So what does this mean for his new directorial efforts? Will the two Spielbergs come together and make music again or will it be cinematic oil and vinegar? Having now seen Tintin, I have to say that motion-capture animation and being produced under Peter Jackson does not fare well for Spielberg. Rather than an investing narrative, he has made a really impressive, but ultimately soulless, videogame cut scene. Tintin is not without its positives too, but compared to the magic and warmth of his more memorable popcorn fodder, it feels like a half-baked script whipped out with minimal effort so that an old man can play with his new toys. Here’s praying that Spielberg does not become the new Robert Zemeckis, or worse yet, the new George Lucas. I have yet to see War Horse, but I hope that the subtext and fully dimensional characters that were severely lacking in Tintin will make their way into the other Spielbergian mode.

War Horse 1

So what are we make of the Spielberg vs. Spielberg dichotomy? Is he better when he works from reality and true history, as in the case of his war epics? Or is he more effective when he is nosediving into more pulpy waters? I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive. The reason Robert Shaw’s monologue in Jaws is so satisfying is because it’s a true moment that informs us about the character. Action movies and genre pictures are always better if we can relate to the people in them. Actually, ALL movies are better when this is the priority. The problem with most modern day blockbusters is that we usually don’t know or care about the characters, and therefore when shit starts blowing up there is no sense of true stakes, as observed in Micheal Bay’s dreaded Transformers trilogy. Unfortunately, this was one of my problems with The Adventures of Tintin. The very thing that Spielberg usually excels at, his attention and love for his characters, was mysteriously checked at the door. What Steven needs to remember is that he is at his best when he finds that perfect Zen balance between the two directors in his head. His most memorable films work when he knows how to entertain his audience while slipping something a bit more just below the surface of the scene. Equally, this balance is just as valid when he shows us the best and worst of humanity though a historical lens, but not without losing the cinematic sense of marvel that has made his movies continually rewarding and infinitely watchable.

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Raised in South-East Idaho and currently working in Los Angeles, Cassidy is a freelance film journalist and an experienced geek.

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