By Ty Burr
Updated July 24, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Watching Hook inspires one question: What the hell has happened to Steven Spielberg? The director who seemed heir to the great narrative moviemakers of the Hollywood studio years — who could blow jaded audiences away with sheer craft — now has trouble telling a story straight. Thanks to his past smashes, his name continues to outdraw most actors’. But where Spielberg’s movies once zipped like jets, they now drift rudderlessly. Where they were lean, they’re now bloated. Where they engaged real, human emotions — despite subjects like aliens and killer sharks — they now seem as grand and empty as a politician’s promise.

Don’t believe it? Rent Hook on a double bill with anything from the first half of Spielberg’s career, before he became imprisoned as the Prince of Hollywood. Try E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws. Better yet, rent Duel, the 1971 made-for-TV suspenser that was the 24-year-old director’s first feature-length film. It’s a natural match with Spielberg’s latest; they’re both about the domestic male salvaging his humanity (not to mention his life) under duress. But where Duel leaves you breathless with its genius simplicity, Hook plays like the most expensive, least personal Father’s Day card in the store.

The version of Duel available on tape — the same one that played in European theaters — is almost 20 minutes longer than the cut that originally aired on TV, but even with the extra footage, there isn’t a frame of fat on it. Richard Matheson’s script (from his own short story) taps into a fear both primal and utterly contemporary: that one of those huge 18-wheelers whipping past you on the highway might suddenly — with no motive or warning — try to kill you. All Duel is, really, is 90 minutes of escalating terror in which henpecked salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) slowly realizes that the mammoth, smoke-blackened semi, whose driver we never see, will stop at nothing to smoosh him into the desert pavement. There are hints of knights-versus-dragons allegory — Weaver drives a Valiant — but most of the time Spielberg is too preoccupied with tightening the thumbscrews to pay attention to meaning. He doesn’t have to; it’s built right into the story.

So if Hook isn’t the answer to Spielberg’s career funk, what would be? Well, he could do worse than to find a script with relatively few frills and restrict himself to a penny-ante budget. Hitchcock did it with Psycho. Maybe Spielberg should direct under a pseudonym. Whatever it takes to remove the pressure of being ”Steven Spielberg” and regain the sinewy confidence of Duel, The Sugarland Express, and Jaws — movies that, in their maturity of craft and unpretentious human drama, remain more adult than The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always, and Hook. Spielberg’s problem isn’t that he needs to regain his childhood. It’s that he needs to grow back up. A