A generation influenced by Steven Spielberg, and what they don't care about
What was Steven Spielberg’s last Steven Spielberg movie?
I don’t just mean the last film he directed, or the last time he godfathered a disappointing Men in Black sequel. If you time-traveled a typical American moviegoer from 1982 forward to now, they’d have a clear sense of what a Steven Spielberg movie is—and it’s not the shadow-crusted verbal assault of Lincoln, or the Old Hollywood John Ford landscapes of War Horse. Tintin feels a bit like an Indiana Jones movie—certainly more than the fourth Indiana Jones movie, which brews Cold War sci-fi and aliens and Shia LaBeouf doing Brando doing The Wild One into a stew of ‘50s homagery and then pretends the Russians were just Nazis with wigs.
Not to say these movies weren’t good. I love Lincoln, love some scenes in Tintin, am fascinated by the cross-purpose failures of Crystal Skull. (Spielberg is the guy who never forgot that Harrison Ford looks best when you treat him like a punching bag: See also, Air Force One.) Ten years ago, Spielberg made Munich, one of the boldest and weirdest thrillers in the post-9/11 Bleak Action Wave. It actually gets better when it gets more ridiculous, when Mathieu Amalric starts playing French Satan and a beautiful assassin with two bullets in her bare chest death-walks through a houseboat to pet her kitty-cat goodbye.
That same year, Spielberg released War of the Worlds. Our time traveler from 1982 might recognize that as a Spielberg movie. There are children of divorce, and a dad protecting his kids from a monster, and the moment when a bunch of people look up into the sky at space travelers. But you could just as easily make the case for War of the Worlds as an Anti-Spielberg movie: This time, the space travelers laser-beam people into dust particles.
Right when Spielberg stopped making Steven Spielberg movies, the younger generation picked up the slack. This week sees the release of Jurassic World, less a sequel to Jurassic Park than an homage to everything you vaguely recall loving about Jurassic Park. Director Colin Trevorrow drifts off ambient bits of Spielbergiana. When the movie begins [SPOILERS, SPOILERS, AND MORE SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON] two suburban kids so typical that you’ll never even bother to learn their names get sent away on a vacation—a distraction, we quickly learn, from their parents’ impending divorce. The first half-hour of the movie is all shots of people staring up in wonder: It’s the Brontosaurus scene from Jurassic Park writ nonstop, and also the end of Close Encounters and E.T.
And the end of Super 8. And half the scenes in Godzilla. J.J. Abrams’ only non-sequel feature film arrived in 2011 with Spielberg as a producer and an operating aesthetic. Gareth Edwards’ monster-mash reboot owes nothing to the radiated paranoia of the original Godzilla and everything to Spielberg. (New York‘s Gilbert Cruz noted five key moments of Spielberg homage. You could double that number, or square it.)
Super 8 got some nice critical praise when it came out and doesn’t really get talked about much now. At the time, it was a nice break from sequels and superheroes: Pirates 4, Cars 2, Harry Potter 8, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America. Reviews at the time focused more on what Super 8 wasn’t than what it was. It earned a lot of credit, some deserved, for being a movie about a bunch of regular-looking kids and Kyle Chandler.
(ASIDE: 2011 was also the summer of Cowboys & Aliens. Spielberg produced that movie, and supposedly screened a bunch of classic westerns for the director and the writers. You want to imagine Spielberg as a frustrated teacher, screening My Darling Clementine and Destry Rides Again, asking his class what defines a western. “Landscape photography?” asks Professor Spieberg. “Carefully-edited action sequences with an emphasis on a gradual build-up? A thoughtful consideration of what defines justice in the moral frontiers of civilization?” A hand shoots up in the back of the class. “They wear hats!” says Alex. “I liked the part where the buildings exploded!” says Jon, waking from a nap. END OF ASIDE.)
Viewed from a few years later, it’s possible to appreciate Super 8 more and like it less. More, because Abrams clues into what makes the defining Steven Spielberg movies work. The family dynamics aren’t delicate—the movie starts with Mom’s funeral!—but Joel Courtney plays a believable suburban kid, with friends and a Fanning crush. When weird things start happening all over town, Abrams starts out focusing on the ripples of that weirdness: Escaped dogs, quivering lights. Noah Emmerich’s Bad Colonel declares martial law in town, which feels like the moment in E.T. when Elliott’s house becomes an Outbreak laboratory. You’ve gotten used to the town’s rhythms, so you feel the invasion.
Abrams starts off the movie with a nifty concept—kids filming a micro-budget zombie movie find themselves in an actual alien-horror invasion—and some of the movie’s best moments have the handmade charm of a big-budget home video. That’s Abrams’ genuine personality shining through, I think: The kid who grew up wanting to make movies makes a movie about kids who want to make movies. (Classic Steven Spielberg movies don’t have that extra remove. Today, Elliott would have an iPhone and Roy Neary would have a DSLR. Life was less meta back then.)
But it’s also possible to see what Abrams misses about Spielberg—or rather, how a director’s unique style gets hyperbolized when that style becomes a genre. Super 8 wants its monster to be the shark from Jaws and E.T.: A mysterious and malevolent-destructive presence who also forms a cute-sad-orphan connection with a lonely human boy. The first part kind of works, although with none of Jaws’ careful thriller build-up: The initial action sequence in Super 8 is a train crash D-Day kablammo that violates whatever artisanal movie reality Abrams is going for. The cute stuff is just nonsense. At the climax, the little kid tells the insect-reptile alien: “Bad things happen. But you can still live.” You only really believe it if you accept how Abrams is shorthanding the entirety of E.T. into a couple minutes of screentime.
Godzilla shares an outline. Mom dies in the first scene. Godzilla is Jaws and then he’s E.T. : A monstrous force swimming through the water, and then everyone’s best pal. At the film’s climax, when they’re both exhausted from the final battle, lead human Aaron Taylor-Johnson collapses at the exact same moment that Godzilla collapses: It’s an echo of how Elliott gets linked to E.T., except without the whole movie establishing their relationship.
You could argue Close Encounters treats its aliens with the same arc: A freaky unknown becoming a force of swoony-music goodness. Super 8, Godzilla, and now Jurassic World all take one big cue from Close Encounters: The presence of a far-out military-scientist complex, studying the mysterious presence for reasons arguably good but generally ill. Ken Watanabe in Godzilla is doing Truffaut in Close Encounters, and Jurassic World retcons BD Wong’s Jurassic Park scientist into a less lovable version of Peter Coyote in E.T. Vincent D’Onofrio is a delicious ham in Jurassic World as the guy who wants to turn dinosaurs into soldiers—an echo of an idea backgrounding Raiders of the Lost Ark, that cool special-effects monstrosities can be used in warfare.
In a Steven Spielberg movie, that military-scientist complex is also in the business of suppressing information. These are movies about marvelous creatures brought to life by marvelous special effects: giant sharks, aliens, dinosaurs, Judeo-Christian attack-ghosts. They’re bad, but maybe they’re just following their nature: The real bad guys are the ones who are trying to hide those marvels from the rest of the world. Ken Watanabe in Godzilla isn’t as mean as Noah Emmerich in Super 8—but they both operate from the same belief that the way to keep the world safe is to keep the monsters secret. In Jurassic World, Irrfan Khan plays the onscreen surrogate for the original Jurassic’s John Hammond—but he’s also unmistakably the mayor from Jaws, refusing to close down his park during tourist season.
It’s so funny that you have to laugh—Khan’s character only makes sense if you pretend he’s snorting cocaine offscreen—but the fact that World ultimately treats Khan’s character like a fundamental nice guy reflects how Spielberg himself softballs Hammond in his own movie. Michael Crichton’s original novel takes Hammond seriously as an entrepreneur and a dirtbag—my favorite passage in Crichton’s writing is the end of his Hammond, a man walking through the ruined dreams of his dinosaur park and already making plans for his next dinosaur park, right before a bunch of cute little dinosaurs eat him alive. It’s like the end of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Spielberg turns Hammond into British Uncle Walt Disney. You can appreciate how Richard Attenborough is the perfect Old British Man—but only if you don’t mind that Hammond barely seems to care how many people die on his island.
By Jurassic Park, Spielberg had kids, and you can feel some babyproofing. (He famously replaced guns with walkie-talkies in an E.T. rerelease—something he regrets even more than Crystal Skull.) And there’s a weird babyproofing vibe running through all the movies in the Spielberg genre. Nobody you like dies in Super 8—the alien only really kills military meanies, which the movie doesn’t even treat as an accidental crime. Bryan Cranston dies early in Godzilla, but the movie can’t quite figure out how to take that death seriously. Remember the mourning mom in Jaws, slapping Chief Brody because he didn’t close down the beach? Imagine if instead she asked Brody for a job; that’s Taylor-Johnon in Godzilla.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that the main-character body count in Jurassic Park is higher than Jurassic World, and there’s a slight sense that the deaths in the new movie are “deserved,” that the only people who die are bad, or just stupid. There’s nothing like Samuel L. Jackson, last seen as an arm without a body. Or that final moment with Muldoon, the noble hunter graciously accepting that he’s become the prey. Jurassic World repeats that Muldoon scene in outline with a very different ending: Raptors are constantly standing a couple inches from Jungle Man Chris Pratt, but only so he can pet them.
What’s missing from all these movies, I think, is a sense of randomness: The freaky possibility that anything can happen, and that awesome things are also terrifying. Maybe it’s because all the filmmakers grew up with special effects, so they don’t really know or care how to make them look scary. The T. Rex in Jurassic Park is ultimately nicer than the velociraptors, but it’s an enemy-of-my-enemy thing: Jurassic Park doesn’t need Ken Watanabe to spend a whole movie explaining why the Tyrannosaur is a GOOD monster. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary’s brush with cosmic transcendence ruins him as a family man and a reasonable member of society.
The subtext of Jurassic Park is how Dr. Grant, bachelor who hates kids, becomes a dad figure only after he loses the ability to foist the kids onto somebody else: Shades of War of the Worlds! But it’s not like his single-guy childlessness is something the movie needs to cure completely—whereas Jurassic World treats a dinosaur outbreak as an opportunity for Bryce Dallas Howard to just, like, chill the heck out, lady. (SPOILER ALERT FOR CHARACTERS YOU WON’T CARE ABOUT: Jurassic World also strongly implies that the divorcing parents won’t get divorced anymore… because dinosaurs.)
Movies in the Steven Spielberg Genre tend to group around the idea that almost everybody is good besides the one or two people/creatures who are bad. You miss Quint, or Muldoon, or the moments in E.T. when Elliot being friends with an alien plays out like a weird mind-expanding hormonal implosion. The Ark Opening in Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the least perfect sequence in the movie. But it’s a compelling idea: Everyone in this movie has been chasing after the Big Cool Special Effects Thing, without realizing that they were running straight into their own oblivion. There’s no moment in that scene when Indy establishes some kind of kinship with those beings. The only reason they don’t kill our heroes is because our heroes refuse to look at them.
Not Looking At The Monster: Isn’t that also Spielberg’s defining aesthetic? Don’t show the guy driving the truck in Duel. Don’t show the malfunctioning shark puppet in Jaws. Save the alien ship for the very end of Close Encounters. Introduce the T. Rex by showing some ripples in a water glass.
If that’s the Spielberg you’re looking for—the Spielberg of tension, misdirection, who made everything offscreen seem bigger than life—then you’ll find more of it in his descendants’ pre-blockbuster filmography. Edwards filmed Monsters on the shoe-est of strings, and it’s less an action movie than a road-trip romance—but then again, Jaws plays more like a buddy movie or a horror movie than any blockbuster action movie made this decade. The monsters in Monsters aren’t as scary as the shark, but they have the freaky unknowability of the Close Encounters aliens.
And the pre-credits scene in Abrams’ Lost pilot is like the whole history of Spielberg. A man in a jungle, a dog, wild orchestral music, the arrival on a seashore destroyed by impossible violence: It’s like that boulder chased Indy right onto Omaha Beach. (And worth pointing out that Lost wound up set in a world where everyone has Spielberg-movie daddy issues.)
It’s possible that Spielberg himself has gotten a bit skeptical about Steven Spielberg movies. Maybe the turn came around the millennium, when he made the very weird A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Ever since, you would always hear him attached to Spielberg-sounding stuff: Interstellar before Nolan, Robopocalypse, Ready Player One, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Harry Potter for a hot second, definitely The BFG next year. But he seems to dig the challenge to make dialogue look cool: The upcoming Bridge of Spies could join Catch Me If You Can and Munich in an espionage triptych, and Lincoln treats conversation like opera.
This is, after all, the guy who filmed that long scene on the boat in Jaws: Three dudes, getting drunk, laughing, talking, storytelling. There aren’t scenes like that too often, in Steven Spielberg Movies that Spielberg doesn’t direct. The humans in Godzilla are declamatory authority figures and action-dude meatbags. Super 8 disintegrates into an explosion fest in the back half.
Jurassic Park climaxes with a battle between monsters—T. Rex vs. Raptors, big vs. small, thug vs. strategist—but it specifically ends with Grant and the surviving humans back on the helicopter. The last shot of Jurassic Park is a helicopter carrying the characters away from the land of marvels—back to the world without special effects. The subtle difference in Jurassic World‘s final scenes speak volumes: The humans get an ending, but the dinosaurs get the glamour shot. The weird takeaway from all these movies is that there is no world without special effects now. The world belongs to the cool monsters. The humans are just breathing there, staring up in wonder.
You can only stare up for so long. Eventually, your neck hurts.
Admit it: You loved Jurassic World. Email me why at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to convince you differently in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.