In the decades since he invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws, depicted first contact with a musically inclined alien race, and unearthed the Ark of the Covenant, Steven Spielberg has lost some of his mojo.
Having recently revisited the original Jurassic Park (the movie that is, not the island), I was struck by the realisation that this was the last Steven Spielberg film imbued with the same sense of magic and wonder that distinguished his work during the 1970s and ‘80s.
The opening scenes on the island and in the amber mine echo Raiders of the Last Ark; the build-up to the first dinosaur reveal is as masterful as Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s introduction to the aliens; and the sustained suspense sequences every bit as visceral as Jaws. The familiar strains of a John Williams score also evoke that cozy feeling that comes with watching classic Spielberg.
Jaws (1975), Close Encounters (1978), Raiders (1981), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) – and to a lesser degree Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) – represent the director at his peak before, inevitably, the child who never grew up began to grow up, and a penchant for sentimentality and more serious themes began to replace the Spielberg magic of old.
That’s not to say Jurassic Park was the last “great” Spielberg film – there’s Schindler’s List (1986) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) of course, undeniably his most potent works. And even his Tom Cruise sci-fi double Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), while not considered classics, saw him once again firing on all cylinders.
But a majority of his intermittent returns to the fantastic have lacked the wonderment inherent in his earlier work.
His Jurassic Park follow-up, The Lost World (1997), has set pieces that only he could pull off – the raptors stalking through high grass, the twin T. Rex attack, the trailer over the cliff sequence – but there’s a workmanlike quality to the film that suggests his heart wasn’t really in it.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a brilliant homage to the late Stanley Kubrick, is compromised by an excessively saccharine coda at odds with the film’s sombre tone. The misbegotten Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) only serves to illustrate why he shouldn’t make another Indy film; and the more recent The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and The BFG (2016) are mediocre at best.
Curiously, many of the genre films bearing his name as a producer – like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), and J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) – possess the very Spielbergian quality his own movies have since lost.
In the case of Poltergeist, which he also co-wrote, a popular misconception arose that it was actually Spielberg in the director’s chair, not Hooper – perpetuated following a set visit by the L.A. Times while Spielberg was picking up second unit shots. However, there’s no denying that the film feels more like the work of the mind behind E.T than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Spielberg may have lost some of the mojo that propelled him through the ‘70s and ‘80s, but few directors have successfully captured lightning in a bottle like he has. J.J. Abrams is often mentioned as a spiritual successor, and while Super 8 is an affectionate homage to the days of The Goonies and E.T, it more closely resembles a Joe Dante film. Christopher Nolan is also cited as being in the same league, and he certainly is as a filmmaker, but his movies lack the warmth and life-affirming qualities that are the Spielberg trademark.
Fortunately there are glimmers of the old Spielberg magic in Ready Player One (2018), a tale that pretty much owes its existence to his early masterworks. T. Rex, the DeLorean and a gremlin cameo notwithstanding, the director has admitted he cut out a lot of his own work that was present in the novel, instead celebrating the style, culture, politics, music, film and TV of the ‘80s. Wielding motion capture technology in new and creative ways to enable a team of youngsters to traverse the VR pop culture landscape of the OASIS, the kid who never grew up appears to have reawakened.