Steven Spielberg turns 74: Six films that showcase the director’s artistry better than his blockbusters

Some of Spielberg's less-remembered films tend to showcase his mastery over the art and craft of popular cinema even more than his blockbusters and iconic movies do.

Pradeep Menon December 18, 2020 12:07:17 IST
Steven Spielberg turns 74: Six films that showcase the director’s artistry better than his blockbusters

Steven Spielberg. Facebook

Motion pictures with synchronised dialogue, or ‘talkies’ as they aWare popularly known as, are less than a century old. Steven Spielberg has been making movies for over half that period.

In his nearly 50-year long career so far, the prolific American filmmaker has made 32 feature-length films, frequently creating indelible images and moments for generations to savour. When you consider that his career has spanned films such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s; E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones movies in the 1980s; Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan in the 1990s; and Lincoln and The Post in the new millennium, you begin to comprehend the might of the man’s vision.

(Also read: Looking back at Jaws, the first summer blockbuster from 45 years ago, through the lens of a pandemic)

Spielberg’s penchant for big, clean entertainers tends to overshadow the fact that his films have often been eerily prescient, frequently predicting – sometimes even defining – human behaviour and progress (or its lack thereof). And of course, there is the undeniable optimism about the human condition that invariably shines through.

Yet, some of his less-remembered films tend to showcase his mastery over the art and craft of popular cinema even more than his blockbusters and iconic movies do. Here, then, are six underrated Steven Spielberg movies.

Ready Player One (2018)

The year is 2045. Humankind’s preferred escape from the clutches of the real world is a multipronged virtual reality universe called OASIS, an acronym for some collection of words that would earn the grudging respect of the creators of PM-CARES, PM-WANI, and the Ministry of AYUSH.

OASIS is currently a publicly available entity, but it is being eyed by a greedy corporation for total control. The late creator of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) hid away three keys in the system before he died – spawning a quest that would grant the finder of the keys the much-coveted ownership and control of OASIS. 

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

Based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is an over-the-top sensory experience, embellished with generous doses of pop culture. There is at least one unforgettable sequence in the film – one that finds the characters bang in the middle of a virtual version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a part of the key-quest. 

There is a familiarity to the world-building in the film, considering that it is the last of Spielberg’s releases to date, and world-building is his specialty. There are touches from many of his earlier films, and true to form, there is a wide-eyed optimism permeating through its bleak vision of a future world. Ready Player One seems like a film about (and for) gamers at first glance, but it is actually a wee bit more than that. It does not always hold up to intense scrutiny, and it would have been helped immensely with some better-defined characters. Yet, it is a film with a gentle message, masked by a relentless adventure ride relying on trippy visuals that rarely let your attention waver.

War of the Worlds (2005)

I must admit, I dismissed War of the Worlds when I first watched it, despite being a fan of both its director and the leading man. In the month preceding this June 2005 release, I had watched on the big screen, the conclusion to Darth Vader’s three-film origin story, flush with modern-day political messaging; and an edgy new Batman reboot from the director of one of my all-time-favourite films, Memento

War of the Worlds, for some reason, just seemed like one-dimensional summer blockbuster material at the time, and Tom Cruise, per me, did not make for a convincing everyman. Subsequent viewings revealed that War of the Worlds happens to be one of Spielberg’s gloomiest films to date, which automatically makes it a refreshing change for him. And Cruise layers every performance of his with tiny actor things that are usually only appreciated if you are looking for it. 

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

Based on HG Wells’ book of the same name, the film explored familiar ‘alien’ territory for Spielberg, but this one could not be more different from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. In terms of scale, it is his biggest movie about humans encountering extraterrestrial life, and the master visual storyteller at the helm adequately amps up the stakes.  

Starting from a spectacular opening invasion, the film is a series of tense scenes and thrill sequences designed to heighten the sense of a post-9/11 world, waiting with bated breath for the next unexpected attack. While I have never been on board with the idea of an alien invasion being used to draw comparisons with a geo-political war involving actual humans, the film and its characters are all representative of a world prone to fear after a devastating event. And by focusing on one father and his children, the film seems like the story of a global catastrophe and a personal saga all at once.

Duel (1971)

There is an element of pure cinema to Spielberg’s first official full-length feature, the ABC TV movie Duel, which later got an international theatrical release because of its American success. 

In this unputdownable cult thriller, the villain is a truck that is chasing a businessman who is commuting in his car. Obviously, the truck has a human driver, but that does not matter. The way the truck looks, sounds, and the way it has been shot; all of it makes what is essentially a cold, gigantic machine appear to be the very face of evil.  

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

If ever you needed to learn how strong audio-visual grammar can create emotion and feeling where there should be none, Duel is a great case study. It also becomes plainly obvious why this film put a young Spielberg on the map.

He made the iconic Jaws just a few years later in 1975, making him a household name; but the latter was just an expansive upgrade over Duel, where it all began.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

That A.I. was a pet project of a truly great American auteur, Stanley Kubrick, before being revived and brought to life by Spielberg after the former’s death, is a part of film lore. It remains the last screenplay that Spielberg wrote for himself, and it is also one of his most complex films yet.

A.I. is an intriguing exercise on multiple levels: You could try to imagine the kind of film Kubrick’s clear-headed, rational mastery of the form and craft would have turned out, versus how Spielberg’s more audience-friendly, emotional (but still masterful) tenor impacted the story and subsequent film. 

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

Either way, it delves into questions about the human condition, seen through the eyes of a child, in ways that few storytellers have ever attempted. When the film was made, the concept of highly evolved artificial intelligence was just that – a concept. Even today, with advances in machine learning, what passes off as AI is usually a system of vastly sophisticated algorithms that can simulate aspects of human intelligence by parsing through amounts of data that we cannot even begin to comprehend, in mere fractions of measurable time. But we are still quite far from creating machines that can actually feel.

There are ethical and moral questions that accompany true artificial intelligence, and Spielberg’s film explores these nuances in a humane way that only he can, while also having the kind of intricacy that he usually prefers to eschew. And Haley Joel Osment’s central portrayal is yet another reminder of how Spielberg can draw fascinating and nuanced performances from child actors.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

World War II is a backdrop frequently explored by Spielberg in his movies. In fact, his two Academy Awards for Best Director were both awarded for movies set during WWII – Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Unsurprisingly, both these films find a place close to the top of Spielberg’s filmography.

Yet, there is something about Empire of the Sun that sets it apart from the above mentioned classics. Perhaps it is the early 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai setting; or perhaps it is the fact that you get to see the effects of war in the developing world almost entirely through the eyes of a British child who is only just learning the limits of his privilege; or maybe it is the monumental production design that makes the era of the film seem as authentic as anything else Spielberg has made, backed up by unforgettable frames and stunning visual craft overall.

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

In particular, I always marvel at an adolescent Christian Bale’s anchoring central performance, a mighty effort that puts into perspective his marvelous dramatic displays as an adult much later in life. Bale, the kid, was an absolute natural; and Empire of the Sun, for me, is the quintessential Spielberg masterwork – a grand visual orchestra crafted solely to explore the primal nature of human innocence.

Minority Report (2002)

There are not too many films set in the future that still look ‘futuristic’ decades after they release. Spielberg’s first film with Tom Cruise is a notable exception. Not only does the film look timeless, it has also accurately predicted so many aspects of urban, developed life that were not true then, but are true today. 

From being the purported inspiration behind sophisticated touchscreens with features such as gesture control and pinch-zoom, to targeted ads, to government-run mass surveillance technology that tracks citizens and their every move, Minority Report is a scary visualisation of a world that is slowly but surely coming to be. 

The film does not just look deep and hard intent versus action, cause and effect, behavioral patterns of people, and the many delicate layers that make up choice and free will; it is also a clever, pulpy little thriller that keeps you hooked. 

Steven Spielberg turns 74 Six films that showcase the directors artistry better than his blockbusters

It was also the film that first made me realise that Cruise’s magnetic screen presence camouflages just how much of the character he is holding within him. Just watch his eyes through the entire film – from doped-up cop, to father who has lost a child, to head of a cutting-edge law enforcement agency, to future murder accused, Cruise’s eyes signal all those changes of feeling and emotion in fine, precise ways. Every twinkle in the eye just is not the same. 

In 2002, our cinema was still analog, but Spielberg managed to make Minority Report look more  ‘digital’ than almost anything else up till or since then. 

All images from Facebook.

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