Yes, I’m a pretentious film geek who salivates at the sound of “Criterion Collection”. I like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a little known Swedish children’s movie about a boy and a seal at the local circus – it’s basically Free Ølåf) and Fellini’s La Strada – but I love the great popcorn movies. For me, there are two almost perfect representatives of that hallowed group of films: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.
What happened to the man who made those films, though? Spielberg is still one of the best craftsmen in Hollywood, but the thing that was exhilarating about his early films was their sheer energy. There was a joy to the filmmaking, a childlike sense of fun, that made Spielberg unique. It’s there in the two films mentioned, and it’s also there in E.T. (mixed with a generous dollop of sentimentality) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but the biggest failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that it was tired and felt forced. There was little of the exhilaration of the earlier films in the series, especially of the first. Obviously this could be attributed to Indy having aged himself, but that’s a disappointingly humdrum explanation that pretty much begs the question: why have a fourth Indy movie in the first place?
More than that though, rewatching Jaws over the weekend I was made aware of how Spielberg in his early days was much more ruthless. He didn’t have qualms about having a young boy be chomped by a shark, he didn’t think twice about having a number of pretty gruesome deaths in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t the childish sadism of Temple of Doom, but it basically meant, “Yes, horrible things can happen. Anyone can get it in the teeth.” And as a result the films were more exciting. If even a kid can be eaten by a shark, well, then nobody’s safe. (Compare Jurassic Park, where the kids and the heroes are never really in jeopardy – it’s pretty much nobodies and evil lawyers that get eaten. It’s amazing that a cheesy, bad film such as Deep Blue Sea gets this better by making it clear from the first that anyone can die – even Samuel L. “Badass” Jackson.)
The much-ridiculed CGI retouching of E.T., replacing guns with walkie-talkies is symptomatic of this fretful, overly squeamish Spielberg. The BMX chase in the original version of E.T. is exciting, and the moment when they get out the guns, we know: Uh oh. Something bad could happen. Compare the same moment in the ‘remastered’ version, where the impression we get is that the worst that could happen is, they might be caught by the grown-ups and given a severe talking-to. Where’s the danger? Where’s the sense of actual risk? If you take that away, characters that we care about become invincible video game characters with the god mode turned on.
I’m in a minority in that I quite liked much of War of the Worlds, but it’s a prime example of a film that suffers from Spielberg’s “playing it safe” doctrine. It’s pretty clear, in every single scene, that he wouldn’t kill off Dakota Fanning – and while her brother puts himself in a situation where he’s almost sure to die, we get an unbelievable, corny deus ex ending that many filmmakers who are much less skilled than Spielberg would have scoffed at.
Obviously Spielberg isn’t the young man he was when he made Jaws or Raiders. He’s older now, so it’s only to be expected… but did he have to become so damn po-faced? Where’s the glee? Reduce Spielberg to his (considerable) skill while taking away his sense of joy and adventure, and you get Zombie Spielberg.
And everyone knows that only Godzilla Lucas can fight Zombie Spielberg.