Great Director Series: Steven Spielberg’s Missteps

Unless I’ve seriously overestimated the quality of both Amistad and The Color Purple, these will be the only five films of Steven Spielberg’s career that get a rating of less than three stars. Considering the length and output of his career it’s a pretty incredible feat and one I feel doesn’t get recognized as much as it should. This is the beginning of a series of posts of mine rating the films of Steven Spielberg. This will be a much looser series than the one I’ve almost completed for the Disney films and I will be posting for the Pixar films. The first films to be reviewed will be the ones that I hadn’t seen before starting this series (including Sugarland, 1941, Always, Amistad, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, A.I., Munich, and Minority Report) and the rest will follow as I get to re-watching them and at the end a full ranking will follow.

As for now, enjoy the reviews of these five bombs from Spielberg’s career. They are being presented in chronological order. 

The Sugarland Express – 1974 – dir. Steven Spielberg

This is the film everyone forgets about. With Jaws released in 1975, no one remembers that Spielberg did direct a film prior to that. The Sugarland Express is certainly interesting as an historical record. Like Kubrick’s films prior to Paths of Glory (although some would say prior to Dr. Strangelove) what’s so interesting about Sugarland is that it has all the hallmarks of classic Spielberg. The focus is entirely on the characters emotions and he uses interesting camera work to show this off. Sugarland is a prison break movie where two idiot parents go to try and reclaim their child who had been taken away by social services. And unfortunately that is its biggest problem. While we see the style of classic Spielberg, one of the most important aspects of his films is having characters that we care about or can at least sympathize with. Unfortunately, the couple in this film makes Daisy Buchanan seem sympathetic in comparison. And while I don’t believe that you need to like the characters for a story to be good, part of Spielberg’s style is connecting us to characters which here, does not work. It’s not a bad film. It’s just not a very good film either.

1941 – 1979 – dir. Steven Spielberg

I was about halfway through this film when I started asking myself, “What am I watching.” Like Sugarland this has many hallmarks of classic Spielberg’s style (in particular the cinematography and pacing) and even had a Jaws parody at the beginning. Unfortunately, the film was trying desperately to be funny and it just wasn’t. Spielberg’s pacing would have been perfect had this been a dramatic World War Two film. Even if it had been a Dr. Strangelove styled black comedy it may have worked. However, 1941 is slapstick and parody without any wit. It’s not much of a surprise that Spielberg never did another straight comedy after this, he’s just not very good at it.

Always – 1989 – dir. Steven Spielberg

Romantic schmaltzy patriarchal crap. Despite the talents of Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman, the script undoes this film. Instead of being touching (although it achieves that in moments) we hear Richard Dreyfuss’s ghost say over and over and over again that Holly Hunter is “his girl.” Romance can be done well. Melodrama can be done well. Schmaltz can be done well. Always was not.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 1997 – dir. Steven Spielberg

This movie starts out really well. Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, and Richard Schiff are all good actors and the film does make you care about the family scenario of Goldblum and his daughter (played excellently by Vanessa Lee Chester). The problem of this film is that they actually went through on the threat of taking the Dinosaurs back to the mainland, and the scenes just don’t work. The movie went on for 2h10m and it was about a half hour too long because they took the frigging Dinos back. It just wasn’t suspenseful or threatening. I feel this could have worked had they kept going with the environmentalist tone the film was working with for its first half rather than just repeating the tone of the first film. The Lost World had potential and it was totally squandered.

War Horse – 2011 – dir. Steven Spielberg

“Really?” some of you will say. “War Horse? Not Hook? Not Crystal Skull? Not Temple of Doom? Not The Terminal?” No! War Horse. I will admit that I have a bias against non-talking animal films. The animals are always a symbol for either mortality or friendship and that got tired after Old Yeller.However, I will defend my hatred of War Horse because of the movie it most reminds me of. I can’t help but see the shadow of Always whenever I watch War Horse. It’s melodramatic and schmaltzy in its delivery. The characters seem to care a heck of a lot more about what’s going on than I did as the audience.  The grandiosity was never earned and the emotions never had even a degree of verisimilitude. I will never understand people’s adoration for this film (or any horse film for that matter). 

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