Pardon the intro for getting a little unwieldy, but you try capturing the essence of a world-class director in a few hundred words.
For over four decades, Steven Allan Spielberg KBE OMRI has captured the hearts and minds of filmgoers with his imagination, imagery, innovation, and insight. Spielberg’s the total package: the humanist, the whiz kid, the shrewd business entrepreneur, but above all, a ferocious filmmaker. Who doesn’t have a favorite Spielberg movie? Who didn’t grow up on his genre feats? Who hasn’t been moved to tears by his fantastical and sustainably human melodrama?
Spielberg’s a guy that has run the gamut, playing with aliens and dinosaurs, but able to put away his toys in order to tell more serious stories. You know the John Williams, the Ford-like imagery, the daddy issues, the glint and glare in his characters’ eyes, and the deep abiding love for people thrust into amazing stories. Sure, Spielberg practically made being a director like being a star, but he’s a survivor, and it’s a testament to his gifts that we’re still talking about many of his works to this day.
In anticipation of the upcoming HBO documentary on Spielberg’s iconic career, we’re looking back at his entire filmography as a director, ranking the worst to the best. Ground rules: One, we’re not talking about his documentaries, short or otherwise – narrative film works are the game. Two, no TV movies, so deepest apologies to Duel and Amazing Stories, which are both awesome. Three, directorial works only. So like, maybe we’ll make an Amblin or a Dreamworks list another time (after all, there’s always room to make fun of The Flintstones).
Ready for a list that could only be described as “Spielbergian”?
Senior Staff Writer
33. Always (1989)
Runtime: 2 hr. 2 min.
Pitch: In this flighty romantic dramedy, a dead pilot played by Richard Dreyfuss tries to reconnect with his living girlfriend, played by Hollie Hunter, and it’s just mush. Mush everywhere. A loose remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne.
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, and Audrey Hepburn in her last film role
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg douses Always in honey, syrup, and other saccharine love poisons. But few scenes scream “Spielbergian twinkle gone awry” more than when Pete Sandich (a cackling, snarky Dreyfuss) first arrives in Heaven, only to be greeted by Audrey Hepburn against overbearingly Wyeth-like imagery of fields and trees and all things sickly sweet.
Spielberg is nothing if not a sentimentalist, proud to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he does it like a pro. But the deep, metaphysical wonders of life, love, and the great beyond boiled down to a friggin’ haircut scene? With all due respect, this is probably Spielberg’s lamest scene.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams went weepy, almost parodying his own sound by quadrupling the regal horn work and soft-hearted strings. There’s a theme somewhere inside Williams’ score, but it’s pretty hard to hear against the loud plane sounds, romantic grandeur, and nasal vocal range of Richard Dreyfuss.
Always Audrey: This marked Audrey Hepburn’s last onscreen appearance. The icon accepted a million-dollar payday to play Hap, Dreyfuss’ ghost barber of whatever, offering platitudes about “divine breaths” and other new age nonsense while wearing pristine white outfits. Hepburn’s lovely, aloof, and, admittedly, looks a bit bored. But hey, her outfits are classy and clean, and that million went straight to UNICEF. Who knows what Spielberg’s original choice, Sean Connery, might have done with that money? We can only assume more wigs.
One Big, Over-long, Out-in-the-Open Inside Joke: About that A Guy Named Joe connection for a second! On the set of Jaws, Dreyfuss and Spielberg would quote the Spencer Tracy classic to one another non-stop. Film geeks, amirite? But they eventually found the opportunity to just remake the damn thing in 1989, and the rest is baffling history.
Analysis: Always displays Spielberg’s most noticeable tendencies in their weakest and most meaningless forms. The heart, the dazzle, the gee-shucks staring and overt sincerity. It’s all so boring, and frankly, off-putting. Rarely has Spielberg looked like a director without a grasp on the material he’s directing, but Always presented a director struggling to be creative while reinventing old material.
What’s wrong with Always? Let us count the ways: The schmaltzy romance. The dumb notions of the afterlife. The blind homage to old-timey romance a la Richard Powell and Fleming that just doesn’t fly in 1989. The blazingly overdone aerial photography. The poorly cast trio of leads (and Dreyfuss, in particular, is the least romantic lead you’ll ever see).
Spielberg never gets a handle on his tone, from farce to fanciful love affair, which is why Always tailspins the entire way. It’s not just dull, or pandering, but actually quite annoying in the end. We can’t fault Spielberg for trying as he does, but he misses so big here. Chalk it up to smoke in his eyes on this one.
32. “Kick the Can” from The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Runtime: 25 min.
Pitch: A remake of an old George Clayton Johnson episode of Twilight Zone, Scatman Crothers visits retirement homes with his magical can that turns the elderly young. Look, we’re trying not to use the phrase “magical negro.”
Cast: Burgess Meredith, Scatman Crothers, Bill Quinn, Martin Garner, Selma Diamond, and Helen Shaw
Amblin’ Man: Probably the little kid in a turban being all “I have to go back to home planet now,” or his youth, or some heavy-handed concept like that.
Williams’ Wonder: Whoa whoa whoa, who let Jerry Goldsmith in here? It’s worth noting that Spielberg made a rare concession here working with the famed composer on his Twilight Zone segment, and Goldsmith gave a fanciful waltz that could be best described as memorable, but over-bearing. It’s almost funny to imagine Spielberg meeting with Goldsmith at recording sessions and pulling a Brick Tamland: “You’re not John.”
Getting Upstaged: Spielberg produced Twilight Zone: The Movie, while directing one of four segments among other name directors, and curiously enough his entry is part of the stinky first half. The movie starts with “Time Out”, a John Landis anti-racism moral fable that hangs a pall over the rest of the film given the infamous helicopter accident. Then comes Spielberg’s “Kick the Can”, which does just nothing. Old folks feel sad and wanna be young, but they already feel young inside? Guh.
But then, two young studs by the names of Joe Dante and George Miller directed the hell out of their latter half segments, effectively saving the film. Dante brought pre-Gremlins verve and amazing effects to his short, “It’s a Good Life”, a remake of the episode with the same name. And Miller remakes the William Shatner terror in the skies bit, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, with fevered insanity.
Should you come across this film, start at the middle.
What Could Have Been: Spielberg kicked around several ideas before landing on “Kick the Can” for this film. He considered updating “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, a thriller about aliens invading a neighborhood, in addition to one about a bully getting his comeuppance on Halloween. Man, the “What if?” of those ideas.
Analysis: Emotionally manipulative, overly short, and a little insincere, Spielberg accidentally made what feels like the world’s longest insurance commercial. Spielberg described the short as a rumination on the idea that “you’re only as old as you feel,” and structurally, the thing’s built on a bed of tissues. Old people feel youthful delights as they pull a Cinderella, turning into their young selves for one night only, because of fantasy rules. The menschy elders grouse then laugh and play as kids discuss the long-term perks of being young again. On that note, anybody remember Cocoon? Watch that, instead.
31. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 min.
Pitch: Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) returns from the sunset older, grumpier, and with way too many sidekicks (see: Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Karen Allen, and arguably Jim Broadbent). This time around, he’s racing towards a telepathic crystal skull with some nasty(?) Soviets led by Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) on his heels. Somewhere in there is a bunch of CGI gophers, ants, and monkeys that are no match for a couple Wal-Mart snakes. Let’s not forget about the extraterrestrial curmudgeon that materializes out of nowhere, either.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Karen Allen, and Jim Broadbent
Amblin’ Man: Spielberg tends to shine when he keeps the action simple, charismatic, and engaging. Where Crystal Skull fails is in its startling inability to conjure up anything even remotely reasonable. There are a few remarkable sequences — Area-51, Indy vs. Mammoth Soviet — only they’re fumbled by horrendous effects and straight-up bad plotting. But one scene worth revisiting is when Mutt and his disapproving titular father (groan) escape from Marshall College on a motorcycle. It’s very basic, but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s also the only time this film even comes close to the physical comedy of Last Crusade.
Williams’ Wonder: By 2008, the maestro could still score any old drama to perfection, but when it came time to carve out some poppy melodies for action adventures, well, let’s just say the guy checked out. Listen closely and you can almost hear him in the studio, draped over his music stand, screaming: “Goddammit, Steven, enough’s enough!” Needless to say, his work on Crystal Skull, much like the sequel itself, is pretty uninspired and dull. “The Journey to Akator” sounds stripped off an On the Border restaurant playlist, “Irina’s Theme” flies by like a quick transition scene in Harry Potter, and “The Adventures of Mutt”, which won a Grammy for Christ’s sake, belongs in a Disney gift shop. “Call of the Crystal” is okay, though.
“Nuke the Fridge”: Have you heard of this online colloquialism? Probably. A long, long time ago, Spielberg came up with this bonehead idea that would place our favorite archaeologist inside a lead-lined refrigerator in order to successfully evade a nuclear bomb and escape an American testing site. Not only that, but the blast would somehow catapult the fridge, going far enough to kiss the sky and crash miles and miles away. It’s the type of scenario a kid playing with Kenner figures would dream up, and while the legendary director has always sparked the best of our imaginations, nobody was having it back in 2008. Thus, anytime a franchise, film, or story goes batshit crazy, it doesn’t “jump the shark” anymore …. no, it “nukes the fridge.”
Shia LeMutt: Oh, weren’t those the days when Even Stevens was once touted as the second coming? Long before he was hitching rides from randos across the States, LeBeouf was an in-demand star, enough to carry a blockbuster or three. So, it makes sense why Spielberg would want him to follow the box office dollars of his aging, go-to action hero. Besides, nobody could have predicted this:
Or, when he publicly denounced the film in 2010. “I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished,” LaBeouf admitted to The Los Angeles Times, adding: “You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg, who directed]. But the actor’s job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn’t do it. So that’s my fault. Simple.” Ford would later call him a “fucking idiot.”
Analysis: But really, Shia wasn’t wrong. This film is an ugly, forgettable, and lousy artifact that doesn’t belong in a museum. Nothing works in this cash-in of a sequel. Not David Koepp’s messy screenplay. Not Ford and Allen’s cringe-worthy reunion. Not Janusz Kamiński’s ever-distracting cinematography. Not Spielberg’s shambled attempt to carve out a father-son bond. Not even Ford’s much-anticipated return to the fedora. Hell, there are video games that are better Indiana Jones films than this one, and some of them don’t even include the guy (see: Uncharted). Here’s hoping the fifth chapter finds some fortune and glory.
30. 1941 (1979)
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min.
Pitch: 1941. Los Angeles caves in fear after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. Paranoia, madness, guns, nuts, and bullets collide as Americans embrace their xenophobia for the Japanese.
This is a comedy.
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, and Robert Stack
Amblin’ Man: The ham-fisted Jaws reference is so literally Spielbergian. Complete with the actress that played Chrissie. Spielberg the goofball, everyone.
Williams’ Wonder: Williams pulls an almost parodic score together for 1941, with loud, regal marches built on flutes and horns that feel like they belong in Patton or The Great Escape or JFK for that matter. The score works comically, because it sounds like the kind of music that could fit into more serious films about the same subjects of war, with a touch more brass and pomp to help listeners know Williams is being a bit silly.
Awards Before Praise: This sucker has a very deserving 34 on Metacritic. The film’s bombast is too much, and there’s a lot of production excess on display. Excess that netted the Christmas-released comedy three Oscar nominations — specifically for sound, visual effects, and, funnily enough, cinematography by legendary lenser William A. Fraker. Why’s that funny? Because Fraker was fired midway through production over creative differences.
John Wayne Hated It: Spielberg wanted The Duke for the role of Major General Stillwell. Wayne passed, though, citing not only ill health, but pushed back at Spielberg and called the project un-American and anti-patriotic. Wayne told Spielberg to just go ahead and drop the project.
A simple “no” would have sufficed.
Robert Stack took the role and was decidedly nicer about it.
Analysis: Spielberg’s always been a little flimsy with the funnies, and 1941 shows his desire to be silly, but at a great cost: the expense of his viewers’ patience. He barrages every frame with dumb joke after dumb joke, often to no avail. Maybe it’s Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s unwieldy script, or maybe it’s the amount of post-Saturday Night Live talent, or maybe it was Spielberg’s ego in the wake of several enormous hits, but 1941 is a film that makes no attempt to contain itself to anything resembling humor.
There are no punchlines, just goofy occurrences. No real plot, just character moments loosely put together. No filmmaking authority, just cacophonous roaring for weirdly specific nostalgia. Bless Spielberg for stepping outside of himself on this one, but perhaps this was the first sign that if there’s a chink in his armor, it’s humor. To get a sense of 1941’s bloating, enjoy two minutes of Belushi screaming while lost inside an airplane.
Loud, long, and sinfully unfunny, 1941’s a dud.