Saturday, July 09, 2005

Whither Spielberg?

Wrote this as a filler-column for my newspaper today. Not too happy with it; couldn’t think of an angle (had originally wanted to do something on various treatments of War of the Worlds, including the Orson Welles radio broadcast, but that had been written about in many newspapers already) so ended up writing this thing on Spielberg’s career instead. Six hundred words not enough to do justice to the subject.


When the socialites emerged, blinking heavily, from the PVR Plaza hall after the special preview screening of War of the Worlds in Delhi last week, the first question they were asked by byte-seeking TV journalists was: "So who was the star of the film -- Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg?"

The answers notwithstanding (most people replied "Spielberg" anyway, probably because they were annoyed with Tom for breaking up with Nicole), the very fact that such a question could be asked at all was significant. In the actor-struck world of commercial cinema, Spielberg is a brand name among directors -- among the rare few who have, in the tradition of Cecil B DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, earned the right to have their name above the movie’s title. The comparison with Hitchcock is appropriate, or used to be: back in 1975, when the young Spielberg had just come off the success of Jaws, the Master of Suspense, filming at a nearby studio, pointed at the wunderkind and said "See that kid who made the fish film? He’ll go very far." Hitchcock had recognised in Jaws a talent for audience manipulation, for the slow, agonising build-up of suspense that had marked his own best work.

Since then, over a long and many-phased career, Spielberg has been many things to many viewers. At his best he is a master of technique, with a startling sense of composition and camera movement. He famously has an empathy for children that has contributed enormously to the success of films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and that has given an autobiographical charge to even less successful movies like Hook, about Peter Pan, "the boy who never grew up". At his most earnest, he has responded to charges of being a "mere entertainer" by making films like Schindler’s List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan -- all noteworthy movies but also over-hyped by a critical machinery that insists on judging films by the depth or relevance of their content (it’s notable, and a bit sad, that the Academy Awards only deigned to recognise Spielberg when he made the Serious Films). And at his worst he has been painfully cloying, often junking interesting ideas to accommodate happy endings (witness Artificial Intelligence, originally intended to be a bleak Kubrickian drama, but which somehow ended in the lap of a fairy godmother).

But the problem with War of the Worlds wasn’t that it was a bad Spielberg film; it was more that it didn’t really feel like a Spielberg film at all. Even the man’s biggest critics usually admit that his work is interesting. But War of the Worlds was full of sequences that could have been directed by just about anyone: scenes that were direct references to Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, with giant-eyed mechanical alien scanners supplanting the T-Rexes of the earlier movie; scenes that cheapened suspense by reducing it to a hide-and-seek equation. The Spielberg touch was largely missing from this pointless update of the H G Wells novel (itself a curio today).

While Spielberg continues to be as financially successful as ever, a tediousness has seeped into his films, despite their occasional, frustrating flashes of brilliance. This could have to do with confusion about the kinds of films he should be making, excessive self-consciousness about his own reputation or the fact that neatly wrapped up endings (Oskar Schindler sobbing "I wish I could have saved more people" to give Schindler’s List an emotional epiphany it didn’t need) don’t go too well with the more "mature" subjects he occasionally takes on. Whatever the case, 30 years after Jaws, the "fish film kid" is floundering as a creative artist.

None of which means we’ll stop flocking in droves to his movies.


  1. I'll keep going to his movies as well. Still, I left War of the Worlds thinking, "It could have been so much better."

  2. War of the Worlds was NOT a normal sci fi movie which is why I guess you dont think highly of it.

    It was about the camera running away from the action as opposed to how it moves towards it.

    The camera was almost always scared of the action infact. The main aspect was family - focus on the first 15 minutes of the movie AGAIN. Notice how devoid of depth the life of Cruise is.

    War of the Worlds is a landmark Spielberg movie according to me, totally pleasantly surprised by it.

    Its not wither Spielber. Spielberg always thinks ahead of his time and it is more of a rejuvenation of Spielberg, bringing new aspects to the sci fi genre.

    The family angle has been a focus in sci fi movies - not a novel idea - but never like in War of the Worlds.

    If you go to see a horror movie and find it a comedy you will be disappointed. If you go to see an action movie and fin a pscyhological drama at the backdrop of action, you will be disappointed.

  3. i am delighted to see that your blog has been referred in quite a few places ... newspaper articles, I meant

  4. bona, wd love to go thru them...references? which papers?

  5. ummm, I'm not exactly his publicist :-)
    and he hates that breed ...

  6. no probs, mate, but u caught d wrong end of d stick

  7. naah, i think u have actually :)

  8. Anonymous, Bonatellis, quit spamming!

    Bonatellis: which papers? Not TOI I hope? BTW, my column for Business Standard will have my blog URL at the end of it.

    Pratyush: I didn't think highly of WoW because I didn't think it was a well-executed film, not because of any genre confusion/pre-conception. I'm not sure what you mean by "normal sci-fi film" anyway. If you mean films like Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow (in which the camera is always moving towards the action), well, I didn't think much of those either.

    Also, ref. Cruise's family, the theme of a crisis proving therapeutic for a dysfunctional family has been done numerous times on screen, and done rather better. Personally, I was rooting for Cruise to break that irritating little Dakota Fanning's neck.

  9. Spielberg's decline really started with Jurassic's been downhill since then. I was just rewatching Jaws, and it really showcases how he can make a movie.

    In WOTW, I was hoping Tim Robbins would be some crazed psychopath who would get rid of Dakota Fanning...:-(

  10. Actually this film was quite similar to Jaws, I thought. Same idea: relentless predator, hapless human beings who have to strategize ways to defeat it.

    Spielberg has never been Hitchcockian -- he's always been a mass entertainer. Hitchcock's mass appeal only started in the 1960s, near the end of his career, and was very much driven by the stars he had in his later movies.

    Spielberg, for his part, excels at achieving raw sensations, and I think he does it here quite well. All the intellectualism of Welles' novel is totally ejected in favor of what is essentially a one-track plot.

    The stuff at the beginning of WOTW, and the bridge scene, are as good as anything he's done.

  11. Okay so the main problem was because it was not a 'good film as it was not executed properly according to you.

    It was very different from normal sci fi movies like yes, Ind. Day etc, in the sense of the camera, the family theme.

    The family angle, as you mention, has been put in many movies before but never so impactfully according to me.

    It was a very innovative movie. It runs away from the cliches and shows NOTHING the characters dont see.

    In Hitchcock's Rear Window, almost all the acion is from the room, from the window. Even the main war scenes are glanced at and then aoided being shown. The sci fi effects is not what impressed me, the aspect of creating the aura of the unseen effectively did.

    I suppose it is a movie either passionate movie followers like you and me will either love or dislike/