Steven Spielberg stands tall as one of our finest filmmakers. Spielberg has crafted some of the most incredible motion pictures of all time and continues to produce extraordinary entertainment nearly 50 years after he unleashed Jaws on audiences in 1975. The Fabelmans marks Spielberg’s latest effort, and by all accounts, sounds like another solid achievement in a career chock full of unprecedented success. As such, we thought it would be fun to look back at six essential films within Spielberg’s magnificent legacy, the ones that shaped him into the filmmaker he is today.
Enough has already been written about Jaws that it’s almost folly to add to the discussion. Yet, the classic 1975 film about a Great White shark terrorizing the residents of Amity Island remains a defining moment in motion picture history, paving the way for what we regularly call the summer blockbuster.
Put it this way: without Jaws, there’s no Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Batman, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or The Dark Knight, among many others. Without Jaws, is there even a Star Wars?
Jaws established Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker on the rise, reinvented the modern horror film, infused Hollywood with enough confidence to take chances on ambitious motion pictures with larger budgets, and established the common trend of merchandise tie-ins.
That said, Jaws didn’t just accidentally stumble onto its jaw-dropping success. It’s a damn fine film that skillfully combines the suspense of Alfred Hitchcock with the adventure of John Ford. What could have been a hackneyed, rudimentary, paint-by-numbers horror pic (see Jaws 2, 3, and 4) became a captivating, crowd-pleasing experience replete with colorful characters, a deft script, and genuine excitement. Jaws earns its place amongst the finest films ever produced.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is one helluva film — a rip-roaring adventure packed with non-stop action, incredible special FX, an astonishing John Williams score, and a rugged hero (played by Harrison Ford) who has since become more iconic than James Bond. More crucially, the pic conjured a new genre out of thin air: the PG-13 family adventure.
Spielberg’s success stemmed from this untapped resource, which presented exciting motion pictures designed for all ages that featured enough grit and edge to be cool amongst the teenage crowd — and enough nostalgia to attract older moviegoers. From this well sprung the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, and Jurassic Park — all films with an abundance of adult content that knew when to step back and let the audience’s imaginations fill in the gaps.
Jaws made Spielberg a household name, Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved he could carry an epic, but Raiders of the Lost Ark was the film that cemented Spielberg as the de facto blockbuster extraordinaire we know today. Clocking in just under two hours, Raiders leaps from one action beat to another and expertly mixes drama, suspense, adventure, horror, and romance into an incredibly satisfying experience that still packs an incredible punch some 40 years after its release.
Spielberg and George Lucas should have worked together more often.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I’m of the mind that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is a tad overrated. Yes, it captures the nuances of childhood better than most and features a handful of child performances that deserve recognition — it’s the ultimate family film. Indeed, a joyful motion picture experience blessed with one of John Williams’ greatest scores. But E.T. also feels like a carefully calculated product that hits all the right buttons without venturing too far from the beaten path. This aspect plagues many of Spielberg’s later films, namely Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook, and even the wonderful Jurassic Park.
Where Jaws and Raiders dared to reshape cinema, utilizing every aspect of the old serials and films Spielberg grew up watching, E.T. feels more like a mainstream product designed to appeal to the masses. Still, E.T. took the world by storm and, for better or worse, gave Spielberg the keys to the kingdom. As such, it remains one of his essential pictures.
And look, I’m not saying E.T. is a bad film. I viewed it on Imax recently and had a great time. Some moments explode off the screen (E.T. and Elliot’s flight over the moon, for example), and the story carries enough depth to give the whole affair a more profound emotional payoff. Yet, E.T. feels too much like a product designed not to fail rather than a novel work by an incredible auteur.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Following the commercial failures of Empire of the Sun, Always, and Hook, Steven Spielberg struck back with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. The former went on to extraordinary financial success and helped usher in a new brand of CGI filmmaking. The latter quickly became a critical darling and ultimately afforded Spielberg what he clamored for most: respect from the Academy.
Indeed, Schindler’s List took home a slew of Oscars, including a statue for Best Director and Best Picture, and repurposed Spielberg as a de facto artist capable of delivering adult pictures. From here, the man would seesaw between commercial and more personal projects, often with middling results — see The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad in 1997. Schindler’s List dealt a death blow to 80s-era Spielberg once and for all and replaced him with a more nuanced, bespectacled, scarf-wearing artist whose films strive for significance. The year 1993 was truly the moment our little boy finally grew up.
As for the film, Schindler’s List is quite the experience. Guided by solid acting from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes, the film tells the true-life tale of Oskar Schindler, whose efforts during World War II saved the lives of some 1,200 Jews. Shot entirely in black and white by Janusz Kamiński, who would collaborate with Spielberg on all of his films from that point on, Schindler’s List goes for the jugular and recreates the Holocaust in devastating detail. An exceptional motion picture.
Ironically, all it took for Spielberg to reach the stars (artistically speaking) was planting his feet on the ground.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg’s later career would produce solid entertainment such as Minority Report and Lincoln, but none left behind the cultural impact of Saving Private Ryan. I would go so far as to say this was Spielberg’s last truly monumental motion picture — a summer spectacle that left a considerable mark in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Saving Private Ryan forever changed cinema, or at least the war genre. Brutal, violent, and intense, the R-rated motion picture paved the way for a legion of video games and TV shows (like HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific), and all but revitalized the war epic. Ryan’s success opened the floodgates from which the likes of We Were Soldiers, Black Hawk Down, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and 1917 emerged. Such films borrow elements or build upon techniques found in Spielberg’s masterwork, sometimes with spectacular results of their own.
Still, for all its devotion to authenticity, Saving Private Ryan remains the pinnacle of the classic Spielberg blockbuster: a rip-roaring action vehicle that meshes the realism of Schindler’s List with the thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the shock and awe of Jaws. Upon its release, discussion around Ryan revolved around the opening 20-minutes, which (like Jaws) neatly sets the tone with an extended, unrelenting action sequence that deftly recreates the Normandy invasion of D-Day.
Yet, for me, the hallmark of this chef-d’oeuvre is the final hour, during which Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his ragtag crew of soldiers defend a bridge from German troops in the single most extraordinary sequence Spielberg has ever produced, bar none. Equal parts harrowing and exhilarating, the final battle delivers an overwhelming visceral experience that incorporates all of Spielberg’s best tendencies as a filmmaker.
While Spielberg would produce better films in the future, none would match the technical mastery achieved in this classic WWII epic.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
If Jaws served as Spielberg’s breakthrough, and Schindler’s List marked his foray into more adult fare, Catch Me If You Can was the moment Spielberg finally crossed over into human drama. Oh sure, he would occasionally dip his toes in empty, big-budget blockbusters such as War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Ready Player One with mixed results. However, from 2002 on, Spielberg’s interest turned to intimate character studies revolving around flawed people caught up in larger-than-life circumstances.
Except, none of his later efforts would match the sheer enjoyment of Catch Me if You Can, a breezy comedy adroitly wrapped in heavier themes of childhood, divorce, and parenthood. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (in one of his best roles), Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Amy Adams, the 2002 caper follows the true-life exploits of Frank Abignale Jr., a young man who runs away from home at age 17 and turns to a life of petty crime. Frank masquerades as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer, collects millions of dollars in fraudulent checks, and sleeps with gorgeous women while evading the FBI in 1960s America. Spielberg views Frank’s exploits as harmless adventures seeped in juvenile ignorance; he’s not a bad kid, just misguided and lonely.
Smart, sweet, emotional, and funny, Catch Me if You Can is the sort of picture only Spielberg could conjure. An expertly produced bit of filmmaking that ranks among his finest achievements as a filmmaker, one that proved he could make a personal drama without all the bells and whistles.