What happens when creativity gets replaced by redundancy and reiterations? With the impending arrival of Jurassic World, following years of exec producing the terrible Michael Bay Transformers films, has Steven Spielberg finally given up on telling original stories that transport us to other worlds? Is he no longer interested in taking us there so he can turn us back to see ourselves without pretense here?
Before we come to any real conclusions, let us quickly (if possible) recap the forty-year career of one of the greatest cinematic minds of all time. Briefly.
Steven Spielberg has generated 8.5 billion dollars worldwide with the pursuit of his art, netting a solid 3 billion plus himself (per Forbes). The writer, director, and producer made a name for himself by directing Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and a mechanical depiction of a shark around in Jaws (1975). He stormed out of the gate in the sci-fi department with an extended, remade version of his independent film, Firelight, remastered with Dreyfuss as the star in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
In 1981, Spielberg teamed up with his Star Wars buddy, George Lucas, and Lucas’ star, Harrison Ford, to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). A year later, he returned to the science fiction with E.T. the Extraterrestrial (the same year he wrote and produced the original Poltergeist which he ‘technically’ didn’t direct).The two sequels to Raiders sandwiched his producer role on Back to the Future (and the sequel), a writing role on The Goonies, and directing The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Always. He delivered the Robin Williams-led fantasy, Hook (1991), and the first Jurassic Park (1993) to cement his place in the science fiction/fantasy Hall of Fame.
Soon, Spielberg was diving into more practical, realistic material like 1993’s Schindlers List that saw him win an Academy Award for Director. Amistad (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (another Academy Award in 1998) soon followed. Average human fair like Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), and Munich (2005) consistently provided some degree of entertainment, but certainly at a lower level than what we’d come to expect from the bearded savant. Yes, Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005) broke up the realistic monotony, but the trend had turned. Following his failed attempt to meld Indy with his sci-fi love (the dreadful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), he directed War Horse (2011) and Lincoln (2012) to critical acclaim (and produced The Hundred Foot Journey for good measure).
But Jurassic World, the film which looks to follow on the commercial (but not necessarily critical) success of the previous Jurassic Park films, looms on the horizon like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s been a decade since Spielberg tackled a science fiction film (I refuse to count the absurd result of Indy’s latest adventure) even though I believe that sci-fi is the one, true love of Mr. Spielberg. The passion of the outsider included when their true value is revealed plays well in stories concerning artificial intelligence (A.I.) and aliens (Close Encounters, E.T.) Those stories resonate in the heart of a man who grew up as the bullied son of Orthodox Jews, who captured stories over and over again that remind us of the deeper things in life.
There’s a freedom in science fiction that you can’t find when you’re telling a historical story. You can’t find it when you’re basing it in reality in the midst of the world the way it really is. It’s much easier to take those truths, those beliefs about the world in its best and worst, and wrap them up in an entertaining tale that takes the personal out of it and lets people consider them. Your audience no longer realizes you’re critiquing them, at least not until it’s too late.
In the long run, I think Spielberg is more sci-fi prophet than historian. I think he uses science fiction the way that Jesus used parables about an agrarian lifestyle. In the long run, I think that’s what makes Spielberg the consummate storyteller. It’s why others want him to executive producer their horribly botched, overloaded CGI insults of film. We want to know truth the way Spielberg sees it: to know with conviction that we’re not alone, that we’re not as bad as we sometimes think we are, that one day the world will be made right again when we recognize that we’re all in this together.
If we can survive the dinosaur attack.