FILM / Raider of the lost heart: At his best, Spielberg can sweeten a disturbed child's view into an uplifting epic. Quentin Curtis assesses the output of the director who never grew up
Sunday 23 May 1993
JAWS (1975): Spielberg subtracted the sex from the book and multiplied the fear. A model shocker, with a lovely loping rhythm, dipping between calm and terror. Spielberg, like Hitchcock, knows the value of suspense over shocks. He's sparing with the horror, which is gory but not grotesque. Most people remember John Williams's heartbeat score, but the whole soundtrack is masterly: when the shark prowls around the bathers, all we hear is lapping water and muted cries. The ensuing panic is shot almost as cinema verite. Only the people disappoint: Roy Scheider's Captain Brodie, Richard Dreyfuss's oceanographer, and Robert Shaw's old sea-dog, Quint, whom the shark finds easier to swallow than we do.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE
THIRD KIND (1977): A pyjama'd child pads towards a brilliant light, mouth gaping, eyes even wider: the quintessential Spielberg moment. The aliens do not cause panic, as in War of the Worlds, but division: between those with the child in them and the rest. Richard Dreyfuss surrenders to the force; his wife (Teri Garr) suggests family therapy. The UFO witnesses' frozen awe makes believers of us all. The benign alien, with his spindly limbs and bug-eyed skull, will, of course, return. As will religious overtones: the outstretched alien arms, like a suffering Christ's. The pictures are so compelling that the words can seem superfluous, though Francois Truffaut's fast-talking scientist is now a poignant joy.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981): Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, though set in the Thirties, seems out of Henty or Rider Haggard. He's a gentleman adventurer, scholarly and sensitive, fearing only God and snakes. You can trace the decline of sleazy James Bond to straight- jawed Indie's arrival: compare his angry revulsion at villains with Bond's jocular insouciance. Spielberg is at his most exhilarating and empty. The Nazis are cartoons: though the heroes are in peril, we never feel real danger. The baddies burn, while the flames lick Ford and Karen Allen like a dog.
E. T. THE EXTRA - TERRESTRIAL (1982): The familiar milieu: small-town America; adults at odds; children at play. The ET might have been designed for universal tear-jerking, with that soulful gaze, frail, sexless, raceless body, and healing touch. But the movie feels spontaneous not cynical. Spielberg maps out his yearnings and they match ours - for goodness and for our lost childhood. The child actors, who were often improvising, haven't got proper credit, particularly Henry Thomas as Elliott, and Gertie, six- year-old Drew Barrymore, whose own childhood was lost to drugs.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984): Fedora and bull- whip return for this Far East prequel, and so do the racism and sexism. The orientals are wily and vicious, eating snakes and burning people alive. Only Short Round, loyal helpmeet to Ford, is decent. Ford's self-mockery rescues Indie from being Long Square. Kate Capshaw's dizzy blonde, Willie, has a man's name, but a woman's stereotyped helplessness, falling off elephants and screaming at bats. The indignity may have been worth it, as she became the second Mrs Spielberg.
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985): Turning serious with Alice Walker's novel, Spielberg was both too earnest and too soft. The gutsy, lilting young narrator was lost for a spread of characters, few of which came into focus. And the lesbianism and strident feminism present in the book got toned down. Quincy Jones's soupy score, laced with anachronistic jazz, didn't help. The film feels like an epic idyll, full of well-composed shots, but lacking a dramatic pulse. The most memorable performance, as a woman jailed for fighting back, came from Oprah Winfrey.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987): For the first half-hour, portraying crumbling colonial Shanghai at the outbreak of war, it's as if Spielberg has grown up. The Regency-housed British are criticised but also fleshed out. But the internment of JG Ballard's boy hero returns us to The Color Purple: a disturbed child's view sweetened into uplifting epic. At least the photography matches the title, with orange crescents smudged against the sky and waters rippled with gold. And Jim's mistaking the Nagasaki explosion for a woman's soul rising to heaven is bitter irony unprecedented in Spielberg.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989): Back to the safe target of the Nazis. Sean Connery, joining a line of British character actors in Spielberg, plays Indie's medievalist dad, adding Oedipal sauce to the old gruel. Alison Doody is memorably bad in the dumb blonde role. The vim has gone, and even the chase scenes - with Venetian vaporetti and Nazi dirigibles - look tired.
ALWAYS (1989): Flight again from the real world, on wings of whimsy. Richard Dreyfuss, Spielberg's Spencer Tracy, is the dead airman watching over his loved one in a remake of a movie that moved Spielberg as a child. 'The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here,' is Dreyfuss's heavenly conclusion. The flying stunts have regulation panache, but the spectral gags don't match those of Ghost. The abiding image is Audrey Hepburn's angel walking through a field trilling about the divine spirit - wading in corn.
HOOK (1991): All that's gone wrong in one easy-to-slumber-through lesson. The attempt to update J M Barrie was more pandering than Pan, the invention desperate and the magic mundane. The easy rapport with our dreams has given way to preachiness. Robin Williams, as a burnt- out lawyer, a once and future Peter Pan, flies, but his comic wings are clipped. 'No growing up]' admonishes Maggie Smith's wizened Wendy: a dream for a child; a problem for a film-maker.
Spielberg has also directed: two flop comedies, 'The Sugarland Express' (1974) and '1941' (1979), and the twee rejuvenation of an old folks' home in the portmanteau picture 'Twilight Zone - The Movie' (1983).
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