Steven Spielberg: Close encounters of a fresh kind

This summer Steven Spielberg is back in a big way. By working with new, young directors and television producers, Hollywood's most successful film-maker has reinvented himself for the 21st century, says Sarah Hughes

It's 1979 and, in a small Ohio town, a group of kids filming a home movie have just seen something they shouldn't. As kids in the movies do, they debate whether to tell the local deputy (who is also the father of one of the gang), whether to keep their mouths shut or whether to carry out their own investigation. As to what that (very spooky) something is, well you'll have to head to the cinema to watch Super 8, the new film from Lost supremo JJ Abrams, to find out.

On paper, Super 8, which opens in the US next Friday and in the UK on 5 August, is a typical Abrams film. There's an unexplained happening, hints of something mysterious lurking out there in the unknown and a group of people banding together to uncover the truth. But the most anticipated movie of the summer is not so much about its director as about the producer, Hollywood's most successful film-maker, Steven Spielberg.

After a relatively fallow period (by his multi-tasking standards) since quitting Paramount Studios in 2008, Spielberg, whose most recent directing credit is the poorly received albeit high-grossing Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is set to have a very busy couple of years. Not only is he directing four films –The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, a Lincoln biopic with Daniel Day Lewis (due out at the end of 2012) and Robopocalypse, an adaptation of Daniel H Wilson's cult novel (expected in cinemas in 2013) – he is also involved in producing this summer's biggest films including the third Transformers movie, the latest in the Men in Black franchise and Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau's sci-fi/Western mash-up starring Daniel Craig (released on 12 August).

First up for British audiences, however, is the much-hyped television series, Falling Skies, which airs in the US on 19 June and on FXUK on 5 July. Spielberg has an executive-producing role on the show, which he developed with Robert Rodat, the scriptwriter for Saving Private Ryan.

Set six months after an alien invasion, Falling Skies aims to recreate a dystopian world similar to that of Spielberg's morose War of the Worlds, which came out in 2005. This being Spielberg, however, we are not entirely without hope, and so a rough and ready band of survivors lead by ER's earnest Noah Wyle (as a former professor of military history turned revolutionary leader) have formed a resistance to the occupying force. Think V with a bigger budget and no giant lizards.

The pilot episode, which is directed by Out of Time's Carl Franklin, is well-paced if a bit like every other alien invasion film you've ever seen. You wish, though, that Spielberg and Rodat had taken their idea to a channel such as AMC or HBO, who might have allowed for a different, darker take on a well-worn genre. Then again, Spielberg himself would argue that there's no need for a darker fare. This, after all, is the man who in 2002 tweaked his 20th-anniversary edition of E.T. to remove the original's guns, either replacing them with walkie-talkies or simply making them disappear.

That Spielberg, the popcorn populist with an eye for a big hit, is also to the fore in Terra Nova, which starts on US television this autumn. A preview of the long-delayed show, in which a group of humans from 2149 go back 85 million years to prehistoric Earth, has been well-received as a Spielberg-by-numbers epic with the cast playing a supporting role to the CGI-ed main event.

By contrast Super 8, named after the old film format, feels so much like one of the master's old hits that you'd be unsurprised if you discovered that it fell into our multiplexes via a wormhole from the late Seventies. Spielberg's presence informs every aspect of the film, from the tone to the characters and the muted way in which it is shot. Even the trailer, with its hints of aliens, monster and childhood paradise defiled, feels like the sort of thing his company Amblin churned out seemingly effortlessly in its late Seventies/early Eighties heyday.

In contrast to most of this summer's blockbusters, Super 8 will not be available in 3D. Its biggest name is Friday Night Lights's dependable Kyle Chandler who, in a piece of near-perfect casting, plays the local deputy. Its appeal lies as much in the way that its characters react to events as in what those events turn out to be. There's the small-town setting, which nods to Spielberg's classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. There's the date the film is set, 1979, at the height of the Carter-era paranoia that Spielberg made his own, and most of all there's the gang of kids who shoot the fateful footage. No smart-talking modern-day wiseacres, these are an ordinary bunch of friends, who rely not on technology and one-liners to get their way but instead aim to discover the truth by taking a few risks and riding their bikes where they probably shouldn't. Shades not just of E.T.'s plucky Elliott but also of The Goonies.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the way Super 8 looks backwards for inspiration. These days Spielberg is most often viewed as a super-producer, a man with a hand in every possible movie pie, who has credits on projects as diverse as the Showtime dramedy United States of Tara and the Coen Brothers' Oscar-nominated True Grit. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $3bn in March 2011 and placed his earnings for the last year at $107m, while Vanity Fair named him No 3 in their 2011 list of Hollywood's richest behind Johnny Depp and James Cameron. Illustrating the way in which his career has diversified over the past three decades, they reported that $50m, more than half his estimated earnings, came from consulting fees and royalties from Universal Theme Park in Orlando, Florida, with a further $20m for directing and producing War Horse, while the remaining $10m came from older film revenue.

Yet, if you stop crunching the numbers, a different Spielberg emerges, one who has influenced a generation of film-makers, from indie auteurs like Jeff Nichols – who recently said: "I am a huge fan of Spielberg... the way he shows middle-class American life is so interesting... It's very real [and] nobody ever talks about that with his films" – to Abrams, who last month admitted that working with Spielberg on Super 8 had enabled him to acknowledge his debt to the director at last.

"I felt free to allow the influences of his films to rise to the surface," he said on MTV. "If I hadn't been collaborating with him I would have been much more self-conscious... The ability to be play with certain conventions of the movies that he wrote, produced or directed was liberating."

Nor is Abrams alone in thinking this way. The current generation of film-makers and scriptwriters are all the children of Spielberg and his one-time collaborator George Lucas, having been raised on E.T., Star Wars and Indiana Jones. From television writers like Dan Harmon, the creator of US sitcom Community, who peppers his show with references to pop-cultural references of the early Eighties to the Hollywood executives green-lighting big-budget remakes of old shows like The A-Team or sequels to old films such as Tron, this is a generation with an almost overwhelming desire to see its past back on the big screen, whether served straight up or with a supposedly postmodern twist.

What makes Super 8 more interesting, though, is that, lurking behind its nostalgia for things past, is a yearning for the days when blockbuster movies relied as much on the interplay between characters as on making the audience jump. It's as though Abrams, who recently told Entertainment Weekly that he felt too many modern films gave the whole plot away in their trailers, is saying: "Enough with the big-budget 3D spectacles of recent years, let's strip everything back to the way it used to be. Let's travel back to that time when the whole point of the great American blockbuster was that it made you shout, 'ooooooh'.

"People said, 'is this meant to be an homage to Steven?', and that was never the intent, the goal, it was meant to revisit a time in my life," Abrams recently told Empire. "When I think about that time, it's impossible to separate cinema from it, from being that kid, making those movies. So it actually connected to that type of film."

It's unsurprising that Abrams, whose ability to combine crowd-swelling populism with geek-cred could make him the most likely pretender to Spielberg's crown, set out to remember his youth only to end up honouring his mentor-by-default instead. The older director is the great chronicler of childhood. His kid gangs in E.T. and The Goonies make you long to be part of their adventures, riding bikes and making wisecracks, sticking together when things go wrong. There is skill in the way he infuses ordinary suburban neighbourhoods with endless possibilities, transforming them into places where an alien might end up hiding in your closet or where a derelict seaside restaurant could conceal a lost treasure hoard.

That's not to say that Spielberg is flawless. He himself is all too aware of that, telling Roger Ebert that the criticisms levelled at him are manifold. "Oh, he cuts too fast; his edits are too quick; he uses wide-angle lenses; he doesn't photograph women very well; he's tricky; he likes to dig a hole in the ground and put the camera in the hole and shoot up at people; he's too gimmicky; he's more in love with the camera than he is with the story."

To that list you could also add: he's overly sentimental and sometimes banal (the epilogue in Saving Private Ryan, the little girl in the red coat in Schindler's List, the entire plot of The Terminal); his longing for childhood is occasionally overlaid with the sticky platitudes of therapy-speak (Hook); his deft touch for image can desert him with more serious stories (Amistad, the second half of Empire of the Sun); he can be too diffuse (Minority Report); at his slickest he's got so much style that he forgets to include the substance (Catch Me If You Can, A.I.); for all his apparent longing to make serious films about important subjects (The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) he's ultimately at his best with B-movie subjects shot with A-movie craft (the early Indiana Jones films, Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T.).

And yet those same flaws count for very little when held up against the power of his best films. It is one of the great ironies of Spielberg's career that he is credited with being the father of the modern blockbuster, the man who, with Jaws, redefined an industry and made big, splashy popcorn hits the dominant genre of the summer. Yet when you look at Jaws now, what stands out is not the thrills and spills but the quieter character moments. It's a film heavy in atmosphere and fear, which gains as much of its power from the spaces when nothing is said as it does from its shock moments. Think too of François Truffaut playing a keyboard to talk to aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the moment when Elliott and his friends are silhouetted against the moon in E.T. These are much-parodied scenes, certainly, yet somehow they retain their power even as other, lesser blockbusters fade swiftly from the mind.

It's that pure movie magic, a type of alchemy where the image is strong enough to override the brain's most cynical reactions, that Abrams hopes to recreate with Super 8. Small wonder that many of the accusations flung at Spielberg (the love of camera over story, the accusations of being too tricky, the tendency to start without really knowing where the story's going to end) are hurled at Abrams too.

Yet if the two share the same flaws, they share some of the same strengths too, and the early signs are that Super 8 may be the first blockbuster in some time to be worthy of the name. Initial reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. commented: "I loved it, they don't make these type of movies anymore", while FirstShowing's Alex Billington raved, "it lived up to my high expectations and felt like an Amblin classic." Even those reviewers who noted that, as ever with Abrams, the plot was more complicated than it needed to be, were enthusiastic about the characterisation, the setting and, most of all, the tone.

It's the tone that sets Super 8 apart. We have become accustomed in recent years to watching films that are super-sized to the point of bloating, titillating us with bigger bangs and more special effects. Lost among all of that is the idea that a blockbuster can have small moments too, and it is these that we most often recall when we walk out of the cinema – the man on a verge of a nervous breakdown building an alien tower out of mashed potato, the wide-eyed little girl dressing up an alien as her best friend.

Spielberg has always been the sort of director who works in splurges, directing nothing for a couple of years and then releasing a flurry of very different films back to back (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in 1997, Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report in 2002, War of the Worlds and Munich in 2005). This year is one of those times. In October, his take on Hergé's boy reporter Tintin, shot in 3D using the same performance-capture technology as James Cameron's Avatar and starring Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, opens in the UK ahead of a Christmas release in America. Then, in January, the director's much-anticipated take on Michael Morpurgo's First World War drama, War Horse, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and Emily Watson, arrives just in time for the Academy's voters to have their say.

For me, though, Spielberg's real strength lies elsewhere. It's Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw comparing shark-bites in Jaws as Roy Scheider looks on, stunned; the water rippling in the glass as T. Rex arrives in Jurassic Park; or Indiana Jones watching swordplay and then nonchalantly reaching for his gun. It's the Spielberg who goes with his gut rather than trying to impress with his brain, the Spielberg we haven't seen for a while. And the nearest thing to that Spielberg this summer is Super 8. It may be directed by JJ Abrams but in sentiment, style and conception, it's a Spielberg film.

'Falling Skies' begins on 5 July at 9pm on FXUK. 'Super 8' opens on 5 August

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