Steven Spielberg is the most overrated film director in history. In the public imagination, he is the greatest filmmaker of all time. Only Alfred Hitchcock even approaches his level of fame, and Hitchcock also got there by appearing on-screen far more often than most film directors, not only with his famed cameos but with his popular series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Purely as a filmmaker, Spielberg’s reputation with the public is clearly unmatched.
However, there is a reason for that reputation. His early career was a laundry list of fantastic commercial successes, and some of them were artistic triumphs as well. It included such successes as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA 1981), and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (USA 1982). And of course, it began with Jaws. Continue reading
Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One appeared in 2011. It was an ’80s nostalgia trip dressed up in post-apocalyptic futurism and virtual reality hysteria. It was a book written for fans of ’80s culture and video games–the kind of people who prefer Space Invaders to Call of Duty and Amazing Stories to Stranger Things. When the film went into works with Steven Spielberg, the defining eye of ’80s cinema, in charge, it seemed like a near-perfect match. (Robert Zemeckis really seems like the perfect match since he has always been so good at using special effects and understanding their limitations while Spielberg has used them as a crutch. But he also never had the singularity of vision that Spielberg had.) Especially with Stranger Things having taken the public by storm with its Spielberg-by-the-numbers approach, everything seemed primed for at least something really fun even though it would likely have little to say.
Spielberg has also remained a respectable filmmaker even as his star has faded. He’s far less successful than in 1993 when a studio was willing to let him make a depressing black-and-white holocaust movie that it thought had zero chance of making its money back just to get him on the payroll for another film, but he’s remained the same decent-but-not-great filmmaker he always was. Jaws (USA 1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977) set a bar too high for any director to maintain, but he’s had surprisingly strong films like Munich (France/Canada/USA 2005) late in his career and even his missteps like Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany/India 2015) haven’t been outright embarrassments. Plus, nostalgia has clouded his early record–yes he had those two great films back-to-back and several other memorable features, but he also directed bad and forgettable projects like 1941 (USA 1979) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 39 years?), Always (USA 1989) (Seriously, has anyone even seen that in the last 29 years?), Hook (USA 1991) (Robin Williams couldn’t save it.), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (USA 1997) (I still don’t know why anyone thought there should be more than one Jurassic Park film.) mixed in with the major successes. It’s not a bad record–most directors don’t have the kind of consistent excellence that Rian Johnson, Akira Kurosawa, or Masaki Kobayashi have had–but it’s not the kind of nonstop success that nostalgia has made people think it was.
However, Ready Player One isn’t any kind of return to form. It’s a failure on some basic levels, and it isn’t even any fun. Continue reading
The Star Wars series returned in an unusual position. While it was one of the most popular and beloved series in media history, its most ardent fans also felt insulted and beaten down by years of abuse from the man who began it all. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015) was essentially an apology for George Lucas’s crimes. As a way of showing that he was gone and his asinine qualities were gone with him, J.J. Abrams created a paint-by-numbers remake of Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope (George Lucas, USA 1977) with noteworthy improvements. The stilted acting of the original film was replaced by a cast that universally performed well. The “save the princess” plot was turned on its head, giving us a female protagonist who was even stronger than Princess Leia (Who was not anything close to the prototypical damsel in distress herself.). The comic relief was largely provided by Finn and BB8 and was never annoying or groan-worthy the way C-3PO had largely been. The effects were improved. The originality meter was very low on the film, but it worked well for what it was trying to do, and seemed to set us up for a second film that would introduce us to a real new Star Wars chapter.
I only returned to watching the Star Wars series because of my love of Rian Johnson. I think Johnson is the best director currently working in American cinema, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. When he was announced as the writer and director for the second film in the new trilogy, I was on board. And I thought he was set up to be able to bring in all of the originality that was missing from the first film.
It turns out, his marching orders were clearly something quite different from what I expected.