In a recent Criticker discussion about trying to gauge the greatest directors, mention was made by some users that Spielberg was difficult to place through numerical methods, because his few good films brought his average up in spite of users' general feelings about the director. My flippant response was that it wasn't the methods that were wrong but rather that users were scoring Spielberg's films too highly. While I can of course completely understand that many users have fond feelings about some of this director's movies, often linked to memories of pleasurable childhood experiences, I thought that I ought to give an indication of what lay behind my remark. To that end, here is a selection of some of my mini-reviews of his films:
Duel (1971). Score: 60
Probably the pinnacle of Spielberg's career. Also his first film.
Jaws (1975). Score: 60
Most notable for its contribution (along with, subsequently, "Star Wars') to constructing a new economic model for Hollywood based on the concept of the "blockbuster." It is the names of Spielberg and Lucas that audiences can thank if what they desire is an endless stream of lowest-common denominator entertainment. Nevertheless, this movie has its moments.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Score: 55
It is very unfortunate that Kubrick did not live to direct this instead of Spielberg. Watching this movie is at best a very frustrating experience: like catching glimpses of a beautiful landscape through an oppressive and otherwise impenetrable fog.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Score: 55
This is the film in which Spielberg portrays his own inner conflict through the character played by Dreyfuss: fantasizing himself as a misunderstood artist, he is in fact a pathological conformist. Hence, after a set of conspiracy-type scenes in which he is pursued by apparently unscrupulous authorities, not only do they turn out to be benign, but Dreyfuss dons a patriotic uniform and becomes a kind of vanguard representative of the government. It is, in a sense, Spielberg's "Tannhäuser."
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Score: 50
This movie represents the moment of convergence of the two emerging Hollywood behemoths Spielberg and Lucas, resulting in unprecedented marketing hysteria and commercial success, then subsequently surpassed by "E.T." Film is passable mindless entertainment.
Minority Report (2002). Score: 45
The ideas are in general silly rather than thought-provoking, and the plot seems a little nonsensical. More importantly, there is a false earnestness and sentimentality that shows through in Spielberg films, even those as allegedly "dark" or "dystopian" as this one. Score based on partial viewing (missed the start).
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Score: 40
Robert Kolker, in "A Cinema of Loneliness," made a fairly persuasive argument that this film should be seen as fascist. However that stands, it clearly represents the apotheosis of a process of the economic and aesthetic transformation of Hollywood, a process which began with "Jaws" and "Star Wars." This continues to be the cinematic universe we inhabit today. Score based on distant recollection of viewing the movie as a child at time of release.
War of the Worlds (2005). Score: 35
Spielberg again plays the family-in-crisis card, the external menace being as usual little more than the means of overcoming familial problems. Narrative quirks suggest script or editing problems, especially the odd disappearance and reappearance of characters, and the very perfunctory conclusion. The latter may have been caused by anxiety that Wells's mechanism for defeating the aliens was too well known, the filmmakers not wishing to alter this aspect of the tale, yet unwilling to draw it out.
The Terminal (2004). Score: 25
Why would somebody decide to take a Kafkaesque ordeal and tragedy that lasted 18 years and turn it into a heartwarming bit of schmaltz about "destiny"? The distressing if not indeed revolting and horrifying aspect of such a decision seems to utterly elude the director of this piece of syrupy goop.
Saving Private Ryan (1998). Score: 20
Tedious hokum from the master confectioner: no message beyond "Sacrifice!" Such effort expended in the name of verisimilitude, yet so unreal in scene after scene (not to mention the premise). Largely consists of scenes of shooting interspersed with scenes of soldiers discussing their mothers. Watching this for the first time in 2011, it occurred to me to wonder if this movie was the origin of the ongoing fad for shaky camerawork. If so, it is just one more to add to the list of Spielberg's sins.