With Spielberg executive producing the up-coming sci-fi spectacular Super 8, we take a look back at some of his finest moments that have shaped cinema history.
J.J. Abrams has a problem. His new movie Super 8, which opens next week in the US and over here in August, is something of a gamble. Despite being a big budget adventure movie, it’s not a sequel, there are no superheroes in it, and its biggest star is the little sister of Dakota Fanning. Not exactly an easy sell. However, Abrams does have one ace up his sleeve, in the form of executive producer Steven Spielberg.
The film is set in a small town, and follows the adventures of a group of tweenie would-be film-makers, who witness the crash of a train carrying a mysterious cargo from Area 51. Its late-seventies small-town location, combined with the pubescent world-view of its protagonists, have understandably drawn comparisons with Spielberg’s genre-defining output. And although Abrams claims that his film is not an homage to his producer’s back catalogue, the big guy’s DNA is all over the finished product, like presidential spunk on a cocktail dress.
When I look back on my own formative years as a movie-goer, Spielberg’s influence also looms large. Whether as a writer, director or producer, the bearded mogul’s distinctive viewpoint was responsible for many of the definitive scenes that fuelled my love of film. Not least because he understood how to root the fantastical in the ordinariness of suburban adolescence. So in advance of Super 8’s imminent release, I wanted to take a look back at some of the moments that fostered a life-long belief in the power of movies.
Red lilo yellow lilo
First rule of making a family-friendly blockbuster – kids and dogs have to survive. Someone obviously forgot to point this out to Steven Spielberg, as he unleashed his mechanical monster shark on an 11 year-old boy. Even more shocking was the fact that the attack happened in broad daylight, under the watchful eye of aquaphobic police chief Martin Brody.
By the time I finally saw Alex Kintner turned into churning chum, I’d already made two aborted attempts to sit through Jaws. The first time, I got no further than the clanging buoy in the opening scene, before my parents switched off the TV and sent me to bed. On my second attempt, I made it as far as the autopsy – the severed arm turned my eight year-old stomach and once again I was packed off for another sleepless night.
The third time was clearly the charm, as I made it all the way through the film. There are countless classic scenes in Spielberg’s famously troubled adaptation, from the quiet mimicry of Brody and his son at the dinner table, to Quint’s unforgettable S.S. Indianapolis speech. But the one that stayed with me the longest, was young Alex’s ill-fated return to the water. Watching grown-ups being eviscerated by a raging mass of teeth was no big deal, but seeing a child my own age being hastily devoured was enough to instil a life-long fear of lilos.
This big-budget alien movie featured no explosions or aggressive invasions. Just a bunch of grey-faced extra-terrestrials who came to Earth in search of an impromptu jam session
Up, up and away
Close Encounters of the Third Kind shouldn’t have worked. Slow, ponderous and fragmented, it’s a film with a protagonist who chooses to leaves his wife and kids behind, in order to follow his dreams of intergalactic travel. Then again, having witnessed the chaos of his home life, you can hardly blame him. His wife is a nagging shrew who spends most of the movie in a shabby housecoat, and his children would have Jo Frost arrested on child abuse charges.
Looking back, it’s also amazing to think that this big-budget alien movie featured no explosions or aggressive invasions. Just a bunch of grey-faced extra-terrestrials who came to Earth in search of an impromptu jam session. A few years later and they’d have been booked to appear on Jules Holland alongside Alison Krauss and Meshell Ndegeocello.
Much is made of the spectacular climax, with its awesome light displays and Richard Edlund’s extraordinary effects work. But I’ve always felt that the film’s most magical moment is a throw-away gag. Would-be deadbeat dad Roy Neary stops at a level crossing to consult his map, and waves past a car waiting behind him. Moments later, another car appears to pull up in the background. Only this time, when Neary waves for the driver to go around him, the lights simply elevate and disappear into the night sky. Where he’s going, they don’t need roads. Simple, magical and quietly haunting, the scene’s greatest strength is its lack of reaction from our oblivious hero.
All white on the night
Steven Spielberg broke my seven year-old heart. E.T. is a desperately sad story, focusing on broken homes, the loneliness of childhood, and the grief of separation. By the time the wrinkly spaceman’s heartlight was finally extinguished in the quarantine tent, I was a helpless ball of snot and tears.
But the most disturbing image, the one that stayed with me long beyond the film’s temporarily uplifting dénouement, was the scene where E.T. was discovered lying unconscious in a woodland creek by Elliott’s brother Michael. White and desiccated, like the chalky dog shit of yesteryear, the intergalactic botanist looked as though he’d placed his last collect call.
Even as the kids were excitedly racing through a partially built housing development on their BMXs (Dear Santa…), I couldn’t shake the image of the sickly, inanimate alien on his back in the sludge. Spielberg always intended for his eponymous creation to be lovably ugly, but with a deathly pallor he was downright horrifying.
By the time the monkey brains were served, I was convinced that I’d found the greatest film ever committed to celluloid.
Keep on running
It’s almost thirty years since Poltergeist was first released, and even now debate still rages over who directed it. Spielberg may have written the story, co-authored the screenplay and played executive producer on the haunted house classic, but he hand-picked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper to direct, since he was tied up on E.T. Even so, Steven’s influence is clearly felt in every scene.
The film is a great showcase for much of Industrial Light and Magic’s early work, but the most impactful special effect was actually a practical camera trick. Following one of the greatest fake endings of all time (“This house is clean…”), the triumphantly reunited family settle in for one last night in their home. Unfortunately for the Freelings, their domestic bliss is short-lived as the malicious entities make one last grab for dimension-skipping moppet Carol-Anne.
After being thrown around the room in her Sigourney Weaver-patented hipster underpants, Diane races down the hallway to rescue her screaming children. But as she staggers towards the kids’ room, an audacious reverse zoom creates the illusion that the hall is increasing in length even as she picks up speed. For all the spider monsters, floor-rupturing corpses, and facial peels in the movie, this is the closest that Poltergeist comes to visualising a real nightmare.
Appetite for disgusting
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t really like Raiders of the Lost Ark when I first saw it. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate it at the time; I’ve certainly grown to love it in the intervening years. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on the other hand – now there was a movie I could get into.
Seeing it on the big screen in Filey’s only cinema, I was entranced by its relentless energy, and blind to its casual yet egregious racism. More importantly, I revelled in its disgusting detail. At the time, I was going through a phase where I was drawn to anything gruesome or gory. My parents had even been called into school to discuss a particularly graphic representation of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents that I’d produced. In retrospect, the teachers might have just been concerned that I’d worked my way through four expensive red marker pens in creating my masterpiece.
Either way, the banquet scene in Pankot Palace, was just what my nine year-old self wanted from an adventure movie. Snakes swallowed whole, eyeball soup, giant lickable beetles – I laughed hysterically through the entire segment, feeling Willie’s pain but kind of wishing even more indignities to be heaped upon her. By the time the monkey brains were served, I was convinced that I’d found the greatest film ever committed to celluloid. The fact that they were served chilled was just the icing on a particularly inedible cake. I may have devoured the movie but my popcorn went untouched.
Here was a film that managed to reconnect me with the wonder of youth, as it showed dinosaurs in all their flocking, sneezing, shitting glory.
Never say ‘die’
In 1985 Spielberg tried to make up for the darkness of Temple of Doom with a more kid-friendly adventure, set in the rundown dock area of Astoria in Oregon. He crafted a story about a mismatched bunch of adolescent outsiders who find a long-lost treasure map and embark on a health-and-safety worrying quest to locate a pirate ship buried in an underground cavern.
Looking back on it now, there’s still plenty in The Goonies to upset parents, from the mortal jeopardy that the kids constantly find themselves in, to the fact that one of the pre-teen heroes tells the maid (in fluent Spanish) “The marijuana goes in the top drawer. The cocaine and speed go in the second drawer. And the heroin goes in the bottom drawer. Always separate the drugs.” You won’t find that kind of dialogue in Alvin and the Chipmunks.
For me, the definitive moment in The Goonies came as the young explorers reached the end of their quest, throwing themselves into a conveniently placed waterslide that dumped them into a lagoon right next to the pirates’ galleon. Even at the time, I questioned the believability of a bunch of scurvy-addled pirates being able to construct a series of tricks and traps that would put The Crystal Maze to shame. But that waterslide looked like so much fun, there was no limit to the belief I was willing to suspend in the name of adventure.
When Jurassic Park opened in July of 1993, it marked the end of my adolescence – school was over, and I was getting ready for university. And yet here was a film that managed to reconnect me with the wonder of youth, as it showed dinosaurs in all their flocking, sneezing, shitting glory. Rejecting Phil Tippett’s innovative stop motion animation in favour of Stan Winston’s practical effects and ILM’s breakthrough CGI, Spielberg’s gamble turned into box office gold. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who went to see Jurassic Park five times that summer.
Much has been made of the terrifying T-Rex attack, heralded by those evocative concentric rings in a water glass. But that muddy showdown took place an hour into the film. For my money, the signature moment in a film full of breathtaking set-pieces came much earlier, as Doctors Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant first touched down on Isla Nublar.
As they speed through the jungle in gaudily branded jeeps, Ellie grabs a leaf and begins to wax lyrical about the fact that it’s from a plant that’s supposed to be extinct. If you want scintillating dialogue, make sure one of your characters is a paleobotanist. Thankfully, these prehistoric Percy-Throwerisms are shortlived, as the convoy speeds into a clearing, giving our heroes a close-up look at a Brachiosaurus chewing on a treetop. With John Williams’ melodic score reaching a triumphant crescendo, Grant stands and stutters “It’s…a…dinosaur”, as he turns Sattler’s head towards the gigantic herbivore. And it’s this inarticulate shock that instantly transforms the character from potentially aloof egghead, to another Spielbergian everyman. Suddenly, we actually care about whether he’ll live to dust another fossilised vertebrae.
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