Titans: George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg (part 2)

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Like Lucas, much of Spielberg’s work references the TV shows and movies he saw as a youngster, but where Lucas had spent several years in the intellectual hothouse of USC’s film program, Spielberg had, in essence, gone straight from watching TV to making TV.  Though he had ambitions of wanting to do “serious” film work, he was not the aspiring anti-establishment maverick – as Lucas initially was – trying to find a way to work outside the system, but rather proved to be very much at home within the Hollywood system.  That system provided Spielberg the opportunity – at the Universal shop – to learn and perfect his craft through years of directing episodes for major networks series like Marcus Welby, M.D. and Columbo, as well as the experience of working with the studio’s veteran craftsman.  He graduated to made-for-TV movies and gained his first major acclaim for Duel (1971), an artfully creepy bit of suspense about a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) who finds himself in a fight for his life with the never-seen driver of a tanker truck.  Spielberg made several more TV features, but it was Duel, in which he displayed his knack for action without letting the picture devolve into empty chase mechanics, which led to his first theatrical feature:  The Sugarland Express (1973).

Sugarland represented a significant increase in complexity for Spielberg over his TV work both logistically and creatively.  Most of Duel had consisted of one truck, one car, a lonely stretch of road in the California desert, and one principal actor.  On his series work, major characters had long been established by the respective series’ stars, and the shows were shot on the studio back lot.  Sugarland, however, had action sequences involving dozens of police cars and helicopters, locations spread all across Texas, four principals and a host of supporting parts, and a challenging storyline gradually changing from the gently comic to the heartbreakingly tragic, and in which the most sympathetic characters – a young, married pair of minor felons on a cross-Texas quest to regain their son from foster care – are also the story’s “villains.”  Though the movie failed commercially (possibly suffering from being one of a glut of couples-on-the-run stories all opening over the same period i.e. The Getaway [1972], Badlands [1973], Thieves Like Us [1974]), reviewers enthusiastically agreed Spielberg had made an auspicious theatrical debut.

The Sugarland Express had been produced by one-time 20th Century Fox chief Richard Zanuck and his partner, David Brown.  When the duo acquired the rights to the novel Jaws, Spielberg asked on as director.  The unprecedented success of Jaws ($260m US v $8m budget) would do for Spielberg what Star Wars would do for Lucas two years later; buy him creative independence in Hollywood.

Soon after Jaws, Spielberg set up Amblin Entertainment, his own production company, so he could more easily initiate and maintain creative control over projects.  Amblin was a much different entity than Lucasfilm and the Skywalker Ranch.  Spielberg did not remove himself from Hollywood; his company was based in Los Angeles, and Spielberg kept strong ties with the company which had nurtured him through the early part of his career – Universal – and later with Warner Bros. where he forged a strong, personal relationship with Steve Ross, the then chief of Warners’ parent company, Warner Communications (later Time Warner).

Almost immediately, Spielberg became as prolific a producer as a director, spinning off projects of interest in which he had neither the time nor inclination to direct himself, and providing major breaks for new or up-and-coming directors like Robert Zemeckis (who cut his directorial teeth on I Wanna Hold Your Hand [1978] and Used Cars [1980] for Amblin), Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984), and Barry Levinson (Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985).  By the mid-1980s, Spielberg was producing as many movies as he was directing.  Within eleven years after making The Sugarland Express, Spielberg had directed nine theatrical features (more than George Lucas has directed to date), and had produced another nine just since 1978.

The 1980s saw Spielberg creatively stumble.  His work seemed to waffle between a desire to move up to more adult themes (with the exception of The Sugarland Success, all of his movies prior to 1985 had been some sort of adventure or fantasy), and a fear of alienating the mass audience with stories darker and more troubling than the fare with which he’d come to be associated.

It was, in fact, a chronic fear.  On Sugarland, producer and director had reversed stereotypical roles in a debate over the tone of the movie with Spielberg pushing to compromise the picture with a more upbeat finish while Richard Zanuck argued to protect the integrity of the original tragic finale.  On Jaws, while Spielberg admirably wanted the principal characters to have more dimension, he also wanted them to be universally likeable, so both the obsessive shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and snobby oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) were softened from their book versions.  And, while Spielberg may have enjoyed spinning out his fantasies in familiar milieus, he seemed uncomfortable with the more drab aspects of everyday existence.

With films like Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, directed for producer friend Lucas), and E.T., that tendency was of little issue, but as Spielberg tried to change direction it hobbled his work.  He sanded off the more harsh and problematic edges of Toni Morrison’s novel The Color Purple for a milquetoasty 1985 adaptation; his 1987 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, inspired by Ballard’s childhood experiences under Japanese occupation during WW II, was generally considered inferior to John Boorman’s thematically similar Hope and Glory released that same year; Always (1989) was a woefully miscalculated remake of the bittersweet WW II fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943), with Spielberg mistakenly assuming the milieu of airborne firefighters had the same gravitas as Joe’s self-sacrificing bomber pilots in combat against the Axis; and then there was Hook (1991), a misguided attempt to “adultify” Peter Pan with themes of menopausal re-evaluation as a long absent and now grown Peter (Robin Williams) returns to Never-Never Land.

Even though he seemed to have lost his creative way, Spielberg was still capable of turning in a moneymaker.  Despite predominantly negative reviews, Hook took in almost $120 million domestic, and was followed in 1993 by the empty-headed but technically amazing Jurassic Park which, with its U.S. take of over $357 million, was, for several years, the all-time box office champ.

Whatever inner governor had been holding Spielberg back creatively he finally managed to cast off – and do so with a vengeance – with 1993’s Schindler’s List, adapted by Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally’s bestselling novel which, in turn, was inspired by the true story of a playboy German industrialist (Liam Neeson) who, during WW II, rose to the occasion and saved hundreds of Jews from extermination.  Schindler is boldly shot in a dolorous black-and-white, and deals face-on with one of the grimmest chapters in human history.  It was, in light of its somber story, surprisingly successful commercially ($96 million US/$312 worldwide against a $25 million budget), and gained Spielberg a level of artistic legitimacy he’d been unable to achieve with his earlier work.

Schindler’s List also seemed to liberate something in Spielberg, and after the sequel The Lost World:  Jurassic Park II (1997), he turned out a string of pictures all marked, to some extent, with a new, more mature sensibility.  There was Amistad (1997), another true history piece, a noble – if unfocused – attempt to grapple with America’s history of slavery; and then the brutally demythologizing WW II adventure, Saving Private Ryan, the following year.  Even when he returned to the realm of science fiction and fantasy with Artificial Intelligence:  A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002), the moral simplicity of Close Encounters and E.T. was clearly gone.

A.I. was originally to have been a Stanley Kubrick project.  Kubrick had spoken with Spielberg about the possibility of working jointly, with Kubrick as producer and Spielberg in the director’s chair, but, ultimately, Kubrick felt the material leant itself better to the other director’s sensibilities and turned the property wholly over to Spielberg.

A.I. is a sci fi fairy tale, a futuristic Pinocchio (which the screenplay, by Spielberg from a screen story by Ian Watson adapting Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” references repeatedly), being the story of a robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), who longs to be a real boy so as to regain the love of the human mother (Frances O’Connor) who rejects him for her biological son.  Overlong, episodic, sometimes sluggish and heavy-handed, it’s an interesting debate as to whether or not Kubrick would have handled the rambling structure of the piece better than Spielberg.  By the same token, it’s worth arguing whether or not the more emotionally aloof Kubrick could have delivered the poignancy Spielberg brings to some of the movie’s more emotionally-laden scenes for, despite its flaws, the movie has moments of undeniable dramatic power.

A.I. is not a child’s fairy tale, but a fairy tale for adults about a child’s bruised soul.  David’s jealousy over his biological brother, his feelings of abandonment and loss, his horror at learning from his creator (William Hurt) that his “uniqueness” will be reproduced for mass consumption, and the longing carrying him through his long, often terrifying quest are frighteningly real, disturbing, and sometimes heartbreaking.  So, too, is the poignancy of the movie’s final scene, marked by a lyrical bittersweetness unthinkable in a Spielberg picture of 20 years earlier.

David has been recovered by alien explorers from a future ice age long after the human race has died out.  Having searched his memory, they are aware of his trials and offer him the possibility of a brief bit of happiness.  They can recreate his mother from a keepsake lock of her hair.  However, they warn, the recreation will last for only one day, after which she will sleep and never wake.  David takes the offer and the day spent alone with his mother in a replica of their home is an idyllic day of mother-and-child delights.  As the day ends and she turns to bed, David turns his back on his cybernetic immortality, curling up in an unending sleep with the mother who finally loves him.

Minority Report is more of a straight-up sci fi action thriller, and, as such, perhaps it even more clearly displays the new colors Spielberg had added to his palette, emotional colors which stand out starkly against the comparatively simple ambitions of Report’s futuristic fugitive story.  Minority Report (adapted from a Philip K. Dick story by Scott Frank and John Cohen) is a less artistically grandiose but more tightly-constructed thematic kin to Blade Runner (1982) in that it tries to retool noir for a sci fi context, taking a familiar story – a cop (Tom Cruise) is framed for a murder he didn’t commit – and giving it a World of Tomorrow twist (cops use psychics to apprehend criminals for crimes they have yet to commit).  Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski find a modern-day visual counterpart to the light/shadow starkness of the classic noirs with a color-drained look of charcoalish harshness.  And, like the classic noirs, this visually abrasive scheme mirrors the rough-edged content; a hardboiled cop now desperately on the run, hiding out among the future’s demimonde, forever haunted – and somewhat twisted – by his guilt over the long-ago loss of his son snatched away at a public pool outing during an ever-so-brief moment of distraction.

In the early 21st Century, of the two men, Spielberg emerges as the more vital, more exploratory moviemaker.  In fits and starts, he has broadened his emotional range both as a director and producer.  While Spielberg’s various production brands have turned out an astounding amount of disposable, forgettable kiddie fodder, their output has also expanded to include such un-Spielbergian works as American Beauty, Collateral (2004), the matched pair of WW II stories Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both in 2006), and the HBO WW II mini-series’ Band of Brothers (2001) and its Pacific war counterpart, The Pacific (2010).  He has not only maintained the creative collaborations he established in the earliest days of Amblin (Robert Zemeckis directed Cast Away [2000] for Dreamworks), but continues to offer opportunities for new directorial talent, giving TV director Mimi Lederer her theatrical feature break on The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), and doing the same for stage director Sam Mendes with American Beauty and Road to Perdition.

At the top of his creative game, Spielberg continues his incredible output, moving from the sentimental escapism of The Terminal (2003) to his 9/11-referencing revamp of War of the Worlds (2005) to his disturbing take on the unending cycle of violence and revenge in the Middle East with Munich (2005), while wearing his producer’s hat for the blockbuster Transformers franchise, an upcoming fourth Jurassic Park, and a planned remake of the 1951 George Pal sci fier, When Worlds Collide.

Still, however accomplished Spielberg stands as a filmmaker, and however impressive his artistic growth may be, it is George Lucas’ stamp which is most indelible on the industry today.  Jaws may have given Hollywood its taste for the summer blockbuster, but Star Wars demonstrated the full potential of the present-day film franchise.  And, it is also the Lucas’ aesthetic which holds sway.

As far back as his earliest days as a feature director, Lucas had come to believe the most important parts of a movie were its opening five minutes and its climactic twenty, with everything in between no more than filler.  He felt simplistic characters and stories could be eclipsed by sufficient doses of fast-paced action.  There is hardly a big-budget thriller today which does not seem poured out of that mold.

And so Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind, becomes Hollywood’s Old Guard, one of the last few at the major studio level who believes in the antiquated idea that movies – even the most fantastic of adventures – should be about people.

– Bill Mesce

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3 Comments
  1. Martin (french) says

    brillant article ! very interesting. But as for Spielberg, I’m eager to see if the weakness he has revealed on the fourth Indiana Jones was because of Lucas or simply because he has lost his creativeness and everything he was known for.

    Will Spielberg be able to “do it again” with Tintin and War Horse ? Is Jacskon his new Lucas?

    Can’t wait for the end of 2011.

    Thank you again for this article

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Thanks for your comments. It was fun doing it.
      Spielberg has made weak movies before, has even gone through a streak of them. I think it was less either of their faults than going to the well once too many times. The fact that Spielberg would go from that to something like WAR HORSE and TINTIN shows that he’s still out there swinging, maybe at pitches he shouldn’t, but he keeps coming up to bad.
      Lucas, though…a re-re-release of the STAR WARS movies? It’s a pattern he can’t seem to break.

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