Spielberg, Steven (Vol. 188)
Steven Spielberg 1947-
(Full name Steven Allan Spielberg) American director, novelist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Spielberg's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Known for the stylistic virtuosity and mainstream appeal of his works, Spielberg is the most commercially successful film director of all time. Throughout his career, Spielberg has evinced a keen ability to craft engaging and entertaining narratives that appeal to both popular and critical audiences. His films have covered a diverse range of genres—literary adaptations, science fiction, and historical dramas, among others—though he is probably best known for his bombastic, special effects driven adventure films, which reflect the sensibilities of the “cinema of the spectacle” school of filmmaking. Spielberg's films have achieved such a level of international popularity that certain aspects of his movies have been permanently entered into the modern cultural vernacular, such as the foreboding violins from Jaws (1975), the landing of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and the heroic theme music of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Despite some claims that Spielberg lacks depth as a filmmaker, a number of his works examine serious, and often difficult, subject material, including racism, the effects of rampant technological advancements, and the legacy of slavery and the Holocaust. In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, five of Spielberg's films—more than any other director—appeared on the list. The films were Schindler's List (1993), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ranking at numbers 9, 25, 48, 60, and 64, respectively.
Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 18, 1947. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer specializing in the newly-emerging field of computers. Spielberg's family moved frequently during his youth, residing in New Jersey and Arizona before settling in San Jose, California. As a teenager, Spielberg became interested in filmmaking and began recording family events on an eight-millimeter camera. In high school, Spielberg shot dozens of short films—which often emulated his favorite movies—and finished his first full-length film, Firelight, in 1964. When his poor grades kept him out of California's more prestigious film schools, Spielberg attended California State College and studied filmmaking by sneaking onto movie sets. His short film, Amblin' (1968), won awards at the Venice and Atlanta film festivals and attracted the attention of executives at Universal Pictures. Signing a seven-year contract with Universal, Spielberg began directing for television, including several episodes of such series as Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, and The Name of the Game. Spielberg also directed a number of made-for-television movies, including Duel (1971), which received such positive critical attention that the film was eventually released theatrically. Spielberg's first full-length feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974), garnered a lukewarm critical assessment, but his next film, Jaws, became a cultural phenomenon. Jaws broke box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing film ever at the time, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The success of Jaws cemented Spielberg's reputation as a skilled filmmaker and allowed him the freedom to develop his own projects. His next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was also a commercial success and earned Spielberg an Academy Award nomination for best director. Though Spielberg continued directing, he also became a film producer, forming the production company Amblin Entertainment and producing such films as Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1994 Spielberg teamed with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks SKG, an independent studio that produces a variety of films, musical acts, and television programs. Spielberg has also been involved with several charitable organizations, including the Shoah Visual History Foundation for Holocaust survivors. Throughout his career, Spielberg has received numerous awards and accolades for his films, earning a wealth of Academy Award nominations and winning Oscars for best director and best picture for Schindler's List and best director for Saving Private Ryan (1998). He has also won the Irving G. Thalberg Award for his overall body of work from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for best picture for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA award for best picture for Schindler's List, among others.
Spielberg's first film to be released theatrically was Duel, a television movie that follows a beleaguered motorist as he is relentlessly pursued down a highway by a homicidal truck driver. The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's next film was based on a true story of an escaped convict and his wife who kidnap their child from his foster family, resulting in a police chase across Texas. Though these early films were generally well received, Jaws stands as one of the most significant films in Spielberg's career, establishing a number of recurring traits that the filmmaker would utilize throughout his career. These traits include setting ordinary characters into extraordinary circumstances, the presence of a lurking, off-camera menace, and the director's frequent collaborations with composer John Williams. Set on a popular New England tourist island, Jaws centers around the struggles of a small-town police sheriff, a marine biologist, and a grizzled sea captain to find and kill a predatory great white shark that terrorizes the local inhabitants. Spielberg crafted the screenplay for his next directorial effort, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which chronicles a series of unusual encounters, marking the moments of first contact between human beings and extraterrestrial lifeforms. The film abandons the typically adversarial relationship between mankind and aliens in past films, instead depicting the meeting of the two races as a profoundly spiritual and joyous occasion. Spielberg also composed the novelization of his screenplay for Close Encounters, his only full-length prose work to date. He followed Close Encounters with the farcical World War II comedy 1941 (1979), one of the director's few commercially unsuccessful films. Inspired by the action cliffhanger serial films of the 1930s, Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark became the first in a trilogy of films featuring the swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones. Continuing Jones's adventures in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones battles Nazis, witch-doctors, and evil henchmen in his pursuit of legendary lost treasures, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones from India, and the Holy Grail. Often referred to as one of Spielberg's most personal films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial features a young boy named Elliott who develops a symbiotic friendship with an alien called “E.T.” who was accidentally abandoned on Earth. Elliott, who feels heavily isolated due to his parents' divorce, tries to help E.T. contact his home planet while they both dodge suspicious government agents who wish to imprison and dissect E.T. The film became an enormous commercial success, surpassing Jaws as the highest-grossing film of the 1970s.
During the mid-1980s, Spielberg began a second phase in his directing career with two notable literary adaptations. In 1985 he directed the film version of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, which chronicles the life of a poor, African American woman in the rural South in the early years of the twentieth century. Trapped in an abusive marriage, the protagonist, Celie, writes letters to her sister, Nettie, who has travelled abroad. After years of apparently receiving no response from Nettie, Celie learns that her husband has kept Nettie's delivered letters from her and that Nettie is living in Africa with Celie's two children whom she gave up for adoption. In 1987 Spielberg helmed the film adaptation of J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. The plot centers around a young English boy named Jim who is captured in Shanghai, China, during World War II and is forced to live without his parents in an internment camp for the duration of the war. Both films were considered to be a departure for Spielberg, focusing more on interpersonal relationships and trenchant emotional themes than the director's traditionally more commercial fare. Always (1989)—a remake of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe—continued Spielberg's emphasis on smaller, more intimate stories. The protagonist, Pete, is a fire-fighting pilot, who dies in a crash, but returns as a ghost to help his former girlfriend, Dorinda, move on and find a new love. Spielberg returned to the “cinema of the spectacle” with Hook (1991), a big-budget adventure based on J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Hook is based on the premise of an aging Peter Pan, who has forgotten how to fly, and is forced to return to NeverNeverland to rescue his children from the villainous Captain Hook.
Spielberg's career reached another important milestone in 1993, both critically and commercially, with the release of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park examines the chaotic effects of genetic engineering and commercialism run rampant. John Hammond, a billionaire entrepreneur, discovers how to clone dinosaurs from their fossilized remains and opens an exotic zoo/amusement park where paying customers can see his creatures. During an early preview of the park, a group of scientists, stakeholders, and Hammond's own grandchildren find themselves pursued by the predatory animals after the park's security network is sabotaged. Jurassic Park became a huge financial success and, like both Jaws and E.T., became the highest-grossing film of its time. Spielberg later filmed a sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in 1997. Schindler's List, based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, chronicles the true-life actions of Oskar Schindler, a charming though irresponsible German industrialist who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish concentration camp prisoners by employing them at his factory during World War II. Filmed in black and white, Spielberg utilizes spare cinematic effects to explore the horror of the Holocaust and the moral struggles of a man attempting to come to terms with his own conscience. The film was both commercially and critically acclaimed and, according to some film scholars, marks Spielberg's maturation as a filmmaker. In 1997 Spielberg continued to address more serious historical themes in Amistad, recounting the saga of a group of Africans kidnapped and shipped aboard a Spanish slave ship to America in 1839. After a successful shipboard revolt, the Africans gain control of the craft, only to be commandeered by an American naval vessel. A series of judicial hearings and trials ensued—the last of which was argued before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams for the defense—until the men were eventually classified as free by the American government and returned to Africa. In Saving Private Ryan Spielberg turned his historical perspective toward the World War II D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The story follows the journey of a squad of American soldiers, who participated in the landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, as they search for a missing American paratrooper, Private Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in combat. As the sole surviving brother, Ryan will be sent home from combat, yet when the squad locates him, Ryan insists on remaining to fight with his unit to secure a bridge from German forces. Much of the film's critical attention has centered on its first twenty-five minutes, which presents a chillingly accurate depiction of the horrors of the D-Day invasion.
Adapted from a short story by Brian Aldiss, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) began as a collaboration between Spielberg and noted filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. After Kubrick's death in 1999, Spielberg took over the project and wrote the screenplay himself—his first original screenplay since he co-authored Poltergeist in 1982. Drawing heavily from the story of Pinocchio, A.I. focuses on a robotic boy named David who is programmed to love the woman he believes is his mother. After being rejected and abandoned by his adopted family, David—along with a handsome robot named Gigolo Joe and a mechanical stuffed animal called Teddy—searches for the Blue Fairy, a mythical figure that David believes will grant his wish to become a real boy. Spielberg released two films in 2002—Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report is set in Washington, D.C., in 2054. Murder has become a thing of the past due to a group of three psychics—called “pre-cogs”—who receive visions of homicides before they occur. This information is scanned, interpreted, and relayed to the Pre-Crime Unit, a crime prevention team headed by John Anderton. When the pre-cogs allege that Anderton is going to commit murder in the near future, Anderton must gather evidence to prove his innocence. Catch Me If You Can explores the true-life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., a seventeen-year-old con artist who passed more than one million dollars in fraudulent checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, and an assistant district attorney.
Since the early beginnings of his career, critics have recognized Spielberg's ability to create films that combine old-style, thrilling adventure stories with technical virtuosity, careful craftsmanship, and the latest developments in special effects. Most reviewers have contended that Spielberg has a keen ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the modern era and craft films that appeal to a wide audience base. However, film scholarship on Spielberg's oeuvre has frequently been polarized regarding the commercial/artistic value of Spielberg's films. Several critics have routinely commended Spielberg for his skill at creating technically-sound, crowd-pleasing movies that exhibit a firm reverence for the history of film. Others have countered this assessment, faulting Spielberg for overloading his narratives with visual effects and cloying sentimental messages. Such reviewers have argued that Spielberg tries too hard to make his films accessible to all audiences, thus resulting in bland and aesthetically empty commercial products. During the different phases of his career, Spielberg has attracted a diverse, and occasionally contradictory, range of criticism on his works. While some have dismissed his early films as juvenile and immature, others have lamented his more serious films of the 1990s, calling for a return to the more energetic and entertaining films of his youth. Commentary on Spielberg's more politically-conscious films has also been varied. Though many have praised The Color Purple and Amistad for effectively portraying often ignored elements of African American history, several critics have derided Spielberg, arguing that, as a Caucasian filmmaker, Spielberg is unqualified to present the perspective of minority characters. The critical debate surrounding Schindler's List has also been widely split. Despite widespread public acclaim from reviewers, audiences, and Holocaust survivors, some have argued that the film is overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, Schindler's List has evolved to become a respected part of the contemporary Judaic film canon. Reviewers have also offered diverse opinions on A.I., inspiring significant debate between the merits of Spielberg and Kubrick as filmmakers. Certain commentators have asserted that Spielberg unsuccessfully attempts to emulate Kubrick's cinematic style in A.I., though others have lauded the film for Spielberg's stylistic experimentation and more ambiguous emotional themes. While critics have continued to argue the merits of Spielberg's films, he retains a role as one of the most successful and revered popular filmmakers of the modern era.
Amblin' [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1968
*Duel [director] (television film) 1971
Something Evil [director] (television film) 1972
Savage [director] (television film) 1973
The Sugarland Express [director] (film) 1974
Jaws [director] (film) 1975
Close Encounters of the Third Kind [director and screenwriter] (film) 1977
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: A Novel (novel) 1977
1941 [director] 1979
Raiders of the Lost Ark [director] (film) 1981
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Tom O'Brien (review date 15 June 1984)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “Parsifal at the Bat.” Commonweal 111, no. 12 (15 June 1984): 373-74.
[In the following review, O'Brien describes the action sequences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as “relentless” and “predictable.”]
The priests of Kali (remember Gunga Din?) are at it again; tearing hearts out, performing human sacrifice, renewing the ancient conspiracy of the original “thugs,” and chanting mantras on their route to worldwide domination. They have stolen this sacred diamond from a poor Himalayan village (grabbing its children to boot), and ace archeologist Indiana Jones (having just narrowly escaped the clutches of a...
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Anthony Magistrale (essay date July 1984)
SOURCE: Magistrale, Anthony. “Innocence Unrewarded: A Note on E.T. and the Myth of Adolescence.” Science-Fiction Studies 11, no. 2 (July 1984): 223-25.
[In the following essay, Magistrale examines the portrayal of adults in E.T. and discusses the film as an indictment of adult society.]
As I write these words, Steven Spielberg's movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is banned to Scandinavian children under the age of 12. Supported by an influential group of child psychologists, the authorities in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have interpreted the fantasy film as a negative image of adulthood because it portrays a society composed largely of...
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Janice Hocker Rushing (essay date May 1985)
SOURCE: Rushing, Janice Hocker. “E.T. as Rhetorical Transcendence.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71, no. 2 (May 1985): 188-203.
[In the following essay, Rushing characterizes E.T. as “a significant experiment in the rhetoric of mythic transcendence,” noting that the film effectively deconstructs the boundaries between the individual and the community.]
Heaven has become for us the cosmic space of the physicists, and the divine empyrean a fair memory of things that once were. But the heart glows, and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being.
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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 January 1986)
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Sign of the Times.” New Republic 194, no. 4 (27 January 1986): 24-5.
[In the following review, Kauffmann views The Color Purple as a significant advancement in the portrayal and participation of African Americans in contemporary film.]
The history of black actors in Hollywood films has few surprises: it closely reflects current social attitudes. (By “Hollywood” I mean white-controlled films made anywhere in America; the black film industry, which began making features in 1918, is a quite different subject.) Before sound, black actors were cast as “Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks,” as Donald Bogle says in his...
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Adam Mars-Jones (review date 11 July 1986)
SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Mauve.” New Statesman 112, no. 2885 (11 July 1986): 27-8.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones discusses the flaws in both the novel The Color Purple and Spielberg's film adaptation, arguing that the two works rely “heavily on the plot-machinery of melodrama.”]
Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple is based ‘upon’ Alice Walker's novel, and the reverence of the preposition is eloquent; but every film of a book is an involuntary act of literary criticism. Faults of structure tend to stand out rather starkly when the words are stripped away.
Spielberg's difficulties with tone, particularly in the early...
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Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. “From Television to Feature Films.” In Steven Spielberg, pp. 17-30. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
[In the following essay, Mott and Saunders examine Spielberg's early made-for-television movies, noting that the eventual theatrical releases of Duel and The Sugarland Express set certain thematic precedents for Spielberg's subsequent films.]
Spielberg made his debut as a television director with a segment of Night Gallery, produced by Universal Television. The episode stars Joan Crawford as a wealthy but blind woman who makes her wish for sight come true by blackmailing a famous...
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Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. “I'm Going to Make You a Star.” In Steven Spielberg, pp. 110-28. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
[In the following essay, Mott and Saunders explore the inspirations behind E.T. and comment on the film's critical reception and suspected religious symbolism.]
I love you and want you to come to my house on Christmas Day and spend the night with me in case I get scared. E.T. I love you.
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Tom O'Brien (review date 15 January 1988)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “Go East, Young Man.” Commonweal 115, no. 1 (15 January 1988): 20-1.
[In the following review, O'Brien notes Spielberg's tendency toward childishness and sentimentality in Empire of the Sun.]
Steven Spielberg, who directed and co-produced Empire of the Sun, doesn't want to grow up. In some artists, this refusal can be a fruitful source of protest against time, or, if handled ironically, bittersweet humor. Any obsession can be fruitful; look how wittily Hitchcock handled his with blondes. A director can return to the same theme, or change subjects and deal with a similar theme (as Spielberg has done here with growing up), and still...
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Gilbert Adair (review date spring 1988)
SOURCE: Adair, Gilbert. “E.T. and a Half.” Sight and Sound 57, no. 2 (spring 1988): 138-39.
[In the following review, Adair comments on Spielberg's “cosmic” and supernatural sensibility in Empire of the Sun.]
Staying with acquaintances in Paris a few years ago, I fell into conversation with their son, an intelligent little boy of seven and a half, about the current movies he had most enjoyed. The titles he cited were, in the main, dishearteningly predictable: the Star Wars and Star Trek chronicles, Battlestar Galactica and so on. Urged by me to broaden—or rather to curb—his cinematic horizons, he mentioned at last a film that had been...
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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 19 June 1989)
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “The Trail of the Grail.” New Republic 200, no. 25 (19 June 1989): 28-30.
[In the following review, Kauffmann offers a positive assessment of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, arguing that the majority of Spielberg's films function as “prepubescent male” fantasies.]
Reviewing an Indiana Jones film is almost like reviewing a tornado or a flood. It comes on less like a construct than like a force of nature—human nature, in this case, which seems to will the film onto the screen independently of those who made it.
This is obviously a tribute to the people who originated IJ and who in a sense have served as...
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Armond White (review date July-August 1989)
SOURCE: White, Armond. “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Film Comment 25, no. 4 (July-August 1989): 9-11.
[In the following review, White elucidates the political themes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and asserts that the film repudiates the genre conventions of the two earlier Indiana Jones films.]
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—a Hollywood curse
Diviners of popular culture who once celebrated Steven Spielberg for his ingenious extension of the Hollywood film tradition (“A new generation's Howard Hawks”) have deserted him when he needs them most....
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Harvey R. Greenberg (essay date September-October 1989)
SOURCE: Greenberg, Harvey R. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Serial Mythmash.” Tikkun 4, no. 5 (September-October 1989): 78-80.
[In the following essay, Greenberg explores the influence of the Saturday matinee serials of the 1940s on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Indiana Jones series as whole, particularly noting elements of covert racism and sexism evinced in the films.]
Steven Spielberg desperately wants to recreate ancient legends for enjoyment at the local sixplex. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the third installment of the wildly successful series about the indefatigable archaeologist Indiana Jones, and is...
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Suzanne Moore (review date 30 March 1990)
SOURCE: Moore, Suzanne. “Always a Love Story.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 94 (30 March 1990): 46-7.
[In the following review, Moore praises Spielberg's cinematic maturity in Always and comments that the film “has been widely represented as Spielberg's first grown-up film.”]
It may not be possible to be too thin or too rich, but is it possible, I wonder, to be too popular? Take Steven Spielberg. He is the most popular filmmaker ever: he has directed half of the ten most successful films of all time. So it's strange that he has never won an Oscar and is not revered in the way that Scorcese or even Woody Allen is. Spielberg's films are still generally...
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Andrew Gordon (essay date fall 1991)
SOURCE: Gordon, Andrew. “Raiders of the Lost Ark: Totem and Taboo.” Extrapolation 32, no. 3 (fall 1991): 256-67.
[In the following essay, Gordon argues that Raiders of the Lost Ark “transcends the old action serials” that acted as its inspiration as evidenced by the film's dense mythological and religious undertones.]
Like George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a pastiche of and homage to earlier Hollywood movies: Star Wars was inspired in part by the Flash Gordon serials, and Raiders is an attempt to recreate the genre of Saturday matinee adventure serials, the cliffhangers of the...
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Richard Alleva (review date 31 January 1992)
SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Fantasies & Gimmicks.” Commonweal 119, no. 2 (31 January 1992): 25-7.
[In the following excerpt, Alleva regards Hook as an inconsistent and “half-baked sequel” to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.]
Sir James Barrie conceived of the Never Land as a truly wondrous place where British children of the Edwardian era could remain children, where irresponsibility and spontaneity could be preserved and not perish in the service of king and country or business and family, and where the only empire to be fought for was a “nicely crammed” island with lagoons and tree houses and pirates and Indians. But in Hook, Steven Spielberg's...
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Anne Billson (review date 10 April 1992)
SOURCE: Billson, Anne. “Crocodile Tear-Jerker.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 197 (10 April 1992): 36.
[In the following review, Billson derides the crass commercialism of Hook, calling the film “a cynical money-spinning exercise full of lacklustre action and meretricious sentiment-by-numbers.”]
Once upon a time there was a little boy called Steven Spielberg who refused to grow up. One day he found himself in charge of the biggest train set in Never Never Land, and so he made some jolly exciting movies about friendly aliens, man-eating sharks, and an archaeologist who zoomed around the world thrashing Nazis. And a beezer time was had by all....
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Henry Sheehan (essay date May-June 1992)
SOURCE: Sheehan, Henry. “The Panning of Steven Spielberg: Chapter One of a Critical Cliffhanger.” Film Comment 28, no. 3 (May-June 1992): 54-60.
[In the following essay, Sheehan traces Spielberg's early development as a director, noting Spielberg's dominant thematic concerns in such films as Duel, Jaws, 1941, and The Color Purple.]
The romance between Steven Spielberg and most of the country's film critics officially fell apart this past Christmas, affections irrevocably alienated by Hook. That was the only sour note in the film's release, since it went on to earn unimaginably large heaps of money. And it points to one of the anomalies of Spielberg's...
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Henry Sheehan (essay date July-August 1992)
SOURCE: Sheehan, Henry. “Spielberg II.” Film Comment 28, no. 4 (July-August 1992): 66-71.
[In the following essay, Sheehan continues his critical appraisal of Spielberg's oeuvre, focusing on his films released after The Color Purple and placing particular emphasis on Hook.]
No critic has ever distinguished more harshly, or more narrowly, between the notions of “entertainment” and “art” than official Hollywood; a mere glance at the Academy Awards nomination lists over the years will confirm that. If you want recognition from Academy voters for something other than longevity or public charity, the best way to get it is to propose a glib cinematic...
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Jonathan Romney (review date 16 July 1993)
SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Little Monsters.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 4143 (16 July 1993): 34-5.
[In the following review, Romney identifies the major thematic concerns of Jurassic Park.]
One of the most memorable images in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park comes when a Tyrannosaurus Rex rears up in triumph and a banner flutters down, reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”. It's a nice self-congratulatory touch, reminding us how far saurian cinema has come in sophistication since the 1969 film of that name. But it also points out that now is the time when the big scaly ones reign supreme. Much of Jurassic Park is charged with...
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Mark Amory (review date 17 July 1993)
SOURCE: Amory, Mark. “Bronto Buster.” Spectator 271, no. 8610 (17 July 1993): 37-8.
[In the following review, Amory provides a mixed assessment of Jurassic Park, concluding that the movie is predictable and exhibits a lack of energy and imagination.]
You haven't read the book, you never wore the tee-shirt, you missed the comic, the ice-cream special and the not-so-cuddly toys, now you can skip the movie. Jurassic Park was designed to make money, it has taken more in one day than any film has ever done before and is heading for the world record, so it is perfect. Also it is on purpose: Spielberg has achieved the film he wanted. Criticism will be about...
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Richard Alleva (review date 13 August 1993)
SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Big Stupid Fun.” Commonweal 120, no. 14 (13 August 1993): 18-20.
[In the following excerpt, Alleva argues that Jurassic Park demonstrates Spielberg's skill as a gifted entertainer but asserts that Spielberg “is losing the human touch” of his earlier films.]
“Big Fun” is what a children's librarian I know promises to the kids who join her summer reading club. Yet what does she give them once they turn in the lists of books they've read? Rubber spiders, plastic bracelets, sea-horse combs, free ice cream, connect-the-dots puzzles, paperback books, and magic shows performed by apprentice prestidigitators. It doesn't matter. The...
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Leon Wieseltier (review date 24 January 1994)
SOURCE: Wieseltier, Leon. “Close Encounters of the Nazi Kind.” New Republic 210, no. 4 (24 January 1994): 42.
[In the following review, Wieseltier counters the prevailing positive critical reception of Schindler's List, contending that the film is self-conscious and glib and fails to fully grasp its subject matter.]
One must have a heart of stone to watch Schindler's List without crying; but it is also a part of Steven Spielberg's achievement to have fulfilled every director's dream, which is to make a film that will bring about a collapse of criticism. All the adulation somewhat astonishes me. What is at stake, it begins to seem, is the honor of...
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David Bromwich (review date 14 February 1994)
SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “Schindler's Secret Revolt.” New Leader 77, no. 2 (14 February 1994): 20-1.
[In the following review, Bromwich elucidates the strengths and weaknesses of Schindler's List, noting that the film is “a story of great magnitude that ha[s] the added virtue of being true.”]
In Cracow, near the start of the Second World War, two men are talking. One is a Jewish businessman, the other a wealthy German. Why, asks the Jew, should we take you on as a partner? Look around, says the German. You do good work but you can never sell your wares. What do I offer? You supply the product, I supply—Presentation. At the last word, he...
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Bryan Cheyette (review date 18 February 1994)
SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “The Holocaust in the Picture-House.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4742 (18 February 1994): 18-19.
[In the following review, Cheyette praises the ambition and power of Schindler's List, asserting that, despite its limitations, the film is an “outstanding achievement.”]
It is tempting to think of Steven Spielberg's magnificent but flawed Schindler's List as the triumphant culmination of his more serious films. His adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's Ark (1982, published in America as Schindler's List) is, in these terms, merely the same type of work he made of Alice Walker's The Color...
(The entire section is 2486 words.)
Jonathan Romney (review date 18 February 1994)
SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “The Poetry of Horror.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 4172 (18 February 1994): 33.
[In the following review, Romney commends certain aspects of Schindler's List but asserts that the film is caught between its aspirations to realistically portray the horror of the Holocaust and its “love of elegance.”]
There is a lot that you have to get through before you can even begin to see Schindler's List. First there is the sheer disbelief at the thought that Steven Spielberg, of all directors, has taken on the Holocaust. Then comes the scepticism on reading the Oscar-fuelling adulatory reviews that greeted the film in the US....
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Armond White (review date March 1994)
SOURCE: White, Armond. “Toward a Theory of Spielberg History.” Film Comment 30, no. 2 (March 1994): 51-8.
[In the following review, White addresses Schindler's List as a work of historical realism and considers the film to be Spielberg's “most compromised” work.]
“Witnessing,” a term repeated in the most doctrinaire reviews of Schindler's List, actually happens only once in the movie. Steven Spielberg “witnesses” the tribute he has arranged in which survivors of the WWII Holocaust file past the gravesite of Oskar Schindler. It is a perfectly situated affirmation of the gratitude and humanity that a group of...
(The entire section is 3882 words.)
Michael André Bernstein (review date summer 1994)
SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “The Schindler's List Effect.” American Scholar 63, no. 3 (summer 1994): 429-32.
[In the following review, Bernstein asserts that Schindler's List has affected “the way our culture understands, historically orders, and teaches how the Holocaust should be remembered—and effects like these require a sharp-eyed and unembarrassed resistance.”]
Tact is the discrimination of differences.
—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
There is little pleasure in being troubled by what so many have found deeply moving. For several months now,...
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Susan Aronstein (essay date summer 1995)
SOURCE: Aronstein, Susan. “‘Not Exactly a Knight’: Arthurian Narrative and Recuperative Politics in the Indiana Jones Trilogy.” Cinema Journal 34, no. 4 (summer 1995): 3-30.
[In the following essay, Aronstein argues that the Indiana Jones trilogy uses the traditions of “medieval chivalric romances” to construct a film hero who represents a modern American knight.]
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's [Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade] culminates as the trilogy's much-belabored hero succeeds in his quest for the Holy Grail. Although Indiana informs the Grail's chivalric guardian that he is “not exactly” a knight, his achievement of the Grail...
(The entire section is 15393 words.)
Carol Dole (essay date January 1996)
SOURCE: Dole, Carol. “The Return of the Father in Spielberg's The Color Purple.” Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 1 (January 1996): 12-15.
[In the following essay, Dole discusses Spielberg's film adaptation of The Color Purple, commenting on the increased role of male dominance in the film.]
When Steven Spielberg set out to film Alice Walker's The Color Purple, he was faced with a problem that confronts most directors who choose to adapt novels into film: length. Walker's tersely written three hundred-page novel, covering fifty years and two continents, contained enough material for a mini-series. Even with numerous American episodes removed...
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Jonathan Coe (review date 18 July 1997)
SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. Review of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, by Steven Spielberg. New Statesman 126, no. 4343 (18 July 1997): 43-4.
[In the following review, Coe criticizes the violent excesses in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, declaring that the film is “among the grossest, not to mention goriest and most sadistic films ever to have been awarded a PG certificate in this country.”]
The Lost World: Jurassic Park—or, to give it its full, even more elegant title, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (TM)—is apparently the highest grossing film of all time; or at least, it was for about a week, until the next...
(The entire section is 932 words.)
Mark Steyn (review date 19 July 1997)
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Carry on Killing.” Spectator 279, no. 8816 (19 July 1997): 39-40.
[In the following review, Steyn comments on the frenetic pace of The Lost World: Jurassic Park and states that “Spielberg's films are turning into his dinosaurs: big, brutal, but with no imagination.”]
A couple of months ago, a dog in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, attacked a neighbour's chicken. Under the town's rigorous ‘three strikes, you're dead’ law, he was sentenced to die, prompting a local outcry and mounting pressure on the state's governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. At this point, various legal experts weighed in, arguing that, under the...
(The entire section is 961 words.)
William Cash (review date 13 December 1997)
SOURCE: Cash, William. “Spielberg Slips on the Celluloid Deck.” Spectator 279, no. 8837 (13 December 1997): 12-13.
[In the following review, Cash contrasts Spielberg's treatment of the Holocaust in Schindler's List with his portrayal of slavery in Amistad, contending that Amistad is both an insensitive and patronizing fictionalization of the era of slavery.]
For Steven Spielberg, who once shocked Alice Walker, the black author of The Color Purple, by breezing that Gone with the Wind was his ‘favourite movie of all time’, slavery may seem an odd choice as the subject of his first film for the new Dreamworks studio. But December...
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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 December 1997)
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Of Human Bondage.” New Republic 217, no. 25 (22 December 1997): 24-5.
[In the following review, Kauffmann lauds Amistad as a “solid” and “engrossing” film.]
Uniquely, attractively, Steven Spielberg's career is scored with deep changes of intent. Mostly he has worked in the realm of popular pictures, sweeping the world with success after success by realizing juvenile fantasies with a mature talent. But sometimes he employs that talent on mature subjects. The Color Purple, to some degree, grasped troubling matters in black American society. Schindler's List, to the gratifying surprise of many of us, dramatized...
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Gary Rosen (essay date February 1998)
SOURCE: Rosen, Gary. “Amistad and the Abuse of History.” Commentary 105, no. 2 (February 1998): 46-51.
[In the following essay, Rosen evaluates the veracity of Spielberg's portrayal of race relations and historical events in Amistad.]
“It'll make a helluva story,” Steven Spielberg reportedly said upon first learning of Thomas Keneally's novel, Schindler's List. And then, warily: “Is it true?”
The story of Amistad, Spielberg's latest foray into what he calls “socially conscious” film-making, shares the improbable qualities of its predecessor. Not only is it, like Schindler's List, ready-made for...
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Philip Strick (review date March 1998)
SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Amistad, by Steven Spielberg. Sight and Sound 8, no. 3 (March 1998): 36-8.
[In the following review, Strick notes that Amistad shares certain structural similarities to contemporary crime dramas.]
Cuba, 1839. After being chained in the hold of the Spanish ship La Amistad, 53 African slaves break free, killing most of the crew. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known as Cinque, they demand to be taken back to Africa, but the helmsman steers north instead, up the US coastline. After two months, the Amistad is stopped by an American naval patrol and the Africans are imprisoned at New Haven to stand trial for murder. The...
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Russell Jenkins (review date 1 September 1998)
SOURCE: Jenkins, Russell. “Spielberg's Soldiers.” National Review 50, no. 16 (1 September 1998): 48-9.
[In the following review, Jenkins investigates Spielberg's thematic intentions with Saving Private Ryan, perceiving the film to be “neither anti-war nor pro-war.”]
Steven Spielberg's World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan, has come under fire from conservatives, including John Podhoretz in The Weekly Standard and Richard Grenier in the Washington Times. Correctly, Podhoretz and Grenier argue that Spielberg's failure to explain at any point in the film what the war was about can be read as a condemnation of war-making, even in the...
(The entire section is 1020 words.)
Richard Alleva (review date 11 September 1998)
SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “A Brutal Masterpiece.” Commonweal 125, no. 15 (11 September 1998): 29-30.
[In the following review, Alleva commends Saving Private Ryan as an impressive cinematic accomplishment.]
If you've read anything at all about Saving Private Ryan, you've read about its violence. Yes, it is appalling. But most screen violence nowadays is appalling, and if Steven Spielberg's depiction of the carnage of Omaha Beach and of subsequent battles and skirmishes during the week following D-Day offered nothing more than shock through verisimilitude, there would be little reason to discuss it. After all, do we really need to be told once again...
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Gerald Kaufman (review date 11 September 1998)
SOURCE: Kaufman, Gerald. “War Story.” New Statesman 127, no. 4402 (11 September 1998): 38-40.
[In the following review, Kaufman asserts that Spielberg is one of the most accomplished film directors of all time and compliments the “surpassing technical virtuosity” of Saving Private Ryan.]
Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is an exceptional film by a great director—a director who, at his finest, can without hyperbole be placed in the pantheon along with the likes of Eisenstein and Renoir. But because Spielberg is probably the most financially successful movie-maker in the history of cinema and because that success has to a considerable extent been...
(The entire section is 939 words.)
Ben Shephard (review date 18 September 1998)
SOURCE: Shephard, Ben. “The Doughboy's D-Day.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4981 (18 September 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Shephard divides Saving Private Ryan into three separate sections, comparing the realism of the opening invasion scene with Darryl F. Zanuck's The Longest Day.]
Escape to Nowhere, Steven Spielberg's first film, was shot on 8mm in 1960, when he was twelve years old. It was a Second World War action adventure; not surprisingly, for Spielberg grew up with the Hollywood war film—with, to be precise, two kinds of war film. The early ones, like William Wellman's Battleground and Henry King's 12 O'Clock High,...
(The entire section is 1555 words.)
Christopher Caldwell (review date October 1998)
SOURCE: Caldwell, Christopher. “Spielberg at War.” Commentary 106, no. 4 (October 1998): 48-51.
[In the following review, Caldwell explores the varied critical reaction to Saving Private Ryan, noting that film scholars have been unable to decide if the film offers a positive or negative perspective on World War II.]
There is little disagreement that Steven Spielberg's smash hit, Saving Private Ryan, which opened July 24, is a powerful and richly textured account of war. The story it tells, of a small unit hunting for a lost paratrooper in Nazi-occupied Normandy, has won unstinting praise for its simplicity and evocativeness, and the film's brilliantly...
(The entire section is 2745 words.)
Karen Jaehne (review date fall 1999)
SOURCE: Jaehne, Karen. “Saving Private Ryan.” Film Quarterly 53, no. 1 (fall 1999): 39-41.
[In the following review, Jaehne elucidates the theme of communication in Saving Private Ryan.]
In September 1998, Steven Spielberg received the Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany from President Roman Herzog, who expressed Germany's appreciation to the American Jewish director. “Germany thanks you for work that has given us more than you may realize,” said Herzog. The film that made the Germans realize that there were maybe heroes among them would be Schindler's List. Yet at that time, Spielberg's subsequent...
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Paul Arthur (review date July-August 2001)
SOURCE: Arthur, Paul. “Movie of the Moment: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Film Comment 37, no. 4 (July-August 2001): 22-3.
[In the following review, Arthur perceives A.I.: Artificial Intelligence to be an unsuccessful amalgamation of Spielberg's optimism and sentimentality and Stanley Kubrick's pessimism.]
It was certainly not a match made in heaven, nor in any other unearthly realm save perhaps the corporate boardrooms and high-tech workshops of Tinseltown. Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, together at last. The Prince of Bleak and the Emperor of Ice Cream. Two absolute potentates of cinema ruling kingdoms notoriously disparate in commercial...
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Geoffrey O'Brien (review date 9 August 2001)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Geoffrey. “Very Special Effects.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 13 (9 August 2001): 13.
[In the following review, O'Brien offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.]
The persistent theme of Stanley Kubrick's movies is the obsessiveness of the human attempt to control the future—one's own or the world's—and the complicated ways in which that attempt fails. Fixated lovers (Lolita), solitary rogue-adventurers (Barry Lyndon), grandiose novelists (The Shining), nuclear strategists (Dr. Strangelove), military trainers (Full Metal Jacket), all the way down to the picture-perfect...
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Rand Richards Cooper (review date 17 August 2001)
SOURCE: Cooper, Rand Richards. “Pinocchio Redux.” Commonweal 128, no. 14 (17 August 2001): 20-1.
[In the following favorable review, Cooper contends that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence “keeps us nicely off balance, our hearts continually pitted against our heads, Spielbergian images pumped full of Kubrickian ironies.”]
One summer day back in the mid-1970s, a woman I know was hitchhiking on Cape Cod with two friends. The three, all college students, got picked up by a geeky guy in his late twenties who told them he was on a crew making a movie about a shark attack. Actually, he said, he was the director. They asked him how he was doing the shark attack in...
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J. Hoberman (review date September 2001)
SOURCE: Hoberman, J. “The Dreamlife of Androids.” Sight and Sound 11, no. 9 (September 2001): 16-18.
[In the following review, Hoberman explores A.I. as a “curious hybrid” of the cinematic styles of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, calling the film Spielberg's first “art film.”]
“Stories are real,” insists David, the enchanted robot child who is the protagonist of Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. David believes that fairytales can come true. Do we? Spielberg the humanist historian is in remission; Steven the regressive mystic has returned, with a vengeance.
An occasionally spectacular, fascinatingly...
(The entire section is 2564 words.)
Mark Steyn (review date 29 September 2001)
SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Circuit Love.” Spectator 287, no. 9034 (29 September 2001): 48-9.
[In the following review, Steyn comments that Spielberg is too concerned with making an artistic statement in A.I. and derides the director for overindulging in allusions to past films.]
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is based on a (very) short story from 1969 by Brian Aldiss called “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” about a robot boy who doesn't understand that he's not real. Stanley Kubrick in his mull-a-movie-to-death mode tinkered with it for 15 years and along the way conflated it with Pinocchio—the story of a boy who wants to become real. Kubrick...
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Philip Strick (review date October 2001)
SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, by Steven Spielberg. Sight and Sound 11, no. 10 (October 2001): 38-9.
[In the following review, Strick identifies parallels between A.I. and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.]
[In A.I., t]he Earth's melting ice-caps have drowned countless cities, but population control has ensured the US is still an island of prosperity. Professor Hobby of Cybertronics Manufacturing proposes the ultimate robot, a child-like construction which can experience emotions. The prototype, a robot called David, is placed with Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton and his wife Monica, whose own child Martin has...
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John C. Tibbetts (essay date October 2001)
SOURCE: Tibbetts, John C. “Robots Redux: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 4 (October 2001): 256-61.
[In the following essay, Tibbetts offers a thematic and stylistic overview of A.I, arguing that the influence of director Stanley Kubrick on the film is “everywhere.”]
In the world of the near future, [in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,] the greenhouse effect has melted the ice caps and submerged many coastal cities, including New York. Although natural resources are limited, technology has advanced rapidly to serve the reduced population. In particular, robotic sciences...
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Philip Kerr (review date 8 July 2002)
SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “Crime Watch.” New Statesman 15, no. 714 (8 July 2002): 45.
[In the following review, Kerr discusses the implausibility of the plot and the underdeveloped philosophical themes in Minority Report.]
By my reckoning, there were 1,002 people, including Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, involved in making Minority Report, and so I do not criticise this picture lightly. There are good things in it, not least Spielberg's future cityscape—which owes much to Fritz Lang—an intermittently witty script and a delightful cameo from Lois Smith. American audiences seem to like the film, so it might be that I am the kind of person that L Ron Hubbard,...
(The entire section is 893 words.)
Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 July 2002)
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Spielberg's Future.” New Republic 227, no. 4 (22 July 2002): 30-1.
[In the following review, Kauffmann examines the strengths and weaknesses of Minority Report, commenting that, though the film is technically proficient, the script is “thematically slender.”]
Science is frequently the lesser part of science fiction. Contemporary science is the launchpad for extrapolations, but the whole enterprise is usually wrought as a means to comment on society or politics or human nature or human destiny. H. G. Wells said that he wrote The Time Machine as a “fantasy based on the idea of the human species developing about...
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Chris Chang (review date July-August 2002)
SOURCE: Chang, Chris. “Steven Spielberg's Minority Report Is In: Find out How It Will Make You a Better Person.” Film Comment 38, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 44-5.
[In the following review, Chang commends Minority Report as both “physically exhilarating” and intellectually challenging.]
Aristotle, the clearinghouse of logical conundrums, loved to speculate about possible futures. His “sea battle” experiment is a classic: Two navies (A and B) are going to war tomorrow. There can and will be only one winner. Since any statement is either true or false (the law of the excluded middle) and since no statement is both true and false (the law of...
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Geoffrey O'Brien (review date 15 August 2002)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Geoffrey. “Prospero on the Run.” New York Review of Books 49, no. 113 (15 August 2002): 21-2.
[In the following review, O'Brien examines the function of technology in Minority Report and places the film within the context of other large-scale futurological melodramas.]
Philip K. Dick's short story “The Minority Report,” which was first published in the magazine Fantastic Universe in 1956, posits a future America in which crime has been virtually abolished through the employment of mentally retarded people—“gibbering, fumbling creatures, with … enlarged heads and wasted bodies”—who possess the wild talent of seeing crimes...
(The entire section is 3257 words.)
Charlene Engel (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Engel, Charlene. “Language and the Music of the Spheres: Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays, edited by Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 47-56. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Engel asserts that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is primarily concerned with language in a variety of forms—“verbal, visual, electronic, and musical.”]
From its multilingual opening to its multilingual finale, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about language: verbal, visual, electronic, and musical—communication and its limitations, language and its...
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Geoffrey Macnab (review date February 2003)
SOURCE: Macnab, Geoffrey. Review of Catch Me If You Can, by Steven Spielberg. Sight and Sound 13, no. 2 (February 2003): 39-40.
[In the following review, Macnab maintains that Catch Me If You Can incorporates several of Spielberg's recurring thematic concerns.]
1964-1969. Brought up in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, Frank W. Abagnale Jr is the teenage son of businessman and small-time con artist Frank Sr and beautiful French woman Paula. The bottom falls out of Frank's world when his parents divorce and his father faces severe financial problems due to a dispute with the IRS.
Leaving home for New York City, Frank Jr discovers that...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)
Philip Kerr (review date 3 February 2003)
SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “A Land of Lost Content.” New Statesman 132, no. 4623 (3 February 2003): 44.
[In the following review, Kerr offers a positive assessment of Catch Me If You Can, lauding the film as a “wonderfully subtle re-creation of a more innocent time in America.”]
If you were looking for a visual metaphor to explain Steven Spielberg, you couldn't do better than Rosebud, the sled owned by the young Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. On one level, it was a device to pull the story along; and on another, it was symbolic of a lost innocence of the kind that A E Housman was referring to in “A Shropshire Lad”. Rosebud is explicitly...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
Bremner, Ian. “Saving Private Ryan.” History Today 48, no. 11 (November 1998): 50-1.
Bremner commends the verisimilitude of the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “Dinomania.” In The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays, edited by Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 171-87. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
Gould—a noted author and evolutionary biologist—offers a critical assessment of Jurassic Park, noting the film's impact on the world of modern paleontology.
Gourevitch, Philip. “A Dissent on Schindler's List.”...
(The entire section is 292 words.)