2011: The Year In Spielberg

24 01 2012

By all accounts, Steven Spielberg hasn’t had a lean year since the early 1970’s. Dude’s got no problems getting work – but even by the standards of an average Spielberg year in which the man’s got multiple pots on the stove, 2011 was a prolific one. By my count, Spielberg’s name was on six major motion pictures: WAR HORSE, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, SUPER 8, REAL STEEL, COWBOYS & ALIENS, and TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON.

Granted, for the last three of these, Spielly wore the ‘executive producer’ hat,  so while the quality isn’t necessarily reflective of his skills, these are at least in name Spielberg movies. All six of them. And what do the six say about the Spielberg State of the Union? Well, I’ve finally seen them all – and here’s The Official Steven Spielblog Steven Spielberg Report.

All right, I haven't seen REAL STEEL. 5 out of 6 ain't bad!

The least of the lot, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who sat through it, is TRANSFORMERS, the unholy third entry in the Michael Bay franchise. The only interesting thing about the TRANSFORMERS films is how they’ve effectively flopped the way in which films are rolled out in relation to their merchandising. Spielberg and George Lucas certainly revolutionized movie merch with the myriad toys that have resulted from their biggest blockbusters – but with TRANSFORMERS’ success under the Dreamworks brand, we now have the cart in front of the horse. The newest one-sheet poster for Universal Pictures’ upcoming Transformers cash-in BATTLESHIP actually bears above-the-title line From Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers.” You know, as if Hasbro were a movie company, and not a toy company. Now, the movie itself is effectively a toy, and is marketed as one.

It's just like DEADWOOD, but with aliens instead of all that interesting shit.

Less criminal than TRANSFORMERS – marginally – is COWBOYS & ALIENS, one of 2011’s biggest commercial failures. It’s another ‘cart before the horse’ scenario, this time with the cart being that goofy title – which was clearly the reason this film was ever made. Of all the latter day Spielberg fingerprints showing up here, the most disturbing are its very boring aliens, which reminded me of a cross between the personality-devoid tripods in WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the dull extraterrestrials that were apparently meant to astonish (and not enrage) us at the end of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF I AM LITERALLY CRYING AS I’M WRITING THIS TITLE.

Spielberg’s certainly given us his share of classic aliens over the years. But recently, his aliens have become increasingly homogenous, and COWBOYS & ALIENS feels like a continuation of that, if not at Spielberg’s explicit instruction, then in the spirit of CRYSTAL SKULL. As has been noted recently, you can sort of gauge Spielberg’s outlook on society at any given moment by his aliens. And if that’s true, then it strangely doesn’t appear that the man has much on his mind. What sets the nondescript aliens of COWBOYS apart? Only their surroundings. And who hasn’t seen a Western before?

Don't look directly into the nostalgia!

Into that ‘boring alien’ file drops SUPER 8, on which Spielly isn’t an executive producer but a full producer. SUPER 8 is a Frankenstein monster of early Amblin product; director J.J. Abrams (who by his own admission owes Spielberg his career,) leaves no trope unturned – and yet what Spielberg was able to do effortlessly in his early heyday, weaving emotion into breathless suspense set-pieces, is done here with an overt, clinical precision. Abrams’ effort is exactly the point of the thing. And as in COWBOYS & ALIENS, if you remove the specific nostalgic context from the story, you’re left with just another alien. I think this one was a bluish color…? Maybe green-gray…?

If all this sounds dangerously close to Spiel-bashing, don’t take it that way. I’m a fan, duh, and I’m just as aware as anyone that the cinematic development process is one of infinite voices, infinite opinions, checks and balances, and to pin the quality of any of those three films on Spielberg himself would be totally naive. As for what Steven Spielberg actually directed himself in 2011, well, you’ve got two very different films – different from each other, different from what he’s done before – and that speaks well of the man. When it comes to his most personal output, he continues to push himself.

WAR HORSE: You will believe horses are real!

In the case of WAR HORSE, Spielberg adapted a successful children’s book and its theatrical version, and in doing so, removed the single biggest reason to recommend it; that being the brilliant stagecraft that’s central to the play, in which after five minutes or so, you believe that you’re watching a real live horse, and not three men operating a life-size puppet. The film is filled with Spielberg Face, (chronicled so well here,) the very same that Sam Neill and Laura Dern wear when staring at that first brontosaurus in JURASSIC PARK. Except instead of being wide-eyed and slack-jawed looking at a dinosaur, well, it’s a horse. Not quite as cool.

But cool isn’t really the point of WAR HORSE. It’s old-fashioned entertainment, light on spectacle, heavy on horse, and there’s something commendable about that, as an undertaking for the master of visual effects blockbusters. But man, are there flaws. To return to the idea of the groupthink that’s central to  much of filmmaking, one of the biggest problems of this film is the input of Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. He’s an Oscar winner, sure – aren’t we all? – but he has a terrible habit of shooting practically every single frame with a hot white backlight, which outlines the edges of any given character’s face, making them look like a paper doll in a far-off environment. It’s a miscalculation that’s glaringly displayed through WAR HORSE, and it took me right out of the film in some of its most poignant moments.

Again, this isn’t necessarily criticism of El Jefe himself, but the buck stops at Spielberg. He makes films by committee, and Kaminski’s one-size-fits-all lighting scheme should have been vetoed, particularly after Kaminski did the exact same thing in INDIANA JONES AND THE TITLE I KEEP WRITING IN SPITE OF HOW SAD IT MAKES ME, where Kaminski and Spielberg claimed to be aiming for a faithful emulation of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography in the original Indy trilogy, and then, there was that hot white light. Everywhere. Or take a look at the opening scene of CRYSTAL SKULL – that unsettling orange sunset – and then watch WAR HORSE. It’s here, too. Not at the beginning, but at the very end. Spoiler Alert! The end of WAR HORSE is bright fucking orange! And it’s still all shades of wrong.

Andy Serkis (left) and Probably Also Andy Serkis (right)

Which brings us to the best Spielberg film of the year, the one he got right, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, which is if nothing else an amends for CRYSTAL SKULL; the inventiveness of its many action sequences outshines anything in that last adventure. And though it pains me deeply to say it, it’s also easier accepting bouncy little Tintin as an action hero than a sleepy 65 year-old Harrison Ford. This is also Spielberg’s first animated film, and the sense you get watching it is that the man is really having fun with a new set of tricks, manipulating his camera and characters in ways he’d long dreamed of but had never had the means to do. Whereas CRYSTAL SKULL was Spielberg trying to recreate the alchemy of his own classics, this is him free to try anything he can imagine, unconstrained by physics.

What TINTIN doesn’t have, is any subtext or point. Though the film may in some ways be a response to the fury of Indy fans, it lacks the key ingredient of the Indy films – which is their underlying debate between faith and science, with Indiana Jones batted back and forth between earthly perils and supernatural anomalies. Tintin, by contrast, becomes unwittingly embroiled in a search for some sunken treasure, and- that’s about it.

If there’s one uniting trait to all of Spielberg’s cinematic output in 2011, it’s that these were all children’s movies. In 2012, the juvenilia apparently out of his system, Spielberg’s grown up again; his long-gestating LINCOLN starring Daniel Day-Lewis drops at Christmas. Kaminski, if I see one backlit stovepipe hat, I’m coming at you like John Wilkes Booth.

Steven Spielberg presents Abraham Lincoln as you've always imagined him: over-lit.