Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: In anticipation of Ready Player One, Rob and I chose three Steven Spielberg films we want to champion because we feel they’re underrated. Spielberg is a director I believe gets taken for granted nowadays. He’s such a dependable artist and reached great heights so early that I (and others, I’m sure) sometimes dismiss him when he doesn’t capture lighting in a bottle every time out. Plus, his frequency of output is enough where we don’t get the chance to miss him like some of his counterparts, whose films feel more like events because they are fewer and further between.
This past week, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago has been hosting a Sci-Fi Spielberg retrospective with five of his films: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Minority Report and War of the Worlds. As of this writing, I’ve rewatched four of the five at home and am really in awe of Steven Spielberg movies all over again, which is perfect since I’m now very excited to see Ready Player One. Before we each get into our three selections for underrated Spielberg, Rob, what is your relationship with his filmography and do you have a preference of which type of Spielberg you would watch first (e.g. blockbuster, drama etc.)? Do you remember the first Steven Spielberg movie you ever saw, whether at home or in theaters?
all-time favorite film, either. I’d argue that it is objective fact. I agree that he’s often overlooked and underappreciated by modern audiences, though, and I think it’s because we’ve simply been living in his world for so long that we expect nothing less but perfection every time out. The irony is that even when we get it, we say, “Well, obviously this is great — it’s Spielberg!” and move on. He’s been scrutinized and minimized for his privilege and his perceived lack of edge (even I’ve been guilty of referring to him as the square teacher’s pet of the New Hollywood crowd), but somewhere between Gen-X cynicism and Millennial hyperbole lies the truth, and that truth is that he is the single most important figure in popular entertainment of the last forty years.
The chronology of my own relationship with the director is hard to define. As I said, Jaws is my favorite - the one I probably saw earliest -- but I’m fairly confident that Jurassic Park was the first time I consciously knew I was watching a Steven Spielberg movie and began to specifically seek out his work afterward. And I have to admit that I’ll always go blockbuster first. Many of his dramas are masterpieces, of course, but his greatest strength is his ability to please a crowd.
2001: A Space Odyssey, where Keir Dullea’s character is given a familiar habitat to allow for aliens to observe him. In A.I. (coincidentally released in 2001), it is machines like H.A.L. that are trying to get something from this obsolete robot. It’s almost like a halfway point to the end of 2001. The ending of A.I. is dark despite its sentimental facade. David is studied and disposed of (this is why he is having sweet dreams) by the advanced mechas, similar to how humans used him earlier in the film and disposed of him, too. They have no need to be compassionate to David because they’re all intelligence. They are trying to solve for a formula and nothing more. They are copies of copies, and because David’s model was the last one to interact with their original human creator, they are looking for a “source code” gap to learn from, continue developing and become more intelligent.
The movie is saying a lot about humanity’s responsibility to artificial intelligence and the technology humans create. I read a headline recently about how people have been screaming at their Alexas and if that is appropriate or not. Should we be treating our technology like how we would want to be treated? The response to that headline was interesting, with people mostly saying “give me a break.” That is not unlike David’s whole journey in A.I. Am I saying I think people should be kinder to their technological creations? I’m not sure, but I do think it makes little sense to create technology to simulate human function and interaction and then act on the impulse to practice the worst humanistic traits upon it. A.I. was way ahead of its time in this regard, and I think the movie is unfortunately forgotten or dismissed in a time where it’s really interesting to rediscover it and consider its themes. This is from an era (era) of “dark Spielberg,” where he was reckoning with the future in science fiction films like A.I. and Minority Report (which I also think holds up very well and has a near career-best Tom Cruise performance), and I find this time period around the turn of the century among the most interesting in all of Spielberg’s career. If you ask an optimist (which I believe Spielberg largely is) what they’re pessimistic about, it can be an insightful conversation.
Rob: So, I’m the asshole who hasn’t seen AI: Artificial Intelligence since 2001. Between your comments and listening to a fascinating interview I recently transcribed between Top Critic Heather Wixson (Happy birthday, Heather!) and one of that film’s lead SFX designers, I definitely need to revisit it soon. I very distinctly recall it being a film I liked but didn’t entirely understand. It was one of the first times I remember thinking of that as a good thing, actually. I love that we sometimes need to grow into movies to appreciate them.
Raiders, of course), but it’s essentially an Indiana Jones mixtape — all the best Indy action and charm with none of the overt racism or problematic gender politics. It’s not as scrappy as Raiders or as experimental as Temple of Doom. It’s The Force Awakens, a blend of greatest hits that goes down smooth. Last Crusade is also a strong example of Spielberg’s power as a manager. He wrangles the egos of Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and George Lucas (the last of whom was apparently his legendarily finicky and cantankerous self during the entire production) enough to generate something that — while certainly not perfect — is a confident spin through his cinematic wheelhouse. I maintain that the third film in a trilogy like this should be fun and safe. Return of the Jedi. Ocean’s Thirteen, for example. Connery and Ford are clearly enjoying themselves, and most of the memorable Indiana Jones lines come from this entry. And yet, everyone sort of just shrugs it off as the obvious one. That’s a drag. Spielberg shouldn’t be punished for making it look easy.
Adam: I love Last Crusade. It’s my second favorite of the franchise easily and the first Spielberg I ever saw in theaters. I went with my dad (twice) during the summer of 1989 to see it and that’s just about the most perfect father-son action movie you could go see. I’m almost certain it’s where I became a Sean Connery fan (I was seven and had not seen any Bond films at that point) and was stunned to learn that Connery wasn’t actually 80 years old when he co-starred in Last Crusade. It’s a blast.
Hook. I say roll their eyes because I would have been one of those people if you asked me about Hook all the way up to last summer. Hook might be the first movie I saw as a kid where I thought to myself “I hated that.” I actually puked in the theater when I saw Hook because it gave me a migraine. It’s a story of legend among the Riske family. So what happened? I think it’s that last year I saw the movie from Robin Williams’ perspective for the first time and not through the eyes of his kids or as a lesser Peter Pan sequel. First off, good on Spielberg for not just remaking Peter Pan, which he could have easily done. Instead, he made a movie about the great lie of adulthood. I’m not saying I learned a life lesson when I saw Hook this last time, but what I will say is that it echoed something I believed to be true for years as I had an awkward transition from feeling like an “overgrown college graduate” to a “real adult.” The “truth” I learned is that in trying to play that adult role, you lose what made you “you.” That’s what Hook is about, I think. It’s not about how being a career-minded father is a scourge to humanity. It’s about not losing your childhood spark because that is what formed your personality. You can co-exist being a responsible adult and being a joyous person. I know Spielberg doesn’t consider this to be among his best films, but it’s a mess I find a lot of weird beauty in and I’m glad he made it. Points for me, too, because none of my affection is based on a nostalgic allegiance to all things Rufio. In fact, I never understood why ‘90s kids liked Hook. It makes so much more sense to me as a kids’ movie that plays better to adults.
Rob: Another one I haven’t seen in quite a while. I love this reading of it, though, that the big lie of adulthood is something we can’t see until we’re ready for it, and that the film secretly plays best to adults. It’s fun to think of Hook as the secret indicator of one’s true emotional maturity. I’m into it.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a film I know you hate quite a bit. I’m going to make absolutely no argument that it’s anywhere near Spielberg’s better films. In fact, I wouldn’t even refer to it as underrated. I’m bringing it up simply because liking it has been a secret shame of mine for quite a while, and I want to work out why I have such a soft spot for such an obviously flawed film. For one, Jurassic Park fucking rules, and in 1997 (when I was 11) I was anxious for anything even tangentially related to it. I subscribed to a kid’s paleontology magazine, for Chrissakes. I was obsessed. So, there’s a lot about my affection for The Lost World that’s simply a by-product of having seen it two or three thousand times. Should nostalgia be considered when making a clinical, critical judgment? Probably not, but just go with me for a minute. Second, I actually like that it goes a little darker. It’s absolutely true that this film lacks the wonder and spectacle of the first, but I’d argue that in a way, that’s part of the point. It’s a way of breaking through John Hammond’s fantasy of what breeding dinosaurs would be like and revealing the more realistic, chaotic implications (“Ohh, ahh, that’s how it always starts…”). No fences. Poachers. Greedy businessmen. Vince Vaughn. I like it as a kind of Empire Strikes Back for the series, a more cynical chapter where everything goes tits-up. I like the dino round-up sequence and the raptors in the long grass. I like Julianne Moore and Pete Postlethwaite. It felt good to break the JP world open and widen the scope a bit. Don’t get me wrong, Ian Malcolm becoming Action Man is a mistake, and the whole San Diego sequence is a nightmare. I won’t argue with that at all. It’s an ugly movie (I sympathize with the Kaminski frustrations you outlined in your 20 Years Later piece) that Spielberg allegedly sleepwalked through (unconfirmed production gossip says that he wasn’t even in Hawaii for some of the filming), but I’d take the bonkers and uneven Lost World over the vapid and condescending Jurassic World any day of the week.
Adam: I perked up when I saw you were going with The Lost World: Jurassic Park because I thought you would Rob me into a new perspective, but that has not happened. Sorry, bud. I understand your point of view of it being something different and an expansion of the source material. My disappointment with The Lost World is that it completely abandons what I find so special about Jurassic Park, which is that it’s a FUN adventure about dinosaurs. Jurassic World feels, to me at least, like the sequel to Jurassic Park that would make the most sense coming out in 1997. Jurassic Park III is the pilot for a Jurassic Park TV series. Sorry to shit on your pick. I just dislike The Lost World: Jurassic Park so much. It’s the “let’s try to understand their economic anxiety” of the series.
The reason I think The Terminal is actually a sneakily good movie is because it’s one of the few post 9/11 movies to deal with xenophobia in a non-confrontational way. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Tom Hanks’ character in the film is from a fictional country. He’s meant just to be a foreigner. Spielberg seems to be reminding us that “we” (Americans) shouldn’t give in to prejudices against people from other countries because we’re in a state of cynicism, fear or uneasiness. Hanks’ Viktor Navorski is portrayed in the film as being friendly, competent, skilled and ambitious, while some of the American characters like Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta Jones are shown as more suspicious or unstable. I remember being SPOILER surprised at the time that Hanks and Zeta Jones didn’t end up together at the end of The Terminal and that she ends up with the cheating husband she’s having an affair with instead. Now it makes sense to me. I think it’s saying something about her character and a set of people in general, which is that we align with those we consider in our circle even if it’s not the best option. There’s a scene where Tucci asks Zeta Jones why she is dating Viktor when she could have any man she wants (i.e. a white American guy like Tucci) and she says “That’s something a guy like you could never understand.” There’s a tragic irony in that statement because she doesn’t end up with Viktor, but instead with a guy much more like Tucci. Zeta Jones’ character knows it’s the wrong choice but she barrels ahead because it’s the one she would have to explain less to other people. She accepts her flawed relationship judgment like it’s a curse. A lot of people comment on how Robert Zemeckis is secretly a lot more biting than he can appear on the surface in films like Back to the Future or Forrest Gump. I think in The Terminal that Steven Spielberg is similarly masking a lot of snarkiness in the package of a light Capra-esque comedy. He’s holding up a mirror to the audience in the form of some of the characters. If I had 20 minutes to speak to Steven Spielberg I would spend 10 minutes on The Terminal and 10 minutes of just Jewish guys chatting. This movie is fascinating to me.
Rob: You’re on fire tonight, buddy. I need to revisit these movies immediately. I remember going to see The Terminal with a friend of mine after we finished work at the supermarket one night, but I remember absolutely nothing about it. Also, can we call Spielberg’s agent to see if he’d be interested in a weekly column called Just Jewish Guys Chatting? I never knew I needed that until right now.
Adam: I remember that discussion between you and JB about The Color Purple and saying to myself to not engage because there is no argument that wouldn’t sound crazy if I were defending it against representation concerns. I’ve only seen The Color Purple once and I have not read the book, but I really liked it when I saw it. It was four years ago when I wrote briefly about it (thank goodness for old F This Movie! columns) and I sounded a lot more naive then, but it’s undeniable I had an emotional experience with that movie. From what I can recall, I responded most to that film’s empowerment message and seeing Whoopi Goldberg’s character grow in confidence throughout the story. I’d like to revisit it and read Alice Walker’s book. It’s true that Spielberg is a sentimental filmmaker a lot of the time, and while he might be the wrong person to have adapted The Color Purple, it’s probably not as bad as it could have been with a different white director (not picking anyone out) whose heart might not have been as much in the right place.
Rob: I totally agree, and I want to clarify that my perspective is perhaps unfairly colored by my familiarity with the novel. The film nails many of the story’s more inspiring moments, and Spielberg’s sentimentality is only an issue because the film doesn’t delve as deep into the novel’s total, abject darkness. If he’d been willing (or able) to cut a little deeper, those triumphant emotional beats would be that much more impactful. I think you’ll see what I mean when you check out the novel.
Adam: Are there any other Spielberg movies you consider somewhat underrated that didn’t make this list? One more I defend to anyone who will listen is Catch Me If You Can. It is very well liked, but I think it’s the best movie of 2002 whereas most people consider it mostly (I think) as a light entertainment. That movie glides.
Rob: Like an...airplane? Cause he’s a pilot. Well, sort of. No others for me, but something tells me we’ll be having more Spielberg-related conversations in the future.
Adam: Yes we will. That’s called a Spieltease. That would be a good title for a remake of Striptease directed by Steven Spielberg.
Rob: Stay tuned for next week’s Just Jewish Guys Talking. Until next time…
Adam: These seats are reserved.