Something Evil (1972)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 March (4.30 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

When putting together this site’s Steven Spielberg from Worst to Best article last year, I knew I was missing a couple of his made-for-TV movies off the list. I included Duel, which I justified thanks to its theatrical release in Europe, but the truth was I just like the film and thought it more than merited its place in the list. Two other titles, Savage and Something Evil, were omitted because I simply couldn’t get hold of copies. Neither appears to be available on DVD, and indeed where the former’s concerned it seems to have more or less vanished from existence. What I didn’t think to check on, though, was YouTube, where it turns out Something Evil is available to watch in full. Given its appearance on the Horror Channel, I thought it might be nice to see what we can learn from this semi-forgotten supernatural offering.

Among the extras on my Duel DVD, Spielberg talks about moving from making that to The Sugarland Express as though nothing else happened in between. Not true, of course. If his aim was to put some distance between himself and the two further micro-budgeted films he made then I’d argue he’s doing his own work on Something Evil a disservice. Sure, it’s cheaply made and it’s a long way from perfect. The suggestion that Poltergeist (which Spielberg co-wrote and produced) came as a glossier update of this material is hard to shake off, yet as with many TV fright flicks it isn’t without merit. I remember being terrified as a child watching the likes of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and, most of all, Don’t go to Sleep. The latter, with its meditations on guilt all leading to that delicious twist in the final frame, pretty much ensured that I was unable to defy the film’s title. Like Something Evil, these titles were made on television budgets, but that meant the slack was taken up with atmosphere and suspense, which they all have in spades. Incidentally, for real fans of the form this entry also hands a starring role to Darren McGavin, who’s perhaps best known for his lead performances in the Kolchak series (two TV movies and a run of twenty episodes). As a mixture of gritty urban crime and horror, they’re well worth checking out.

Of course, the real reason for watching Something Evil is to see the formative work of Spielberg, to spot clues in it of the director responsible for some of the world’s biggest films honing his skills. On the surface, there’s little evidence of that here. The film uses next to nothing in terms of special effects, unless you include the technical wizardry that went into placing two glowing yellow eyes in a few frames. What it does have is a mounting sense of dread, palpable unease, all nicely teased out in several ways.

The film’s a short one, running for little over seventy minutes. Its plot is therefore understandably slight. McGavin, his wife Sandy Dennis and their two young children move into a farm house that’s well outside the bustle of New York. He’s the classic working man, an advertising executive who pulls long hours at the office and often leaves his family at home alone. Sandy admires the strange symbol she sees painted over the barn door and starts copying it in her own artwork, fashioning good luck charms. She’s told it’s a symbol of good luck, a token to ward away evil spirits. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted there to protect against ‘devils’ that reside inside the house, that the previous occupant threw himself from the hayloft rather than succumb to being possessed. Soon enough, she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, the cries and whimpers of a very young child. The barn is filled with jars of strange luminescent goo that pulsates and unsettles her. The behaviour of her oldest child, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) deteriorates and she reacts more violently than normal. A couple of friends die in a horrible car crash after attending a party at the house. Steadily, Sandy’s own spirits descend as she starts to feel she’s losing control of her own sanity.

Something Evil was made a year before The Exorcist was released, but after William Peter Blatty’s novel was published, and there’s undoubtedly a link in terms of the possession storyline, though it’s one that’s easily resolved by the film’s end. The cheapness is an issue. It has none of The Exorcist’s astonishing special effects, the visible sight of a young girl becoming the corrupted vessel for a demonic host. Instead, everything’s done with askew camera work, unsettling filming angles that emphasise the feeling that all isn’t well, often from a distance to give the impression of characters being watched by something unseen. A lot depends on the acting, Sandy Dennis’s rather brilliant portrayal of a woman being unravelled emotionally by an entity she can’t understand and doesn’t easily believe in. As the story progresses she seems to age, and she becomes jumpier and more abrupt with every ambient sound. There’s a great supporting role for Ralph Bellamy, here playing an expert on Devilry who advises Sandy on how she can cope with and defeat the spirits she becomes convinced are in her home. Bellamy’s presence comes as a neat wink to his part in Rosemary’s Baby, where he portrayed one of the Devil worshippers.

Other moments work less well. John Rubinstein plays Bellamy’s son, and has a couple of scenes in which he seems to turn up for no reason, says his piece to Sandy and then simply walks away, plus another where he appears to be making a grab for her baby girl only to exit when he hears her approaching. It’s a bizarre little performance and suggests a number of scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Some of the evil things tormenting Sandy’s character are a bit on the weak side, notably the jars of goo, which by their very strangeness are objects of abject terror for her though they don’t threaten and never do anything. The intimation is of a script that’s determined to throw every potential scare at audiences, hoping that bits stick; it misses the more assured hand of Richard Matheson, who of course wrote the taut and mounting in suspense screenplay for Duel.

But on the whole, I admit I found it a suitably uncomfortable viewing experience. For all the film’s shortcomings, it worked well in places, such as when McGavin is presented with some cells of footage he’s filmed outside the house and a pair of strange yellow eyes appear in the frames, for no reason that anyone can understand. Despite Sandy’s evident breakdown, there are signs like this that suggest what she’s experiencing isn’t a consequence of her own fragile mental state, and the film’s closing twist confirms that. There are some traditional tropes of Spielberg’s work that are in evidence here – the dysfunctional family, troubled children having a tough time, absent fathers – if you want to look for them; otherwise it’s a neat little frightener that more often than not hits its mark.

Something Evil: ***

Steven Spielberg – from Worst to Best

Inspired by a post on Buzzfeed (or basically just copying it) and thinking about possibly the most important director of my lifetime, I thought it might be nice as a ‘special feature’ to work through the films of Steven Spielberg and rank them. When I was young, Spielberg’s releases were always special occasions. The first I remember seeing at the cinema was Raiders of the Lost Ark, a classic event movie, which meant his subsequent directorial efforts were invariably must-see affairs. It must have been around the same time that Jaws was screened on network television, the first opportunity my mates and I had to catch it – and this was back in the days when everyone watched a film like Jaws as it appeared on the box – and it was of course utterly riveting, the subject of fevered cloakroom (they didn’t have water coolers in my school) conversation. With the likes of ET turning up on the big screen alongside Close Encounters of the Third Kind making the TV schedules, it seemed the man could do no wrong. Every film was sprinkled with gold dust. They were little pockets of magic, turned out often with younger viewers in mind, optimistic in outlook and almost effortlessly entertaining.

It wasn’t long after those days of hit following hit that Spielberg turned his hand to more serious efforts. The Color PurpleEmpire of the Sun… Both worthy offerings, but without the fun factor that had punctuated the films of our formative years, and then things took an altogether darker turn with some of the topics he broached in the 1990s, the years that brought him critical acclaim along with the assured populist touch that had perhaps made him less Academy worthy beforehand. But still, Spielberg could make popcorn flicks like no one else. His output in the first decade of this century saw him return to films designed to entertain the masses, often to glorious effect. More recently, the circle has turned once again with the likes of Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, and without wishing to spoil what follows below, I have to say I found these to be astonishingly mature pieces of work, a world removed from his critic-pleasers of the 1980s.

I suppose it boils down to Spielberg being the most prominent American film maker during the time I’ve been watching movies. There might be better directors over the same period, but I haven’t followed anyone more slavishly, making sure I catch his most recent work just because, hey, it’s Steven Spielberg. Which isn’t to say I’m not occasionally disappointed. Though I don’t believe he’s capable of making an outright bad picture there have been misses along the way, which brings me around to the point of this piece.

The plan was to watch every film Spielberg directed, in order of their production, and having done that to rank them in order of what I consider to be the poorest through to the very finest. Each one has been scored on IMDb (the score appears at the end of each write-up), and I’ve used my scores to inform the overall list. It’s taken a while and been a lot of fun, and I’m prepared to come across a lot of disagreement as everyone has their own tastes. Researching these movies, reading peoples’ comments and listening to many podcasts, the diverse opinions out there indicate there’s simply no common thread when it comes to working out Spielberg’s best and worst. One person’s masterpiece is someone else’s clunker, with some titles seriously dividing audience’s views. Just be kind to me – it’s only a point of view. Bear in mind also that this only includes the films he’s officially directed; that means all those upon which he’s held different duties aren’t there, even titles that he’s rumoured to have had more of a hand in than the role for which he’s credited, such as Poltergeist. The list would just be too long! Similarly, whilst I would love to have included everything, I simply couldn’t get hold of copies of two early TV movies, Something Evil and Savages, and so by necessity have not added them, though you’ll find Duel is present and correct.

And finally, please accept my wish for a Happy New Year!

29. 1941 (1979)

I know there are some people for whom 1941 is a misunderstood treat. Judged a flop upon its initial release (which it wasn’t, incidentally; rather it was less wildly profitable than Jaws and Close Encounters) and viewed as a waste of the massive talents involved in it, my view goes with the general consensus that it’s a bit of a mess. There are some saving graces. Technically, it’s all rather wonderful. The special effects are top notch, the action scenes filmed with breathtaking élan – I love the aerial fight along the streets of Santa Monica that rips off the Death Star trench battles from Star Wars. The dance-off in which two characters fighting for the same girl chase each other around the hall is filmed in long takes, featuring some brilliant stunts and choreography.

But these are glimpses amidst one dog’s dinner of a movie. Characters shout at each other a lot. The Americans are depicted as skirt chasing buffoons, the Japanese as Hollywood (‘Horrywood!’) obsessed thickoes, with Christopher Lee’s Nazi observer pompously dictating orders to no one. Actors repeat their performances from other, better movies. Despite the fact Animal House is set twenty years later, Tim Matheson’s character appears to have stepped straight out of Delta House and into this – he plays exactly the same person. John Belushi’s fighter pilot does little that doesn’t involve bellowing some incoherent nonsense. I have no idea what the point of John Candy’s character was. Slim Pickens is rather good fun though. The same actress who was Jaw’s first victim reprises what she does in that film, stripping all her clothes off for an ocean skinny dip, only here she is caught by a surfacing submarine rather than the teeth of a shark, and this bit of self-referencing is one of the film’s best gags. 1941 runs for nearly two hours, which makes it too long. Apparently an even lengthier cut exists, which was put together for screening on American television, but thankfully my DVD contains the original edit. It’s not good that I see that as a bonus. 4/10

28. Hook (1991)

Over the years, Hook has gained an unlikely cult status, perhaps for kids of the nineties who have seen in it something of The Goonies for those my age. In my opinion, The Goonies (which incidentally Spielberg was involved with as Executive Producer) is almost interminably poor, unfathomably popular, and I certainly don’t look back to it fondly when remembering the films of my own childhood. And so with Hook, as far as I’m concerned the sort of film that the world wouldn’t be a worse place for it never having been made. I don’t even think it’s a good idea. There’s a reason why there have been two Peter Pan films, based on Barrie’s book, since this one. The original story has imagination to spare. This one doesn’t. It makes no sense.

There’s something strangely inspired about casting the late Robin Williams as a middle aged Peter Pan, reduced – in the sort of Hollywood contrived hypocrisy it never tires of – to earning his money as a corporate raider. In other words, as the film makes clear time and time again, he’s become a pirate, and if we didn’t get it then Maggie Smith’s aged Wendy tells him that to his face. Over the course of the film, Williams turns back into ‘Pan’, losing the beer gut and swapping his suit for green rags, and he takes a long, long time to make this inevitable transition. Dustin Hoffman is given licence to ham as Captain Hook, and gets too many scenes in which to do it, though I rather like Bob Hoskins’s Smee. Most criminal and wasteful is the appearance of Julie Roberts as Tinkerbell. The character has pretty much nothing to work with, suggesting she’s there for no reason other than to fit a beautiful actress into a costume that shows off her legs. Peter’s kids, for whom he returns to Neverland, are both terrible. There’s the brattish one and the other one who can’t – but does! – sing, but they too have lots of screen time, which gives the impression this was a film made firmly for children by someone who wished to honour his own childhood. Hook really wasn’t the way to do it. 5/10

27. Always (1989)

I first saw Always at the University cinema back during my student days, some twenty five years ago, and then forgot all about it. No surprise really. Rewatching it for this write-up, the film’s light as air lack of substance stayed with me much longer than its really very good acting performances, especially from Holly Hunter. I don’t suppose I’ll feel the need to catch it again any time soon. It’s a remake of the 1943 wartime drama, A Guy Named Joe, in which a reckless bomber pilot is killed in action and then has to come to terms with his former girlfriend falling in love with the man he’s been sent back to inspire. Fluffy, romantic stuff, by no means the kind of film you’d picture anyone updating, but Spielberg was a big fan of A Guy Named Joe, and so was Richard Dreyfuss. During the Jaws shoot, the pair would fire lines from the film at each other, and eventually committed themselves to an updated version. In Always, Joe has become Pete (Dreyfuss), the risk taking pilot of a reconditioned World War Two bomber that now helps to put out forest fires. When he dies during his last mission, Pete leaves Dorinda (Hunter) behind, heartbroken. As a spirit, wandering the ruins of a fire-devastated woodland, he comes across Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who tells him he’s to act as a sort of guide for rookie pilot Ted (Brad Johnson), who inevitably in turn falls for Dorinda. Pete now has to turn Ted into a great flyer and get over his own unfinished love story and let the younger man take over.

As a character drama, Always is perfectly serviceable. All the players are in good form, with the exception of Johnson, who’s lightweight and eclipsed utterly by his fellows, and that includes John Goodman, then best known for Roseanne but here doing a lovely job of balancing his grief over Pete with some good natured comedy. Hunter is just lovely as Dorinda, all those conflicted emotions plain to see in her performance, and obviously it’s great to see Hepburn in her last performance. But it’s all totally unnecessary. While bringing the story into a contemporary setting, Always still plays like a minor 1940s effort, sentiment dripping from the screen and the story failing to offer anything you can’t see coming from a mile away. When the denouement arrives, it’s with an exasperated ‘FINALLY!’ from any viewer who has managed to sit through it all. And it’s so forgettable, and that’s one thing Spielberg films should never be. 6/10

26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gone down in infamy as a complete failure, almost a betrayal of all the good work done in developing the Indiana Jones legend during the 1980s and becoming an unnecessary appendage to the story. It’s worth highlighting that 78% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting a much better film than its reputation dictates, and many years after its release, when the opprobrium has died down amidst a murky sea of Star Wars prequels and the like, the reality is that isn’t a bad effort at all.

I had a lot of fun watching it again for this article, a long time after I last did and when I admit I shared the disappointment of others that Spielberg, Ford and Lucas hadn’t achieved another instant classic. It’s not that good, but neither is it terrible. If you can ignore several instances of dramatic improbability – the fridge scene, Mutt discovering he’s a jungle rope swinging expert – and the lashings of CGI – ugh, gophers – there’s an awful lot to like, starting and ending with Harrison Ford’s grizzled Indy. Dragged into the story while presumably enjoying a period of semi-retirement from his life as an adventurer, he’s unwillingly co-opted into helping Soviet incursionists lift a mysterious crystal skull from the Area 51 archives, and his bad temper worsens when he finds himself in the middle of a nuclear blast site. Later, he helps Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), and the pair discover they’re actually father and son, leading to some very nice parallels with 1989’s Last Crusade, with Indy taking on the Sean Connery role. Their link is Marion, featuring a return to the series for Karen Allen who brings back much of the spunk she showed in the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The film’s at its best when it reprises some of the joie de vivre stuntcraft from the series; a chase through the streets surrounding Havard, ending in the university library, is great stuff, some of the finest work ever produced for the long running story. It starts to unravel in the jungles of Peru, when great business involving the group of heroes tangling with the Russians is undermined by things like the jungle rope set piece and digital ants, but it’s breathlessly done and all committed in the name of swashbuckling fun. LaBeouf isn’t bad as a character designed to irritate Indy, though Ray Winstone’s duplicitous agent comes off less well and John Hurt as an ageing explorer is just underused. Cate Blanchett as the lead Soviet is, well, Cate Blanchett as the lead Soviet. Fine really, though the role could have been played by virtually anybody. The climax, which involves alien visitors, was seen as one step too far fetched for a series that, lest we forget, previously featured the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as its MacGuffins, and perhaps it does put one foot into the puddle of outright silliness, but getting there is a blistering experience. 7/10

25. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

This sequel to the mega-hit, Jurassic Park, feels ill-judged, though you can’t really blame Spielberg for making a go of it. The possibilities of further dinosaur action are just about endless, so it’s a pity that much of The Lost World is little more than a retread of the original, reintroducing the Tyrannosaurus Rex and nightmarish Velociraptors in neat order, just like the first time around the block. No Sam Neill this time either; Jeff Goldblum steps up to the plate as the star, shorn of his amazing laugh but adding a nice degree of someone who’s seen it all before and has no real desire to go through it again. The film drops a considerable ball in depicting its dinosaurs as monsters, whereas in Jurassic Park they were animals first, predators second. This time, they’re on screen to chase, harass and eat the human characters, in ways that often reach levels of grisliness that strain at the film’s PG certificate. Even when the camera pulls away from an act of killing, it’s only to focus on the aftermath – screams off-camera, water mixed with blood – to force home the point of what’s happening. It’s certainly effective, in a B-movie way, but this was a production carrying a hefty $73 million budget and you’re quite correct in expecting better.

Still, it’s never really a bad picture. As usual there’s lots going on, loads of sub-plots containing varying degrees of interest. I like Pete Postlethwaite’s world weary safari hunter, mainly because Postlethwaite’s a good enough actor to shine amidst all the CGI creatures and demented plotting; the narrative involving Goldblum’s daughter is less engaging, with suspicions that it was inserted to nakedly curry favour with younger viewers. At times Spielberg’s old skills of drawing suspense out of any moment come to the fore, never more than in the genuinely nail-biting scene where Julianne Moore is on the window of a trailer that’s been half-tipped over the edge of a cliff and the glass is slowly cracking beneath her. When the action moves to San Diego, the obviously badly considered idea of bringing a Tyrannosaur to the American mainland going belly up when it escapes and takes to the streets, The Lost World finally climbs up the backside of its own conceit, and yet it’s a fun sequence that refuses to lapse into King Kong levels of cliché. 7/10

24. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal isn’t a title I’ve returned to frequently. Despite the massive technical effort that went into recreating the lobby of JFK Airport in a studio, the performance of Tom Hanks and the bizarre real life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a refugee who lived in Charles de Gaulle airport for eighteen years that inspired the project, it felt slight and sentimental, and lacked much in terms of weight.

Years later, with the stories behind its production in the past, I enjoyed it considerably more. The astonishing set design becomes so because it’s very cleverly used; unlike the apartment courtyard that was recreated in a soundstage for Rear Window, there’s no sense of artifice here and it looks for all the world like a busy terminal. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, an immigrant from a fictional Eastern European country that just happens to have been overthrown in a military coup while he was on his flight. He’s unable to have his Visa approved and he can’t be returned home, so the stranded Viktor has no choice but to loiter around the airport, for him an international limbo, with his limited English, thick Slavic accent and sense of good natured bemusement. He’s there for ages, possibly years, as life goes on around him and he becomes an irritant for Stanley Tucci’s Customs Director. Over time, he starts making friends with terminal employees, all of them misfits in their own way, and sparks an unlikely romance with Catherine Zeta Jones’s flight attendant. The latter element is the film’s weakest, a saccharine plot development that feels contrived and at no point improves the story. Otherwise, it’s a nice yarn, with Hanks in strong form as the likeable Viktor, a man whose predicament doesn’t impinge on his essentially sunny outlook. But that’s all it is, a light romantic work that improves on the previous Always but it doesn’t remain long in the memory. 7/10

23. The Color Purple (1985)

It’s been some time since I last watched The Color Purple and I wasn’t especially looking forward to revisiting it. My memories were of a long film, one loaded with drippings of heavy sentimentality and telegraphed consequences that would take ages in the reaching. It doesn’t help that my DVD copy of it is a flipper, almost neatly bisecting the story episodically into one side covering the abuse and the second its outcomes. And to be honest my impressions of it remain largely intact. Spielberg made a brave attempt to subvert audiences’ expectations of his work by adapting a gritty tale of downtrodden black women in early twentieth century America, completely without the use of special effects or fantasy elements. It carried a naked objective to gain the critical recognition that would go with his darling status at the box office, and largely it worked with eleven Oscar nominations for the film, not to mention a healthy profit from viewers expressing sheer goodwill towards the director.

And yet, years down the line, with many better ‘serious’ efforts from Spielberg to showcase the blossoming of his credentials as a maker of dramatic cinema, the shortcomings of The Color Purple become all the more transparent. It’s as though every button is pressed in order to make you squirt a few, from the sustained mistreatment of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) through to the story arcs of friends she comes across; it’s very cynical. The effort to elicit feelings from the viewer is made with a bludgeon, again and again, without any subtlety or depth of characterisation. I don’t know if it’s like this in the novel; I’ve never read it, but I confess I was largely unmoved. In its favour are some terrific performances. Who could have known that Goldberg, ordinary a brash, loud-mouthed comedian who I find on the whole annoying, was capable of such a redemptive turn? Danny Glover is just as fantastic, bringing out all the cruelty of his horrible patriarch whilst also displaying his vulnerability. But the one who steals it for me is Oprah Winfrey, another surprise, and the one who holds my interest throughout. 7/10

22. Amistad (1997)

Following Spielberg’s success with Schindler’s List, the same approach was taken for the subject of human slavery in Amistad, covering the real life story of African slaves who overcame their masters on the eponymous Spanish slave trading vessel before showing up on the shores of the United States in 1839. Lengthy legal proceedings followed to determine whether the Africans had been born in captivity or as free people, a process that was churned up in Martin van Buren’s efforts to be re-elected as President and attempting to curry favour with the slave-owning southern states. It’s a good tale, containing lots for the director to pick over and at its heart is the story of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), an undoubtedly harrowing segment that depicts the horrifying conditions the slaves experienced as human livestock. That the episode was a watershed in America’s attitude to slavery is also writ large, the fate of these Africans seen as pivotal in the country’s future direction. Hounsou is brilliant as the noble Cinque, spending much of the film in chains. All his pain and glimmers of hope are there on the screen in a performance of rare and noble magnificence.

Unfortunately, Amistad gets caught up too often in the legal aspects of the tale, the showpiece of former president John Adams (Anthony Hopkins) appealing the slaves’ plight to the Supreme Court, transforming the case into a succession of bigger issues (the largest of which, naturally, was the upcoming American Civil War), which turns out to be rather dull. A rather dry affair all told, with Matthew McConaughey’s bright young lawyer existing as not much more than our conduit to Cinque, and Morgan Freeman, who was first billed, having very little to do apart from embodying the contrast between himself and the Africans. Despite the stakes, the legal side of the story is somewhat less than thrilling, though credit will always be due for attempting a true depiction of what these people went through in scenes that are close to heartbreaking. 7/10

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

This is the one Spielberg I hadn’t seen before writing this piece, and it isn’t hard to recognise why. The film lacks many of the fantastical and suspenseful elements for which he would become famous, and I’ve never been much of a Goldie Hawn fan. I read somewhere recently that she’s a ‘Marmite actress’ and I think I agree with that, not buying into the adorable tag and yet failing to recognise that she was a formidable presence during the early years of her career. The Sugarland Express is a surprisingly good entry. It’s the true story of a young Texan mother whose child has been taken into care when she goes to jail. Now free, she breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of the minimum security facility he’s currently held in and together they set off for Sugarland to retrieve their son. Neither felon is the brightest spark however, and in their botched escape attempt they wind up kidnapping a policeman (Michael Sacks) and force him at gunpoint to drive them to their destination, as they are pursued by an increasingly long convoy of Texas’s finest.

Hawn is every bit as loveable and unpolished as you want her to be, whilst Atherton – better known in later years as the weasely presence in such films as Die Hard and Ghostbusters – is just as much of a rough diamond, chatting with Sacks at one point about his chances of becoming a state trooper just as his crimes are becoming more and more serious. Spielberg’s first theatrical feature sees him putting in some great cinematic filming. The lines of police vehicles rumbling along endless Texas roads, the landscape and horizon running on eternally in all directions, make for lovely visual storytelling. A bit of a hidden gem this one, with its almost impenetrable accents and an ending that’s rather downbeat and brave considering the man behind it all. 7/10

20. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

The second Indiana Jones entry isn’t a patch on the first. Some of the Nazis’ comic book adventure from Raiders of the Lost Ark is replaced with body horror, in parts so gruesome that it prompted a new certificate – PG-13 – to be established in America; also there’s an uncomfortable element to the way Indians are portrayed – either evil Thuggee cultists or desperate peasants waiting to be saved by the nearest passing white man. The heroine has none of Karen Allen’s guts and is there to be rescued or provide the comic foil. And Indy is saddled with a cute kid partner in order to appeal to younger viewers.

And yet Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is still an Indiana Jones film, and it’s as thrilling and action packed as you might expect. The fast pace never really lets up, starting with a James Bond style opening in a Shanghai restaurant before moving quickly to India and the beginning of the film’s main plot. There’s an ever present sense of peril, mainly from Amrish Puri’s heart stealing cult leader, who’s great value as a villain, and the nightmare of Indy himself being converted to Kali worship, which only heightens the odds. The chase through the mines is as good a sequence as they get, even if it was a leftover action scene from Raiders into which it could not be worked. You get traps, crashing planes, jungle rope bridges and voodoo rituals somehow being slipped into the plot, and it all works. Throughout it all Harrison Ford is on top form as the eponymous hero, looking as though he’s having loads of fun referencing his own antics in the first film (even though the events in this one take place earlier in the Jones timeline) and playing off his co-stars, especially Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round, with whom he has a surrogate fatherly relationship. The best moments have an atmosphere reminiscent of Gunga Din, that old-fashioned caper set in colonial India, with shades of The Stranglers of Bombay taking over for the darker aspects of religious cultism in that huge country. Despite the negatives, which do creep in thanks to a story designed to be darker in tone (a consequence, Spielberg noted, of the break-ups of both his and George Lucas’s relationships) than the matinee thrills of its forerunner, it’s breathlessly exciting in many places. 7/10

19. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spielberg’s first and only – to date – attempt at a fully animated feature was a collaboration between himself and Peter Jackson, the latter involved as producer and offering the use of his Weta Workshop. Both are Tintin fans, and so there’s a lot of love invested in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, an effort to honour Herge as well as update the legend. The production values are high, with some serious talent behind it, including the likes of Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis providing their vocal and motion capture talents.

The film’s a lot of fun. Spielberg seems to relish making use of the form to create some impossible shots, such as the magical sight of a galleon crashing across sand dunes, and there’s a sense of it trying to push the limits of the technology available. It’s got pace, action and bags of good humour, all coming in generous waves of fine, high concept entertainment designed to appeal to long-term fans and newcomers alike. But in the end, the animation – virtuously displayed as it is – is also its heel. I understand the argument for its necessity, that recreating Snowy as a realistic character was best served in this way, but it winds up looking too clean and weightless. Compare this with Spielberg’s most famous enduring character, Indiana Jones, and those flaws become even more apparent – you got to see the blood, sweat and tears as a consequence of Indy’s physical effort, the toll of his adventuring, and there’s none of that here. Still, a nice try and I’d have no trouble recommending it. 7/10

Here’s the full review

18. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Spielberg’s first serious stab at a World War Two movie sees him take what appears to be an obvious route by telling his story from the perspective of a young boy. Based on JG Ballard’s bestselling novel and adapted by Tom Stoppard, the directorial chair was initially offered to no less a figure than David Lean before Spielberg took over, in the process making a picture in the Lean style. Empire of the Sun cost a lot of money to produce – a then colossal $35 million – and put it all on the screen, recruiting respected yet relatively little known character actors and shooting the Shanghai based scenes in Shanghai itself, hiring an army of extras to depict the bewildering chaos of the Japanese takeover. It’s film making on an epic scale and the effect is astonishing, especially when you consider it is, at heart, an intimate little tale about a lost British boy growing up in captivity.

John Malkovich is on great form as the rotten to the core Basie, a heartless yet charming grifter who uses everyone around him, and there’s fine support from the likes of Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson and Leslie Phillips. But the film belongs to Christian Bale, then twelve years old and winning the part out of thousands of casting auditions. His is a star making turn, the camera following his character’s gaze as the cosy world he grew up in shatters and he’s left to fend for himself in a suddenly meaner world, one for which he’s completely unsuited. The development of his journey and the changes it tells within him are well worth following, Bale’s countenance going from wide eyed innocence to crushed cynicism in an entirely credible way. Sadly the film collapses in on itself by the close, Spielberg unable to wrap it all up satisfyingly, but getting to that stage is worth it all the same. If it fails, it does so with interest. 7/10

17. Schindler’s List (1993)

When I was at school, controversial historical events like the Crusades and the Holocaust were airbrushed from the curriculum, as though things so terrible were not suitable subjects for young people to learn, too many uncomfortable questions and so on. They still don’t do much about the Crusades before sixth form, but my son covered the Holocaust during Key Stage 3, making it an integral part of historical studies and something that everyone needs to be taught. I wonder how much of that is down to the longer lasting influence of Schindler’s List, an enormous critical hit upon its release that continues to garner respect and cultural relevance to this day.

Whether that makes it a good piece of work is another matter, of course, and in discussing the film solely on its own merits I’m left pondering the extent to which it’s revered because of its subject matter rather than its greatness, whether the Holocaust’s exposure to wide audiences due it being a major film by a much loved director was enough. Perhaps it was. Spielberg tries. The story is told in austere black and white, the photography often taking a detached view as though it’s a contemporary documentary rather than a piece of narrative cinema. It works in many places, or at least it should, yet Spielberg can’t help despite having all this devastating real life material to hand but add his own little touches to heighten the viewer’s senses. Thus we get the famous ‘girl in the red coat’ scene, where Liam Neeson’s Schindler, watching the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, spies a little girl wandering through the uprooting and carnage, apparently separate from everything that’s happening, her coat a shocking flash of red to add emphasis. And it’s just unnecessary, as though audiences couldn’t be trusted to have an emotional response to the moment and needed that extra little push. The result is of course an instant where you’re suddenly removed from the experience and realise it’s only a movie.

Schindler’s List is nearly great, but moments like these – and there are many – stop it from achieving that, and I far prefer Spielberg’s later ‘serious’ efforts, where the filming is unobtrusive and both the actors and viewers are allowed to immerse themselves in it. No doubt however that it’s a tale more than worth covering, and for that reason it deserves recognition. There’s something about the cheapness of human life on the screen that makes it an exhausting watch, even if Ralph Fiennes as the sadistic German officer treads a very fine line between authentic evil and comic villainy. It’s a good performance of an unambiguously nasty piece of work, without shades of grey to make him come to life (the man needs to be taught to understand the concept of forgiveness). Even Schindler himself, the man on the make who comes to understand the relevance of what he’s doing, flips from anti-hero to outright hero in moments, as though only displaying his humanity at a plot-convenient instance. For me a magnificent failure. 7/10

16. Duel (1971)

Duel was a made for TV movie, filmed over twelve breathless days in 1971, and perhaps for that reason it’s a bit of a cheat to include it here, though I’m going to do so because (i) it had a theatrical release throughout Europe (ii) it’s great. The plot is simplicity itself. Dennis Weaver plays a middle aged man who’s driving on a business trip along the roads of California. He unwittingly picks a fight with a massive tanker truck, which not only bullies Weaver’s little (by comparison) red Plymouth Valiant but becomes increasingly intent on killing him. The stakes rise as the truck escalates its road rage from merely intimidating Weaver through to forcing him off the road, attempting to push him into an oncoming train and careering into the telephone box where he’s making a call to the police. The stress tells on Weaver, who is more and more on edge, not to mention paranoid when he’s sat in a café trying to guess the identity of the truck’s driver from the group of drinkers. We never see the guy behind the wheel, one of those neat little stylistic touches that really set Duel apart when it was first shown. Another is Spielberg’s frenetic shooting style, filming from another car and in constant motion so that the viewer is moving at the same speed as Weaver and the truck.

The film’s an exercise in pure tension, inspired by the work of Hitchcock and based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson, who also wrote its screenplay and based it on a road rage incident he had experienced personally. Perhaps best of all is the look of the menacing truck, a dirty as hell monster that has crushed bugs on its fender and numerous licence plates, suggesting Weaver is the latest in a string of victims claimed over the years. 8/10

15. War of the Worlds (2005)

One of Spielberg’s more divisive recent entries, War of the Worlds suffers from using the ‘official’ ending that made the original novel work so well. In HG Wells’s text, the Martian invaders are undone by coming into contact with Earth’s microscopic life, contagions against which they have no defence. It’s a brilliant, poetic finale, but it doesn’t translate so well to the screen, in which the tension and hopelessness has been built and built, only to be fatally undermined by a climax in which the film’s heroes are turned into witnesses rather than protagonists. In a story that pits humans against overwhelming odds, I don’t know what would work better – would you prefer the cheeky computer virus that somehow beats the technologically superior aliens, as witnessed in Independence Day?

Otherwise, it’s a much, much better and more convincing film than Roland Emmerich’s 1995 epic, with its focus squarely on Tom Cruise’s unlikely family man rather than widening the scope to the invasion’s global impact. Cruise is a divorcee who’s landed with his kids for the weekend. He’s not very interested and they don’t want to be there, and then the aliens strike. This puts them on the run as the bond between them very slowly grows once again, Cruise realising that his instinct is to protect the youngsters, especially his ten year old daughter (Dakota Fanning). For a 12A picture, the invasion is depicted as realistic and frightening, the people reduced to ants as they have no choice but to flee and then keep on fleeing. The aliens kill humans by the thousand, but because their rays incinerate the victims there’s no blood and the certificate remains, which does nothing to reduce the terror of their presence. The scene in the cellar, where the characters wait around whilst aliens explore, is about as suspenseful as these things tend to get, and in the end War of the Worlds is a pure exercise in tension. It works tremendously, especially as the CGI is mixed with practical effects to lend an authentic sheen to it and, when it comes down to it, a shot of empty clothes floating along the screen is more powerful than any number of digitally rendered tripods approaching. Just a shame that with all the money and influence brought to bear on this production, they still couldn’t improve upon the ending. 8/10

Here’s the full review

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The Indiana Jones franchise by 1989 was so strong that it needed very little promotion; just knowing a new picture was coming turned out to be enough, leaving the year’s hype in the pocket of Tim Burton’s Batman, for which the pre-release marketing was relentless. Returning to the kind of ‘fun’ fare that he crafted before The Color Purple, Spielberg retreated from the horrors of The Temple of Doom to effectively remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is once again tussling with Nazis for a Biblical relic, with John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot from the first one reappearing in considerable supporting roles (no Karen Allen though, which is a pity). As an added gimmick, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade places Jones Senior into the storyline, and in a cracking instance of casting hands the part to Sean Connery. The film is at its absolute best when Connery and Harrison Ford, two screen legends from successive generations, are on the screen together, their verbal sparring an undiluted delight.

Following a winning prologue that features the late River Phoenix as the young Indiana, a sequence stuffed with brilliant in-jokes, the action moves in short order from Harvard to Venice, to Berlin and finally Jordan, events moving so quickly that it all has the blistering pace of globe trotting James Bond flicks at their rollicking height. It isn’t as good as Raiders though, principally because special effects too often substitute for the blistering stuntcraft of that earlier film. Industrial Light and Magic swaggered in its late-eighties pomp, but there’s an over-ambitiousness to some scenes that too often have the obvious compositing effect that completely removes viewers from being immersed in the action. It suffers also from the lack of a strong female presence. For all that, it’s a good humoured and relentlessly exciting confection. There’s a sense of Spielberg at this time wanting to move into serious drama, that he’d done the matinee thing and craved recognition as an auteur of adult cinema. Nothing wrong with that kind of ambition, of course, but when his attempts at adventure yarns are as good as The Last Crusade, shifting effortlessly from breathtaking chase scenes to Indy bumping into Adolf Hitler, you can’t help thinking that he was born for it. 8/10

13. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. started life as a Stanley Kubrick project, where it gestated over many years. Rumour has it that Kubrick was waiting for special effects technology to catch up with the story he wanted to tell. However true that is, in his burgeoning friendship with Spielberg he tried again and again to pass over the concept as an assignment for the younger director. And then he died, leaving Spielberg to make it as a tribute to him. There are clear signs in the finished product of an effort to make it in Kubrick’s style, especially when it comes to the austere sets, but in reality it’s blatantly a Spielberg picture with full rein given to the story’s emotional hook and the theme of looking for a parent figure, a long running one within his body of work.

That it tugs mercilessly on the heartstrings of viewers is in little doubt; before I became a father I might have been unmoved, but when I saw it my boy was two years old and it snared me precisely as it intended to. I can’t think of a film to which I’ve had a stronger emotional reaction, and it’s possible this has blinded me to its merits. But I don’t think so. I’ve had the opportunity to see it several times now, and on each occasion I’m impressed, both with the performances and the rather blinding effects work. The latter continues to be excellent, even years later, the film mixing CGI and practical effects sublimely and keeping the former to a reasonable minimum, so that the images that obviously rely on computer imagery, such as the woman’s face opening to reveal a robotic skull in the opening scene, is seamless. Then there are the performances, Jude Law leading the supporting cast as a ‘mecha’ that works in the sex trade, supernaturally beautiful enough so that the slightly too plastic hair just adds that touch of artifice. In the end it all depends on Haley Joel Osment, fresh from his affecting turn in The Sixth Sense and having to carry the film as the little robot child suffering from Pinocchio Syndrome. He does, mainly because beyond the cuteness and dogged loyalty to his mother (Frances O’Connor) he shows the humanity that ought to be beyond him, displaying qualities of selfishness, anger and impatience that blur the line between his artificial state and what makes someone a ‘real boy’.

A.I. received levels of opprobrium for its closing act, which adds a sentimental pay-off. I think it’s only fair; after a tale that heaps misery upon misery it’s the least his character deserves. Whether it was the original intention to do this or something added by Spielberg is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t diminish the overall quality of the piece. 8/10

12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The first impossible thing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind happens within five minutes of its opening credits. In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, a group of scientists come across a fleet of World War II fighter aircraft, perfectly preserved, looking as though they’ve just returned from a 1945 mission but reported missing some thirty years beforehand. From there, the plot follows two strands. The first shows government officials tracking UFOs and building to their climactic contact, overtones of Watergate present and correct as they create conspiracies in order to keep what they’re doing a secret. The second, and more interesting, is Spielberg’s insight into how this affects ordinary people who are (un)lucky enough to have their own close encounters. Richard Dreyfuss plays a family man whose domestic life steadily unravels once he’s seen the UFOs and had his own moment of contact. His story dovetails with that of single mother Melinda Dillon, once her two year old son becomes a target for the ‘visitors’. The paths of both characters eventually leads them to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a site they learn is where ‘contact’ will be made, a place they are subconsciously compelled to reach, leading to suggestions they have somehow been invited along. It’s a riveting adventure, Spielberg eschewing the classic, paranoid stories of alien invasion in favour of one involving benign visitors from another galaxy, the shadowy government people emerging as the real villains with their deceptive tactics and efforts to keep ‘the people’ at arm’s length. There are some sublime little touches, such as the moment Dreyfuss waves a set of headlights past his parked car and they move up instead of across, also the instances of normal family life he’s involved in that have an aching sense of reality, his character as childlike as the kids. I love the musical interaction between the people and aliens, prefiguring the reaching out made in 1997’s Contact by hinting at the mathematical rules that lie behind individual notes and their combinations.

There are several versions of the film and three are collected on the Sony Blu-ray. I’ve seen them all various times, but for this viewing I caught the Director’s Cut, which removes the superfluous shots from inside the alien starship that were tagged onto the special edition. The film’s last act, when contact is made, should and does end with Dreyfuss entering the ship and it taking off, leaving just enough mystery for viewers to wonder what happens next. The effects are still great, but there’s always the possibility of too much of a good thing being just that. 8/10

11. War Horse (2011)

War Horse is the closest we have to a John Ford film from Spielberg. Pappy’s influence is clear from some of the film’s earliest images, the Narracott farm framed against endless Devonshire skies suggesting an earthly paradise for Jeremy Irvine’s young dreamer and the horse he’s loved since its birth. It’s one of the most consciously beautiful of Spielberg’s films, shot after shot of gorgeous landscapes and the people occupying them made to appear very much a small part of the eternal story of the countryside.

Making a decision to use CGI as sparingly as possible, the action as it follows the horse into the maelstrom of World War One seems very real, gritty and downright dirty. There’s some great equine acting (fourteen horses were used to portray the lead character, Joey) and sensational performances from the human actors, notably Irvine in his first major role, with a broad range of reliable, mainly British faces filling the ranks around him. Peter Mullan’s boozy father is incredibly effective in his relatively few scenes; taking a break from the harder roles for which he’s better known, a world of pain is conveyed in his turn, showing the reasons for his turning to the bottle. Great support also from Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Niels Arestrup’s devastated French grandfather. There’s a sentimental streak about War Horse that is completely unashamed. It looks and feels old fashioned, like a film that belongs in the Golden Age, and I think it’s a tremendous success. 8/10

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can is based on the real life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr, a teenager who conned his way into becoming rich by posing as a Pan-Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. The story was ideal material for a movie adaptation, and indeed the rights had been shuttling around the movie industry for some years before being acquired by Dreamworks and eventually directed by Spielberg. While some liberties were taken with Abagnale’s biography, an effort was made to stick to the facts as far as possible and certainly to stay within the ‘spirit’ of the tale.

And it’s a cracker. Leonardo DiCaprio at the time was still best known as the boyish hero of Titanic, and could convince as a character much younger than the actor himself. Time is taken to explore Abagnale’s motives. He runs away from home after the break-up of his parents’ marriage, learning the lessons from his ‘all charm’ father (Christopher Walken) to start a life of petty grifting. He realises that doors open for airline pilots. Wearing the Pan-Am uniform gives him enough credibility to get his cheques cashed, particularly in the pre-digital age, and it isn’t long before he’s faking employment cheques and boarding flights for free. He gets away with it for a time, but eventually his actions attract the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who starts a lifelong pursuit even though most of his fellows deride him for his involvement in the comparatively trivial world of cheque fraud.

There’s a lovely degree of period authenticity at play here, a lost world of 1960s Americana that wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Men, and clearly it looks and sounds great with those tailored suits and Sinatra songs. It’s revealed that Abagnale’s activities are an effort to bring his parents together, showing the little boy fantasising an outcome that can never become reality. Meetings with his dad betray the levels of hero worship he has, even as Abagnale Sr is diminishing into a broken figure; it’s great work from Walken.  In the end Hanratty becomes a surrogate father as the unlikely affection between the pair grows, the older man coming to appreciate Abagnale Jr’s motives and eventually helping him. But in reaching that point the movie’s a lot of fun, DiCaprio charming and childish in equal measure, heading a great cast that includes Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and Jennifer Garner falling for his likeable con artistry. 8/10

9. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

I felt flatness when first seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at my local cinema. Bringing with it all that baggage of box office records shattered, a world renowned master of entertainment at the top of his game, the promise of a rather wonderful story beautifully told, well it just left me disappointed. The film looked too dark, moved slowly and on the whole was a bit boring. Such is the impossible level of hype, the sort of thing I can cope with now but at the age of ten was tougher to rationalise. Thankfully, subsequent viewings have led to greater levels of appreciation and enjoyment. Now that the film is part of history, I can find simple pleasure in its almost modern fairy tale approach, the top notch performances it elicits from its very young actors, especially Henry Thomas as its ten year old hero, and most of all the way it breathes life into an animatronic puppet.

This, I am convinced, is why it all works. Spielberg clearly took note of the way Mark Hamill performed alongside the muppet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back – because Hamill’s Luke at no point hinted that his character was interacting with anything other than a living, breathing being, Yoda’s authority as an aged Jedi master was left intact, and whilst E.T. is clearly a model with someone’s hand stuck up his backside the way the child actors treat him as though he’s exactly what he’s supposed to be makes us believe that it’s all real. Wisely, many of the early scenes in which he appears are shot in semi-darkness, easing us into his obvious artifice by never quite letting us see him in full, so that by the time we do we’re sold on E.T. being an actual living thing. That he’s given bags of personality helps also, the moment he returns Elliot’s M&Ms a lovely hint into the benign way he thinks, the emotional and psychic link he forms with the boy coming across as charming and credible, plugging us into the thoughts and hopes of a character who can’t communicate verbally. Then there are the shady government officials on E.T.’s trail. For much of the film, they don’t speak a word, but they are shown closing in, wandering around the background, illuminated by torchlight but we can’t see their faces and so they’re instantly suspicious. It’s a wonderfully childlike way of showing us these figures of authority, and while they’re humanised by the end thanks to Peter Coyote’s sympathetic performance it’s clear the empathy of the film rests with the youngsters.

Years later, the only thing that lets it down is what helped to sell it back in 1982, and that’s the special effects. E.T. himself is fine. The HD transfer favours his facial expressions even better than before, but the scenes that involve flying bikes and the alien spaceship now show their joins and betray the film’s age. 8/10

8. Munich (2005)

An unusual choice of subject matter for Spielberg, Munich plays more like a Paul Greengrass film in depicting the events of the massacre of Israel’s Olympics team during the 1972 games, and the aftermath. Eric Bana plays a young Mossad agent who is assigned to build a team of assassins and take out the eleven Palestinians believed to be behind the attack. This he does, assembling a group including Daniel Craig’s South African hard man and the shady Ciaran Hinds. Together they slip across Europe, eliminating their targets as identified by a French informant (Mathieu Amalric) in various grisly situations, but as their work progresses Bana finds that he’s questioning his cause, the information he’s working from, the motives of those supplying the details, the innocents who get caught up in the killing, the effect all this is having on his own life and soul. Paranoia strikes and he ends the film terrified, every sound containing the possibility of a hitman closing in on him and his family.

Based on the written account of a Mossad agent and covering events that were top secret and little known, Munich was a rare Spielberg entry in terms of not setting the box office on fire, but it was well received critically and deservedly so. It isn’t an easy watch; the assassins make mistakes, their first attempts at killing executed sloppily, and there’s a focus on their preparations, the intricacies of bomb making, the moral debates they share. It’s an attempt to show what life was really like for them, and it plays very well over a running time of nearly three hours that by necessity is leisurely paced in places. For me, Eric Bana is one of those great semi-lost actors, capable of superb work and yet often choosing the wrong projects, or those that are off the radar. It’s as though we’re all waiting for his explosive performance, the one that propels him into the A-League. Over time, this might be revealed as the one that got away. A really good film, containing loads of fine period seventies detail and suggesting haunting parallels between the original attack and those of the assassins that linger long after it’s finished. Comparisons with 9/11 and its aftermath, especially considering when Munich was made, cannot be ignored. It depicts both the righteous fury and the moral ambiguities of the bloody response, and it’s perhaps the uncomfortable questions this raises that did for its relative lack of success with the public. 8/10

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

After a dip in form, Spielberg turned 1993 into his comeback year, conquering the box office with Jurassic Park, as well as the Oscars, who conferred all their important awards on Schindler’s List. Before James Cameron bludgeoned his way into the record books with Titanic and Avatar, this was the biggest selling film of all time, putting it up there as an event with the likes of Star Wars, and whilst it didn’t quite have the full cultural impact of George Lucas’s space Western it was, and remains, a very big deal. Watching it again and the reasons become clear. The story’s tension is palpable, the film essentially a two hander with the first half setting everything up before the second rips it apart by delivering one exhilarating chase sequence after another. Jurassic Park is credited with showcasing the potential of photo-realistic, computer generated effects for the first time, breathing life into extinct dinosaurs, but in reality the CGI is used sparingly, many shots opting for animatronic models, which lends to the authenticity and weight of many scenes when humans are interacting with Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus Rex (I can’t really deal with the phrase ‘T-Rex’, as it conjures too many surreal images of Jeff Goldblum being terrorised by Marc Bolan).

The dinosaurs are obviously the film’s star attractions, to the extent Spielberg didn’t hire big names but instead gave his lead roles to the likes of Sam Neill and Laura Dern, good performers capable of coming across as credible experts who are utterly dumbfounded at their life’s work being rendered null at the appearance of a Brontosaurus. So much of Jurassic Park is cleverly put together, character developments and relevant information being established to the viewer economically yet clearly, while the dinosaurs get great entrances. The glasses of water rippling to herald the Tyrannosaur’s approach is beautifully judged cinema, building suspense with sublime simplicity, and that’s just the film’s most celebrated example. What about the ‘clever girl’ scene? Or the bit where Dern relaxes as she feels Samuel L Jackson’s arm on her shoulder, only to recoil in terror when she finds the arm is all that’s left of him? There’s an argument for suggesting it’s all a retread of Jaws, and indeed it mines Spielberg’s earlier entry for its build-up, but it’s a film made in the interests of treating audiences to a thrill ride, and even then it establishes that the creatures aren’t monsters, just animals trying to survive, a fact lost on its three sequels. Seeing Jurassic World in the cinema earlier this year, I was hopelessly drawn into the action, but catching it again later on the small screen I realised I had been seduced by the IMAX, 3D and sharing the experience with a big theatre audience. The dinosaurs, by now fully rendered by CGI, just didn’t feel as much ‘there’ and the effect was dimmed. Not so with Jurassic Park, which remains as thrilling now as it did the first time. 9/10

Here’s the full review.

6. Lincoln (2012)

All the plaudits and praise went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his playing of the eponymous Civil War president. Whilst it’s impossible to know exactly what Lincoln was like in reality, the performance given is so note-perfect to carry an instant seal of authenticity. The face is careworn, the movements stooped and weighed down by years of living, the voice cracks with wisdom and a thousand anecdotes. It’s riveting work, fully deserving of the Oscar Day-Lewis collected.

But there’s a lot more to Lincoln than that. I was expecting a bombastic affair, not the complicated and dialogue-heavy drama that emerged as a nineteenth century edition of The West Wing, and it’s all the better for that. The film’s driving point, that Lincoln’s successful passing of the emancipation bill was achieved through negotiation at individual levels and political chicanery rather than tugs to the heart, is really well made, with James Spader shining as one of the operators working behind the scenes to win votes for the bill. For a film maker used to hammering home his themes, the emphasis here is on the actors and the script, and rightly so. The idea appears to be that the material is powerful enough on its own, which is true, and the maturing of Spielberg from the sorts of cinematic gimmicks he was unnecessarily inserting into Schindler’s List cannot be overstated. The period detail is of course perfect, and this allows the performances to shine through, from David Strathairn as the President’s assiduous Secretary of State through to Sally Field’s emotionally compromised First Lady, bottling up the tragedies she’s experienced for the most part but occasionally letting them rise to the surface. Lincoln’s close to masterpiece territory. 9/10

5. Jaws (1975)

Jaws is forty years old and in places looks it. The model shark comes across increasingly like a model shark – Spielberg famously referred to it as a ‘weighty turd’ – and some of the film’s weakest scenes now are those where it puts in an appearance. It’s fortunate therefore that these moments are sparing and Jaws it at its best when all it needs to do is shoot underwater, the camera floating beneath all those human legs dangling in the sea while John Williams’s terrifying score signifies from which perspective we’re seeing the action. With subsequent viewings, the human drama becomes more focal. Roy Scheider plays a police chief on the holiday island of Amity. He discovers the gory remains of a young woman, the shark’s first victim, and tries to close the beaches while they deal with the threat, only to come up against the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), whose interests are commercial with Amity’s entire economy depending on the summer tourist season. Unwisely the beaches remain open, leading to a string of false alarms and actual shark attacks that prove the Chief to be absolutely right. He’s backed up by Richard Dreyfuss’s oceanographer, who is on hand to make clear the level of threat represented by the shark, which appears to grow with every killing. And what about Robert Shaw, gleefully chewing the scenery as a grizzled sea captain who represents the island’s one legitimate chance of dealing with the shark?

It’s a film that has rightly earned its acclaim as a thrill ride, an exercise in brilliant suspense. Viewers of the earlier Duel will see clear parallels between the monster truck and shark, the concept of this almost unstoppable killing machine, though Jaws is scarier because the great white is outlined effectively as ‘a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.’ I remember seeing it for the first time when it made its network television premiere. I can’t have been any older than ten, and it seemed everyone I knew was watching it also; we were all sold, hopelessly terrified, and unable to be anything but compelled to see it through to the end. Just a brilliant piece of entertainment. 9/10

4. Bridge of Spies (2015)

It’s a common theme of this Spielberg retread that I wish the auteur trusted his material and players and let them get on with telling the story. Too often, that lack of faith in what he already possesses has led him to add his own directorial flourishes, as though audiences need that extra little push to fully appreciate the emotional impact of what he’s trying to convey. You might call this the ‘girl in the red coat’ syndrome. It’s only with his more recent efforts that he’s stepped back, and the effect has been marvellous.

Bridge of Spies is a complex, densely laden Cold War thriller about an insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) given the thankless task of defending a man (Mark Rylance) who’s accused, and obviously guilty, of being a Soviet spy operating from Brooklyn. The case mushrooms into a major diplomatic incident when the Russians capture Gary Powers, who was shot down whilst flying a spy plane over Soviet territory. The lawyer then finds himself in East Germany during winter, oscillating between the two halves of Berlin as he attempts to negotiate a trade of hostages. The film depicts the impact of all this on Germany to wonderful yet horrible effect. East Berlin is hostile, mistrusting, cold and in every sense of the word inhospitable. People who try to cross the Wall are simply gunned down, depicting the reality of all those films when they somehow make it; Bridge of Spies makes such an escape impossible. By chance, I caught The Man from U.N.C.L.E earlier in the year, which includes a similar scene, but that’s a film played for high adventure and laughs, whereas here you get to see, in stark contrast, the gun towers that the potential escapologists would actually be up against. Hanks, by now a Spielberg regular, is completely assured and does a great job of getting across the toll all this has on him. But even he’s eclipsed by Rylance, a wholly unassuming man in terms of looks but able to be compelling whilst doing very little. For a film that concentrates on character interaction over action sequences, lots of scenes that feature men talking, it’s a mesmerising experience and reflective of the blossoming of Spielberg’s abilities. 9/10

3. Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise and Spielberg were seeking a project for them to collaborate upon for some time before they agreed on an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s short story. The result, Minority Report, was a return to thrill-ride cinema for the director and one of his most relentlessly exciting films. Say what you like about Cruise; he knows how to put in a job of work for this kind of fare. As the film’s hero, John Anderton, he’s rarely still and often running for his life, sustaining high energy levels throughout. In the opposite corner is Colin Farrell’s government agent. Like Cruise, he’s a much better actor than he often gets credit for, bringing a fine physical presence and forensic intelligence to the picture.

One of the best things about Minority Report is that it features a complicated plot but it weaves it well, pockets of information disclosed along the way in snatches of conversation or the actions of characters. The somewhat disturbing philosophy of the film – in the near future, psychically linked ‘cognitives’ are able to foresee murders that are about to take place, making it possible for police to arrest and incarcerate the killers before they can commit the act – is there, but teased out through blistering action rather than expositional conversations. Cruise’s character finds himself listed as a future murderer and goes on the run from his own men, at one stage taking with him the main cognitive, Agatha (Samantha Morton). The humanity that has been denied to Agatha comes out through Morton’s superb performance, ending any debate over the ethics of leaving her in a vegetated state, existing solely as a police aide. The little details here are great. In one scene, Cruise enters a shopping mall, the stores identifying him through optical recognition and offering him personalised adverts as he walks along. It’s also very funny; Peter Stormare’s cameo as an eye transplant doctor leads to episodes of grisly humour that offer some nice relief from the film’s overall sweep. With great pace, a fine story, a vision of the future depicting both positive and negative aspects that feels very believable and Cruise doing what he does best at its heart, Minority Report is a real treat. 9/10

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is a film that improves with repeated viewings. The first time I saw it I was blown away by the D-Day sequence that opens the film, and rightly so – it’s one of the most visceral and terrifying pieces of cinematography I’m ever likely to see. Suddenly it feels as though every war movie has been zapped into yesteryear with this single, twenty minute slice of action, but then it all slows down as Tom Hanks’s band of brothers moves across the Norman countryside, searching for Matt Damon’s Private Ryan and the film starts aping all those old flicks it had retired. Seeing it again, years after the hype has died down, and the little details emerge that I previously overlooked in the grand sweep – Edward Burns’s belligerence, the debilitating cowardice of Jeremy Davies, the scene where Vin Diesel is landed with a little French girl to look after, the slow uniting of the company as a consequence of their shared experiences.

By the time it reaches its climax, when Ryan has been found and the company is preparing to defend a bridge against overwhelming German numbers, the film gives us some precious minutes to catch our breath alongside the men, individuals we suddenly realise we care about. We can sit and listen to Davies translate the lyrics of an Edith Piaf ditty because we want this moment to last, the deep breath before the Panzers arrive. Saving Private Ryan turns out to be less about heroes and more so ordinary men committing heroic acts because if they don’t then they’ll die, and if they do then they’ll probably die anyway. War can be random in its death toll and so it proves here. There are little instances where a character redeems himself and someone gets a narrative arc but in truth it’s breathtaking how well the film manages to avoid lapsing into the sort of hackneyed tropes we’re well used to. The death knell you’re noticing is that of the action war movie, the sort inspired by Where Eagles Dare that dominated the genre for a time and, while fun, has been utterly outmoded by a single piece of work. Everything about it works, from the amazing washed out photography to the minimal yet well deployed John Williams score. Spielberg won his second Best Director award for this one, which I applaud; the film represents nothing less than his flowering as an auteur. 9/10

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that leaves you forgetting your jaw is scraping the floor. Things are happening all the time and even in the film’s quieter moments – of which there aren’t many – key plot points and clues linked to future developments are unfolding. Famously, it was conceived by Lucas and Spielberg as an homage to the classic adventure serials of their youth, the likes of Flash Gordon and Crash Corrigan that were served up in fifteen minute instalments, ended every episode with a cliffhanger, and left you waiting for the next chapter and the resolution. As someone who grew up watching these shows on reruns, I loved the film’s spirit. Years later, the love’s still there. I think it’s perfect entertainment.

Tales of the film’s production are as legendary as the final product. Mythical keynotes, like the fact they wanted Tom Selleck for the lead character, go hand in hand with the eight years between Lucas’s original concept to its release, various adaptations and amendments taking place over that period, studio after studio turning it down as too risky an investment before Paramount agreed a $20 million budget, its essence remaining intact throughout, which is the important thing. The eventual casting of Harrison Ford, whose star had risen during the development period, turned out to be a masterstroke. The use of the lost Ark of the Covenant as a MacGuffin, which had been in the story since its earliest days, contains just that right balance of mythology and indefinable allure. Indiana Jones risks life and limb in his quest for the Ark, with no purpose higher than the possibility that it’s there and worth going for. In making Nazis the villains the film has an ultimate cinematic opponent – endlessly resourced and capable of unimaginable evil, though Paul Freeman’s rival French archaeologist is just as good, the yin to Jones’s yang, avaricious as opposed to altruistic. The film contains bags of good natured comedy. Considering Spielberg’s previous film was the failed 1941, specifically a comedy, it’s telling that with a better script and winning performances he gets it exactly right here.

The influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is long, directly with several sequels but extending far beyond those, with numerous rip-offs on screens both big and small and even bleeding into the video games market – there wouldn’t be a Tomb Raider, for instance, without it, throwaway scenes from the film like the enormous ball that pursues Indy through a tomb finding its echoes in important action sections within the game. In the end, it’s just a sublime couple of hours, up there with North by Northwest in the best fun cinema has to offer. 10/10

Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When it’s on: Thursday, 1 January (4.25 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

As a child I was always more into Asterix than Tintin, the little bequiffed Belgian journalist as conceived by Hergé in 1929. The adventures of the Roman-smiting Gaul just wormed its way into my affections easier, perhaps I think in hindsight because of the creative names of his tribesmen – you’d trust a herbalist called Getafix, wouldn’t you? That said, all I wanted to do back then was draw my own cartoon strips, and the Tintin books were the ideal inspiration, with their clean lines, bright colours and panels that individually seemed to contain so many things happening at once. The dream ended as my painstaking efforts to produce some new comic book hero made me realise I could appreciate the form but not produce anything close to it, but my pleasure for the stories has lingered, and my wife is a massive Tintin fan. Several years ago, we sat through much of the animated series, enjoying the affection for the source material whilst missing Tintin in his natural book form. Conveying the character’s relentless sense of movement was difficult to do, but Hergé captured it magnificently.

French reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 compared Indiana Jones’s fast moving antics to those of Tintin, and it was through reading these that Spielberg first came across Hergé’s books and acquired the adaptation rights in short order. Then he sat on the project for twenty years, convinced it was nigh on impossible to do the character and books any justice via a live action movie. The particular problem was Snowy, Tintin’s dog, virtually impossible to replicate with a trained animal but accessible more and more thanks to advances in animation. Ultimately, he went to Weta Workshop in New Zealand, famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films, and from there to the series’ director and creative force, Peter Jackson. After showing Spielberg what was possible by sending him a film of Jackson dressed up as Captain Haddock, performing alongside a fully animated Snowy, the pair decided to collaborate and develop Tintin using motion capture technology. The planned movie was conceived as a number of features, with Spielberg and Jackson alternating directorial roles, and the first of these became The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As a director of many years and hits at the box office, with critical acclaim to match, helming an animated film must have been something of an unusual ‘first’ for Spielberg. Fortunately, it mainly works. Not content to simply make a cartoon, Tintin features many scenes where the animated form creates images that would otherwise be almost impossible, such as Haddock’s memories of his past-life as Sir Francis transforming the Saharan sandscape into the rolling ocean, his ship the Unicorn bobbing up and down the dunes/waves. It also serves the action sequences very well, injecting an urgency to moments that might have been limited by the restrictions of what would be possible in a live action film. The rendering is smooth and realistic; the characters all look great, those ‘dead eyed’ cartoon people from the earlier likes of The Polar Express now brought vividly to life whilst retaining enough artistic commonality with their Hergé originals to become every inch the books exploding into life.

Added to that, it’s a lot of fun. From the moment Tintin happens to purchase a model boat, the plot shifts happily from one fast-paced caper to the next, very rarely letting up and allowing itself to be dictated by the action rather than lengthy exposition from characters in conversation. It seems clear Tintin was made as a labour of love. Jackson was a fan from childhood, Spielberg from the moment his interest was piqued by those Indiana Jones reviews, and the results are a love letter to Hergé, the spirit of the books retained. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was playing Sakharine/Red Rackham until the credits mentioned it, so buried is he within the performance, but Jamie Bell makes for a fine Tintin, whilst frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis is in excellent form as a perpetually sozzled Haddock. The Thompson Twins are the comic relief, supplied by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film’s writers, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish, ensure a heavyweight combination of talent loaded into the screenplay.

And yet, and yet in the end, it’s the animation that emerges as the film’s main weakness. One of the great charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it all took place within a working world, a fully realised 1930s backdrop of Nazi villains and Indiana Jones suffering for his cause. That sweat on Harrison Ford’s face as he faced off with a king cobra – that was real sweat. The blood he let as a consequence of being pummelled during the fight to wrest the Ark from the Germans looked well earned. The grains of the desert dusted over everything – all real. In cinematic terms, if Tintin resembles anything then it’s those old Jones adventures, a combination of great acting, writing, direction and stuntcraft, with special effects dialled down and everything grounded in grimy authenticity. As much fun as it is, Tintin never quite captures this because it’s a cartoon. What you’re watching has been produced by a computer, actors doing everything they can to make it come to life but ultimately playing in front of green screens with the detail filled in by skilled engineers later.

There’s no escaping that reality, or lack thereof, and the result is a joyful confection from men who have obvious affection for the stories and give their all to it, but a confection all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: ***

War of the Worlds (2005)

When it’s on: Sunday, 12 August (8.10 pm)
Channel: BBC3
IMDb Link

Is Steven Spielberg a ‘tarnished brand?’ An old thread on the Digital Fix forums offered a discussion of the films he directed and the possibility he has never quite hit the heights of E.T., which this year celebrates its 30th birthday. Surely some heresy, one might argue, especially as the man responsible for some of the highest grossing pictures in history went on to be a critical darling also. And yet there’s a nagging sense that once you pick apart the work bookended by the second and fourth Indiana Jones entries, you’re left with a handful of classics, some ‘worthies’ and a body that largely trades on the brilliance of his earlier efforts. This isn’t the place for me to dissect each and every film, but as far as I’m concerned there are several real stinkers – The Terminal, Always, Crystal Skull, Hook – and a number of productions that have been critically lauded because of the subject matter they cover, rather than their articistic merits. I’ve always struggled with Saving Private Ryan once it moves off the beaches, and the less said about Schindler’s List the better. Suffice it to say a film that blew me away in the cinema has left me feeling cold and ever so slightly manipulated with repeat viewings.

On the other hand, the ones I actually like – Catch Me If You Can, A.I., Empire of the Sun, Minority Report – are a mixed bag in terms of their far from universal appeal. I’d watch any of these films again, though the entry that really strikes me as a hark back to the glory days is War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s update of HG Wells’s groundbreaking science fiction novel. It isn’t an especially easy film to defend, given the half-hearted reception it received upon its release, its far from universal appeal and the presence of a star who was beginning to do incredible levels of damage to his own reputation in 2005. But I love it. Much that happens in War of the Worlds works – the masterfully flowing tension levels, the invasion story combining with a classic ‘Berg yarn about the bad Dad learning to be a good one through sheer adversity, the choice of shots, the absence of forced humour, the invaders’ sheer relentlessness, the speed with which humans are reduced to rats, and so on. Visually and narratively, it all hangs together so well that, in my book, the naysayers are made to nitpick in order to find their problems with it.

If there is a fundamental problem with War of the Worlds, it’s in the ending, which is retained from the novel. On paper, the conclusion of the tale works wonderfully, not least because it has some plausible scientific basis (Wells had a degree in zoology), yet it has the potential to cut deep into mounting suspense levels and feel tacked on, which is arguably what happens in the film. After spending the vast portion of the film running away, hiding and suffering, watching bullets do nothing to the alien tripods and ultimately waiting to be exterminated with the rest of the population, our heroes simply find that the unwelcome visitors have died, their immune systems open to bacteria and contagions, thereby giving humanity a dramatically unsatisfying let-off. How one improves upon this climax is a question few have tried to answer. In Independence Day, we learned that the bad guys from outer space were as vulnerable to computer viruses as any technically under-evolved Windows user. Is this any better? Or might a blast of Indian Love Call do instead?

The problem for screenwriter David Koepp seemed so unresolveable that he didn’t try to find one. Instead, we’re left to deal with an ending that approximates that of the novel, while all the effort goes into the survival story experienced by Tom Cruise and his family. It’s as though he threw in the towel at the close of play, decided that everyone watching the film knows how the story ends and grafted on something vaguely appropriate. Its conclusion includes a Spielberg-esque family reunion that jars horribly with the gritty realism of what’s happened before, but by then one gets the impression everybody has stopped bothering.

All of which is a shame because until then, WotW is about as good as it gets. It certainly deserves better than to be wrapped up so unsatisfyingly. After all, Spielberg’s real classics – Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters, E.T. – build towards finales that carry all the dramatic weight and logic one would expect. Even A.I., another film criticised for its syrupy ending, makes narrative sense; after two hours of steadily escalating horrors, David’s reunion with his mother is all he has coming to him. In War of the Worlds, Koepp and Spielberg expunge many of the global events that punctuated both the text and 1953 George Pal film, focusing instead on the experiences of one New Jersey man and his family. It’s a decision that works. Viewers can identify with the blue collar crane operator who’s the film’s main character – his curiousity in the early minutes, his blind panic when the aliens emerge and the things he does afterward. The project was always envisaged as a vehicle for Tom Cruise. After the director and actor enjoyed collaborating on Minority Report, Spielberg started reeling off movie concepts to Cruise before they agreed on the third one, a fresh adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Cruise plays Ray, a working class anti-hero who has long since let his marriage collapse and now only sees his children at the convenience of his ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The kids are Robbie (Justin Chatwin), a disaffected teenager, and ten year old Rachel (Dakota Fanning), both of whom see the prospect of a weekend with dad as a chore rather than a pleasure. Ray’s just as bad. He’s late to meet them and his house is a mess of oil and engine parts – one pitying look from Otto is enough to reveal how the relationship died, through apathy and a life of rolling nothingness. Just finishing a shift at the dock, Ray leaves his kids to their own devices while he sleeps. Robbie makes off in his car. Rachel orders a takeaway and Ray is disgusted to find she’s gone for health food. The lack of any sense of ease between the three of them is palpable. Ray might not like to hear his teenage son calling him an asshole, always using ‘Ray’ rather than ‘dad’ because he clearly hasn’t earned the title, but neither does he do anything to arrest the situation. The dysfunctional trio is trapped in an entropy of going through the familial motions. What can possibly break them out of it?

Any seasoned viewer of Spielberg knows exactly what the outcome will be. The son of divorced parents who returns to the theme of families uniting through adversity again and again in his films, the director presents his War of the Worlds characters with the challenge of escaping from enemy aliens that are armed with vastly superior technology, a bloodlust for human flesh and licence to kill. Obviously, they’ll bond through their experiences, yet they’re put through the sort of emotional wringer that would test anybody. The first appearance of an alien tripod is marvellous cinema. Lightning has been hitting the same spot in Ray’s Jersey town, so he goes to investigate the hole it’s left in an intersection, along with half the community. At first, they’re curious, ignoring the policeman who asserts there’s something down there. But then the fear hits, as the road starts to subside, pulse, ripping nearby buildings in half before the alien machine emerges, shattering any sense of normality as much from its ear-splitting horn as the very sight of it. Almost instantly, the entity sets about laying waste to all life surrounding it, emitting a blast that terrifyingly destroys anything organic whilst clothes remain unharmed. Ray flees with the rest, enjoying several near misses, though it’s made clear this is due to nothing more than random good luck.

The rest of the film is a road movie, Ray and his kids heading for Boston, ostensibly because he wants to reunite the children with Otto whilst really giving their panicky escape a sense of purpose. Everything that happens is told from their perspective, the things they learn about the outside world and their own encounters with aliens and fellow victims. This delivers some glorious use of special effects – the collapsing bridge – though it’s to the film’s credit that CGI is deployed as necessary rather than gratuitously. Spielberg senses that computer effects, whilst photo-realistic, are clearly just bits of digital wizardry and everyone watching the film knows they aren’t really there, so the most emotionally affecting bits in the film focus instead on the intimate dynamics within the family. Instead of shooting scene after scene of people being vapourised, the loss of lives is contained in a small moment where Rachel sees piles of clothes carried by a river’s current. She knows what that means, and so do we.

The dysfunctional human reaction is covered many times, but is best exhibited near the end, when Ray and Rachel hide in the cellar of a demented survivalist named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Combining two characters from the book (the curate and the artilleryman) whilst taking the name of Wells’s doomed astronomer, Ogilvy seems to offer sanctuary but is clearly nuts and someone Ray has to deal with. This bit also includes the film’s tensest moments, the aliens’ entry into the cellar during which the humans have little option but to hide and hope.

There’s much about the film that doesn’t make sense when you think about it, such as the scientific denouement and the unlikely possibility that aliens set on dominating Earth wouldn’t first do their homework concerning its biology. Spielberg does his best to mask these fundamental faults, enveloping the story in a series of tense scenes and showing everything from Ray’s jaded point of view. A shame he achieves this so well that after two hours of escalating suspense, the film just finishes.

War of the Worlds: ****

Gremlins (1984)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 1 May (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

True story. Gremlins was the first film that I went to the cinema to see whilst underage. I was 12 when it was released in the UK, three years too young to stomach its scenes of horror, according to the censors. Around school, the film’s reputation gained something of an ‘urban myth’ status, spread by those old enough to have seen it or others my own age – grrrr! – with parents who’d turned a blind eye. The 15 certificate issued to it (at the time, Britain had no comparison for the bridging PG-13 certificate in America) seemed at odds with its marketing. Gremlins was hyped as a family film, with accompanying toys, sticker albums and so on, which meant I knew almost everything that happened before I broke the law, took on a life of crime, wore the most mature clothes I could find and caught it for myself.

Years later and with Gremlins firmly rooted in its 1980s setting, it’s possible to come across afternoon screenings on the television. These are heavily cut, of course, but not so much that the entire story remains intact. Also in place is the daftness of the ‘three rules’ mythology underpinning the film’s narrative. Even back in my pre-teen guise, I found this hard to stomach. So you can’t feed them after midnight? And when does that particular rule lapse? Never get them wet? Does snow count? Who makes these things up?

Naturally, these rules were established precisely so they could be broken, and they are, to gloriously disastrous effect. Gizmo, the cute, animatronic puppet Mogwai, is taken to the sort of identikit American suburb that appears in any film Steven Spielberg has a hand in and, before too long, has a glass of water spilled upon him. This results in the almost instant spawning of several more creatures. Because Gizmo’s a good guy, he realises the dire consequences of this and, sure enough, none of the new Mogwai are as well-intentioned. Eventually they get their post-midnight snacks, transforming them into mischievous, reptilian gremlins. Mayhem ensues.

The film’s origins lie in the invention of ‘gremlins’ as a jokey explanation for mechanical failures, a ‘gremlin in the works.’ By chance, the year before Gremlins was released, a segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie rehashed 1963’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet story, with its yarn about a plane passenger who spots a gremlin dicking about with the wing. Joe Dante, who directed another segment of the film, was hired by Spielberg (who stayed on as Executive Producer) to helm Gremlins. With his own background in horror films, Dante was a fine choice, especially as he’d previously been responsible for the blackly comic Piranha. It’s this sensibility he brought to the material here. Also hired was Jerry Goldsmith, who’d composed the score for Twilight Zone: the Movie, and whose violin-heavy refrains perfectly captured the madness.

Gremlins is scheduled a little clumsily, considering it is, at heart, a Christmas movie. Gizmo is purchased as a Christmas present, and in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, a character explains her hate for the season. Its appearance during the perpetual joke that is British Summertime doesn’t really matter, of course, though given the saccharine nature of most Christmas flicks it is at least one with considerable bite.

Gremlins: ***