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Steven Spielberg — What happened to you?

Back in August, TIFF announced they were getting the world premiere of the new Steven Spielberg movie, The Fabelmans, and to say that I was excited was an understatement. After clawing and attempting to get my hands on tickets, I managed to finally score tickets to a screening during the final weekend of the festival. By this point, the film had been screened several times already and there was practically nothing but raves for the master’s newest work, so my expectations were relatively high. However, what I ended up seeing was something I wasn’t expecting, and that was a gigantic disappointment. From the man who has made such incredible movies, that have arguably helped shape modern cinema has become, to make a personal film that is so bland and uneventful and safe was such a disappointment which made me want to deep dive into what he has directed in the past twenty or so years and looking at that was truly eye-opening.

I’m not going to be reviewing The Fabelmans, as it is not something I care to deep dive into and pick apart piece by piece. However, there will be some relatively large spoilers in this editorial. If you want to avoid spoilers for The Fabelmans please come back and continue reading after you watch the film.

In the film, Sammy presumably Spielberg himself, decides to throw away everything he is passionate about and wants to persue because of his parents’ messy-ish but rather normal divorce. While divorce can affect people in all sorts of ways, giving up your entire passion and desire to be what you want to be, is a drastic step. However, as time clearly tells Steven/Sammy gets over this divorce and goes on to be the director we know and admire today. The biggest issue I take with this is, he was ready to throw everything away because his parents divorced, and his dad never really had a backbone. This is the same person who directed Jaws, the movie that famously went through hell between casting, over budget, and over time, but that didn’t deter him from leaving the industry, but his parents divorce is what almost deprived the world of Steven Spielberg?

My biggest issue with The Fabelmans, other than that the unbelievability of Steven Spielberg/Sammy Fabelman giving up anything and everything he wanted because of a divorce is there is no obstacle. There is no overarching angle/conflict, it’s a movie about growing up, dealing with what roughly thirty to fifty percent of children go through, and moving on with life. Divorce has been done to absolute death between television and film, and it’s been done better. It is not interesting to see it unfold in such a bland way, people divorce, it was ambilocal enough, and Sammy/Steven grew up resenting both of his parents, but especially his father for lacking the backbone to fight to keep their family together.

After being wildly disappointed by The Fabelmans and going back and forth with a few friends about how I think it is one of the weakest things Spielberg has done, I decided to do a deep dive into his filmography of the last twenty years, and OH BOY did I not realize something huge. Of FIFTEEN films he has directed in twenty years (maybe take a break and be more selective, Steven) only five of them are good to great, and I’ll give half a point to West Side Story and Ready Player One as well so 6 of 15 movies for a director who’s regarded nearly as a god, are not good odds. If you look at the last 15 years, however, he has 2 out of 10 good movies. Even worse. The question has to be begged, when did Steven Spielberg stop caring?

Before we entirely rip apart his last 20 years of filmmaking, let’s look at everything that came before it. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. I didn’t include a handful of movies here. I’d argue if you take out The Last Crusade, everything on that aforementioned list is hands down better than anything he’s done in the last 20 years with the exception of Munich. For a director who inspired and created worlds of escapism and realism that audiences have countlessly fallen in love with for the past nearly forty years, to have the second half of his career be so forgettable and uninspired is shocking.

The last twenty years consist of Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, BFG, The Post, Ready Player One, West Side Story, and The Fabelmans. What happened? Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich aside, 15 years of cinema that had a beloved children’s book done in such a confusing and ugly animation, a rule that continues to exist that the odds are better than the evens, back to back “give me another Oscar dammit!”, Tom Hanks is free… let’s do a movie, let’s ruin another childhood favourite, I’m bored and Meryl Streep is free, I’m interested in doing something so out of my wheelhouse based on a book that is so controversial and trying to do something new and exciting, remaking a classic no one asked for but delivering one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema, and I want to tell the story of my life but sugar coat it to an extent.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Steven Spielberg. I believe without Steven Spielberg we wouldn’t have some of the directors we have today, I don’t believe we’d have some of the movies we have today, I don’t believe we’d have cinema to the degree we have today. We don’t need to only live in a world fulfilled with big monsters and aliens destroying the planet and some form of superhero team taking them down, but the inspiration that Spielberg gave to so many directors today is evident. Even the movies he’ll never own up to directing are masterpieces (Goonies and Poltergeist), but what happened in the last 15 – 20 years? Is he disappointed he hasn’t won an Oscar since 1999.

For someone who has made movies at the beginning of his career and arguably made box office smash and creative smash one after another and another and another, this new pace of mediocrity and indifference is so surprising and disappointing. Sure, there are exceptions, such as Ready Player One and the America sequence in West Side Story which he tried something outside his repertoire, and directed a scene that was so masterfully done and crafted that it proves he still has the chops and ambition to make these great world-changing films.

Is the reason why most people don’t say anything negative about Spielberg typically because of his massive contribution to film? I understand that the man spent the first half of his career creating films that are celebrated as classics and can create a box set of films for people who don’t even love film that would fall in love with the world of cinema, but these last fifteen years, what is there that stands the test of time really?

How many films between Fabelmans, West Side, RPO, The Post, BFG, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, Tintin, and Crystal Skull, are the masses going to sit down and be like “I want to watch _____ tonight” versus things like Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders, ET, etc. Even when cinemas and multiplexes do retrospectives and throwbacks it’s never Crystal Skull, it’s rarely any Jurassic Park movie other than the first, its Close Encounters, its ET, it’s not War Horse, it’s not Ready Player One, it’s not Tintin. I am not trying to discredit Spielberg, or say he’s phoning it in, because they’re still well-directed but they are a resounding sigh of mediocrity. They’d almost all be fine if they were directed by someone else as well, but when the name Steven Spielberg is attached to a product there’s a certain hope that the movie is going to blow you away, going to surprise you, going to create a reaction out of you.

Steven Spielberg gets held in regard in some elite company such as James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and the like. Now to say that those directors haven’t had bad movies is a lie, they certainly have, but they haven’t fallen apart as much as Spielberg in my opinion. They haven’t delivered just fistfuls of mediocrity after their golden years.

At the same time though, let’s look at their filmography, Cameron has directed 20 movies and has 4 (all Avatar movies which he has stated he will cut depending on how sequels perform). Coppola has 37 movies he’s directed, Scorsese has 71, Lucas has 20, all while Steven Spielberg has 59. If this fact, Scorsese aside, proves anything it should be quality over quantity. Spielberg has nearly doubled everyone else he came up with, except Marty, and when you’re directing nearly 60 movies, not everything is going to be a masterwork, but when 15 years has been nothing but giant sighs of indifference, maybe it’s time to slow down, reassess and choose projects more selectively. He chooses to work because he wants to work, it’s not out of necessity it is out of joy.

There’s been a long-time rumour/theory that Lucas and some other directors are still actively directing and creating films, but instead of facing the scrutiny of the press they just show them to each other at their own little film festivals. I’ve also had the personal privilege of attending conversations with both George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Considering they have made some of the greatest movies of all time (arguably) they don’t seem to have many regrets about slowing down and stepping casually away. Sure, they still are involved in the industry on different levels, but they’re not churning movies out movies like Spielberg.

Spielberg even handed off Indiana Jones to another director in James Marigold, so if he doesn’t want to continue the legacy he helped create, but continue making films, why not focus on continuing the franchise he created? I’m not implying he should only stay in his lane and make films that have been proven to work, however making poor film after poor film is not advisable either.

I miss the Steven Spielberg that took risks, that broke boundaries, that made films that withstood the test of time, that commanded rewatch after rewatch and got my pulse raising. What do we have now? Oscar bait after Oscar bait after Oscar bait with the occasional choice to do something inventive and interesting? He used to make movies that would change your life, that would make your personal rankings have drastic shifts, that would cause fights between friends about the movies, now he just has people forgetting about his films as they end. To never be spoken of again.

I loved Steven Spielberg, his first twenty years were nearly impeccable, however, his last 20 years have been barely anything but a disappointment. For a director that was so brilliant, so inspiring, so inventive, there should be something in his past twenty years to look back at and think “now that is cinema” and maybe that’s Munich (2005), maybe that’s Minority Report (2002) or maybe it’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Jurassic Park (1993), Hook (1991), or Jaws (1975), but I think it’s a safe bet to be assured that someone’s favourite Spielberg certainly comes from the first twenty years of his career, and certainly not his last.

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