(Note: Major spoilers to a lot of movies will be discussed.)
I love movies. I find movies to be the most enthralling and fascinating medium to convey messages and ideas because of how immersive of a storytelling technique movies tend to be. From the lighting to the dialogue to the casting decisions to the music used to set the tone of a scene to the pacing to the story structure, you can analyze as much or as little of a movie as you want. You can enjoy a movie for the simple pleasure of enjoying a well-told narrative or you can dissect and critique all of the little choices and contributions that went into making the movie a complete whole.
I know that previously I’ve written how Christopher Nolan is my favorite director, but the person who I believe is the most significant and consequential director in the last 50 years is probably Steven Spielberg.
In my opinion, no other director has had as significant of an impact in modern cinema as Steven Spielberg. Many of his movies have gone on to become their own film franchises, won numerous Academy Awards, or redefine the genre in which the film was released. Not only that, but what I feel truly distinguishes Steven Spielberg from other directors of similar caliber is the sheer variety of films he’s produced and the depth and quality of those films. He took a lot of risks with film making and tried a lot of concepts and ideas that others hadn’t tried. As a result, we the movie-goer and audience member were able to appreciate and enjoy truly unique films with compelling stories from interesting characters.
Let’s take the movie Jurassic Park, which helped to capture the imagination of a generation of young people to dinosaurs and a lost world. Jurassic Park has lead to its own movie franchise with a reboot in the series and continues to draw a diverse audience eager to see what our world may look like if we shared it with dinosaurs that have been extinct for millions of years. When talking about the movie, I like to look at this scene from Jurassic Park. Up to this point in the movie, the audience hasn’t even seen a T-rex yet on screen, but the way the scene is set up, you can feel the tension and fear among the characters rising. Moreover, although as the viewer, you know that something is wrong with the park, you can appreciate the change in mood and tone as the characters also begin to realize that something is going wrong.
Or consider the Omaha Beach scene in the movie, Saving Private Ryan. Obviously Steven Spielberg was not the first person to do a WWII movie, but he’s one of the few to capture the tragedy and tone that is attendant with war. Saving Private Ryan wasn’t a feel good story about how America helped defeat the Nazis, and it wasn’t a story of how American ingenuity overcame German fascism during WWII as many WWII movies prior to Saving Private Ryan were portrayed. This was a movie made to capture the challenges and tragedies and suffering experienced by the soldiers that fought on Omaha Beach and that marched across Europe. It was a story that was meant to accurately depict the tribulations of war — loss, tragedy, suffering, misery, anger. It was a story that meant to depict the reality of combat and how the cost of commitment, dedication, and loyalty are won — however gruesome, painful, tragic, and difficult that might be.
Or consider this scene from Jaws, which lead to the iconic phrase “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”For better or for worse, this movie would help fuel the fright of beach goers for years to come. However, what I think Steven Spielberg captured so well with this movie wasn’t the fear of sharks that people had, but the fear of the unknown that people had. Steven Spielberg captured this fear of the mystery of the ocean and the possibility that there was something in the water that was menacingly dangerous to people but was never apparent; a danger that lurked beneath the surface and that struck without warning.
Steven Spielberg made so many movies that not only became cultural icons in and of themselves, but many of his movies went on to become cultural critiques of society and human history. One needs to look no further than the the iconic red coat scene from Schindler’s List. At this point in the movie, Liam Neeson’s character was not motivated by any sense of social mission until witnessing this specific episode of cruelty on the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazi.
And Steven Spielberg is not shy at all about the violence and cruelty of the Nazis — and he’s not coy about it at all in any point of the movie. 25 years since the movie was produced, people are having heated conspiracy theories about whether or not the Holocaust occurred, and Steven Spielberg in the 1993 retelling of the atrocities of the Holocaust pulled no punches in telling the story of human misery and suffering. I mean, I remember watching the shower scene of Schindler’s List, and the masterful buildup and tension — as the audience member you were legitimately uncomfortable and worried that this scene would lead to the gas chambers.
And furthermore, just think about the concept of Schindler’s List at the time it was produced. Schindler’s List was a black and white movie produced in the 1990s depicting the events of the Holocaust that had occurred 50s prior. He even brings back the Jewish people that were saved during the time period the movie was set in. This entire endeavor was an enormous risk as a film, but its a testament not to just the history that it portrays, but to the power of film as a means of storytelling.
Indiana Jones is another film franchise that found enormous mainstream success and solidified Harrison Ford’s career as a movie star. And something that many people may not appreciate from this unforgettable scene from Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it was originally supposed to be a long an epic action set sword fight but was changed to accommodate Harrison Ford’s illness while on set. And I think that this small story between Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford speaks to his ability to work with the actors and actresses that he casts for his films. So many star, A-list, actors and their work is inseparable from Steven Spielberg: Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day Lewis, Harrison Ford. I think it takes a unique directing talent to have gotten the truly remarkable performances that he attained from his actors.
Take a look at this scene from the incredible movie Lincoln. He sets out to capture the difficulty of the moment that Lincoln, the divisions that Lincoln faced within his own advisers, and the agony that Lincoln had to endure with the decision set before him. Steven Spielberg didn’t invent the biopic but consider all of the types of works he’s done. He’s done science fiction in the form of Jurassic Park, he’s done action adventure in the form of Indiana Jones, he’s done historical dramas in the form of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, he’s done thrillers like Jaws, and then he sets out to do a major biopic in Lincoln. Not only does he set out to do a major biopic, he nails it — that despite the challenges and difficulties and uncertainties Lincoln faced, he remained strong and steady in his convictions. And in many ways, I think this is reflective in the kind of film work and influence on cinema that Steven Spielberg sought to have.
Considering the variety, the significance, the creativity, and the technical expertise that Steven Spielberg brought to movie-making and cinema, I truly believe that Steven Spielberg is the most significant and important director in film over the last 50 years.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been other hugely successful and incredible directors outside of Spielberg — again, I love Christopher Nolan. And that’s not to say that Steven Spielberg has never had a bad movie — Jurassic Park 2 and Indiana Jones Crystal Skull come immediately to mind. But taken together, looking at his entire body of work, I think Spielberg was the best.
But with that said, let’s take a look at some hugely successful and important directors.
James Cameron has given us some phenomenal moments and incredible works of art, particularly in the realm of science fiction. For a long time, science fiction was not seen as a serious or legitimate artistic endeavor by mainstream audiences. For a long time, science fiction was supposed to be light-hearted and campy and the stories and plots conveyed by science fiction weren’t meant to taken with gravity or treated with depth. I think that James Cameron changed a lot of that with Avatar and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Take a look at the end scene of Terminator 2: Judgment Day where John Connor must destroy his protector in order to prevent the post-apocalyptic future where the terminator originated from. I mean, this movie deals with some seriously heavy themes — do people have agency and control over the future or are things destined to happen? What are we willing or what must we sacrifice in order to ensure the future we hope to bring about? And given that nearly 30 years since the making of this movie we are beginning to encounter the ethical consequences and ramifications of artificial intelligence, I think this movie does a great job in forcing us to ask ourselves the question of what is sentience and what is the bond of friendship and love composed of? And I ask the reader to ask themselves this after watching the scene below, do you think that John Connor loved the machine, the terminator, and do you think that that level of attachment and love was positive?
James Cameron made it ok to deal with serious and deep themes in science fiction in a way that previous directors were unable to. Sure, Stanley Kubrick made some important contributions to the genre of science fiction as a serious endeavor, but he never had the mainstream success that James Cameron had. In some ways, James Cameron’s contribution to film was more important than Steven Spielberg’s simply by virtue of the possibilities of the conflict and tension that can be portrayed by science fiction and how science fiction can force us to understand old problems in new ways and perspectives. James Cameron’s Avatar is essentially Dances with Wolves set in space, and it shows how even though the genre may be unfamiliar and different, it can still be used to tell important and universal stories that define the human condition.
And I think this is what makes James Cameron such an incredible director — James Cameron has this unique ability to use fantastical and imaginative settings to tell stories that are ultimately and uniquely human. The story of Titanic is ultimately a love story that bears a resemblance to Lady and the Tramp and hearkens back to Charles Dickens Great Expectations. It’s a human story of adventure, of human relationships and intimacy overcoming socioeconomic circumstance, and it’s a story of human hubris ultimately leading to devastating tragedy and loss of life. And even in the telling of the story introduced in Titanic — as a flashback from the present where adventurers and researchers rediscover this human element in a piece of history — is emblematic of the viewers’ experience watching the film. We are also uncovering and discovering the human elements that are intrinsic and intertwined in every bit of history.
Ultimately, I think what gives Spielberg the edge over is that James Cameron hasn’t been as productive as Steven Spielberg has been throughout his career as a director. As a matter of personal tastes, I actually like James Cameron directed films better than Steven Spielberg, but James Cameron hasn’t directed as many films nor has he directed quite as wide of a variety of films.
I don’t want to belabor talking about Christopher Nolan as I have already talked about him as a director previously. To summarize, I think he has a very creative vision that expresses itself in the plot and narrative of the movies he makes as well as in the scenes and sequences he directs. Take the opening sequence of The Dark Knight.
From the wide pan view that narrows into a single window of a skyscraper to the final review of primary antagonist, the Joker, I thought that this was just a well planned and shot sequence to open the movie and grab the viewer’s attention.
What I also enjoy about Christopher Nolan is his novel approach to story-telling and how he utilizes that approach to make the viewer re-examine the idea of time. Take for instance Interstellar, where one of the earlier scenes is re-explained by the occurrences of what takes places later in the scene.
Without becoming too involved in the telling of the story and the plot, it turns out that humans are the 4th dimensional beings and that humans save themselves. The “creature” that Anne Hathaway’s character shakes hands with is really Matthew McConaughey’s character later in the movie.
This non-linear story telling was done a lot by Nolan in Memento (where the character is unable to form memories), Inception (where the movie opens with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in limbo), and in The Prestige (where we find out that one of the main characters is actually a set of identical twin brothers living out of the same life).
Personally, I find it very engaging and interesting, but I know that a lot of viewers have grown tired of it and some even view it more or less as a shtick. I haven’t seen Dunkirk yet, and my impression is that Nolan likely moved a bit away from this non-linear story telling style in this film. Moreover, although I though the trilogy was fantastic, the fact that one of Nolan’s major film contributions is the Dark Knight trilogy has lead some to take him less seriously as a director. For my part? I think he’s the only director to have done something good with a DC universe hero. -GP