Spielberg at 70: drama, Jurassic Park, and the 1990s

We continue to salute Steven Spielberg's 70th birthday, with a look at the decade that transformed his career: the 1990s

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The 1990s delivered everything Steven Spielberg could have hoped for to enjoy a successful third decade in the film industry. He restated his position as Hollywood’s King of the Blockbuster with Jurassic Park, he found critical and awards success with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and he used the platform the former offered to set up a charitable organisation (The Shoah Foundation) that’s gone on to become one of the most significant Holocaust resources in the world. By anybody’s standards, that’s a pretty solid ten-year stint. And yet, the 90s stands as arguably Spielberg’s weakest period, a time of unqualified success and curious lethargy, a time of enriching experimentation and self-defeating regression. At times, Spielberg consciously seemed to take one step forwards and another backwards.

It’s worth looking at the failures first of all, because they’re fascinating insights into Spielberg’s development at the time. Hook, his first film of the decade, came at a particularly bad moment. He’d divorced from wife Amy Irving in 1989 and, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade aside, was on a poor run of form following the muted critical and commercial receptions that greeted The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun and Always. Had age finally caught up with Spielberg the Wunderkind? Hook would be a good opportunity for a rebuttal: after all, what could be better than the Peter Pan of Hollywood directing a Peter Pan film?

Except, the same seemed true in 1985, when a Spielberg Pan project was first mooted. Back then, Michael Jackson was to star in what would have been a Quincy Jones-powered musical. The birth of his first child persuaded Spielberg to drop out, but the project still held some sway for him, and he returned to it in the 90s having been convinced by screenwriter James V. Hart’s revisionist script about an adult Pan struggling between adulthood and childhood. Suitably for a film about identity, Hook never manages to find a consistent one of its own, being too much of a blockbuster to work as a parental drama and too different from the Pan we know to work as the family entertainment its spectacular visuals suggest.

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Spielberg simply seems ill at ease with the whole thing. Lacking the confidence to deliver even the things that became his stock in trade, he did what he did on 1941, indeed what he does on all his weaker films: go big. Rather than building the kind of wonder he’d so effortlessly crafted in the likes of Close Encounters and E.T., he forces it on Hook, building bigger sets, flooding the camera with more light, amping up John Williams’ music. The material wasn’t there, the balance wasn’t there, maybe even Spielberg’s heart wasn’t there either. It’s almost like he’s forcing himself to want to make Hook by making it.

As Hook hit cinemas, Spielberg’s production work continued – with varying quality. There were significant successes, mostly in the shape of animations such as Tiny Toons Adventures, Pinky And The Brain, and most famously of all, Animaniacs. But there were also notable flops like SeaQuest DSV, an underwater answer to Star Trek starring Roy Scheider and a talking dolphin. Twister, Casper and The Flintstones offered intermittent charm on the big screen, but hinted at a restlessness on Spielberg’s part, maybe even a creative lethargy. He seemed bored. Bored of the Great Entertainer identity he had inherited, bored of the weight that came with it, bored of having to churn out the same old thing time and time again.

The only thing to do was to make a film about boredom, and that’s pretty much what he did with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, another blockbuster failure to join Hook. A denouncement of tired movie sequels (which commits the hypocrisy of being a tired movie sequel itself), the film begins brightly, with one of Spielberg’s most amusing jokes: a cut from a woman screaming to Ian Malcolm yawning. It’s a little on-the-nose, but it sets the tone. The Lost World is a frustrated, often angry, movie that rages against the arrogance and irresponsibility of a Hollywood that had become obsessed with repetition. It’s why the film takes a nasty delight in killing off cameoing screenwriter David Koepp, and maybe even why the original ending (which remained on the island and involved Pteranodons) was scrapped for the Kong-like San Diego sequence. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, mug, and collectible brochure from the gift shop by the exit.

It’s also why Spielberg essentially recreates the most famous sequence from Jurassic Park (the main road Rex attack) mid-way through The Lost World. In the first film, the Rex attack was built on slow tension, Spielberg effortlessly nudging up our fear before going in for the kill. The analogue sequence in The Lost World finds a similar set-up (vehicles, rain, dinosaurs), but with two Rexes instead of one, and the added complication of the vehicle holding up a trailer that’s dangling over a cliff-edge. Bigger! Better! Bloodier! And Spielberg certainly delivers on the last one, killing off an heroic Eddie Carr by having him ripped in half by the Rexes. It’s one of the most brutal deaths Spielberg has ever filmed, and jerks the audience out of complacency, demanding we feel the death rather than simply enjoy it. It’s a neat concept and it would have worked, had the film itself not been so complacent.

If Spielberg seemed restless in The Lost World and Hook, there’s a ruthless clarity in the first Jurassic Park film that crystallizes his 90s work into one blockbuster magnum opus. Rightly hailed as a masterpiece of awe and fantasy, Jurassic Park explicitly criticises that self-same awe and fantasy, primarily through Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond. Spielberg’s been criticised for softening the edges of his take on Hammond: Michael Crichton’s take on the character is much darker, a mercenary businessman prepared to do anything to make his park a success. Simply by casting an actor as loveable as Attenborough, Spielberg makes his Hammond more palatable: Walt Disney with a test tube in one hand and cracked Raptor egg in another. He’s simply an analogue for the director himself, some critics have suggested.

If that’s true (and it likely is), he’s not quite as an affectionate a self-portrait as he may seem. Unlike Crichton’s version of the character, Spielberg’s Hammond is a fundamentally good man. He cares about his grandkids, is genuinely interested in the dinosaurs he creates, and has built the park for the right reasons: to give people an entertainment they can really believe in. Spielberg’s Disney-Hammond has a Jiminy Crickett on his shoulder, it’s just one he repeatedly ignores. His goodness somehow makes his mistakes more villainous, his character more compelling. It’s easy to dismiss Crichton’s sneering businessman, it’s rather more difficult to know how to react when the man responsible for such death and horror is cuddly old Dicky-as-Disney.

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If Jurassic Park is Spielberg’s scathing self-portrait, Schindler’s List is his redemption. The same can be said for his other dramatic offerings of the 90s: Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. All three are moments of catharsis, with Spielberg exploring issues of persecution and responsibility and touching directly on his own past and present while doing so. Amistad, for example, may be the weakest of the three, but it represents an evolution from the angry films of the 70s, exploring as it does how legislation can be twisted to work against those persecuting others and in favour of those being persecuted. In that sense, it anticipates Spielberg’s current films, with Lincoln and Bridge Of Spies covering similar ground.

Spielberg’s undisputed 90s standouts remain Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but they’ve come in for their fair share of criticism. Both have been attacked for being too soft and too inaccurate, depicting not the reality of the history they show but a Hollywood fabrication. In some ways, such comments are fair: the D-Day of Ryan is a very American affair, while the artifice of certain sequences in Schindler’s List (notably the gas chamber/shower scene) undermines the film’s attempts at cinema verite. Visually speaking, both films took Hollywood’s depictions of history to a new level – in the case of Ryan, one that’s still influential to this day – but narratively Spielberg takes us on a defiantly Spielbergian journey through despair and redemption. There are shades of E.T., for example, in Schindler’s teary farewell to his workers at the end of Schindler’s List.

What stands out just as strongly, however, is that those redemptions are only half achieved. When Schindler breaks down in tears, lamenting the fact that he “could have saved more” he’s quite right: he could have. There’s catharsis here, a moment where the floodgates open and the journey from, in Spielberg’s words, “shame to honour” concludes, but those who died because of Schindler’s inaction, because of the world’s inaction, have as strong a voice in this moment as those who survived because of him. The same is true of the finale of Saving Private Ryan, which finds the elder Ryan asking his family if he’s earned Miller’s sacrifice. An American flag waving in the breeze concludes the film and was taken by many as a patriotic affirmation. But the muted colour palette and slow fade to black suggests a more ambiguous answer.

Both films were deeply personal to Spielberg (Schindler’s List putting him in touch with his heritage, Saving Private Ryan standing as a tribute to his father with whom he had recently reunited) and it’s difficult not to see these closers as expressions of his feelings about his career. Could he have done more with his fame and influence? Had he truly earned everything he’d got? Schindler’s List is as much Spielberg’s journey from shame to honour and perhaps there’s a certain Schindler-esque business trickery in his lower quality productions during the 90s (and indeed beyond). By making money off those films, Spielberg can make sure he funds those of a higher calling.

The 90s widened the gulf in Spielberg’s entertainer/educator personality and suggested he himself was struggling to reconcile the two sides. The next decade would offer no further clarity, but the confusion would produce some of his most interesting, eclectic, and experimental films to date.