This article contains spoilers for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans.
There are many filmmakers these days looking back at their youths via semi-autobiographical reveries: Alfonso Cuarón and Roma; Kenneth Branagh and Belfast; and Richard Linklater Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is to name just a few. Yet perhaps none have been so naked in their self-portraiture as Steven Spielberg’s recent effort, The Fabelmans.
All of the aforementioned films rename characters and incidents, but The Fabelmans is the only one about how its protagonist grew from an early age into an undeniable filmmaking wunderkind shrouded in an air of destiny; it is also the lone entry in the emerging subgenre to happily include famous anecdotes from the director’s halcyon youth that he’s recounted in countless interviews, such as a chance encounter with the legendary Hollywood director John Ford. Even the physical resemblances between Spielberg and The Fabelmans’ young hero, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) are hard to miss.
But then there’s never been a creative force in Hollywood quite like Spielberg—a man who changed cinema forever by directing Jaws at age 28. And before that, his very first professional gig as a director was working with Joan Crawford on the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery (Spielberg was 23).
It’s been a semi-charmed and incredibly influential life, and Spielberg uses The Fabelmans to examine the forces that shaped it, from the first great tragedy of his early life when his parents divorced to how his folks’ sensibilities informed his own. Nonetheless, there is more than a whiff of the valedictorian about the movie, which in addition to ruminating on Spielberg’s parents also acts a knowing wink, wink, nudge, nudge, to all the elements from his childhood that would go on to inform his filmography.
The Fabelmans invites viewers to recognize the easter eggs and homages to some of the Beard’s most iconic movies, and perhaps debate whether they’re even a reverse-easter egg since these are the moments that allegedly informed the work to come. Either way, we’ve compiled a complete list of all the intentionally Spielbergian flourishes we caught on a first viewing. Enjoy.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The first of Spielberg’s own movies we saw heavily homaged was also the first one he co-wrote the screenplay for: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Right down to its title, that film is about the idea of humans encountering aliens from above. However, there’s also an element of the spiritual to the film in which an image is so strong that once it’s implanted in your head, it completely redefines who you are. Hence the red and blue lights emanating beneath a doorway when the aliens come a-knocking may well be the rays of God slipping through the cracks.
That imagery is recalled early in The Fabelmans when Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) first discovers the extent of her eight-year-old son’s talent. Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) is hidden in his closet, watching his first “movie” over and over. It’s a short that uses an expensive model train set to recreate the famous crash from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). As Mitzi stands in her son’s room, strange lights from the flickering projector shoot out from under his closet door, and she might as well be Melinda Dillon from Close Encounters waiting to see what celestial force has taken her son.
The strange effect of red and blue lights is echoed again when young Sammy first begins shooting a horror movie with his little sisters and attempts to create the effect of supernatural horrors on their face by projecting alien lights across them in the same closet.
War of the Worlds
Spielberg’s alien oeuvre is referenced once more during the movie’s first act when Mitzi reacts to the prospect of moving to Arizona without her very good friend Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen). In something akin to a nervous breakdown, Mitzi pushes all her children into the family station wagon and attempts to drive toward a tornado so they can marvel at the spectacle. The way in which Spielberg films the chaotic uncertainty in the car as young Sammy and his sisters look at their mother in a dangerous light appears to echo the dynamic between Tom Cruise and his onscreen children in War of the Worlds (2005) where an absentee father crumbles before his kids’ eyes as he attempts to speed them away from danger above.
Additionally, given Mitzi’s somewhat inexplicable and sudden compulsion to drive toward danger, this could also be seen as an echo of Richard Dreyfuss’ mounting obsession with alien beings in Close Encounters.
The first narrative short film young Sammy Fabelman is depicted as creating is a horror movie of what is undoubtedly the highest sophistication. It involves turning his sisters into mummies by wrapping them in toilet paper and then creating his first jump scare wherein a “skeleton” (but really a Halloween decoration) pops out of clothes hanging in the closet to terrify the camera.
Sammy’s skeleton might be fake, but the ones floating up in a muddy deluge during the climax of Poltergeist (1982) are decidedly real—a collection of genuine cadavers that were placed in a murky water tank with JoBeth Williams. Of course Poltergeist is arguably not a Spielberg movie—he merely co-wrote the screenplay and produced the picture while leaving directing duties to Tobe Hooper. Still, rumors persist that Spielberg was a very hands-on producer, to the point where some have argued that he deserved a co-directing credit, although producer Frank Marshall has denied those stories.
As much a confession about his inspiration as an “easter egg,” Spielberg recreates several of the shots from the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) in The Fabelmans’ first sequence with a teenage Sammy in an Arizonan desert. For those who may not recall, the third Indy movie begins not with Harrison Ford but River Phoenix as an adolescent Henry Jones Jr. going on a boy scout trip to the mountainous terrain of the American West. When Indy does it, he discovers grave robbers pillaging an ancient Native American site; young Sammy conversely finds a great setting to stage his next amateur film: a Western.
Later in The Fabelmans, Spielberg seems to tease a similar inspiration for the first Indy flick, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), by dramatizing how during her tumultuous time in California (and near the end of her marriage to Spielberg’s father), his mother impulsively bought a monkey as a pet one day. Spielberg has spoken about this anecdote in the past, although we could not verify if she really named the monkey after the lover she would soon leave Steven’s father for. Nonetheless, we might have discovered Spielberg’s true opinion of that monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the primate is revealed to be Sieg Heil-ing Nazi spy that is then punished with a poisonous date.
One of the subtler callbacks that few might spot is when Spielberg references a movie that older millennials love to this day—and that Spielberg has publicly all but disowned—Hook (1991). And in one of that picture’s more bizarre moments, there is a sequence where Capt. James Hook (Dustin Hoffman) condemns a doubting crew member (inexplicably Glenn Close wearing a fake beard) to “the boo box.”
The boo box, as we soon learn, is a coffin-like contraption wherein a despised sailor is trapped as their captors say “boo” and drop scorpions through a hole. During the first desert scene in The Fabelmans, we learn Sammy and his buddies like capturing big fat scorpions to put in “the hole” until they can be used later in one of his movies. Spielberg would also reference the relative lack of danger from big scorpions in the fourth Indiana Jones picture, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
This one is so obvious they even put it in the trailers. After returning from the wild, Sammy Fabelman and his boy scout buddies are seen riding their bicycles, a la Spielberg’s transcendent blockbuster classic, E.T. (1982).
Saving Private Ryan
I did not catch any direct one-for-one shots in the scene where Sammy makes his World War II movie-within-a-movie that exactly repeat Saving Private Ryan. Nonetheless, it is inescapable that the modern director of 2022 is allowing audiences to spot where the kernel of an idea for a harrowing WWII melodrama—complete with most of the main characters getting wiped out—came from. This includes shots of supposed G.I.s rolling in the dirt with “Germans,” and one man left to wear the weight of their sacrifice on his face like Matt Damon did in his final close-up during SPR.
Where Are the Female Leads?
As much a reference to Spielberg’s social critics (including actor and director Elizabeth Banks) about what is not in most of his movies as an outright easter egg, at one point Sammy’s little sister Reggie (Julia Butters) admonishes her big brother for never making women the stars of his pictures. Despite conscripting his sisters to most of his early amateur films, Sammy never makes them the leads; they’re always the damsels.
Perhaps at the suggestion of Tony Kushner, who is Spielberg’s frequent collaborator and co-writer of The Fabelmans, the film’s script acknowledges the astonishing lack of leading roles for women in Spielberg’s canon. While the likes of Laura Dern or Karen Allen will occasionally get (or create) a memorable supporting presence as the love interest, a case could be made that only a handful of Spielberg films star a woman as the central lead and/or co-lead: The Sugarland Express (1974); The Color Purple (1985); The Post (2017); and West Side Story (2021).
All of Them
What’s your favorite shot of a Spielberg protagonist looking on at something in wonder or awe during a closeup? You know you’ve seen it portrayed many times: as maddening, such as when Dreyfuss and his fellow UFO chasers finally witness the bright lights in Close Encounters, or as humorous, a la Henry Thomas’ little Elliot meeting E.T. for the first time. Personally, mine is Sam Neil and Laura Dern’s uncanny astonishment at seeing a living dinosaur standing next to them in Jurassic Park (1993). To this day, those performances hold up better than even the CGI—although Roy Scheider’s dawning dread during the infamous zoom-pull in Jaws is a worthy runner-up.
In any event, they all are referenced as Spielberg creates a new iteration of this trick in which Mitzi dances for all the men in her life while on a camping trip: husband Burt (Paul Dano), son Sammy, and even her emotional soulmate Bennie. All three men, including the son, are enraptured and perhaps bewitched by her dancing, much to her daughters’ chagrin. Each character also has the camera slowly dolly into their enchantment.
In a recent profile interview with Time magazine, Spielberg revealed he discussed the idea of what became The Fabelmans with his mother before she passed in 2017, and she told him that he’s always been making their story in metaphor. The Fabelmans drops the metaphor.
For instance, Spielberg recounted how he once stumbled onto his father crying in a bathtub as a young man, and the young Steven could not comprehend his father’s nuanced, adult pain. Instead he was repelled. While that incident does not appear in The Fabelmans, it did occur in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Dreyfuss’ soon-to-be longtime absentee dad weeping in the bathroom when his son barges in and expresses his disgust.
In The Fabelmans, Sam is far more empathetic toward his father (Paul Dano), but he still sees him cry at the end when Sammy accidentally shows the old man a photo of his mother with Bennie, now happily together in Arizona.
In this way, the movie feels a piece with many of Spielberg’s films. The broken family is essential to Close Encounters and E.T. (with more blame placed on the father than in the magnanimous Fabelmans), and for all its imperfections, Hook zeroes in on a father and son who’ve let a difference of temperament grow into a chasm. (Peter Pan was also apparently one of his mother’s favorite stories.)
Later in life, an older Spielberg reconciled with his father. Subsequently, he depicted a father/son dynamic that was warmer in Catch Me If You Can (2002). And in that movie, their time together was cut short due to a son’s own bullheadedness. (The relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist in that film and his mother is also more complex and ultimately scarred by the boy discovering her infidelity before his old man.)
I cannot help but also notice that the most harrowing moment in The Fabelmans, the scene where Sammy realizes his mother is having an affair while watching 8mm footage of her and Bennie on a camping trip, is scored to Mitzi playing Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974: II. Adagio” on the piano. And in Spielberg’s most harrowing film, Schindler’s List, a Bach composition is likewise used to underscore a much more incomprehensible horror: Bach’s “English Suite No. 2” accompanies the scene where a Jewish ghetto is liquidated by Nazis. I cannot be certain if the connection is intentional, but it is striking that Bach is the accompaniment of tragedy in two films that clearly deal with Spielberg’s heritage and family history.
In a way, Spielberg has been making this movie in piecemeal for almost 50 years. Now we have the whole picture.