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Spielberg, Steven

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: Film, TV, People.

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(1947-    ) US producer, screenwriter and director; an amateur film-maker in his early teens, Spielberg completed his first sf feature – the 140-minute Firelight (1963) – at the age of 16; he studied English rather than film at college in California. His first professional film was Amblin' (1969), a slick short about hitch-hiking which was distributed as a support feature with the very successful Love Story (1970); it secured Spielberg a contract with Universal Pictures' television division. His television debut was a segment of the 1969 pilot for Rod Serling's Night Gallery, starring Joan Crawford; in 1971 he made LA 2019, novelized by Philip Wylie as Los Angeles: AD 2017 (1971), an sf-themed episode of The Name of the Game (1968-1971), and went on to television features: Columbo: Murder by the Book (1971), Something Evil (1972), a ghost story, and Savage (1972), a high-tech thriller. He first attracted widespread attention with Duel (1971), a suspenseful made-for-television film of Richard Matheson's horror story "Duel" (April 1971 Playboy) about a motorist pursued by a vindictive petrol tanker.

Duel was successfully released overseas as a movie, with 15 extra minutes of characterization to bring it up to feature length, and it led to Spielberg's first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), and to the enormously successful assignment of the Monster Movie Jaws (1975), a box-office rollercoaster about the hunting of a giant shark which was based on Jaws (1974) by Peter Benchley and is widely credited with, and blamed for, inventing the modern summer movie. After Jaws, in which Spielberg had little script involvement, he opted for a more personal and visionary film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which managed on the strength of its extraordinary climactic vision of an alien epiphany to become another major box-office success, despite a lopsided story and an unevenness of tone Spielberg himself tried in vain to rectify in his revision of the material, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – The Special Edition (1980). The novelization by Leslie Waller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977; rev vt Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition 1980), was published as by Spielberg.

After the critically vilified 1941 (1979), Spielberg made a solid return to popular acceptance with the George Lucas-produced Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), a tribute to the Saturday matinee serials of the 1940s, and then scored a phenomenal hit with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which ranked as the most commercially successful film of all time until displaced by Spielberg's own Jurassic Park (1993), which it subsequently overtook again. Science-fictional in its subject matter but a fairy-tale in feeling, it tells of a child's miraculous friend who happens to be an Alien. Two Raiders sequels – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – were interspersed among more ambitious, less obviously box-office pictures, adaptations of novels by Alice Walker and J G Ballard, respectively The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and the wistful fantasy Always (1989). His long-awaited but disappointing homage to Disney's Peter Pan (1953) was Hook (1991), a lumbering and sentimental rendition of a fantasy that should have had a certain delicacy in its otherworldliness. However, he had a sensational return to form in 1993, when he directed both the hugely popular sf extravaganza Jurassic Park (1993) and the critically acclaimed drama about efforts to shelter Jews in wartime Germany, Schindler's List (1993), which won seven Oscars including – it had been a long wait – Best Director.

The following year Spielberg co-founded a new studio, DreamWorks, with former Disney animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul turned producer David Geffen. This high-rolling venture produced some notable films, and some titanic flops, over its first decade before mounting debts and creative divergences forced the trio to spin off its animation division, which remained independent under Katzenberg's leadership, and to refinance the live-action arm by ceding autonomy to Paramount. (A Spielberg/DreamWorks animated Television series covered in this encyclopedia is Invasion America [1998].) Amblin still retained its distinctive identity as Spielberg's personal production company, and Spielberg continued to work on properties owned by other studios, beginning with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), adapted from Crichton's sequel The Lost World (1995), which marked Spielberg's return to directing after a four-year hiatus. This was swiftly followed by the worthy but underwhelming slave-trade courtroom drama Amistad (1997), and the much more successful Saving Private Ryan (1998), whose opening Omaha Beach sequence is a landmark in war cinema despite the mawkish and mediocre storyline that follows. He returned to sf with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), a posthumous realization of Stanley Kubrick's longstanding project using the Pinocchio narrative as the template for a Robot's quest to become human, and Minority Report (2002), a politically inflected chase movie spun freely, like the imitators it swiftly spawned, from an early Philip K Dick story, "The Minority Report" (January 1956 Fantastic Universe). Following the lighter Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004), he directed a visceral remake of War of the Worlds (2005) back to back with the sombre Mossad drama Munich (2005), before reviving his signature franchise with the overtly, and somewhat unhappily, science-fictional Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The ambitious but uneven Hergé adaptation The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was the first part of a projected diptych undertaken with Peter Jackson using the 3D motion-capture techniques championed by Spielberg's former protegé Robert Zemeckis; its long production saw it released in the US in the same week as his next feature, the sentimental World War I drama War Horse (2011). Forthcoming projects include a long-planned biopic of Abraham Lincoln and an adaptation of Roboticist Daniel H Wilson's Robopocalypse (2011). Further films include Lincoln (2012), which escapes piety paralysis through the stunning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis; the worthy Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies (2015); The BFG (2016), a fantasy based on Roald Dahl's The BFG (1982); The Post (2017), a contemporary thriller; and Ready Player One (2018), an sf film set in a Near Future theme park, based on Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011).

In addition to his work as a director, Spielberg has long shown a commitment to genre material in his work as a producer, early on coproducing and directing episodes of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and the television series Amazing Stories (1985-1987). He has done much to further the careers of fellow film-makers Joe Dante, Zemeckis, Frank Marshall, and J J Abrams, and has coproduced, usually as Executive Producer through his Amblin Entertainment group, a wide variety of sf, fantasy and horror productions, including Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985; vt Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear), An American Tail (1986), Harry and the Hendersons (1987; vt Bigfoot and the Hendersons), Innerspace (1987), *batteries not included (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Land Before Time (1988), Back to the Future Part II (1989), Back to the Future Part III (1989), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Joe vs the Volcano (1990), Arachnophobia (1990), An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West (1991), Cape Fear (1991), We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (1993), The Flintstones (1994) (see The Flintstones), Casper (1995), Men in Black (1997) and its sequels, Deep Impact (1998), Jurassic Park III (2001), Monster House (2006), Transformers (2007) and its sequels, The Lovely Bones (2009), Hereafter (2010), Abrams' own Spielberg homage Super 8 (2011), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and Real Steel (2011). Spielberg's name in production credits does not come cheap, but his input has often left a decisive stamp on the projects he has steered – perhaps most notably in Transformers, which Spielberg pitched back to its makers as being about "a boy and his car". In television, Amblin produced the sf series seaQuest DSV (1993-1996), a sort of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for a new generation, though like Amazing Stories it disappointed in the ratings. Aside from the Animaniacs (1993-1998; vt Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs) cartoon franchise and its spinoffs such as Pinky & The Brain (1995-1998), television long seemed an area where the Spielberg/Amblin magic did not fully operate, as shown by another series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992), an unexpectedly earnest show that slumped badly. But the World War Two miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2011) were notable critical and commercial hits, and the multiple-personality comedy United States of Tara (2009-2011), created with the screenwriter Diablo Cody, ran for three seasons, while two recent sf series, the Invasion soap Falling Skies (2011-2015), and the Time Travel adventure series Terra Nova (2011) have both seen strong ratings.

Unashamedly populist and sentimental, but with a darker side that has developed from the gleeful nastiness seen in Jaws, Poltergeist and Gremlins to a franker and more adult confrontation with violence, atrocity, and terror, Spielberg is a dazzlingly accomplished master of the filmmaking process – he shoots famously fast – who has dominated the box office for nearly four decades with a succession of hits that make up for the very occasional 1941 or Amistad. By the time of his 1993 Oscar he had proved himself unquestionably the most commercially successful – and, thanks to a ruthless contractual grip on gross points, the wealthiest – film-maker in history, and his power in Hollywood as producer, patron, and trendsetter has moulded the industry in his image. A brilliant director of children (most memorably in E.T. and War of the Worlds), he often works with a distinctive thematic palette of fractured families, smalltown nostalgia, and boy's-eye views of the adult world. Though long deprecated by the critical mainstream as a purveyor of juvenile popcorn spectacle and a corrupter of audience intelligence and taste, he has been more sympathetically appraised with the slow maturation and darkening of his vision – even as the quality of his work has become less steady, thanks in large part to his increasing confinement to a gated Xanadu world of Hollywood groupthink which constantly threatens to reduce his potent distillation of American cultural anxieties to pat narrative formulae. Nevertheless, his eight sf films as director are the spine of a career and a body of work unrivalled in the medium. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. [KN/PN/NL]

Steven Allan Spielberg

born Cincinnati, Ohio: 18 December 1946

about the filmmaker

see also: Cinema; History of SF; Steampunk; UFOs.


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