World of Westfahl | Encyclopedia Introduction | All Entries | Acknowledgements
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

S Entries
  Carl Sagan
  Archie Savage
  William Schallert
  Roy Scheider
  Thelma Schnee
  Arnold Schwarzenegger
  Peter Sellers
  Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
  Rod Serling
  William Shatner
  M. Night Shyamalan
  Curt Siodmak
  Jack Smight
  Will Smith
  Jerry Sohl
  Steven Spielberg
  Ringo Starr
  Warren Stevens
  Robert Stevenson
  Patrick Stewart
  Glenn Strange
  Theodore Sturgeon
(1946– ). American director and producer.

Directed: segment of Night Gallery (tv movie) (1969); "Make Me Laugh," episode of Night Gallery (1970); "LA 2019" (1971), episode of The Name of the Game; Something Evil (and acted in) (tv movie) (1971); Duel (tv movie) (1971); Jaws (1975); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and wrote) (1977); Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition (and wrote) (1980); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (and co-produced, co-wrote with Melissa Mathison) (1982); "Kick the Can," segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie (and produced) (1983); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); "Ghost Train" (1985), "The Mission" (1986), episodes of Amazing Stories; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); Always (1989); Hook (1991); Jurassic Park (1993); The Lost World (and appeared in) (1997); A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); Minority Report (2002).

Wrote: "Vanessa in the Garden" (1986), episode of Amazing Stories.

Produced: Poltergeist (and co-wrote with Mark Grais and Michael Victor, and uncredited co-director by some accounts) (Tobe HOOPER 1982); Gremlins (Joe DANTE 1984); Back to the Future (Robert ZEMECKIS 1985); Goonies (and story) (Richard Donner 1985); Young Sherlock Holmes (Barry Levinson 1985); Amazing Stories (tv series) (1985-87); Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Brian Gibson 1986); An American Tail (animated) (Don Bluth 1986); Harry and the Hendersons (William Dear 1987); Innerspace (Dante 1987); *batteries not included* (Matthew Robbins 1987); Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis 1988); The Land before Time (animated) (Bluth 1988); Back to the Future Part II (Zemeckis 1989); Back to the Future Part III (Zemeckis 1989); Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante 1990); Tiny Toon Adventures (tv series; animated) (and provided voice for one episode) (1990- ); Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall 1991); An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West (animated) (1991); Animaniacs (tv series; animated) (1992- ); Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (animated; video) (Rich Arons, Byron Vaughns, Alfred Gimeno, Barry Caldwell, Ken Boyer, Art Leonardi, and Kent Butterworth 1992); We're Back! A Dinosaur's Tale (animated) (Dick and Ralph Zondag 1993); SeaQuest DSV (tv series) (1993-95); The Flintstones (as Steven Spielrock) (Brian Levant 1994); Casper (Brad Silberling 1995); Balto (animated) (Simon Wells 1995); Pinky and the Brain (tv series; animated) (1995- ); Freakazoid (animated; tv series) (1995- ); Twister (Jan de Bont 1996); Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld 1997); Deep Impact (Mimi Leder 1998); Toonsylvania (tv series) (1998- ); Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain (tv series) (1998- ); Invasion America (animated; tv series) (1998).

In the field of science fiction film, Steven Spielberg has proven an insufferably awful director and a pernicious influence on the entire genre.

Many, presumably, will take exception to that statement. They will note that Spielberg's science fiction films are among the most popular films ever produced, that Spielberg has earned several major awards for his direction, and that his films have been the subject of innumerable laudatory reviews and admiring critical analyses. There is an abundance of evidence to suggest, then, that Spielberg is a major—perhaps the major—science fiction film director of modern times. But honest critics cannot meekly echo a critical consensus they regard as woefully misguided; and I am compelled to report that, with the exception of the marginally relevant Raiders of the Lost Ark—where the presence of producer George LUCAS seems to have reined in Spielberg's worst excesses—I despised every single Spielberg film I have managed to endure until, in the Indian Summer of his career, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, his film grew marginally more watchable.

It must be acknowledged, first of all, that Spielberg is a relentlessly manipulative director. At every moment, he insists on controlling what the viewers see, and he insists on dictating exactly what the viewers think and feel about what they see. To be sure, surrendering to the masterful control of an effective storyteller is one necessary aspect of watching films; however, confident and respectful directors will always at some times let viewers decide for themselves what they want to watch and will let viewers decide for themselves what they think about what they are watching. Spielberg refuses to do so. To illustrate Spielberg's limitations, consider the justly famous barroom scene in George LUCAS's Star Wars, where the camera rapidly offers a variety of exotic aliens to look at while the oblivious Obi Wan Kanobi and Luke Skywalker go about their business. The scene is exhilarating because viewers have many choices in what to look at and what to think about. But if Spielberg had directed the scene, the camera would have focused on each alien, one by one—to tell the audience which alien to look at—with each image followed by one or two reaction shots—to tell the audience what to think about that particular alien. (One reason that the concluding arrival of the massive Mother Ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind fails to be awe-inspiring is that, by means of an endless series of reaction shots of awe-inspired watchers, Spielberg keeps poking the audience in the ribs and shouting, "Be awe-inspired!")

Spielberg does not want his audience to think, in part, because his stories collapse if they are considered rationally. All right, one can attribute the inane insipidness of his segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie and Always to poorly chosen source material, but he personally scripted Close Encounters, and everything about the aliens therein, from their playful adventures in kidnapping and car-disabling to their inexplicable fondness for the numb Richard Dreyfuss character, makes no sense whatsoever. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial asks us to believe that secretive aliens advanced enough to travel to another solar system would go plant-gathering a short distance away from a highly populated area without equipping all gatherers with signalling devices in the event that someone was separated from the group. Spielberg plots are idiot plots, depending on the stupidity of everyone involved—the carefree swimmers in shark-infested waters of Jaws, the incredibly short-sighted scientists and bureaucrats who blithely fail to anticipate the disaster of Jurassic Park, the super-efficient government officials of Minority Report who take no precautions to prevent the incursion of a renegade agent. Are these inappropriately adult criticisms of movies which are, as Spielberg often claims, designed to evoke the essence of childhood dreams and nightmares? But Spielberg cannot be defended as a children's director because he will occasionally, as if driven to remind audiences that he is after all a Serious Film Director, completely violate the aura of innocence and joy he is purportedly crafting; thus, the pointless dollop of anti-government paranoia at the end of Raiders, or the gratuitous slaughter of the Lost Boy Ruffio in Hook (a tedious film which surely qualifies as the most leaden and ponderous celebration of the spirit of childhood ever filmed).

Admittedly, Spielberg can be praised for his unfaltering devotion to superior special effects—which is why Jurassic Park and The Lost World are worth watching whenever the dinosaurs are visible and boring beyond belief whenever they are absent—and he is an expert in executing simple-minded suspense sequences—as demonstrated by Duel—still his best film—and Jaws; but excellent special effects and a few thrills in themselves do not necessarily result in a good science fiction film. The major problem is that Spielberg's entire approach is utterly opposed to the true purposes of science fiction. Surely, if science fiction is anything other than stories about spaceships and aliens, it is designed to remind us that our comforting, complacent world view is not accurate, that radical changes in everything we accept as true are possible or even imminent, that the universe is more complex and challenging than we dare acknowledge. It is a genre designed to unsettle audiences, to make them question old assumptions. Yet Spielberg is committed to confirming complacent world views, to asserting that the universe is in fact just as comforting and cozy as we would like it to be. For Spielberg, aliens are really cuddly teddy bears, friendly companions, nice people just like you and me. Thus, Spielberg has encouraged the world to see science fiction films as "feel-good" movies, and he must be held accountable for the ongoing proliferation of "heart-warming" films about alien-rejuvenated senior citizens learning how to break-dance, adorable little aliens, robots striving to become human, quaintly blundering inventors, and Bigfoot considered as a household pet. Science fiction film is drowning in a sea of saccharine, and Spielberg keeps pushing its head down.

The next time critics feel like praising Steven Spielberg for his science fiction films, therefore, they should first be required to watch a few examples of the genuine article—say, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) La Jetée (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)—so they can be reminded of what science fiction film is supposed to be doing. Perhaps, then, they will reconsider the critical consensus.

For a while, after first drafting these remarks, I sensed that Spielberg himself had recognized some incompatibility with the genre that originally made him famous; for during the 1990s, except for two joyless excursions to Jurassic Park, he focused his energies on prestigious mainstream films like Schindler's List (1993), Amistad (1995), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), where he could less risibly indulge in sentimentality and overstatement. However, precisely when he was on the verge of refashioning himself as a latter‑day William Wyler or Elia Kazan, manufacturing ponderous "message" films to make Hollywood feel proud of itself, garner fistfuls of awards, and quickly vanish from public awareness, Spielberg felt the urge to return to science fiction, first with a project inherited from Stanley KUBRICK, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. To give the man some credit, it certainly qualifies as his most mature and thoughtful science fiction film to date (though perhaps due only to Kubrick's influence); still, the film remains marred by familiar Spielbergian lapses in logic and an utterly ineffective conclusion. And while his Minority Report was significantly better, there remained about the film an air of uncertainty, with evidence of a renewed and burning desire to really make a classic science fiction film thwarted by a lingering cluelessness about what such an effort would entail.

In the meantime, Spielberg has consistently remained active as a producer of science fiction and fantasy films, where his record can easily be epitomized: when he employs talented directors like Robert ZEMECKIS or Joe DANTE, the results are usually good; when he employs less talented directors, like William Dear or Matthew Robbins, the results are usually dire. The failures of Spielberg's television series Amazing Stories and SeaQuest DSV are especially telling: carefully prepared triteness may succeed in a single film—Spielberg has been quoted as saying, "Thank God for the fifth draft"—but the furious pace of episodic television, where there is no time for a fifth draft, inexorably exposes triteness, so that the inability of Amazing Stories and SeaQuest DSV to attract audiences—despite huge budgets, massive publicity, and guaranteed two-season runs—demonstrates just how threadbare Spielberg's vision is when it is not painstakingly polished.

The deadening hand of producer Spielberg has also fallen upon the animated film, a genre that perversely fascinates him and often attracts his personal attention. However, the experience of working for Spielberg while making An American Tail and The Land before Time drove Don Bluth away, as he preferred poverty to Spielberg's intrusive input, and subsequent Spielberg productions, like We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story and Balto, have been spectacularly artless. For some reason, he has been rather more successful in producing television animation: while the lame Tiny Toon Adventures seldom rose above the level of pale imitations of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons they referenced, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain represented distinct improvements, the latter even clever enough to earn a berth in prime time television. It is strange that one must descend to the level of television cartoons in order to discover some genuine wit and originality emerging from the Spielberg empire—possibly because they have fortuitously failed to attract his full attention.

To contact us about encyclopedia matters, send an email to Gary Westfahl.
If you find any Web site errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to our Webmaster.
Copyright © 1999–2018 Gary Westfahl All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted & Designed By:
SF Site spot art