When extraterrestrial civilizations eventually make landfall here on our Big Blue Marble and are looking for some cinematic entertainment to take a breather from world domination and human extinction, their demands will undoubtedly include a marathon of Steven Spielberg classics.
Spielberg turns 71 today, though it seems like he's been around since the dawn of modern cinema. The visionary filmmaker has been a household name for over forty years, making us scream, cry, and laugh in darkened theaters, often with thrilling, blockbuster genre movies. His unparalleled genre resume ranges from Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Minority Report, and Hook... oh, and there's that little franchise about rampaging, cloned dinosaurs!
In honor of the moving picture master's birthday, let's experience a delirious dose of Spielbergian craft and count down 20 of his sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films to see which one ranks highest.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie: 'Kick the Can' (1983)
If we must find some weaker moments in Spielberg's storied career this is the best place to start. This sentimental look at old age and finding the fountain of youth stars Scatman Crothers as a jovial senior who spreads a little magic wherever he goes, most frequently retirement homes. This segment was one of four segments in this theatrical Twilight Zone flick, the original episode airing on February 9, 1962. A bit on the sweet side, it remains a harmless but sappy project in a much stronger movie.
"They couldn't hear him ... they couldn't see him ... but he was there when they needed him ... even after he was gone."
Spielberg's weakness for misguided (and unearned) sentimentality really got the better of him with this icky, who-asked-for-it? remake of Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe (1943), with Richard Dreyfuss as a hotshot firefighter pilot who dies in a tragic accident after one too many dumb risks. In the afterlife, he is tasked with providing spiritus, the 'diving breath,' to those of the living who need it. He becomes something of a guardian angel ... albeit one who has to watch his ladyfriend (Holly Hunter) fall for a hunky new flyboy (Brad Johnson, the 'it' boy of the late '80s for about three minutes). Blame the stress of making Jaws for this well-meaning embarrassment; Spielberg revealed that he and Dreyfuss first started discussing remaking A Guy Named Joe while their genre classic was in principal photography.
Something Evil (TV movie, 1972)
Another of Spielberg's early ventures into his craft, here a made-for-TV horror movie that exhibits the beginnings of some of the masters' trademark brushstrokes and camera trickery, but feels somewhat cliche in its low-budget execution. Hey, he was only 25 at the time! It follows the story of an angelic child and his family who move into a spooky Pennsylvania house, where a demonic spirit takes possession of his soul. Something Evil capitalizes on The Exorcist craze elicited by the success of William Peter Blatty's novel before the movie adaptation was released in 1973. This was Spielberg's second TV movie after Duel; it filled a slot in CBS's schedule and accomplished little more.
Here Spielberg ventures to Neverland in a dopey 2 1/2 hour film that never reaches the hype that surrounded it in December 1991, even with the stellar cast of Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Julia Roberts. It's a bloated production that at times seems like it's the world's most expensive high school play, with a cheap set-bound feel that makes the magical kingdom in the sky seem strangely small. This is Spielberg at a crossroads in his career, indulging in all the tonal missteps and creepy story elements of Hoffman's Captain Hook befriending Peter Pan's whiny son. The movie did end up making $300 million but all the pieces never quite coalesce.
The BFG (2016)
There's a lot to love about — and, admittedly, a lot of love in — Spielberg's first-ever Roald Dahl adaptation, complete with new muse Mark Rylance giving a completely charming performance in the title role and newcomer Ruby Barnhill nailing it as young Sophie. Unfortunately, there's also something jarringly off about the whole thing visually, creating a constant sense of disorienting unease as we watch an old-school fable become disfigured by a jarring overuse of CGI, green screen, and whatever other digital tricks these bazillion-dollar productions have up their sleeve. Here, technology trumps whimsy, and we're left a bit heartbroken. Oh, had Spielberg made this film in the '80s, and been limited (so to speak) by that era's filmmaking resources ... that would've truly been something.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Oh, come on, it's fine. Right? Going on ten years since its initial release, Indy's fourth big-screen adventure doesn't come across so much as an embarrassment as it does a kind of strange curiosity; really, this is the movie everyone agreed to make? Despite its (often bewildering) shortcomings, Crystal Skull has its rollicking pleasures — the greatest of which is Harrison Ford, fitting right back into Indy's hat as if The Last Crusade was just yesterday and seeming to be genuinely enjoying himself. And yeah, that refrigerator moment happened, and it's a thing ... but really, what the hell. Why not?
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
You've chosen... wisely! Much better than you remembered, but not nearly as great as it could have been, with Sean Connery aboard this second sequel to the Indy filmography, Last Crusade lopes along at a brisk pace and offers some memorable laughs with the pairing of Harrison Ford and Connery as they hunt down the elusive Holy Grail. This movie catapulted Spielberg into the '90s on the back of a stellar $474 million box office haul and generally positive reviews. And it does have the lovely Alison Doody as the duplicitous Nazi agent Elsa and that awesome circus train chase starring River Phoenix as a young Indy. Sure, those caged animals look super-fake, but that's half the fun!
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
As underrated as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is (somewhat) overrated, the first Jurassic Park sequel proves that even Spielberg at half-mast (if even that; you get a sense that the last thing he wanted to make as a follow-up to Schindler's List was another dinosaur movie) is better than most summer blockbusters giving it their all. Arguably much more a straight-up horror film as compared to its predecessor, The Lost World boasts some truly terrifying set pieces, most of them featuring a certain T-Rex that takes its scene-stealing supporting part from Jurassic Park and turns it into a full-blown leading role worthy of sharing equal billing (and screen time) with the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn. Worth almost as many repeat viewings as its predecessor ... and that's still quite a lot.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
A piece of no-holds-barred cinematic insanity, Indy's second big-screen adventure opens with Kate Capshaw singing "Anything Goes" in Chinese, inviting (daring?) us to enter a world where there's just no rules ... and no safety net. Yes, Temple of Doom is (seemingly) cluelessly racist, bizarrely mean-spirited, cartoonishly goofy, unforgivably violent and startlingly sexist; it's also as singular and personal a piece of work a Spielberg has ever made, an on-your-feet therapy session executed as a grand guignol adventure via a director going through a rather nasty off-camera divorce (and who's romancing his leading lady in-between takes). Or something. Kali-maaaaa!!
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
It's great. Give it a chance if you haven't already. It looks and feels pretty much like the original Herge comic strips … and even if that means nothing to you, you still get a rousing adventure utilizing some rather stunning mo-cap and digital effects and inspired performances by Jamie Bell in the title role, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, and Daniel Craig as Sakharine/Red Rackham. Oh, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thompson & Thomson … inspired! We're supposed to get a sequel one of these days, with Peter Jackson supposedly directing … though, honestly, that ship may have sailed. Hopefully not. We'll see.
Duel (TV movie, 1971)
Now this is how you do a movie-as-calling-card! You're damn right Spielberg was given the Jaws gig not long after studio execs watched this super-intense thriller about a lone driver (Dennis Weaver, who got the part because Spielberg dug him as The Night Man in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, as we all did) being terrorized out in the middle of the California desert by some maniac behind the wheel of a rather imposing semi truck. It's all one big cat and mouse game that, once it gets going, never lets up for a second, showing that Spielberg, even in his young age, was already a master at creating and maintaining suspense, where to put and not put the camera, and turning an everyday joe into a goddamn action hero. Great stuff.
War of the Worlds (2005)
We're still wondering where the heck Tom Cruise's son Robbie goes for a third of the film and rightfully so. Dude freakin' vanishes to go assist in the fight against the invading alien machines (even though he's just a high school kid who can't do his homework), then shows up in the film's final minutes at his mom's house for the obligatory reunion scene! Spielberg's take on H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel had some stunning moments, especially whenever those marauding tripods are tramping across the state, but Cruise seems oddly out of place in his blue-collar canvas vest and hoodie. However, this movie is still a standout due to the terrifying special effects and shocking scenes like the flaming commuter train and the nightmarish ferry dock upheaval. Now, tell me where the heck did that kid go and will someone please tell Dakota Fanning to stop screaming!
Minority Report (2002)
Lean, mean, and often downright weird, Minority Report was the first and better of Spielberg's collaborations with Tom Cruise, a genuinely thrilling and eventually emotionally exhausting portrait of a future world in which criminals are caught, tried and punished before they do anything wrong, a practice that brings up all sorts of questions about morality, free will, and ... wait, ewww, did Tom just have his eyeballs removed? And dig those neat-o spider robot thingees! Yes, it'll make you think while wowing you with the greatest special effects that only Philip K. Dick can dream up and Spielberg can buy: Minority Report.
The worst kept secret in Hollywood is that Steven Spielberg actually did shadow-direct this suburban ghost story with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Tobe Hooper. Come on, his fingerprints are all over this immensely entertaining tale about an ordinary family that moves into a tract home neighborhood only to discover it's a haunted portal to the afterlife. Co-written and produced by Spielberg, the director was not allowed to direct any other film while shooting E.T. and so this was the arrangement that allowed him to get around that pesky clause. It displays all the frantic domestic scenes and perfect tonal balance between laughs and scares that Spielberg became known for... and it's got that insane tree monster and the disturbing toy clown attack to keep you submerged in bad dreams for years to come.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Sure, it has its problems. And it's also kind of perfect. By far (by far) one of Spielberg's most personal and moving films, E.T. chronicles the strange and wonderful friendship between a young boy (Henry Thomas, probably never better) and a visitor from another planet; together, they dodge and outsmart all sorts of meddling grownups, including shadowy government agents, shady scientists and single moms who just aren't quite ready to handle what's been hiding in the upstairs closet. Maybe just a little too much more often than not, but there's a reason why it's still in our hearts today... and why it continues to inspire so many other filmmakers (the Duffer Brothers, most notably).
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
As disturbing and brilliant a film in Spielberg's filmography as this list will allow, and one that demands more respect for its evocative themes of Mankind's nature in the face of advanced technology, the necessity of love, and the eventual meaning of life. Heady stuff! This dark project came by way of Stanley Kubrick who passed away in 1999 before realizing his vision of Brian Aldis' 1969 short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long. The two cinematic geniuses had been collaborating on the project and would talk frequently on the telephone regarding its execution and script. It was resurrected following the passing of Kubrick and Spielberg cast The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment as the little robot who wanted to become a real boy. The movie exhibits some astonishing special effects for the time and is a beautiful Pinocchio-theme fable that would have made Stanley proud.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Here's the mega-blockbuster that started the whole deliriously fun dinosaur craze in Hollywood, adapted from the best-selling Michael Crichton novel about genetically engineered primeval creatures. Spielberg effortlessly and deftly transplanted this story from page to screen and retains the novel's brisk pace and moments of sublime wonderment. It's prefectly cast with Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Sir Richard Attenborough and the director "spared no expense" in delivering the breathtaking CGI effects, sweeping John Williams score, and roller coaster thrills to enraptured audiences. Collecting $1.1 billion in worldwide box office cash, it was the most successful film in Universal's history and spawned a foursome of sequels, including next year's Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
"The sun came out at night, and sang to him." Just how in the heck was young Steven Spielberg going to follow up Jaws (1975), the horror thriller that invented the summer blockbuster and kept millions of people out of the ocean for at least one season, if not for the rest of their lives? With this stunning sci-fi masterpiece, his long-gestating pet project, of course. Close Encounters of the Third Kind follows suburban everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) as his life becomes unraveled — and much more profound — after his encounter with UFOs leads him to be inexplicably obsessed with a mountain-like structure that he can't help but recreate with any materials available to him ... and to later discover that he's not the only one who's witnessed strange moving lights in the sky. Smart, intense, often frightening and always refreshingly optimistic, Close Encounters imagines a universe in which we're most definitely not alone -- and that's a very, very good thing.
It's still amazing how a 28-year-old filmmaker was able to craft this modern masterpiece into the cinematic jewel it is. This is the movie that defined the summer blockbuster mentality in Hollywood and was the first film in history to gross more than $100 million in its theatrical run. From the majestic camera movements by cinematographer Bill Butler and intricate color details, to the unexpected benefits of using a broken mechanical shark and the rigors of shooting on the open water, it's astonishing this movie came together so perfectly. Contains unforgettable performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw that transcend screen acting. We'll never fully relax while swimming ever again, nor will we ever see the likes of a suspense thriller this expertly brought to life.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
This was not difficult to place at the top of our list as it's the most complete of all of Spielberg's films and still stands today as a time-capsuled template for rousing Hollywood action-adventure movies. An homage to Saturday matinee serials, Raiders was the brainchild of George Lucas, who teamed up with Spielberg for this rollicking popcorn film about the occult expert and renowned archaeologist Indiana Jones and his globetrotting misadventures to discover the resting place of the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Comic book legend Jim Steranko provided the concept art and gave Indy his signature fedora hat, bullwhip, and Doc Savage-like machismo. As enjoyable today as when it first blazed across screens in 1981, it's the perfect synthesis of tone, character, action, and romance, with the director at the absolute top of his game.