Check out Steven Spielberg’s upcoming projects on the Internet Movie Database, the first thing you see is Untitled Ukranian Holocaust Project (2007). Then we have a TV mini-series, The Pacific War, followed by the scifi remake When Worlds Collide, Untitled Steven Spielberg/Abraham Lincoln Project (which he is supposed to direct as well as produce), Untitled Transformers Film, ‘Jurassic Park IV’ and Clint Eastwood’s WWII movie Flags of Our Fathers.
The first thing that strikes me about this list is how unappetising it sounds (Clint excepted). Okay, granted he is only credited as executive producer on most of these titles, so his creative input will be minimal, but then again, this is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about: one of the world’s great showmen. The man is his own studio boss, he doesn’t have to be associated with any movie he doesn’t want to make. And that includes Untitled Transformers Film...
The second thing that strikes me about the list is how war-hungry Mr Spielberg seems these days. They say that wars are always started by old men, and Spielberg turns 60 this year. Having barely survived War of the Worlds – which surely should have been ‘the war to end all wars’ – he plunged straight into Munich, which is basically an undeclared war movie, and a conspicuous metaphor for the War on Terror.
Abraham Lincoln presided over the American civil war (with 970, 000 casualties, it was the bloodiest in the nation’s history). Eastwood’s Iwo Jima flick, The Pacific War, the Ukranian holocaust… and then for light relief we get Jurassic Park IV: The Extinction and When Worlds Collide – which could probably recycle the same subtitle. The combined death toll for these movies would be astronomical (literally so in the last case).
Perhaps I am being too flippant. But you have to wonder why this diet of death and disaster is Spielberg’s recipe for twenty first century art and entertainment – not least because he made his name and his fortune espousing an altogether kinder, gentler vision of friendly skies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind; ET) and innocent escapism (Raiders of the Lost Ark; Always).
You can’t stay young forever – Spielberg finally got that message with the misbegotten Hook – but his recently-acquired taste for serious subject matter doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths as a moviemaker. He excelled himself in Schindler’s List, a film that deserves its high reputation. And Saving Private Ryan is a milestone in representations of combat, even if it never really matches its opening salvo. But so much of Spielberg's recent output seems both competent and disappointing… projects like Amistad, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can sounded so much more intriguing than anything that wound up on screen.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson complains that Spielberg is too calculating a director: ‘I don’t really believe Spielberg as an artist: I don’t believe that much soul or doubt is there…’
He is calculating. But he’s also a sentimentalist, and that weakness for plucking on the heartstrings undermines almost everything he touches. (Exhibit A: The Terminal). Again and again, his technical assurance deserts him when it comes time to bring the movie home. His endings are invariably maudlin (and this goes for Schindler and Ryan too); never more egregiously than in War of the Worlds, where the fate of the planet is as nothing compared to Tom Cruise getting his wife and kids back together. As for Abe Lincoln, I’ve a hunch that’s going to end badly too...