The inherent darkness and pessimism of Steven Spielberg’s body of work

By Scott Mendelson Many of the reviews, especially the negative ones, for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse have emphasized the melodramatic ‘boy and his horse’ narrative, accusing the film of wallowing in sentimentality. Moreover, they basically accuse the picture of being ‘conventional Spielberg’, again citing the classic meme that Steven Spielberg isn’t capable of truly playing in on the dark side. For as long as I can remember (early-80s, natch), Steven Spielberg has had a reputation as the “Mr. Mass Audience”, the guy who, film-making chops aside, was looked down upon because of his reputation as a purveyor of mainstream feel-good sentiment. He was the guy who made general audiences tear-up on cue, but still walk out feeling good. But looking over his filmography, not only are his ‘dark and adult’ pictures more frequent than you might realize, his entire reputation as a softy basically stems from one single incredibly popular (and critically-acclaimed) film that he made in 1982. On a film-by-film basis, Spielberg is far more likely to scare you or deeply disturb you than leave you with a nasty case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

It bears repeating that Spielberg’s reputation as an unchallenging filmmaker for the masses has been around for thirty years or so. Looking back on his first decade of mainstream film making (let’s say 1974-1984), it is ET: The Extra Terrestrial that stood out then, and arguably still today as the quintessential Spielberg film. While it certainly stood then and now as one of his most personal films, it’s astonishing success (highest-grossing film of all time for 15 years) basically branded Spielberg as a director whose every film contained the kind of small-town nostalgia and overtly tear-jerking emotionalism that made ET such a smash hit. It’s a meme that has followed Spielberg for the last thirty years. And going through his filmography it’s apparent that it’s not entirely a fair assessment of his career. From 1974 until 2011, Spielberg has shown viewers the darkness at least as much, if not more so, than he has shown them the light.

Jaws is a brutally violent horror drama that offers little good-cheer other than the cathartic final triumph. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a disturbing character study about a husband/father who slowly goes insane and eventually ditches his family to go on a ride with interstellar beings (those same being who have been abducting random people for centuries, that they arbitrarily return them at the climax doesn’t make them ‘the good guys’). The first two Indiana Jones pictures are relentlessly violent, cynical, and relatively cold-hearted in their casual disregard for human life. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is so grotesque that it helped create a new MPAA classification, along with Gremlins (a darkly chaotic suburban horror comedy produced by… guess who?). These films are of course ‘fun’, but they are not sweeping testaments to the inherent decency of humanity E.T. was arguably his first overly sentimental and ‘feel-good’ film, and I would argue that its record-shattering success is the sole reason why critics (especially detractors) consider Spielberg to be a producer of mainstream feel-good bubblegum fantasies.

But the Steven Spielberg who directed E.T. is also the Steven Spielberg who directed Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, War of the Worlds, Munich, and yes War Horse. These are dark, painful, and often cynical films that show humanity at their darkest hours, and often at their worst. Sure War of the Worlds has a slightly upbeat finale, but does the final two minutes cancel out the proceeding 105 minutes of unrelenting horror and hopeless pessimism about humanity’s ability to survive (morally and literally) the attempted extinction of itself? Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan both end of notes of relative ‘hope’, but the narratives sandwiched between their prologues and epilogues are tales of war, genocide, and inherent human immorality. War Horse ends on a somewhat upbeat note, but the surviving characters have to go through the literal hell of war to get there, and they are no doubt scared and hardened by their experiences. The film is more than just a ‘boy and his horse’ fable, it is a bleak and unapologetic anti-war drama delivered through the bloodstained and arbitrary mass-slaughter that was World War I. It is arguably an even stronger anti-war film than Saving Private Ryan because it does not attempt to explain (and thus justify) the wanton slaughter. I don’t think I have to explain the inherent pessimism and darkness of Munich (which on a given day is probably my favorite Spielberg film, natch).

That does not mean that Spielberg is incapable of genuinely ‘light’ mainstream entertainment. He is still the man who made Hook, The Terminal, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Catch Me If You Can, and The Adventures of Tintin. But even some of his ‘lighter’ entertainments have dark undercurrents. Minority Report is an exciting and intelligent science-fiction thriller, yet there is ample reason to believe that it’s inexplicably upbeat finale is itself a hallucination. Yes everyone whines about the allegedly ‘happy’ ending in the otherwise relentlessly bleak (and often brilliant) AI: Artificial Intelligence, but what exactly is so happy about a machine being given the gift of hearing the lie that he has spent his life wanting to hear before he can die? Even his two Jurassic Park pictures promise ‘wonder and awe’ but in the end deliver terror and death. The flawed-but-morally complex The Lost World

What’s ironic is that the films that most closely skew toward the ‘stereotypical’ Spielberg film are not among those he directed, but rather among the many films he has produced. The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Men In Black, The Mask of Zorro, Transformers; these audience-pleasing mainstream entertainments, most of them quite good, were all among films he produced, but he did not direct any of them. Doubly-ironic is that the one iconic 1980s film that he produced but is long-suspected of directing, Tobe Hopper’s Poltergeist, fits far more into the wheelhouse of Spielberg’s darker entertainments. Steven Spielberg is a man who has dabbled in many genres, but his critical reputation is based less on the body of work he has directed but rather simplistic misconceptions based on a single

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memo

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One Comment

  • January 8, 2012 | Permalink |

    I agree completely, and thank you–it was nice to read a well-written essay on the internet!

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