The idea, as I originally pitched it, was this: "What's your favorite Spielberg sequence?"
The pitch was accepted, and I realized my mistake almost immediately. How do you look back over a career that has spanned decades, given birth to multiple franchises, that's gifted us with some of the most iconic moments and beloved characters in cinematic history, and name one high-water mark? It's not an impossible task, but it's close.
So, let's say this. Let's say you can pick three high-water marks, three perfect sequences that illustrate Spielberg's masterful directorial abilities. Even then it's tough - I can name dozens off the top of my head - but it's also a fun challenge, one that I think will reveal a bit about each person who takes a crack at it. Let's say you pick the Brachiosaurus reveal from Jurassic Park, the five-tone climax of Close Encounters, and the flying bicycle sequence from E.T. If those are your picks, chances are your favorite thing about Spielberg is his borderline-supernatural ability to induce awe. Let's say you pick the mine cart sequence from Temple Of Doom, the convoy crawl from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and the stunning, one-shot chase through the port of Bagghar from The Adventures Of Tintin: if that's your lineup, you probably cherish Spielberg's ability to craft escalating action set pieces above all else.
My favorite thing about Spielberg has always been the effortless way he weaves tone. The best Spielberg sequences are the ones that blend humor, fear and wonder, all while keeping your pulse racing and your jaw dropped. Over the years, many filmmakers have tried to pull off this particular stunt, but it's not as easy as it looks. Generally-speaking, there are maybe half a dozen living directors (and, let's face it: it's probably not even that many) who are operating at Spielberg's level, who can execute set pieces with the same clockwork precsision that he does. An even smaller number come close to matching Spielberg's talent for tonal control. It's possible, in fact, that he's the only director who can spin all these plates at the same time. That, my friends, is a talent worth celebrating.
And so, with that in mind, here's my picks for Spielberg's three perfect sequences.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Introducing Indiana Jones
Is there a more thrilling opening sequence in movie history? I submit to you that there is not.
This sequence is nothing short of a filmmaking masterclass, classic Spielberg from end to end. Across 12 minutes, it offers up everything I mentioned above, and then some: it's got mystery (who's the guy in the fedora? What are these dudes doing traipsing around a jungle? Holy shit: is that a hidden temple?), it's got scares and danger (there's booby traps everywhere! Mummified corpses with arrows sticking out of 'em!), it blends a touch of humor into the thrills (the "tarantulas on Alfred Molina's back" gag is vintage Spielberg, horrific and funny in equal measure), and it escalates as it goes along: after working his way through the temple and retrieving the idol he was after, Indy's chased back into the jungle by a giant, rolling boulder.
It's one of the most iconic scenes in film history, and that's not even the climax: after that insane boulder stunt, Indy finds himself surrounded by Belloq and his goons, who then chase him through the jungle and into an awaiting seaplane, which takes off with Belloq's goons raining spears down upon it. And the plane has a giant goddamn snake in it. This sequence is straight-up cinematic bliss, and it contains more thrills and excitement in twelve minutes than some films contain in their entirety. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again.
MINORITY REPORT: Attack Of The Eye-Scanning Robot Spiders
Minority Report is, for my money, not nearly beloved enough. It is overstuffed with excellent moments - the opening sequence, which shows us how the Pre-Crime team works and just how high the stakes are for every case they take on; the bizarro stretch where Peter Stormare saunters into the movie in order to remove Tom Cruise's eyes (full disclosure: in another universe, my top three contains that sequence instead of this one); the legitimately terrifying moment where Tom Cruise's John Anderton finally confronts the man who murdered his son (or so he thinks); the foot-chase through the shopping mall, with Samantha Morton's Agatha predicting the Pre-Crime team's moves before they even make them. It's an embarrassment of riches.
But the best sequence in Minority Report has to be the one where we meet the "Spiders".
The Pre-Crime team descends on the building where John's just had his eyes removed. As soon as they arrive, we know John'screwed: the Pre-Crime team is equipped with heat sensors that allow them to see every person in the building. How do you hide from that? And what about the retinal-scanning robot Spiders they're carring? Stormare's crazy doctor instructed John not to remove the bandages before a certain amount of time had passed, and he's still well below that. Ruh-roh.
As the Spiders work their way through each floor, Spielberg ratchets up the tension - and, in typical Spielberg fashion, leavens it with a bit of humor: a squabbling couple stops their fight just long enough to get eye-scanned; a lovemaking couple is interrupted by their arrival; a dude on a toilet sits, bored, as the Spiders crawl around on his face - and by the time they arrive at John's location, it's borderline unbearable (I distinctly remember grinding my teeth the first time I saw this sequence). At first, John cleverly uses an ice bath to hide from the Spiders, but a stray bubble from his submerged nose almost undoes him. The moment where the Spiders pause upon hearing that bubble burst is absolutely perfect.
God, I love Minority Report.
JAWS: The Shark, Revealed
Hard to choose one scene from Jaws, the film that introduced the world to Spielberg, but if we're to continue with the theme I've already established, I think this one fits the bill. And, y'know, themed list or not, this is probably the one that deserves to be here: the "You're gonna need a bigger boat" scene.
Roy Scheider's Brody is hanging over the edge of the Orca, smoking a cigarette and casually chumming the waters while muttering over his shoulder at Quint ("Go 'slow ahead', I can go 'slow ahead', come on down here and chum some of this shit"). The audience's eyes are locked on Brody's, and there's zero indication that anything, y'know, crazy is about to happen. For the moment, the scene seems to be about the rising tensions between the men on the Orca, and the tedious chores Quint's tasked them with. And that's when Spielberg summons the Great White.
The shark bursts out of the bloodied water on the left-hand side of the screen, and suddenly we aren't paying attention to Brody anymore. We only get a brief look at it - it's actually just under two seconds - but what we see is terrifying: those giant black eyes, row upon row of enormous, razor-sharp teeth, the sheer size of the thing. If you were in the theater watching Jaws on opening weekend, your response probably mirrored that of Brody: he recoils in horror, wide-eyed and stunned. For the first time, he fully understands/we fully understand exactly what he, Quint, and Hooper are up against. "How in the hell are they supposed to kill that?", we're thinking, and Brody echoes the sentiment a moment later with a line that operates as a perfect, hilarious punchline to the entire scene:
"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
Once again, this is by no means a definitive list. This is a personal one (it's also the kind of list that might change depending on what kind of mood I'm in). And with that in mind, I invite you guys to make your own in the comments below. What are your three favorite Spielberg sequences, the ones you think speak to his abilities as a director more than any other? And, bonus question: can you find a common thread between them?