The Weird, Wonderful World of Steven Spielberg: Exploring the Director’s B-Sides

Examining the lesser loved corners of Spielberg's filmography.

It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg is the most successful, most well-known director in all the world. A convincing argument could even be made for all of cinematic history. A master of both the smart, heart-filled big screen blockbuster that seasons your popcorn sweet and buttery and the grand, sweeping historical drama that is the stuff award's season is made of. We expect films like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park and even a Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan from the man. But then, every few years, moviegoers get a film that shows audiences another side of the auteur's sensibilities. Never one to eschew chances and avoid boundaries, those bold moves haven't always worked for Señor Spielberg. But when they do, boy, do they! Let's take a look at a few of Steven Spielberg's most unique offerings...


Based on Brian Aldiss' 1969 short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” A.I. was a film that originally started out as a passion project of Spielberg's close friend and fellow filmmaker Stanley Kubrick with Spielberg set to only produce. The film wallowed in the black abyss of development hell for decades, mostly due to Kubrick's feelings that special effects technology was not where it needed to be to realize his vision of the film. After a false start, Kubrick passed the film along to Spielberg in the mid-'90s but it wasn't until after the late director's death in 1999 that Spielberg finally began to move on the project. He himself wrote the screenplay (a rarity in his career -- the only other time he received sole screenwriting credit was 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the film was eventually released in 2001, dedicated, of course, to Stanley Kubrick. While not as remembered or revered as Spielberg's other sci-fi epics, the film is every bit the technical achievement Kubrick had hoped it would be. But furthermore, it's memorable for the creative collaboration and friendship it represents between two masters of cinema. As the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes put it best, A.I. is an "amalgamation of Kubrick's chilly bleakness and Spielberg's warm-hearted optimism. [The film] is, in a word, fascinating."


Two years prior to his very odd biopic The Terminal, Spielberg gave us one of his best based-on-a-true-stories. The crime caper is based on the life of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a conman who amassed millions of dollars by assuming the identities of a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer -- all before his 19th birthday. He is relentlessly pursued over the years by FBI fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) and the friendly foes become caught in an emotional cat-and-mouse chase. At various times, the story was to be brought to the screen by everyone from David Fincher to Cameron Crowe, both of which would have given us a very different film. It's one of those movies that could have been directed by anyone, instantly forgettable and doomed to a fate in the $5 DVD bin. But it was Spielberg that brought something truly unique to Catch Me If You Can. Stylistically, Spielberg and frequent collaborator/cinematographer Janusz Kamiński ascribed a mid-century modern retro cool aesthetic right from the beginning with its stylized ode to Saul Bass opening credits -- before Mad Men made it cool again. And it was the odd coupling of DiCaprio and Hanks that brought both a playful, comedic and heartfelt dramatic tonal balance that solidifies Catch Me If You Can as one of Spielberg's most memorable oddities.


Some would argue that Minority Report is very much a Spielberg-esque movie, but that is a testament to how Spielberg defined it as a Spielberg movie. But it's not the type of sci-fi film the world would have expected from the director who gave us E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, Minority Report is the director's Blade Runner. Its monochromatic high contrast lights and darks make it noirish in the purest sense of the term, somewhat redefining the techno neo-noir subgenre in a post-Matrix cinematic landscape where everything had gone goth. Using the themes presented by Dick, Spielberg explored ideas about society and security that ring more true maybe now more than they did in a newly post-9/11 Patriot Act 2002, as that debate has only advanced as the technology has. The film was also the first teaming of the biggest director in the world with the biggest movie star in the world -- Tom Cruise. Spielberg and Cruise proved to be a powerhouse of charisma for their craft, ultimately making Minority Report a highlight in both of their storied careers.


Spielberg and Cruise reteamed three years later for War of the Worlds -- the second big screen adaptation of H.G. Wells 1890's sci-fi serial classic more than fifty years after Byron Haskin's B-movie take and almost seventy years after Orson Welles panicked a nation with his infamous radio broadcast. If Haskin's film reflected those fears for an era of the Second Red Scare, McCarthyism and communism, Spielberg translated those ideas for our modern world with fears of terrorism on the homefront. The film captured the feelings of a panicked nation, giving us one of the most (and arguably best) post-9/11 movies, reflecting and capturing the paranoia of a society on edge fearing an imminent attack from foreign invaders. As our own Devin Faraci put it in a 2013 defense piece on the film, "It’s Spielberg’s ultimate statement on life in the 21st century, about living in an America that no longer feels secure." All of this veiled with an atmospheric, tension-filled, beautifully dark yet colorful alien invasion film that once again showed us why Spielberg is the master of the action set piece.


It took till 2011 for Spielberg's first foray into directing animation after years of producing animated features and series for both film and TV. But The Adventures of Tintin -- based on the iconic comic series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé that ran from the late '20s to mid '70s -- was a journey that began with Raiders of the Lost Ark, when its existence was brought to the director's attention in a review comparing the two. To bring Tintin from the page to the screen, Spielberg assembled a misfit team of cinema's greatest, including Peter Jackson producing, his Weta Digital providing the computer animation motion capture with a script written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. The result was one of the most fun, inventive -- albeit Spielbergian -- animated action adventure films in recent history. Spielberg still used the camera as he would have in any of the Indiana Jones films (See: the mine car chase in Temple of Doom) and yet not. The Adventures of Tintin was what we get when Spielberg is not bound by any of the rules of the real world or live action moviemaking. Let's hope this is just the first example!


While it hasn't even begun filming yet, it's already apparent that the big screen adaptation of Ernest Cline's pop culture-filled nostalgia-driven sci-fi adventure will prove to be one of the most unique films of the director's diverse career. It's not out of the question that Ready Player One is the type of project that Spielberg would jump on producing (all the rights clearances!), but to direct it is a bold choice at this point in the 68-year-old's career. Especially considering that this is normally the type of film we'd expect to hear one of Hollywood's up-and-coming thirty-something hotshots attached to. The book is infused with nostalgia, filled with more movie, TV, music, video game and pop culture references than an episode of VH1's I Love The '80s -- many of which the man himself is directly responsible for directing, producing or influencing. Ready Player One would not exist without Steven Spielberg. As if the project didn't already have a lot going for it, Spielberg at the helm makes it one of the most anticipated films of the next few years...and proves that he's still got it (as if anyone was doubting that), and why he is THE Steven Spielberg.

This was originally published in the September issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. Enjoy Septemberg at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!