Steven Spielberg is in his style over substance era

Steven Spielberg is a master filmmaker, no doubt, but his recent work has shown a real shift to style over substance and we do not like it

Steven Spielberg is in his style over substance era: West Side Story

No one can dispute the fact that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, and he’s probably done more than enough to earn a little bit of a break after years of creating masterpiece after masterpiece. However, more recent Steven Spielberg movies such as The BFG, Ready Player One, and West Side Story, are symptomatic of a filmmaker far more concerned with style over substance.

Spielberg is responsible for so many hits; from the nautical horror movie Jaws, to the adventure movie franchise of Indiana Jones, through to ‘90s classics like Schindler’s List and of course, the Jurassic Park movies. Even as we step into the 2000s, Spielberg was still creating intriguing and distinctive work, such as science fiction movies like Minority Report, and War of the Worlds.

With an incredible catalogue of over 50 directorial credits to his name, it’s understandable that Spielberg is likely to have a few misses in his filmography. The question is, why have pretty much all of them come within just the last seven years?

Looking back at Spielberg’s earlier work really does highlight the stark contrast when you consider his more recent offerings as a director. His feature debut was the thriller movie Duel, which is an incredible showcase of creative storytelling at its best.

Duel is such a simple premise – a man, a car, and a tanker truck from hell, driving along a stretch of road for 90 minutes. Spielberg manages to imbue this narrative with the kind of tension and intrigue that any filmmaker could spend a lifetime hoping to achieve.

There is nothing flashy about Duel; from its raw, guerilla-style camerawork to the frantic and unpolished performance of Dennis Weaver in the lead role, Duel is independent filmmaking at its finest. It’s a movie which soars thanks to its simplicity, rather than being hindered by it.

Spielberg would round out the ’70s with both Jaws and the alien movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It goes without saying that Jaws is a decade-defining piece of cinema, seen by many as the inception of the summer blockbuster.

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Close Encounters, too, is such a distinctive and pioneering piece of work, and a film which would lay the path for many movies of a similar ilk to come. But for all their grandeur, it’s the storytelling at the heart of these movies that catapulted Spielberg to success.

In the ‘80s, Spielberg embraced the blockbuster wave, and brought the Indiana Jones franchise to life. These family movies ooze style; they are flashy, they are over-the-top, they are pure entertainment. But they never lose sight of what’s important.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

At the core of the original Indiana Jones trilogy is a vast lore and a deep, interconnected story of heritage. Of course, this is all embellished with tall tales of great treasure, heroes and villains, and death-defying adventures, but the substance of the narrative is always the priority.

Spielberg really outdid himself in 1993, putting out not one but two absolute masterpieces, with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. For most people, shooting two big movies almost simultaneously would lead to some slip in standards, or see a hint of complacency creep in, but not for Spielberg.

To craft an entertaining popcorn flick about dinosaurs and produce a heartfelt movie based on the true story of Oskar Schindler’s Holocaust heroics would be a remarkable career turn even if they had come years apart. To release them in the same year is insanely impressive.

Schindler’s List is perhaps one of the most emotionally draining and most powerful movies in the history of cinema. This is a drama movie far more concerned with substance than style, though it does display an exceptional amount of stylistic flair, too.

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Jurassic World too, for all its grandiose features, is far more than just a bombastic disaster movie. Dinosaurs are brought to life both visually and sonically to awe-inspiring effect, in a movie which embodies the very reason we go to the cinema – to feel something!

Two Spielberg movies celebrate their 20th anniversary this year – Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report. The former is a slick cat-and-mouse story which typifies Spielberg’s more humble filmmaking approach, finding its successes in the performances of its actors and sharp script.

Tom Cruise as John Anderton in Minority Report

Minority Report on the other hand, is Spielberg going all-out to create a vision of the future, utilising post-millennium developments in special effects to great effect. Much like Jurassic Park, it would be easy for Minority Report to get lost among the extravagance of its concept, but Spielberg never lets the story be drowned out by showy visuals here.

There is a noticeable difference between the work of Spielberg up to 2012, when he made the epic Lincoln, to the Spielberg whose output since 2015 consists of Bridge of Spies, The BFG, Ready Player One, and most recently, West Side Story.

All four of those movies are forgettable, unengaging, and worst of all, rather bland. Bridge of Spies has its moments, but the bleak colour palette and excessive runtime cannot be saved by a couple of strong performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

The BFG, a movie based on the book by Roald Dahl, lacks any of the magic one would associate with the famous author. Indeed, the shoddy CGI, cringeworthy performances, and lifeless narrative also betray a filmmaker renowned for excelling in all those areas previously.

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While Ready Player One had its admirers, I’d be curious to know whether people actually enjoyed the movie itself, or were merely distracted by the overstuffed entourage of homages to other movies. Admittedly, the callback to The Shining is great fun, but take that away and this is an action movie lacking any real substance.

Spielberg’s latest, the musical movie West Side Story, may have garnered critical praise and awards attention, but for me personally, the movie was devoid of any tangible, emotional connection. If you look beyond a couple of catchy tunes and some aesthetically pleasing cinematography, this retelling of a classic story is missing the very essence of what makes it so special.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story

There’s no denying that Rachel Zegler and Ariana De Bose give captivating performances, but even their characters are crying out for a better script. West Side Story is most certainly guilty of feeling bloated, ostentatious, and ultimately, pointless.

If great films are supposed to make us feel, then these four movies have failed in their most fundamental mission. For four decades, this man has created some of the best movies of all time, and has captured the true magic of filmmaking. For the last seven years, something has been missing.

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Call it a blip, call it laziness, or call it a matter of opinion. But if you look into your heart of hearts, even the most hardened Spielberg fan must surely admit that they’ve been left wanting with the director’s recent body of work.