Steven Spielberg’s flop era: has he forgotten how to entertain the masses?
When Steven Spielberg received his latest Oscar nominations this year for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for his new film, the autobiographical drama The Fabelmans, he must have felt both vindication and triumph. The 76-year-old director has now been nominated for 22 Academy Awards over his five-decade career: twelve for Best Picture, nine for Best Director and now his first acknowledgement as a screenwriter, along with his regular collaborator Tony Kushner.
Last year, he was similarly nominated for Best Film and Best Director for his musical adaptation West Side Story, and has won three Oscars, for directing Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan and for producing the former. And yet, amidst the adulation and praise, the heretical thought can be voiced: is Spielberg the director that he once was?
Take The Fabelmans. From one perspective, it’s another technically impressive achievement that has led some critics to describe it as the director’s finest work to date. Drawing heavily on Spielberg’s younger life growing up in Sixties California, and exploring everything from his burgeoning interest in filmmaking to his complex relationships with his pianist mother and computer engineer father, it’s intelligent, beautifully made and, as ever with Spielberg, impeccably cast, especially in the role of Sammy Fabelman, his teenage alter ego, as played by Gabriel LaBelle.
Yet it’s also self-indulgent, punishingly overlong at a running time of two and a half hours, and given to melodramatic excesses, not least in the casting of Michelle Williams as Sammy’s frustrated mother, who gives the kind of performance that polarises audiences. Some will find it brave and affecting, while others will view it as over-the-top, self-conscious ‘Acting’. She, too, has been nominated for an Oscar; big performances often gain this kind of recognition.
In either case, the nominations that the film has received will be too late to help its commercial fortunes. On a relatively modest budget of $40 million, the film has flopped heavily, making a mere $21.7 million at the box office to date. Given its strongly American-centric perspective, it is unlikely to be a particular commercial success internationally, and so joins Spielberg’s last film West Side Story ($76 million total gross, $100 million budget) as a flop.
His previous picture, which was also critically acclaimed, at least had the excuse of being released in late 2021, when the older audiences who might have seen the film were often cautious about cinema-going. Yet The Fabelmans, bluntly speaking, has not connected with picturegoers. And given that Spielberg once prided himself on understanding what audiences wanted better than any director since Hitchcock, back-to-back flops will hardly strengthen a perception that he has by now become a filmmaker for critics and the elite, rather than ‘ordinary’ people.
At this point, those partisans who still defend Spielberg against his detractors point to his last big hit, 2018’s Ready Player One, and gleefully extol its near-$600 million global box office. It is with some sorrow that it must be pointed out that Ready Player One is an obnoxiously terrible film, loud and full of dated-looking special effects and (intentionally, perhaps) giving the queasy viewer the unpleasant sensation of being forcibly inserted into an especially frenetic video game.
It says a lot about its weaknesses that the sole entertaining segment in the film, an extended homage-cum-pastiche of Kubrick’s The Shining, is as ersatz and disposable as anything else in its torturous 140 minute length. Once, Spielberg understood action filmmaking with the panache of a master; the opening 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, are a masterclass in wit, excitement and invention. But that innate skill seems to have faded with time. This is cinema’s loss.
Spielberg has not made a great film since 2005’s Munich, his first collaboration with Kushner and a sombre, thoroughly grown-up examination of the moral costs of vengeance. And he hasn’t made a wholly successful one since 2015’s Bridge of Spies, a slight but enjoyable espionage drama that boasted a quirky, Oscar-winning performance from Mark Rylance as a Scottish-accented KGB spy, as well as Spielberg’s regular collaborator Tom Hanks essaying another one of his decent, baffled all-American types.
Since then, he’s alternated between out-and-out failures, such as his dreadful adaptation of The BFG and Ready Player One, and the kind of worthy prestige dramas that attract attention at the Oscars but do not linger in the collective memory afterwards: think The Post, Lincoln or, indeed, The Fabelmans.
What has been lacking in Spielberg’s career for a considerable time is a sense of wonder and awe. When he came to prominence as the pre-eminent director of blockbuster cinema, beginning in 1975 with Jaws and peaking in 1993 with the first Jurassic Park film, he brought a wide-eyed escapism to mainstream film that was largely devoid of the cynicism of his peers. There was very little irony to be found in the likes of E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but what they boasted instead was excitement, spectacle and amazement.
He had unsuccessful films earlier in his career. For instance, the wartime farce 1941, which proved that he was unsuited to broad comedy, and the horrendous misfire Hook, which apparently produces a response akin to trauma if it is referred to in interviews. But the successes vastly outnumbered the failures. It is not for nothing that he is the highest-grossing director in the history of cinema.
His most lauded film remains Schindler’s List, a deeply affecting account of the Holocaust, and it has been speculated as to whether making it forever skewed the director’s worldview. Beforehand, he was capable of making inconsequential fluff such as Always; afterwards, he was drawn to darker and more complex projects. Even the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World was more intense and aggressive than its predecessor.
And while he’s occasionally made feather-light pictures such as 2004’s The Terminal since, they’ve been underpinned with a melancholy that his earliest films lacked. Some might say that this is the sign of a master filmmaker maturing; others, that confronting personal trauma in his masterpiece – many of his relatives died in the Holocaust – sapped some of the joy and vitality out of his work.
When the films were as good as Minority Report or Catch Me If You Can, this didn’t matter in the slightest. Yet by the time that he came to make the fourth Indiana Jones film, the now-notorious Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it seemed as if this once-innovative filmmaker was now going through the motions, recycling tropes from his previous films – aliens! – to diminishing returns.
Perhaps mindful of the criticism he received, Spielberg chose not to direct the fifth film in the series, this year’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The choice of James Mangold to replace him may have been an inspired one, bringing a fresh approach to the material, and hopefully energising its now-80 year old star Harrison Ford into the bargain, too.
To criticise a director who has given such immense pleasure to hundreds of millions of cinemagoers may seem churlish. Yet Spielberg’s best work may now be long behind him. His next film is said to be a semi-remake of the Steve McQueen crime film Bullitt, with Bradley Cooper in the title role; it might be excellent, or terrible, but what it seems unlikely to be is essential viewing. I still remember when Jurassic Park came out in 1993, and audiences queued round the block to buy tickets for it. Whether you loved it or found it formulaic beyond its special effects, it was impossible to deny that it was An Event, and so in time it became the highest-grossing picture ever made.
Yet the mantle of blockbuster supremo has been taken from Spielberg by James Cameron, whose Avatar films – love them or hate them – are box office titans that are giving the audience what they want: spectacle, special effects and blue people in abundance. And his best pictures, often highly personal in nature, seem increasingly out of kilter with a Hollywood that prizes formulaic, identikit and profitable Marvel and superhero films as their product.
Spielberg’s legacy is secure. When he retires, or dies, he will have made more fondly remembered films than just about any other director who has ever worked, and deserves the adulation and respect that he has built up over his career. But as the overpraised Fabelmans is acclaimed as a career-capping triumph – only, in all likelihood, to be forgotten about again in a year or two – is it too much to hope that this great filmmaker has one final, late career triumph left in him?
It is impossible to say. Yet, for all the disappointments of the past few pictures, nobody should ever count out the man who had none other than Joan Crawford say of him, long before he achieved fame “Steven Spielberg had a brilliant future ahead of him. Hollywood doesn’t always recognize talent, but Steven’s was not going to be overlooked.” There is no reason why that brilliant future should not stretch ahead, even now.