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The Colors of Steven Spielberg : Director's Catalogue Is Mostly Top Drawer

June 17, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Steven Spielberg is at it again, this time playing with dinosaurs. The Huck Finn of Hollywood has always found time for toys: trailer-sized sharks, laser-lit spaceships, cuddly-beyond-belief extraterrestrials and now, a gang of prehistoric monsters, some nice, some not-so-nice, some huge, some not-so-huge.

"Jurassic Park" may be Spielberg's biggest plaything yet. Super expensive (reportedly at least $65 million) and full of technological marvels courtesy of Spielberg's old pal George Lucas and his Industrial Light & Magic studio, this adaptation of Michael Crichton's dinosaur-disaster novel is sure to sweep the globe with its Spielbergian enthusiasm. The marketing mavens certainly think so--the commercial push, with all the product tie-ins, may even top the mania that followed Spielberg's "E.T." more than a decade ago.

One thing is certain: Spielberg is the once whiz-kid, now crowned head of big-scale entertainments. More often than not (gorged bores such as "Hook" set aside, as well as more serious diversions such as "The Color Purple"), he's been a steady provider of mass escapism, usually craftily executed and brightly delivered.

Art? He's left that unfamiliar notion to such contemporaries as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Never apologetic, Spielberg has always seen two hours of joy as the most uplifting, enriching experience he could offer. There's something to be said for that, as well as the steadfastness of his philosophy, which has marked all of his pictures, even the bad ones.

Spielberg's first reputation-building venture was not one of the bad ones, but it was reserved for the miniature screen. "Duel," made for TV in 1971, gave him the opportunity to monkey around with his first toys, a small car and a big diesel truck. The truck tried to run down the car (driven by an understandably nervous Dennis Weaver) and that was about it.

But Spielberg kept the tension high through energetic editing and a smart gimmick: We never got to see the man in the truck's cab, and that abstraction left his dimensions up to us; he became more grotesque in our imaginations.

"The Sugarland Express" was Spielberg's first theatrical release, and it, too, featured speedy vehicles and reckless suspense. A couple, unwilling to put their kids up for adoption, are on the run from the cops, providing a taut and jumpy ride. Although overshadowed by his money-making spectaculars, the 1974 film is admired by some as one of Spielberg's best.

A giant fish with a cranky disposition put Spielberg in Hollywood's churning, cash-heavy waters. "Jaws" (1975) took Peter Benchley's popular novel featuring a mammoth shark and made it more than just a popular movie. It became the picture that everyone kept talking about, an experience you felt obligated to have, if only to keep up with lunchtime conversation.

It was better than the book, more vivid and immediate, which was something unusual. "Jaws" also had something odd for Spielberg the director--character development. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss play complex men whose recesses are explored as the movie swims furiously along.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which came out in 1977, seems like Spielberg's most personal and revealing statement; the work that was nearest to artistry. In fact, the story of benevolent aliens and a man's (Dreyfuss again) desperate, uncompromising quest to connect with them can read as a metaphor for art. Besides, the special effects are boffo: The flying saucers, one as big as a village, can mesmerize.

A hit, but what happened in 1982 was even bigger. Much bigger. Spielberg once again capitalized on a fascination with worlds beyond ours by depositing a cute extraterrestrial in suburbia. "E.T." is considered his masterpiece. This small-frame effort of gentle virtue has grown miraculously into a towering monument to Spielberg's career.

The year before, he teamed up with Lucas--who, with his "Star Wars" pictures, was Spielberg's nearest rival for the throne of fun king--for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which Spielberg modeled after the matinee adventure serials he loved as a kid. A combination of cool hero (Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones), his gutsy girlfriend (Karen Allen) and an idiotic but viewer-friendly, thrills-R-us plot registered, both with audiences and the box office.

It was disappointing, then, that the two sequels ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" in 1984 and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" in 1989) were overcalculated, frenetic whipsaws that exhausted more than invigorated. The formula for most of his films--put simply, a child's point of view and verve, an engineer's eye for precision and detail--failed him, as it did with the annoying "Hook."

Even when prospering, Spielberg had to answer questions about his real depth, his real maturity. In 1985, Spielberg broke the pattern of the director who didn't want to grow up by approaching Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" with all the earnestness of a filmmaker dared to prove he was an adult.

The results were hailed by many critics, but if you look close, it's hard not to notice that the characters, however yearning and emotional, are as simple as children, the people his pictures are most comfortable with. Spielberg, still the kid no matter what, reduced Walker's often rich novel to something he could understand, a story of good folks, bad folks and triumph, happy Hollywood style.

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