Spielberg's "personality" does indeed come through loud and clear in those early films -- "Sugarland Express," "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." -- because of his delight, which we share, in how preposterously wizardly he is. Spielberg's genius was not simply to think like his audience -- any good hack can do that -- but to be his audience. His aesthetic instincts and his commercial instincts were twinned, and not in a calculating way, either -- at least not until "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which is when his large-scale entertainments, followed by the two "Indiana Jones" sequels and the "Jurassic Park" movies, turned into corporate theme parks themselves.
The career trajectory of Hollywood directors before the '70s typically followed the winding path from unpretentious to "prestigious" (i.e., Oscar-worthy). Take, for example, George Stevens, who went from "Alice Adams," "Swing Time," "Gunga Din" and "The More the Merrier" to "A Place in the Sun," "Giant," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Most of the '70s directors did their best to avoid this syndrome or at least held out for as long as they could. Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," a deranged movie about a deranged war, could never have been mistaken for a respectable war epic. Scorsese's biblical movie was "The Last Temptation of Christ."
But Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood, was naturally the director who most wholeheartedly fell into the prestige trap. Whatever their merits, and in some cases they are considerable, films such as "The Color Purple," "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler's List," "Amistad," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich" are all deeply conventional in terms of how the world is comprehended. Some of these films may be better made, or, in the case of "Schindler's List," more richly felt than their Old Hollywood counterparts. But all are afflicted with a kind of transcendent Stanley Kramerism. We are made to understand that moral lessons are being imparted and that, in the end, tomorrow will somehow be a better day.
And yet, Spielberg's career trajectory is by no means simple, for in the wake of "Saving Private Ryan," he made two consecutive films, as well as a third several years later, that in many ways upend his beloved early work. "A.I," which was originally developed by Stanley Kubrick, is the dark side of "E.T." "The War of the Worlds" is the anti-"Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The Philip K. Dick-derived "Minority Report," which has no antecedent in Spielberg's career, is a scabrous freakout. None of these films are overwhelmingly successful -- they're more fascinating as psychodrama than as drama. But they demonstrate, much more so than his "prestige" entries do, how spooked Spielberg's mind-set had become in the decades since he closed "Close Encounters" with a stirring snatch of "When You Wish Upon a Star."
In "Close Encounters," aliens from outer space are benevolent emissaries who descend from the heavens in a dazzling cathedral glow and belt out boom tones of peace and love. In "War of the Worlds," the aliens are arachnoid horrors who erupt from underground. Their call to arms is a bellicose bellow. The skies may have roiled in "Close Encounters" and Richard Dreyfuss' Roy might have made too much of his mashed potatoes, but we were never in any doubt that benevolence was upon us.
In "War of the Worlds," the aliens initially are mistaken for terrorists. The film is, I suppose, Spielberg's post-9/11 movie, but even without 9/11, he might eventually have made his way to this scorched terrain. "A.I.," which was made four years earlier, is about a robot boy who yearns to be human to win back the love of the flesh-and-blood mother who abandoned him, and for most of the way it's frighteningly creepy. "Minority Report," about a future in which cops, guided by all-seeing "pre-cogs," arrest killers before their crimes are committed, is a ghastly fusion of sci-fi and noir.
Some audiences, still wishing upon a star, experienced these films as intimate betrayals. And yet they cut the closest to his psyche. "Right now I'm experimenting," Spielberg said at the time of "Minority Report." "I'm trying things that challenge me, I'm striking out in all directions trying to discover myself in my 50s."