Steven Spielberg’s new sci-fi thriller explores the shrinking barrier between game and reality.
For the movie lovers who grew up in the blockbuster era, there’s no more iconic filmmaker than Steven Spielberg. But while his benevolent aliens, neato dinosaurs and one whip-cracking archeologist get much of the love, it’s easy to forget just how deep his filmography goes.
That is, until one sits down and ranks every one of his feature films, including this week’s geek fest Ready Player One (in theaters Thursday). Here’s how the director’s résumé shakes down:
32. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997): The sequel’s simply a poor genetic clone of the first Jurassic Park. There’s plenty of giant dinosaurs around, however both the dinos and the humans are done in by weak characterization, iffy action scenes and a lack of the original’s spirit.
31. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): The Shanghai-set Anything Goes opening is magnificent. Unfortunately, everything else in this misadventure, from annoying love interests to cloying sidekicks, is a mine cart going off the rails.
30. War of the Worlds (2005): Maybe it’s an answer to the more benevolent aliens earlier in his career? Spielberg puts his own spin on the H.G. Wells invasion classic with Tom Cruise along for the ride, with mediocre results.
29. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008): Shia LaBeouf, aliens and an indestructible fridge aren’t the greatest additions to the Indy franchise, but the return of Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett as an evil Soviet villainess make up for them.
28. The Terminal (2004): Tom Hanks is by far the best thing in the so-so dramedy about an Eastern European man stuck in New York’s JFK airport thanks to a civil war making his passport null and void.
27. The BFG (2016): Spielberg plays it a little too safe with the outsize tale of an orphan girl and her very large best friend. However, it’s a perfect intro to his oeuvre for the littlest kids entertained by flatulent corgis and its gibberish-spouting giant.
26. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Stanley Kubrick was originally supposed to direct, which would have yielded a much different movie than Spielberg’s warm tale of a robot kid with the ability to love.
25. The Sugarland Express (1974): Goldie Hawn shines in one of her first dramatic roles in the story of two criminal parents who kidnap a cop and go to extreme lengths to get their baby boy back.
24. Hook (1991): Spielberg’s films tend to be corny at times and this is the pinnacle of that, a sugary sweet and well-meaning take on the Peter Pan mythology with Robin Williams as the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow up actually grown up.
23. Always (1989): It goes overboard with the emotionally manipulative romance, but the flick gets points for having Audrey Hepburn in her last film role as an angel. The spirit greets a firefighting pilot who dies and then has to help a fellow flyboy who falls in love with the late dude’s girlfriend.
22. Amistad (1997): Maybe not Spielberg’s best “important” film but it’s definitely one that’s effective in conveying the historical significance of Africans taking over a slave ship heading to the USA circa 1839 and the ensuing legal fight.
21. Duel (1971): Before rampaging dinos and hungry sharks, Spielberg’s feature debut (which premiered as a TV movie but also got a theatrical release) offered a truck as its main antagonist. And the road rage is palpable and knuckle-clenching as a traveling salesman tries to avoid getting run off the road and killed by a vengeful big rig driver.
20. The Adventures of Tintin (2011): The animated effort with Peter Jackson gives us some serious Indiana Jones vibes with a young French journalist and his loyal canine friend on the hunt for a treasure-filled sunken ship.
19. Ready Player One (2018): It’s a little odd to see Spielberg directing what’s pretty much an homage to everything he’s ever done. Still, youthful rebellion in a virtual reality looks great and the concept of online escapes resonates in an increasingly intense real world.
18. Munich (2005): A poignant thriller spin is put on one of the sports world’s darkest moments, recounting the Israel government’s secret act of vengeance for the massacre of their athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
17. War Horse (2011): The filmmaker goes for all the fuzzy feels on a grand canvas with this World War I tale of a boy and his horse, their parallel stories and their long road to find each other again.
16. Catch Me If You Can (2002): There’s a fun and retro vibe to the real-life 1960s cat-and-mouse chase between a teenage con man (Leonardo DiCaprio) and dogged FBI agent (Tom Hanks), made all the more so with a jazzy John Williams score.
15. Minority Report (2002): The futuristic neo-noir sci-fi — about law enforcement capturing ne’er-do-wells before they do anything illegal — has only grown more engrossing and salient as technology’s taken big leaps around us.
14. Bridge of Spies (2015): The filmmaker puts you right into the chilly spycraft of the Cold War, though it’s the chemistry between Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance — as an earnest attorney and his Russian secret-agent client — that fuels the drama.
13. 1941 (1979): While Spielberg’s purest comedy didn’t get the best reception, the World War II flick is a hilarious, star-studded wonder about panicked and paranoid L.A. citizens worrying about a Japanese attack after Pearl Harbor.
12. Empire of the Sun (1987): Nearly 20 years before he was Batman, Christian Bale was the posh British lad living in China who becomes separated from his parents and ends up in a World War II Japanese internment camp in the emotional epic.
11. Lincoln (2012): Daniel Day-Lewis transforms into the 16th president in one of his most memorable roles, and Spielberg crafts an amazing look at the later months of the Civil War that would either make or break the country.
10. The Post (2017): The Pentagon Papers drama is a spiritual prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men, a love letter to journalism and the convening of an amazing cast: Tom Hanks is his usual charismatic self as hard-charging Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep holds court as Katharine Graham, the Post publisher finding the power of her voice in a male-dominated world. In a modern landscape where media struggle to survive, Spielberg rallies to celebrate what makes it great.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998): One of the best war movies ever, period. Spielberg’s excellent take on the Invasion of Normandy was groundbreaking in its graphic depictions of the battlefield but especially for its ferocious knockout of an opening. The landing on Omaha Beach shows the carnage and chaos from the perspective of an Army Ranger captain (Tom Hanks), stunned and stumbling in bloody water, and forces an audience to feel unflinching horror.
8. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): The seminal movie for ’80s kids captures hearts and jerks tears with the story of a cute extra-terrestrial and the youngsters who rally to keep him safe from authorities and take care of him when he’s sick. As key as E.T. is to the whole thing, what’s even more is his friendship with Elliot (Henry Thomas), an alienated boy desperately needing a connection in the wake of his parents’ divorce. E.T. wants to go home, but Elliott has to rediscover his own, too.
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): The more grown-up complement to E.T. put a mysterious and thoughtful spin on first contact with aliens and the idea that we’re all just a small piece of a bigger puzzle. When the visitors come, it’s not spoken language but instead a musical theme that bridges the intergalactic gap between us and them, and Richard Dreyfuss’ blue-collar worker is every dreamer who’s ever looked into the sky and wanted to see the stars. Spielberg’s vision is sentimental yet feels so satisfying.
6. Jurassic Park (1993): Dinosaurs were already cool but in the hands of Spielberg, they are a grand spectacle — and a fearsome set of antagonists — in a movie about not messing around with Mother Nature. The filmmaker takes on corporate greed and mankind’s god complex by imagining a theme park full of genetically cloned reptiles from millennia ago, but on a more popcorn-chewing level, Spielberg crafts both a terrifying journey as well as a breathtaking collection of species we can only wish existed.
5. The Color Purple (1985): Exceptional performances (especially Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) drive this wrenching and intimate story of abused but strong women who find their voices and identity in early 20th-century Georgia. Goldberg’s Celie is the mousy wife of a mean, bullying farmhand (Danny Glover), one of the men she’s been oppressed by and who’ve kept her from family and a real life, until she finally roars in a rousing catharsis that feels hugely meaningful in 2018.
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989): It’s rare that a threequel is almost as good as the first, but this two-fisted quest for the Holy Grail doubles as a surprisingly deep narrative about fathers, sons and mortality. All the usual fun Indy stuff is here — Nazis, treasured artifacts, etc. — though the bantering chemistry between Harrison Ford’s hard-luck hero and Sean Connery as his grumpy dad is off-the-hook spectacular. Bogie and Bacall have nothing on these two.
3. Jaws (1975): It takes something really special to affect a populace so much they rethink their beach trips. With that ominous two-note John Williams theme and an infamous killer shark, the movie spawned the summer blockbuster and wracked many a nerve with its waterbound terror. It also taps into a man-vs.-nature dynamic as a modern-day Moby-Dick with Robert Shaw’s Quint as the obsessed hunter inextricably tied to his great white nemesis.
2. Schindler’s List (1993): Spielberg’s black-and-white dramatic masterwork is a beautiful and brutal look at the Holocaust and an unlikely hero that manages to find hope and kindness in the face of pure evil. The character arc of German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is astounding, from hiring Jewish workers because they’re cheap to giving away a fortune to save hundreds from certain doom. Through his eyes we see the hatred, dread and innocence lost of that period in history.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): The first Indiana Jones movie — with lots of Nazi-punching and world-shaking religious implications — is the perfect action adventure. In fact, face-meltingly so. It makes smart heroes cool forever after (in everything from The X-Files to Iron Man to Dan Brown books), offers a love interest who’s just as good in a fight as Indy, is as funny as it is compelling, and — sorry, Star Wars — gives us Harrison Ford’s signature icon. It’s the kind of movie that reminds us all why we love movies.
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