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Steven Spielberg was just 21 years old when the Universal Television executive Sidney Sheinberg saw his short film “Amblin’” and offered him a contract, promising the wunderkind that he could work on any projects that caught his eye. He soon found the author Richard Matheson’s script for “Duel,” an adaptation of the writer’s own slim short story, about an irritable middle-class business traveler (played here by Dennis Weaver) who makes an enemy of an anonymous trucker while zooming through the California desert. An exercise in raw suspense — reduced mostly to images and action, with minimal dialogue — “Duel,” originally released as a TV movie, showed off Spielberg’s innate mastery of the medium and provided an early example of what would become his most pervasive theme: humanity’s foolish insistence on trying to impose moral order on the chaos of the universe.
‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974)
Building off the success of “Duel” — and piggybacking off the post-“Bonnie and Clyde” craze for poor-crooks-on-the-road movies — Spielberg made his feature filmmaking debut with “The Sugarland Express,” in which Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play married ex-cons who kidnap a Texas cop. At times this picture could pass for something by Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese, with its overlapping, naturalistic dialogue and vivid contemporary American settings. But it’s also visually inventive in a distinctly Spielbergian way, using rearview mirrors and flashing police sirens to illustrate how the heroes’ problems keep multiplying in their wake.
‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)
In the second half of the 1980s, Spielberg struggled to “mature” with films like “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Always.” Flailing a bit, he sought steadier ground by revisiting the archaeological adventurer he’d created with George Lucas, and ended up making the second-most entertaining Indiana Jones picture after the original. Adding Sean Connery to the mix as the hero’s emotionally distant dad gives “Last Crusade” more emotional resonance than the other entries in the series. But what matters even more is that the movie is energetic and funny, displaying an ease with these characters and their world that’s missing from the tawdry “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ (1997)
Aside from Indiana Jones, the only other franchise Spielberg has returned to as a director is “Jurassic Park,” which he revisited four years after the original. “The Lost World” reduces the setup and scientific philosophizing, and instead functions like two action-packed mini-movies: one in which concerned academics and ruthless big-game hunters battle over the fate of an island full of lab-engineered dinosaurs, and another in which a T-Rex rampages through San Diego. Put together, the two halves represent Spielberg in “playtime” mode, stringing together scenes of sheer terror and darkly comic mayhem.
Spielberg has a reputation as a humanist and sentimentalist, but he’s also fascinated by process — be it the step-by-step application of modern technology or the particulars of how our institutions function. The historical drama “Amistad” is pitched as a movie about slavery, tracking the real-life case of an African (played by Djimon Hounsou) who sparked an international crisis when he led a slave ship revolt in 1839. But the film is really more about the roundabout mechanisms of American justice, and about how righteous people can make the best of a flawed system in order to correct a profound wrong.
‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)
Before Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, he willed to Spielberg a project he’d been pursuing off and on since the 1970s: an adaptation of a short story about a lifelike robotic child (played here by Haley Joel Osment) abandoned by its owner. Channeling the darker, more pessimistic spirit of his newly deceased friend, Spielberg turned “A.I.” into a curdled version of his earlier family-friendly science-fiction classics “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” Every moment of wonder ultimately becomes cold and forbidding, in a world defined by humankind’s casual cruelty, not its sense of hope.
‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Spielberg followed up the difficult “A.I.” with the much more crowd-pleasing “Minority Report,” a playful spin on science fiction and film noir based on a Philip K. Dick story. Tom Cruise gives a charismatic performance as a melancholy cop who leads an technologically advanced division of policeman and psychics that stops crimes before they occur. Like “A.I.” and “Jurassic Park,” “Minority Report” is about how humans can be too clever for their own good. But the message this time gets delivered by way of a loopy, futuristic detective story, filled with funky gadgets, eccentric characters and offbeat scenes of nail-biting suspense.
‘Catch Me If You Can’ (2002)
Film buffs often speak with awe about how Spielberg completed and released both “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” in 1993, but he’s actually had a few amazing double-feature years — including 2002, which had “Minority Report” in the summer and “Catch Me If You Can” at Christmas. “Catch” is every bit as whiz-bang entertaining as “Minority Report,” telling the true story of the teenage con-man Frank Abagnale, who in the early 1960s posed as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer as part of an elaborate check-forging scheme. Graced by soulful star performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, “Catch Me If You Can” balances the pleasures of being young and gifted with the spiritual emptiness of a man who misses his family.
‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)
One of Spielberg’s most relentless, intense films combines post-9/11 anxiety with a modernization of the classic novel by H.G. Wells. Tom Cruise plays a blue-collar, divorced New Jersey dad, who experiences an alien invasion from the ground level while racing from the city to the country in order to keep his son and daughter safe. The ending is too corny, and the family melodrama too forced, but for most of its two-hour running time, “War of the Worlds” is a master class in visual storytelling, packed with images of blood-red tendrils and human debris that illustrate the deep strangeness of an Earth under siege.
Here’s another remarkable one-two Spielberg punch: “War of the Worlds” in the summer of 2005, and then “Munich” at the end of that year. Although this violent, sometimes-despairing story about Israeli agents and terrorist sympathizers was a box-office disappointment (and received mixed critical notices), the years since have demonstrated a growing appreciation for the film’s stubborn ambiguity. Spielberg stages some of his most exciting action sequences and yet diffuses any catharsis, making it clear that in blood feuds, no one gets to declare victory.
‘War Horse’ (2011)
Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo was a surprise hit back in 2011. But it’s been a little lost in the shuffle since then. And that’s a shame, because this rousing World War I story — about a horse that gets passed from owner to owner across a ravaged Europe — represents Spielberg’s settling into “old master” mode, borrowing from David Lean and John Ford to make a movie that looks like a classic from Hollywood’s golden age. The filmmaking is old-fashioned and family-friendly, but the episodic plot features a who’s who of modern British actors (including Peter Mullan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan and Toby Kebbell), who take turns being touched by the equine hero.