Spielberg Season (June-July 31st) at BFI Southbank: A Review

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Thefall2010 Tue 19-Jul-16 23:13:53

Stephen Spielberg at the BFI Southbank: A review

The Stephen Spielberg retrospective which has been running at the BFI Southbank since June comes to an end at the end of this month with the upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic The BFG (with actor du jour, and Spielberg’s latest muse Mark Rylance in the titular role). The season has so far run the gauntlet of Spielberg’s career beginning with his early films Duel (1972) and The Sugarland Express (1974) and has navigated a host of 20th (and 21st) century cinematic landmarks including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), E.T. (1984), The Colour Purple (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and of course, his masterpiece, the film that invented the modern event movie and summer blockbuster (two years before George Lucas reinvented the wheel with Star Wars^) ^Jaws (1975) which last year celebrated its 40th anniversary.

In July the focus of the season has been on Spielberg’s post 2000 output, which if less celebrated than his career between the early 1970s and the turn of the century (this period arguably reaches its high watermark with Saving Private Ryan (1998)). However among this later body of work are some really underrated and interesting films which add to the diversity of an already bulging canon of game changing films. Films like War of the Worlds (2005), Minority Report (2002), The Terminal (2004), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and more recently, the masterful Bridge of Spies (2016) (film critic Mark Kermode likened the experience of watching it to that of settling down in to a comfy, familiar leather armchair) also point to Spielberg’s increased interest in literary adaptation (much like his hero Stanley Kubrick) in the post 2000 films.

The season presents the perfect opportunity to introduce slightly older children not only to the work of a director whose name (along with that of George Lucas) is synonymous with the redefinition of popular cinema and to one of the most well known canons of work in cinema history but to a body of work that is to be experienced as much as to be watched – these films are cinematic fairground rides, roller coasters; a cinema of attractions!. The season presents the perfect opportunity to introduce and initiate children to the experience and spectacle of cinema itself – these are films designed to be seen on the big screen rather than on an ipad, laptop, mobile phone or even within the limited frame of the television, made by a filmmaker who has himself, from a child, has been in love with the medium, a cineaste whose influences range from Kurasawa to Howard Hawks to John Ford to Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and beyond and whose influence is clearly felt in today’s modern multiplex blockbusters . These are films designed and made to fill a cinematic space, whose imagery, spectacle, screen architecture, use of camera shots, peerless methods of storytelling and framing is designed to dazzle, overpower and to draw you in. Spielberg’s work is a purely cinematic oeuvre and should be experienced as such: the experience of watching Jurassic Park on it’s opening night at the Plaza Cinema, Crosby back in 1993 and the power of the T.Rex chase as it thundered around the theatre (or so it felt) is something which has indelibly marked this reviewer’s memory.
Those of us of a certain age have grown up and are familiar with Spielberg as a constant presence - his films speak to childhood and the experience of childhood -see E.T. , Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence' Jaws, The War of The Worlds – Spielberg’s camera is adept at catching the world through the eye of a child, in all its wonder and it’s terror. This is, in large part, what makes his work so successful AND a perfect way of introducing your child to the medium of cinema itself. One of the joys of this season is that these films allow parents who have grown up with Spielberg’s work to share in it with a new generation – there is a sense of universality about these films.

Stephen Spielberg’s films have had an enormous impact on me over the years (^Jaws^, to my mind is about as perfect as a film gets - with the exception of maybe Polanski’s Chinatown ), and, yes, his films are open to accusations of, at times, moist eyed, cloying sentimentality but this does not entirely colour his work, in fact this sentimentality is balanced by a perfectly pitched sense of terror and fear (which any fairground ride worth its salt should contain), in a world of ‘safe spaces’ Spielberg gives us worlds which, despite their often family friendly nature, feel distinctly unsafe - remember the Gestapo officer’s face gloriously melting off ( in a sequence worthy of Italian Horror maestro Lucio Fulci) at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? The young boy devoured while swimming on his lilo in Jaws (with the ensuing disorienting reverse dolly zoom on Roy Scheider’s face) and the severed head suddenly appearing out the sunken hull of a boat? – A scene which still make me jump after seeing it about 300 times. What about his harrowing depiction of the Holocaust and the Krakow Ghetto in Schindler’s List or the horror of the Omaha beach D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan?).

Spielberg pitches the more frightening elements of his work at a level which a younger audience can relate to – there is an understanding there that something children love is the thrill of being scared and in his historical films – Amistad (1997), Schindler’s List (1993) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), he offers representations of the darker moments of human history which have the power to disturb and upset but also to powerfully bring them to the attention to younger viewers.

To my mind one the more unsettling but nevertheless remarkable and spectacular of the season’s current run of films is the (hugely underrated) Pinocchio/Stanley Kubrck inspired A.I. Artificial Intelligence (which will be the subject of my next review) – a visually stunning film based on an an original treatment by Stanley Kubrick of a Brian Aldiss’ short sci fi story Supertoys Last All Summer Long a film which deals with the replacement of real people and real human need by commercial ‘mecha’ (robot) surrogates and the robot child ‘David’s (Haley Joel Osment, ^The Sixth Sense^) quest to become a ‘real boy'.

Click here to read a recent Guardian review with Spielberg himself:


The Spielberg season at the NFT is a comprehensive retrospective of one of the most important canons of cinema of the past 50 years, perfectly pitched at adults and children alike. It runs till the end of July so catch it if you can (see what I did there?).

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