Steven Spielberg will perhaps be most widely revered as the father of blockbusters, yet his influence on contemporary filmmaking runs well beyond box office bombshells. The most common theme in all his stories is of the connections of people, and it is this wide treatment of human relationships that has so influenced contemporary film. Unlike other directors who often have a specific agenda to push, Spielberg has devoted his films, across genres, to representing how people interact, love and sometimes war.
When I grow up, I still want to be a director. – Steven Spielberg
At the beginning of his career, Spielberg broke into the film industry with sensational action and special effects. Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind defined a new generation of film which paved the way for other films with big booms and big budgets. Without Spielberg, films like Titanic and Lord of the Rings would most likely not have been as spectacular; Spielberg is often thought of in tandem with George Lucas as the father of contemporary computer generated special effects.
Furthermore, his films situated themselves more readily into mainstream culture with the concept of spin off merchandise. His high grossing ET and Jurassic Park took the movie industry to new levels with merchandising schemes that often outsold their inspirations, creating a sense of identity or brand around each movie as its own institution. While in the past, there had been cult classics where followers were seen as devoted to one film, Spielberg films elevated all blockbusters by selling the image of the movie by cross marketing with other cultural fixtures like fast food.
Beyond the spectacle, Spielberg has also devoted much of his career to issues of family, war, and slavery. His most common subject has been the Holocaust and World War II, developing stories which offer new insights into the historic war. Schindler’s List was far from a blockbuster movie, portraying a complicated hero of victims of the Holocaust and how he navigated a hostile environment in order to do the right thing. In many ways it is a continuation of the theme from an earlier Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun, which is a coming of age story in the face of internment.
Spielberg’s career has not been without criticism or controversy. Godard railed against the consumer culture tinge to Spielberg’s work, while critics have blamed Spielberg for ruining Kubrick’s last film and causing assorted trauma to veterans during screenings of Saving Private Ryan.
Despite the criticisms, Spielberg’s body of work represents a director who is cherished for his causes and for his spectacle. Recognized consistently by the Academy, Spielberg’s legacy has been to encourage films that are unadulterated in their action and effects, while still maintaining strong character roots.
Written by E. D. Cameron. E. D. Cameron is an independent filmmaker and freelance music writer.