Steven Spielberg's most underrated films

Before you delve into the delights of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, here are six of the director's lesser known, under-appreciated works to prep you for his latest blockbuster

Feature by John Bleasdale | 28 Mar 2018

Steven Spielberg bestrides four decades of film history like a bearded, bespectacled and baseball cap-wearing behemoth. His career has as many peaks as a rollercoaster – whether it’s ruining swimming in Jaws, loving the alien in Close Encounters and E.T. or chronicling history in Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln. He has given us whip-cracking archaeologists and paleontologists as heroes, and tyrannosauruses, sharks and trucks as villains. In preparing for his latest film, Ready Player One, we've been re-watching all of his films to hit the screens, and picked out some of the most underrated entries in his filmography.

Duel (1971)

A monster truck pursues a terrified salesman (Dennis Weaver) across the dusty highways of America. From a Richard Matheson script, Spielberg was supposed to film this TV ‘movie of the week’ in the traditional manner – in the studio with back projections – but instead decided to let rip entirely on location. What he came up with is a gasoline-fuelled mix of Mad Max and Alfred Hitchcock.

Completed on budget in just 13 days, Duel proved Spielberg could deliver a lot of bang for a buck and would go down as one of the best TV movies ever made. It was a sparkling calling card that earned the film reshoots and a limited release on the big screen, which was where its director was heading next.

1941 (1979)

Stanley Kubrick told Spielberg 1941 should have been marketed as a drama; Spielberg himself realised too late it would have worked better as a musical. Nobody liked it as a comedy. Based on a true story about a mass panic on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor, Spielberg’s exhausting madcap caper throws zoot suit riots, some painfully smug self-parody and a bunch of SNL alumni like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd into the mix.

In the final hour, as the mayhem reaches its peak, there’s such an inventive and exhilarating excess – a tank drives through a paint factory – that the gleeful destruction breaks through. There’s no doubt this is a mishit, but like the Coen Brothers’ similarly botched attempt at screwball The Hudsucker Proxy, there’s still plenty to marvel at.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

There are three Indiana Jones movies and there will only ever be three Indiana Jones movies, no matter what you’ve heard. The first is a stone-cold classic and the last is an inspired final (we said FINAL) chapter. But the middle one is often skipped over. George Lucas’ story was wilfully dark – Indiana Jones Goes to Hell – and then there’s the comedy racism (“chilled monkey brains!”) to deal with. Oh, and the overly-literal rollercoaster chase with the unconvincing model work is more Wallace and Gromit than Raiders. But Kali Ma protect us, it’s fantastic fun.

Lucas introduced Spielberg to Indiana Jones as an alternative to making a James Bond movie, and in the opening sequence we have a suave Harrison Ford in a white dinner jacket getting poisoned, scrapping in a nightclub, jumping out of a window and then out of a plane using a life raft as a parachute. It’s beguilingly nuts and the comedy between Indy and Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, who Spielberg later married) is Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn good, with Short Round – “You cheat Dr. Jones!” – also a worthy sidekick.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

“It’ll be right up your street,” David Lean told Steven Spielberg. The Lawrence of Arabia director had originally wanted to adapt JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel about his childhood experience as an internee in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War, but when plans fell through, he suggested Spielberg do it.

Jim (introducing Christian Bale) escapes from the grim reality of malnutrition and confinement with fantasies of flight that include a distant spiritual bonding with a Kamikaze pilot preparing for his ultimate sacrifice on the airstrip close to the camp. Sporting an excellent cast, including a star turn from John Malkovich as a cynical yank, Empire was Spielberg’s darkest, most ambivalent and most serious work up to that point.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Harold Bloom coined the phrase “the anxiety of influence”, to describe how young artists need to kill their daddies in order to succeed. Spielberg had several.

When Stanley Kubrick died, Spielberg took over the project he had been working on for years. Based on British science fiction author Brian Aldiss’ short story – Super Toys Last All Summer Long – AI turned into a postmodern Pinocchio story with Haley Joel Osment as the android who longs to be a real boy, helped by Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male prostitute robot. The weight of expectation was possibly too much for any film to survive and Spielberg claims that everyone trying to spot which elements were Kubrick’s and which were Spielberg’s were almost always the wrong way round. The film has a chill to its sentimentality and moments of genuinely disturbing horror – the anti-Mecha flesh fair being one. The ending divided audiences, but there’s an ambitious scale to the film that still stands up today.

Munich (2005)

The events of 9/11 prompted the need for a cultural as well as political reaction, but other than Paul Greengrass’s United 93 there have been few successful direct treatments of the events of that day in 2001. Spielberg’s reaction was oblique and nuanced.

Munich tells the story of a counter-terrorism squad of Mossad agents, led by Eric Bana, who are tasked with hunting down and assassinating the perpetrators of the Munich attack – Black September – responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The film was criticised heavily by conservative and pro-Israeli media for suggesting a moral equivalency between the Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli pursuers. In reality, the film is a brilliant political thriller, which highlights the moral corrosion killing causes regardless of the initial morality of the cause. It is a bold critique of the War on Terror and the self-defeating calculus of revenge which we are still living with today.

Ready Player One is released 30 Mar by Warner Bros

Read John Bleasdale's SpielBlog, where he is working his way through Spielbergh's back catalouge