Here are two facts: Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Steven Spielberg’s new film, The BFG, just debuted with a scant $18.5 million at the holiday box office. Tracking on Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book was foretelling disappointment for some time, and indeed audiences showed little interest in seeing the film over the 4th of July weekend, which is historically one of the year’s biggest moviegoing weekends. But this isn’t a new occurrence—Spielberg’s last film, Bridge of Spies, opened last October to $15.3 million and in third place overall. Not a terrible number, and the film went on to earn a bevy of Oscar nods, but not exactly on par for one of the best filmmakers who’s ever lived. Is Spielberg out of touch? Have audiences simply lost interest? Headlines in this vein have been strewn across the internet over the last few days, but I’d like to posit a different explanation: we’re all taking Steven Spielberg for granted.
Can Spielberg’s talent—and status as a cinematic giant—be denied? Sure his filmography is full of hits, from Jaws to E.T. to Jurassic Park, and sure he’s got a pair of Best Director Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but it’s not just the resume that solidifies his status as one of the all-time greats; it’s his form. Pull any scene from any point in his career and you will see cinematic wizardry. Spielberg is a born filmmaker, and he has honed and refined his talent over the past 40-plus years. Even his misfires have shades of greatness (some more than others), and in terms of camera motivation, purity of vision, and storytelling capability, Spielberg is unmatched.
So why, then, is a new Steven Spielberg movie no longer an event? One argument folks seem eager to throw out is that he’s no longer making interesting movies, to which I say “malarkey.” Bridge of Spies is a film about identity and what it means to be an American. Lincoln is a complex chronicle of the political process that makes tremendous parallels to the current state of our nation. War of the Worlds is a complex 9/11 metaphor about fear and terror. And The BFG is the story of a dreamer, one who makes enormous sacrifices for the betterment of others. And, apparently, one that audiences were not eager to see.
With such a hefty budget, and coming in the wake of Disney mega-successes like Finding Dory and Zootopia, the box office performance of The BFG in its first weekend is disappointing. But it’s not the numbers that have me down. It’s the glee with which folks seem to be piling on. The BFG is minor Spielberg to be sure—an oddly paced, yet sweet and wholly earnest fairy tale—but it has moments of sheer brilliance. Moreover, while perhaps not as joke-heavy or frantic as most family friendly fare these days, there’s more imagination in a single frame of The BFG than in all of Alice Through the Looking Glass or Minions.
Look, I’m not saying we should give every Spielberg movie a pass, or that all Spielberg movies are created equal, but I simply don’t understand not wanting to see a new film from one of the greatest directors who’s ever lived in the theaters. If Stanley Kubrick were alive today, wouldn’t you run out to see every new work of his no matter the subject matter? What about Alfred Hitchcock? Spielberg is in the same league as these filmmakers with one key difference: he’s still making movies.
Not only that, but he’s still making masterpieces. Lincoln is an absolute triumph—a biopic that avoids cliché and hagiography, and instead opts to portray a complicated man navigating a complicated issue. Its structure, its pacing, its framing—all top-notch. And Bridge of Spies is far more complex and impeccably structured than folks give it credit for. Deceptively simple, and yet every single camera move in that film is motivated by story and character. Which, again, is not something you’re likely to see in your run-of-the-mill “uplifting historical drama.”
Spielberg’s next project, Ready Player One, puts him firmly back in sci-fi blockbuster territory, which will no doubt bring in the box office dollars we’ve come to expect from a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature, but he’s already lining up a follow-up project that marks yet another departure as he’ll delve back into themes of faith and religiosity with The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. And yes, there’s another Indiana Jones on the way, which marks another audience-friendly choice.
Just like Hitchcock, Spielberg has always been motivated by his need to entertain audiences, but it’s a shame that audiences seem to treat every other Spielberg movie like just any old feature. I ask again, if Kubrick or Hitchcock were alive today, would you not run out to see every last work of theirs until their dying day? It’s not like Spielberg is on his death bed or anything, but he’s not exactly the ambitious young twentysomething who poured every ounce of himself into Jaws either (although there’s a case to be made that he still is in spirit).
So The BFG may not be your bag. Even so, it’s a brand new film from one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and you have the opportunity to see it as it was meant to be seen: in a movie theater on a giant screen. That’s not going to be the case for long, and while we’re all happy to herald Spielberg when he makes huge crowdpleasers like Catch Me If You Can or Minority Report, I’d argue his ambitious departures like The BFG or even Bridge of Spies are just as worthy of attention and consideration.
We like to complain about Hollywood becoming cliché-driven and overly safe, and when a master like Spielberg dips his toe into similar genre waters with his unmatched skillset, we opt for a pass, taking for granted that a true icon of cinematic history is still chugging away, continuing to diversify his resume with new films every few years. We’re taking Steven Spielberg for granted, and that, my friends, is a mistake.