He’s one of the true cinematic visionaries. A pioneer of the modern Hollywood blockbuster whose oeuvre has included such cast iron clad classics as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, yet thanks to the otherworldly themed trio of Close Encounters, E.T and War of the Worlds it is with aliens from outer space that Steven Spielberg is most associated. And when he’s not directing them, the UFO enthusiast is assisting other like-minded talents produce more features of the alien encounter kind.
This summer alone has seen the results of three such producer/director collaborations: Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, JJ Abrams’ recently released secrecy shrouded period creature feature Super 8 and Jon Favreau’s sci-fi infused western Cowboys & Aliens. While currently filming is Barry Sonnenfeld’s third instalment in the alien-riddled Men in Black series – a trilogy where Spielberg serves as an executive producer. And we haven’t even mentioned the filmmaster’s commitment to Falling Skies; the TV series that is set in the aftermath of…you guessed it: an alien invasion.
So what is it about little green men from mars that is such a draw for the bearded bespectacled director?
Most likely it stems from a childhood spent gazing up at the stars and glued to B-movie flying saucer flicks. Young Spielberg witnessed a meteor shower spectacle so transfixing it sowed the seeds for a philosophy seeped in hope, peace and promise from above; consequently giving birth to the modern sci-fi classic that is Close Encounters of the Third Kind – a film that celebrates the arrival of alien life as a wondrous, mystical near psychedelic event.
Spielberg’s next alien endeavour, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, hinged on a boy traumatised by the separation of his parents who seeks solace in friendship with a cute creature who falls from the heavens. It’s as if in moments of anguish Spielberg is telling us to look up to the skies for contemplation. Arguably Spielberg’s most sterling achievement was provoking audience empathy for a ghastly looking creature.
Then five years later, in 1987, he served as a producer on another ‘cuties from outer space’ caper called *batteries Not Included – about kind-hearted mechanical alien life-forms who aid residents of a desolate apartment block. Spielberg continued to stamp his own alien worldview as an executive producer a decade on in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black films, then a couple of years later helped helm Ivan Reitman’s alien organism comedy Evolution. But when the filmmaker returned to direct his own, audiences noticed something had seriously changed in the auteur’s alien trajectory.
Considered a companion piece to Close Encounters, War of the Worlds was the first time Spielberg explored alien adversary. Here innocence and optimism no longer prevailed and heart-warming fun was replaced by deep-seated dread. In a post 9/11 world Spielberg’s aliens ceased to be cute and cuddly anymore and were purely malevolent, destruction forces – a considerable departure from the peacemaking angelic alien entities emitting from the mothership in Close Encounters.
Much soul-searching must have been made for Spielberg to go against his real beliefs, obviously spurred on by, then, recent political events. “It was my first departure at looking at the sky and not saying ‘hope and piece’ but saying ‘hate and war raining upon America.” He later observed. If the film felt a little off it was arguably because Spielberg always seems more comfortable pondering the stars in a positive light – that signature flooding white light which always concealed promising, not threatening possibilities.
Subsequently Super 8 has done the same with a plot concerning the escape of an enigmatic creature being transported on a train from the military base Area 51. And now with continuous commitments to both MIB and Transformer franchises aliens and flying saucers have almost dominated Spielberg’s future producing oeuvre. Bafflingly they even appeared in the director’s last Indiana Jones adventure.
So why does Spielberg constantly return to alien territory? Perhaps quite simply it is the fact that the filmmaker is attempting to recapture the sense of jaw-gaping astonishment that that little idealistic kid felt many moons ago while gaping up at the stars.
Super 8 is out now in cinema’s. Our review HERE.