Dragon Con Panel: The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Steven Spielberg

While at DragonCon last weekend, I attended a panel called The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Steven Spielberg, as part of the American Sci-Fi Classics programming track. And if you know me, you know I love the works of Spielberg. Um, why wasn’t I asked to be on this panel?! (Guess they don’t know me!) 

The panel included Michael Falkner (Timestamps Project) and Michael French of Retroblasting. The first question: which Spielberg movie to save from oblivion. How to choose? And choose wisely??  While I may have been stumped, the panelists had answers: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial chosen for its purity and innocence. Raiders of the Lost Ark because it has Harrison Ford punching Nazis. (And who doesn’t love that?) One selected Goonies but after some debate it was decided that the question pertains to Spielberg-directed movies and not movies he produced. Jaws recieved multiple votes. 

They named The Color Purple named for its cultural importance. And last but certainly not least Schindler’s List. It is the shimmering center jewel in Spielberg’s crown. Would I choose it from oblivion? Of course, but moreso than his “fun” films? Hard to say, when his imaginative side and serious side vary so dramatically.

Which brings us to the next discussion: “popcorn” Spielberg vs. artistic Spielberg. Popcorn Spielberg was influential in the ‘80s and produced a multitude of successful movies.. During this time Spielberg also directed the more dramatic Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple, but he wasn’t taken seriously as an award-winning filmmaker until the 90’s with Schindler’s List. Both versions of the director are important.

Popcorn Steven took into consideration the different eras in which the films were made. Though I don’t believe it came up directly, his later films were heavily influenced by 9/11, and the Spielberg who created the benevolent aliens of the ‘70s and ‘80s focused on more menacing beings in The War of the Worlds and the dark dystopian future of Minority Report. 

His earlier films like E.T. fully embraced the 80’s, referencing pop culture icons like Star Wars. And though he only produced (save that debate for another day) Poltergeist, there are plenty of Star Wars references in that film as well. And his influence on Stranger Things, lovingly set in the 80’s, cannot be ignored. One panelist said, “Stranger things could be called Spielberg Things.” He shaped the 80’s even while depicting the era. And none of his popcorn films were duds, right?  Heads shook. Well… there’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Panelists and audience all agreed to blame that on George Lucas. 

What makes his work resonate? Popcorn films showcase his imagination, while he wants to tell about a time and place important to him in the more serious films. Each provides a personal view into his world. Again my own note since there wasn’t a lot of in-depth discussion about his films, but more serious films focus on the horrors of the Holocaust, the responsibility of journalism in The Post, crisis of conscience in Munich, and freedom for all as seen in Lincoln

There is a sensibility to all of his movies. A hopeful note. Whimsy. He creates characters the audience connects with and puts us in the story. Many of his films show that he’s able to stay out of his own way. Except … 

The panel took a darker turn as the more negative views of Spielberg emerged. (I probably did some glaring at people at this point). Notably one panelist said Spielberg, his Spielberg, hasn’t made a film since 1993. That’s when he started over-thinking scripts and more recently should not have directed Ready Player One. His idea to remove any references to his own works hampered the film. Also after Schindler’s List he can no longer use Nazis in films without depicting the brutal horrors of the Holocaust. That simply wouldn’t fit into an Indiana Jones adventure. 

On a more positive note, it was mentioned that Minority Report is underrated and that it takes an interesting look at the surveillance of society. Examples were provided of websites that use cookies and tracking to know what you’ve left in your cart and what you were browsing. 

Next the focus was on Steven as a producer. This alone could have been its own panel. Most importantly, he produced Animaniacs which has a wonderful podcast devoted to it (shameless plug: the Animanicast). There’s also Gremlins, Poltergeist, Back to the Future, An American Tail, the television shows Amazing Stories and Tiny Toon Adventures. Notably not mentioned was SeaQuest DSV which will live forever in my heart. His name is considered to have weight. As long as his name is on the film people will be tempted to go see it. )This I can attest to 100%.) 

Band of Brothers was mentioned as one of his better producer credits. 

But even I’ll admit (grudgingly) he’s had some missteps throughout his career. E.T. the special edition anyone?  Where he replaced the guns aimed at the children with walkie talkies. But he learned from his mistake (and probably George Lucas’ as well) because he walked that decision back. Everyone seemed to agree that 1941  was less than superb, though it has its fans.

One of Spielberg’s biggest strengths is collaboration. He worked wonderfully with George Lucas on the Indiana Jones franchise. And don’t forget John Williams. The maestro adds so much to Spielberg’s films, meshing the visuals with unsurpassed music.. They referenced Epic Rap Battles: “Half of your billions should go to John Williams.” He also chooses great cinematographers and good scripts, and  he’s developed strong partnerships over the years: Michael Kahn as editor, Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer, etc. 

Another great achievement of Spielberg is that he introduced John Williams to George Lucas, so essentially without Steven Spielberg the Star Wars that we know and love today would not exist. 

And finally, Steven Spielberg’s films leave us with one lasting gift: thanks to Jaws, we all still stay out of the water. Thank you, Steven Spielberg.