Cincinnati native (a sometimes forgotten fact) Steven Spielberg is the Godfather of Summer, much like James Brown was the Godfather of Soul. And like Brown, he has proven to be the hardest working man in the movies. We are used to his herculean efforts behind the camera, but this summer Spielberg is setting up the tent poles throughout the season, both in the multiplexes and on television. He’s the Man.
Spielberg is synonymous with heat. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced audiences to Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), but before that milestone there was Jaws (1975), which arguably set in motion the whole crazy buzzing enterprise of summer programming by the studios along with his buddy George Lucas who helped codified the process with Star Wars in 1977. For better or worse, the pair likely gave birth to movie licensing and the summer franchise mentality.
If movies are shared memories, then Spielberg is as important to our lives as the air we breathe, the food and water that nourishes our bodies and that big glowing orb in the sky that sustains life on the planet. From our deathbeds or in those final fleeting moments when our lives flash before our eyes, many of us will see E.T. in the bicycle cart flying across the face of the moon or feel the terror of just barely escaping the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or dream of a future free from murder thanks to Minority Report.
We will remember the tactile sensation of sitting in the air-conditioned dark holding our collective breath or experiencing the heady thrill of breathlessness as the action onscreen transported us out of our bodies. Spielberg brought us together for those moments, and we surrendered completely to the magic of his vision.
But it was not just what he created at the helm. Spielberg, as a true Godfather, made us offers we couldn’t refuse in support of other visionaries. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982), Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984), Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), Innerspace (Dante, 1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis, 1988), Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997), The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998) and Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) feature his stamp as a writer, producer or some combination thereof. That rather short and utterly incomplete list highlights movies that entered the pop-cultural lexicon, spawned sequels and established Spielberg as a mentor to a community of filmmakers striving to maintain an impossible heat index.
This year presents proof that Spielberg remains a force of nature when the mercury rises. June kicks off with J.J. Abrams (Lost, the Star Trek reboot) paying homage to Spielberg with Super 8, the story of a group of budding teenage filmmakers in Ohio who, in the summer of 1979, capture the military cover-up of Man’s contact with something beyond our comprehension. Abrams obviously loves E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gremlins and the pyrotechnics of War of the Worlds, and he was able to convince Spielberg to keep a watchful eye on this enterprise.
First contact between humanity and extraterrestrials is the central theme of Spielberg’s summer marathon. He re-teams with Bay on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the concluding chapter in this trilogy of movies about the arrival of the Autobots and the Deceptacons on Earth. Cowboys & Aliens from Jon Favreau (the Iron Man movies), with roots based in graphic novels, sets the first meeting back in the Wild West and even features Spielberg’s Raider (Ford) as a cowboy with guns ablaze. Not content to document alien invasions in the multiplexes, Spielberg is also shepherding two television projects, Terra Nova and Falling Skies, which will bring alien heat to the small screen.
Reel Steel, the futuristic robo-bashing change-of-pace outing from Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) starring Hugh Jackman, switches things up a bit for Spielberg as well, shifting the focus ever so slightly from aliens to robots, but Steel aims for the sentimental with its concerns about the impact of broken family dynamics on children. The Godfather never strays far from his classic one-two punch.
Let’s also not forget that Spielberg will have two late-year directing releases: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. The early buzz on War Horse includes the requisite Oscar consideration for one of the rarest filmmakers working in the industry: Spielberg balances, better than possibly anyone else, critical respect and broad mainstream appeal.
It’s the Man’s world, and the heat is on.