E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

ET

When an alien gets left behind on Earth, he’s befriended by a boy called Elliott but hunted by government agents…

Seen before? This was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. My parents took me while we were on holiday in the Lake District around Christmas 1982. I was three years old and have memories of hiding under my seat (my mum tells me that early scenes of men with guns had scared me). I’ve seen it a few times in the 32 years since, but sadly and unintentionally the version I watched for #SpielbergWatch was the 2002 special edition. This recut of the movie digitally replaces guns with walkie-talkies, adds in a deleted scene or two (though not Harrison Ford’s cameo – tinyurl.com/ypgufc ) and CGIs up some shots of ET. A shame: it was perfect to begin with.

Best performance: All three of the kids – Henry Thomas as Elliott, Robert MacNaughton as Michael and Drew Barrymore as Gertie – are terrific.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The scene where ET is getting drunk while Elliott himself is at school, increasingly affected by the alcohol, is fantastic.

Review: Watching these films in context highlights how this is a spiritual sequel to Close Encounters. Again, we have aliens encroaching into lower-middle-class suburbia and being met with both fascination and paranoia. But now the story is from an actual child’s point of view (rather than CE’s manchild) and has added BMXs, Star Wars toys and general 1980sness. The whole film is so beautiful – the camerawork, the imagery, the music, the emotion. What’s obvious, as ever with Spielberg, is just how strong and clear the storytelling is – you always know where you are and what’s happening in a Spielberg film. He understands better than perhaps anyone else how to pace a story, how to reveal information, what to focus on and how to dramatise events. ET is an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

Ten Speak & Spells out of 10.

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Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)

poltergeist

Malevolent ghosts invade a suburban house and soon the family’s young daughter goes missing…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson are both very good as the frantic, frightened parents.

Best scene/moment/sequence: When the sinister shit hits the family fan and the house is first invaded.

Review: The movie’s officially credited to Tobe Hooper, but the rumours are that writer/producer Steven Spielberg was the de facto director on set. The first half is an engaging and scary horror movie, but then the pace slows and the film loses momentum.

Seven static television out of 10.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

raidersofthelostark

When the Nazis get close to discovering the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, archaeologist/teacher/adventurer Indiana Jones sets out to beat them to it…

Seen before? Yes, lots. It was one of the key movies of my childhood.

Best performance: I’m going to have to split this award again. I’ve had a man crush on Harrison Ford since I was about five years old; he is masculinity personified, as far as I’m concerned. Droll, sarcastic, laconic, charming, charismatic, strong, equally assured with action and comedy: he’s the greatest movie star of all time. Meanwhile, Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, the kind of fantastic female character – feisty, sassy, smart and tough – that used to be common in genre cinema but seem to have all but vanished. (Seriously, where are the modern equivalents of Princess Leia, Lois Lane, Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and the like?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The chase sequence in Cairo, with goons trying to kidnap Marion, is a riot. It’s playfully shot and scored, and is very, very entertaining. The famous highlight is the moment where a weary and pissed-off Indy comes face-to-face with a menacing swordsman… and just shoots him dead rather than have to fight him.

Review: Outside of maybe Star Wars, it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film. From its spooky, enigmatic opening to its Biblical ending – via globetrotting locations, action scenes galore, plenty of macabre touches and tons of sharply written dialogue – this is escapist storytelling as good as it gets. The cast are all super – Ford, Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys Davies, Denholm Elliot, Ronald Lacey, all understanding the swashbuckling tone perfectly. The music is out of this world. And the direction is breathtaking. Even though I know Raiders so well, each time I see it I’m bowled over by how inventive, interesting and witty many of the shots are and how pacey the film is. The whole thing has peerless panache.

Ten melting faces out of 10.

1941 (1979)

1941

A Japanese submarine approaches Los Angeles a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The local residents react in a mixture of madcap ways…

Seen before? Yes, just once. It was on Freeview channel Movie Mix last year (they seem to show it every other day at times).

Best performance: Wendie Jo Sperber, who later played Marty McFly’s whinny sister, is very funny as party girl Maxine Dexheimer.

Best scene/moment/sequence: A joyously choreographed fight in a dance hall is the movie’s highlight. It’s wittily staged stuff. Here’s a bit of it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOVNs9sT32k

Review: So much effort, so much money, so many people – and it results in this nonsense. 1941 is pretty much a sketch film, and while there are a few hits, it’s mostly misses. The visual gags tend to be the most successful: as well as the dance hall stuff, the trashing of an entire house at the film’s climax is entertaining. And it’s quite fun spotting famous faces in cameo roles (the structure means that pretty much everyone in it is a cameo): Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, John Candy, Michael McKean, John Landis, Mickey Rourke… But on the whole it’s a chore to sit through.

Five ferris wheels out of 10.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters

After he sees a number of UFOs during a blackout, family man Roy Neary becomes obsessed with finding them again…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy) is energetic, passionate and likeable (a neat trick seeing how he essentially plays a loony who abandons his family). He’s had a shave since Jaws.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Roy’s first nighttime encounter with a UFO is superb. I love the moment where what you assume are a car’s headlights slowly lift up above him.

Review: Lots of Spielberg firsts here. His trademark sense of wonder, his fascination with science fiction, and his love of kooky lower-middle-class families all get explored. It’s also his first movie to go full-throttle on the use of expressionistic lighting, colour, smoke and shadow to help tell his story. Many shots are *beautifully* composed. And while Richard Dreyfuss is going slightly mad and worrying his family, François Truffaut and Bob Balaban are trotting round the globe investigating strange goings-on in scenes set in stunning locations and featuring hundreds of well-marshalled extras (an area Spielberg has always excelled). I like this film, rather than love it. It’s very impressive but I can’t say it’s ever gripped me.

Eight mountains made from mashed potato out of 10.

Jaws (1975)

Jaws

When a New England town is plagued by shark attacks, the local police chief, a gruff fisherman and an oceanographer set sail to hunt it down.

Seen before? Yes, of course. It’s Jaws.

Best performance: I simply can’t split the three leads. Roy Sheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss are all sensational. Individually classy, collectively a powerhouse. The scene where they get drunk and compare scars is rightly revered.

Best scene/moment/sequence: So many to choose from, but it’s hard to look past the shark popping into view while Brody is throwing chum into the water. It’s one of the best shocks in any movie.

Review: This is such a confident movie. Freewheelingly so. The first half is expertly from Chief Brody’s point of view as the panic levels rise in the town, then we switch to the even better second hour on board Quint’s boat. The storytelling is pacey but never rushed, the music is famously superb, the shark attacks are genuinely terrifying, and we get probably the best dolly zoom in cinema history. There’s plenty of humanity too, as well as terror and excitement. We care about the people. A masterpiece.

Ten “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”s out of 10.

The Sugarland Express (1974)

SugarlandExpress

Lou Jean Poplin breaks boyfriend Clovis out of prison so they can stop their child being put into care – the pair are then chased across the country, take a policeman hostage, and are soon local celebrities.

Seen before? No, never.

Best performance: Goldie Hawn is feisty and fun, but the star of the show is William Atherton (who was later excellent as odious TV reporter Richard Thornburg in the first two Die Hards). He gives Clovis bravado and warmth in believably equal measure.

Best scene/moment/sequence: There’s a very funny moment when Lou Jean and Clovis run out of gas and have to ask one of the dozens of cops following them to push their car to a petrol station.

Review: Very much in the mode of boyfriend/girlfriend-on-the-lam movies such as Bonnie and Clyde or True Romance, this is sadly not as engaging as it should be. The setup is fun enough, and it’s then entertaining seeing more and more police (and media, and public) get involved in the chase. But the movie is not especially dynamic: once underway, it rolls along at a middle-gear pace and gets a bit dull.

Five Dodge Polaras out of 10.

Duel (1971)

Duel

Salesman David Mann is the victim of extreme road rage as a trucker persecutes him on a long cross-country car journey.

Seen before? No, first viewing.

Best performance: Burt Reynolds-a-like Dennis Weaver is in every scene and holds the whole thing together well. He gets increasingly deranged as we go along.

Best scene/moment/sequence: After being run off the road in a small town, David staggers into a bar, washes his face in the gents, wanders back into the bar and is spooked to see the truck parked outside – all done in one tense handheld shot.

Review: Simplistic and streamlined, this TV movie (which was cinema-released in the UK) is a great concept mined for as much tension as possible. It’s incredibly visceral, thanks to Spielberg’s smart choice to shoot it entirely on location, the great use of rumbling sound design, and the way the truck is filmed as if it were a monster: it growls and prowls and fills the frame like a lion, and the fact we never properly see its driver is a clever move too, dehumanising and demonising the vehicle further. Even this early, the whole movie is very Spielberg – there are inventive shots galore, while it’s about an everyman facing fantastic threats. It reminded me a lot of other rural car-chase movies, such as Vanishing Point, Mad Max and Death Proof – yet also felt like a horror film. Perhaps David’s internal-monologue voiceover is a bit on the cheesy side, but in a film about an isolated and friendless guy it’s hard to see how to avoid it. Entertaining stuff.

Seven Plymouth Valiants out of 10.