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The Steven Spielberg Film Factory

Prove your talents, and you might get your own project - like `Arachnophobia's' director

STEVEN SPIELBERG isn't just a filmmaker; he's an institution. In addition to directing movies, he presides over a production company - called Amblin Entertainment, after his first film - that cranks out comedies and adventures and supports a long list of people who share his tastes and sensibilities.

Demonstrate your talents convincingly enough to Mr. Spielberg and, if directing is among your ambitions, you might find yourself in charge of your own project - like Frank Marshall, who has directed the new ``Arachnophobia'' after years of helping Spielberg run the Amblin assembly line.

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Which goes to prove that the old Hollywood system lives on, though in a shape very different from that of past decades.

From the 1930s through the '60s, a would-be auteur had to please studio bosses and production chiefs in order to penetrate the directorial power structure. Today, freewheelers like Spielberg operate as independents, producing and releasing their pictures through whatever studio makes the best offer and provides the best conditions.

Spielberg is one of those moguls, and that's why so many aspiring blockbusters bear his name in the ``directed by'' or ``presented by'' column.

``Arachnophobia'' is Spielbergian to its bones, even though his signature is buried in the ``executive producer'' category. And no wonder his imprint is so plain to see: The picture was made by a hand-picked team with plenty of earlier Spielberg projects under its collective belt.

The captain for this particular game, director Marshall, is a former producer with Spielberg productions from ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' to ``Always'' in his resume; coproducer Kathleen Kennedy's connection with Mr. S. stretches back to ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,'' still the highest-grossing movie of all time; cinematographer Mikael Salomon has ``Always'' among his Hollywood credits; editor Michael Kahn has worked on Spielberg pictures from ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' on; and so forth.

These people know how Spielberg thinks, wants his movies to look, and - most important - likes them to sell at the box office. ``Arachnophobia'' clicks along exactly like a dozen of its mass-marketed predecessors, mingling humor and violence into something the publicity calls ``thrill-omedy,'' a new label for a very old brand of soda pop.

Everything from the basic ingredient (spiders) to the heroes (Jeff Daniels and John Goodman) is aimed at roping in the largest possible number of spectators and providing them with enough chills and giggles to lure them back for more viewings - meanwhile reinforcing the American taste for utterly brainless entertainments.

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I don't want to sound totally negative about the ``product'' associated with Spielberg's name. For one thing, Spielberg has been trying very hard to grow up in recent years; pictures like ``The Color Purple'' and ``Empire of the Sun'' have traces of real maturity to them and show a willingness to put his awesome technical prowess at the service of material with social as well as entertainment value, for the first time since ``The Sugarland Express'' and moments of ``Close Encounters,'' early in his career.

So far, though, he seems most willing to try on his grown-up clothes in pictures that he personally directs, sticking to kid stuff in projects delegated to his associates.

Then, too, ``Arachnophobia'' is more fun to watch than most of this summer's Hollywood fare - which is not so much a compliment to ``Arachnophobia'' as a comment on the stupidity of ``Robocop 2'' and ``Total Recall'' and their gruesome ilk.

At least Spielberg's picture deals with a family instead of monsters, robots, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the other current axioms of pure-escapist cinema. It's a likable family, too, and it feels good to root for them in their battle with a giant spider and its brood, imported from Venezuela by a careless entomologist. In today's movie climate, these - and the lucid cinematography and occasional clever sight gags - are not small virtues.

This is all the film has to boast of, however. Marshall has the know-how to coordinate his crew of skilled technicians, but not to give the picture a look, feel, and personality of its own.

A stopwatch (for timing) and a hotline to the movie-rating board (for staying inside PG-13 boundaries) are, along with Spielberg, the real auteurs of the picture.

Students of subtextual nuances may wish to ponder the film's casting (all the smart characters are thin, all the silly ones chubby) and its simplistic nods to pop psychology, not to mention the queasy bathroom scenes that intrude into the story.

For the rest, ``Arachnophobia'' offers little but another ride down Spielberg's patented rollercoaster, which we've all ridden many times already.

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