Total Recall: Best Steven Spielberg Productions
With Super 8 hitting theaters, we count down the best movies the great director managed behind the scenes.
Much has been made of the fact that Steven Spielberg produced J.J. Abrams' Super 8 -- and rightly so, given how strongly it seems to evoke memories of Spielberg's classic past. But even though we think of Spielberg as a director first, he's also had a very busy (and fairly distinguished) career as a producer -- and to show you what we mean, we decided to dedicate this week's Total Recall to films he didn't direct. We ended up with a varied list that includes some huge hits, a handful of modern classics, and maybe even a few surprises. Read on!
It earned nearly $150 million at the box office, marked Chris Columbus as a young screenwriter to watch, and resuscitated director Joe Dante's ailing career -- but Gremlins was also part of one of 1984's biggest Hollywood controversies, sparking concern that the MPAA was giving PG ratings to films that were too intense for a younger audience (such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Spielberg suggested that an overhaul of the ratings system might be in order, and roughly a month after Gremlins' release, the PG-13 was born. Parental concerns over gremlin-related violence aside, the film was also a solid critical winner, earning praise from the likes of Roger Ebert, who wrote, "At the level of Serious Film Criticism, it's a meditation on the myths in our movies: Christmas, families, monsters, retail stores, movies, boogeymen. At the level of Pop Moviegoing, it's a sophisticated, witty B movie."
As executive producer of Martin Campbell's swashbuckling Zorro reboot, Spielberg may not have had to take much of an active role in the day-to-day development of the film, but he was responsible for at least one key element: the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who caught his eye with her performance in the CBS miniseries The Titanic. It proved a starmaking turn for Zeta-Jones, who upstaged Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins in the film that Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called "A lively, old-fashioned adventure yarn with just a twist of modern attitude" and "the kind of pleasant entertainment that allows the paying customers to have as much fun as the people on screen."
Somewhat appropriately for a film inspired by the Beatles' first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, this wacky 1978 comedy was a film of debuts -- for Robert Zemeckis, notching his first feature-length directorial credit, and for Spielberg, who produced for the first time (under the watchful eye of Universal, who made him promise he'd step in and direct if Zemeckis faltered). Despite the lack of experience, it was smooth sailing for I Wanna Hold Your Hand -- at least until the film reached audiences, who ignored it so completely that it couldn't even earn back its $2.8 million budget. As far as critics were concerned, however, it was the audience's loss: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand re-creates precisely the excitement the Beatles let loose 14 years ago," wrote Time's Frank Rich, adding that "it transports the audience back to the eye of a phenomenal social hurricane."
Unlike a lot of the movies on this list, which benefited from his participation on a more or less ancillary level, Poltergeist was very much a Steven Spielberg production -- starting with the script, which he co-wrote, and ending with his almost daily presence on the set, which sparked a DGA investigation and years of rumors about whether the credited director, Tobe Hooper, was merely a stand-in to help Spielberg wriggle out of a contractual agreement that prevented him from helming a film that would end up in direct competition with E.T. Whatever really happened behind the cameras, the result was a huge hit that spawned a franchise and won the unqualified praise of critics like Moviehole's Clint Morris, who called it "One of the best horror flicks ever...bar none."
Spielberg's longtime production partner (and co-founder of Amblin Entertainment) Frank Marshall made his directorial debut with this affectionate, cheerfully creepy tribute to classic Hollywood creature features, in which a deadly breed of spider terrorizes a small town whose residents include a lunatic exterminator (John Goodman) and, of course, a doctor with the titular phobia (Jeff Daniels). "That sound you hear in the background is the 'ugh!' heard round the world," chuckled Janet Maslin of the New York Times, adding, "luckily, Arachnophobia will also be generating its share of boisterous, nervous laughter."