Steven Spielberg is an internationally acclaimed and multiple award-winning director who has been responsible for many a classic in his over 40-year career. Spielberg has been quite prolific in many genres – from E.T. The Extraterrestrial to Saving Private Ryan and The Terminal – and has gifted us with some of the best villains in cinematic history. Spielberg’s take on his villains is more in-depth and ideological than many other directors in Hollywood and, as such, he’s been able to make a villain out of a shark, and have us question the morality of war.
It’d be nearly impossible – and it would make for a helluva bigger list! – to mention all of Spielberg’s greatest classics and award-winning films. These few chosen ones are – nevertheless – a testament to the lifework of the cinematography mastermind that is Steven Spielberg.
In the 1975 classic Jaws, Spielberg made sure that everyone feared the most unlikely villain possible in a thriller — the inhuman one. And Spielberg didn’t even use the unknown as a fear factor in Jaws — since every time that frightening score came on everyone knew what to expect — but still the great white shark has managed to terrorize generation after generation. Because the mechanic shark didn’t always function right, Steven opted to have the animal’s imminent presence play with viewers’ minds and, thus, created one of the most terrifying villains of all movie history without even having to show it for most of the film.
1993’s Jurassic Park is yet another example of a non-human villain creating havoc among humans. In an island near the Costa Rican shores, a bio engineer created a population of cloned dinosaurs and decided it would make for great entertainment. Visitors tour the island in electrical vehicles, which are controlled by computer – like everything else in the park. When a tropical storm hits the island and the systems go down, it becomes clear that the previously extinct animals can’t possibly coexist with humans. After many close calls — where the animals see the humans as food and nothing else — the remaining survivors manage to escape in an helicopter, and the dinosaurs take over the island.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays both with people’s imagination of what aliens would look like, and the fear of the unknown alike. The two protagonists — Jillian, the housewife whose son gets abducted, and the electrician Roy — have ‘memories’ planted in their minds as a result of their close encounters with UFOs. The search of a language in which to communicate and better understand the extraterrestrial beings is paramount in the film, showing that — sometimes — humans’ desire to comprehend their so-called enemies is an inherent factor of our nature.
E.T. The Extraterrestrial brings a new perspective into the alien movie genre, as it presents the humans as the main antagonists to the benevolent aliens. When the little boy Elliot finds E.T. and brings him to his home, he begins to realize that there’s nothing to be feared from the creature. Likewise, when the government scientists take over his home and prepare to do experiments on E.T. and on himself, Elliot realizes that the true danger comes from the humans like himself and helps E.T. reunite with his kind.
, in War of the Worlds, Spielberg presents the aliens under a different light and, this time, they’re truly the bad guys. Manipulating the weather, the aliens manage to bring their Tripods — extraterrestrial security and harvesting machines — to the ground, destroying cities and killing people in the process. Thankfully, prepared as they were to overtake Earth, the aliens couldn’t survive the microbes from our planet and, thus, are naturally eliminated.
In The Color Purple, the African American Celie faces the humiliation and the degradation of being constantly beaten and forced into submission, first by her step-father and later by her husband. Celie has her children taken away from her, her sister is forced to live her – after almost being raped by Celie’s husband – and she suffers never-ending abuse from both her husband and his son. The Color Purple offers some insight into the lives of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Spielberg addresses the violence that sprung from their suffering (after centuries of slavery), and how much women believed their duty was to quietly suffer in the hands of their patriarchs, who legally held power over them.
Amistad is a 1997 film about a slave ship which was taken over by the African slaves themselves, only to be tricked by the crew and given over to American law. Steven Spielberg makes a point to present the story through the slaves’ perspective which, in turn, offers viewers the opportunity to witness the desperation, the powerlessness and the humiliation the African slaves went through in trying to regain their freedom. Power is key in Amistad, evidenced both in its abundance — shown in the manipulation of the law by the land/slave owners of America — and its the lack, which put the slaves into the category of things rather than people.
Spielberg outdid himself in his award-winning Schindler’s List in which war – and its price – is the absolute villain. Amid World War II, Oskar Schindler moves to Krakow and employs Jewish workers for lower costs – at the advice of his factory manager, who hopes to save more Jews from concentration camps and ghettos this way. Soon, Schindler witnesses the horrors of war, especially when he sees the death of the red coat girl (the only ounce of color in this otherwise black and white film). As the end of War draws near, Schindler makes a list of names of Jews who will be his employees in his future factory and manages to save 100 people from being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg gives us yet another inside look into the effects of war, as the film follows the journey of young British boy, Jamie ‘Jim’ Graham, who is separated from his parents early on. Christian Bale wonderfully plays Jim, and viewers move with him from camp to camp, raid to raid, until he settles in a Japanese camp. Along the way, Jim meets – and sometimes befriends – Americans and Japanese alike. While he survives the World War II and the Pacific War on his own, Jim eventually begins to forget what his mom and dad looked like. Against all odds, at the end of Empire of the Sun, Jim is taken by American soldiers to an orphanage – where he reunites with his parents – but his losses and traumas from being alone all those years remain with him.
The BFG may have , but the story of dreams and people being abducted in the middle of the night is too Spielberg-like not to mention. In The BFG, the story revolves around the Giant Country and the BFG – a good-hearted giant who is constantly bullied by his fellow giants. Their job is to go into Dream Country every night and capture dreams, but when the BFG captures the little Sophie instead, he brings home more trouble than he can handle. The other giants – the Fleshlumpeater and the Bloodbottler – are man-eating giants, and capturing Sophie is their new goal. Eventually, Queen Elizabeth II of England is enlisted to help the BFG and Sophie get rid of the man-eating giants – isolating them to an island and feeding them vegetables forever!
As a sequel to J.M.Marie’s classic 1911’s novel, Hook shows a grown-up Peter Pan who has forgotten all about his childhood adventures in Neverland. He’s Peter Banning, a successful lawyer, who is married with two children of his own. It is only when his former enemy Captain Hook kidnaps his children that Peter ventures back into Neverland to save them. Since Peter doesn’t hold memories of ever being in Neverland, Tinker Bell comes to the rescue, taking him back and helping him find his way back into his child self. Captain Hook attempts to win the love of Peter’s children, but in the final face-off, Peter gets the best of the old Captain – with the help of Hook’s own nemesis – the stuffed crocodile.
His villains may not be your classical ones – the manipulative, intensely evil and outright bad guys – but, as with everything in his films, Spielberg’s counterpart to goodness is supposed to make us think and reflect upon the messages his films try to convey. It’s never simply black or white with Mr. Spielberg and, therefore, his villains are meant to be the every day choices and morality questions faced by all of us.
What’s your take on Spielberg’s villains? Do you have another to add to the list? Do so in the comments below!
The Walking Dead – Game of Thrones – Outlander – Vikings – Arrow – Sense8 – Homeland