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All About Steve: The Spielberg Imitators

  When Lance Henriksen had a small role in Steven Spielberg's science fiction blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he was in the grand finale where the aliens arrive to meet with humanity. In a break between scenes, he went up to the director with a suggestion: that they shoot a part where he grabbed one of the aliens, dragged it into a trailer and beat the shit out of it. As a result, Mr Henriksen does not appear in the final cut of the film as much as he might have, for Spielberg was horrified that someone would get the premise of his beloved project so wrong, but if the actor was more used to the movies where the space creatures were the bad guys, he was only establishing that point of view in a childhood where the likes of War of the Worlds and Earth vs the Flying Saucers were the most prominent examples of science fiction.

The funny thing was, Spielberg was from that background too, yet wanted to try something different with the genre; there had been benevolent aliens on the silver screen before - note the scary/friendly visitors of It Came From Outer Space - but Close Encounters truly cemented the notion in the public mind. Which makes it odd that for a while in the nineteen-eighties he was planning a remake of one of the most paranoid of the fifties cult classics, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers for kids that was Invaders from Mars. As it turned out, he had other fish to fry, and the reins were handed over to fresh Cannon recruit Tobe Hooper who was signed up to make three expensive pictures for the roguish producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, all of which turned out to be equally expensive flops, if not more so, whereupon they parted ways with Hooper and neither really recovered their previous form in the industry.

But the point was, you tried to ape Spielberg at your peril. His first really big hit was Jaws, a worldwide smash and part of the seventies revenge of nature horror cycle, but that spawned a bunch of other killer sharks – Tintorera, Mako: Jaws of Death - and sundry non-shark watery threats - Killer Fish, Tentacles - not to mention land-based menaces - Grizzly, Claws - and even a car - er, The Car - that set up the pattern of the movie brats' biggest star influencing commercial cinema in his wake. One of those was Piranha, from Joe Dante who like Hooper and indeed Henriksen enjoyed the same pop culture as Spielberg did, and as that film was assuredly one of the better imitators thanks to Dante's own particular sensibility offsetting the material, he was invited to direct the Spielberg-produced Christmas classic Gremlins. That film in essence subverted the Americana recognisable from his overseer's work, though you could argue he was not pulling the wool over his eyes by any means.

For Spielberg made sure there was always something smuggled into his first flush of blockbusters that would be subversive in some way, be it an observation on society, or simply an image that was unshakeably disturbing yet allowed because it was set in a production so geared for the mass audience. It didn't always succeed, as wartime comedy 1941 left him smarting and did not breed those imitators in tribute when it failed, but with something like Raiders of the Lost Ark he could present horror effects of shocking proportions (see the fate of the Nazis, for example) that were utterly accepted by the general public when if they had appeared in most other directors' work they would have been slapped with an R rating rather than a PG. Cannon noted the success of Raiders and produced their own copies, such as the Richard Chamberlain-starring King Solomon's Mines and its sequel.

As you might expect, those fly by nights were not on the same level as the biggest producer-director around, but that didn't stop them funding Hooper's Invaders from Mars remake in a crass manner that the young Henriksen would have understood. E.T. The Extraterrestrial had been released recently, so there was an obvious try at delivering the same thrills, except this time the aliens were malevolent and had to be battled by the military in full-on "Cold War heats up" eighties tradition, meaning 'splosions in the Cannon action flick manner and lots of them instead of a touching tale of two intergalactic cultures making a connection thanks to the sensitivity of one little boy. The little boy in Invaders was Hunter Carson, illustrating that whatever talent his mother Karen Black possessed, it hadn't really rubbed off on her son, not past his role in Paris, Texas at any rate, and she was there to act alongside him in a story that must have struck a spiritual chord in the famed Scientologist. Carson, whose father had penned Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 for Hooper, was David, who witnessed a U.F.O. land over the hill outside his bedroom window.

Hooper stuck fairly close to the basic narrative as delineated by the original, but the business invented for the remake was difficult to ignore regarding the source, at the time a television staple and therefore very familiar. For a start, there were the Spielberg references, all the more apt in light of Hooper having directed Poltergeist with him as producer and doing such a good job of recreating the man's style that many believed Spielberg would dismiss him every morning and take the reins himself. If Cannon could not get the biggest director around, one of his apparent underlings would be the next best thing, and so it was just as a particular brand of candy was famously featured in E.T., there was a rival brand spotlighted on David's bedside table product placement style, the frogs for dissection issue was copied for David's science class with an idiotic upping of the ante when the hated teacher (Louise Fletcher) eats one whole, and the kid would look to the skies in wonder à la Close Encounters whenever a flying saucer appeared overhead.

All that said, Hooper didn't craft the worst rip-off of the eighties, as there were many pretenders to that throne, and curiously when Spielberg came to remaking a sci-fi favourite he chose War of the Worlds, a blockbuster back in the fifties and likewise in the noughties, with great faith to the scare factor by concentrating on the terror exhibited by Dakota Fanning's little girl character. This motive to provide a scare with the heartwarming message was lost on the makers of, say, Mac and Me, which took the aforementioned product placement angle and really ran with it to create one of the most tone deaf imitations of a nevertheless commercial original, but Roland Emmerich had the idea when he concentrated on the ventriloquist's dummy in his Making Contact, following on from the clown doll from Poltergeist not to mention the toddler's toys springing to life in Close Encounters, a frightening scene for many pre-teens. South Africa's Nukie was apparently one of Nelson Mandela's favourites in spite of being unwatchable, and the trend continued years later in India with Koi... Mil Gaya which somehow turned into the Krrish superhero franchise.

That Close Encounters toddler, Cary Guffey, enjoyed a brief career in Italian Spielberg copies, but Dakota has a sister, and she was Elle Fanning who surely by no coincidence appeared in the most slavish of Spielberg facsimiles way after the heyday of such things, and appropriately he produced Super 8 himself, positively wallowing in the references to his old movies. It was J.J. Abrams on writing and directing duties, four years before he proved he could do a pretty decent George Lucas impersonation with his Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens, but he had known Spielberg for years and naturally, as with almost every one of his generation, had grown up watching the relevant movies. You could spot the tribute in almost every scene, with the alien who wanted to get home from E.T. mixed with the terrorised small community from Jaws, even to the degree of replicating specific plot points, though what was interesting was that while the visitor proved to be benevolent aside from when the authorities were concerned, a lift from Close Encounters though even in that they were all right in the end, Abrams acknowledged something.

Which was E.T. scared a lot of kids, not just because of the sequences when the faceless military arrived and took over, but by the creature itself and no amount of cuteness with Elliot (Henry Thomas) would alleviate that fear. Therefore a menacing presence that did all those evil alien things the Martians would get up to in the Hooper remake was the result - it even crushes a soldier's head in one shot - bringing up some mixed feelings in the audience that saw the reaction divided between those who were happy to go along with the sense of wonder conjured up, and those who found the kid heroes annoying in Goonies fashion and the premise dubious when there was so much death and destruction involved, not to mention overdoing it on the swearing to secure that PG-13. The point was, these children would be able to cope better with the mayhem than the adults, another Spielberg trope (see Empire of the Sun), rendering them the protagonists and the grown-ups the support flailing as they failed to relate.

In many ways Super 8 bettered the Spielberg followers of decades past, and not simply because it had the budget to realise the effects those lower-funded efforts could only dream of, though Abrams' alien still had that unreal quality computer graphics held, that lack of tactility where you could tell you were watching animation and not the oddly more convincing puppetry of E.T. As it was set on the cusp of the seventies into the eighties, there was a nostalgia factor as there was in much of its inspiration, unavoidable when those films were so much of people's lives as once they had made their impact in cinemas, they continued to be broadcast on television, released on home formats, and finally available at any time through internet streaming. So the entire audience was well aware of what Abrams was getting at, and the premise of a bunch of budding filmmakers was as much a tribute to the kids who used pop culture for play as it was those who translated it to a career - there was even a recreation of the Cecil B. de Mille train crash from The Greatest Show on Earth as a setpiece in Super 8, precisely the sequence that originally inspired a young Steven. What you did take away was that there was only one Steven Spielberg, and his work had changed an entire medium, maybe more.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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