12 masterful Spielberg set-pieces

Like Hitchcock before him, Steven Spielberg is a master of the cinematic set-piece. These dozen sequences are the essence of his craft.

Matthew Thrift

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

With 45 years in pictures and counting, Steven Spielberg remains less an island in popular cinematic culture than a continent. He’s the most successful commercial filmmaker in the history of the medium, with the upcoming release of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG likely to see his total box-office haul pass the $10bn mark.

Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a director so consistently and spectacularly fused formal mastery with mainstream appeal; the success of his 1975 film Jaws reshaped the landscape of event cinema and created the blueprint for the modern blockbuster.

There’s little escaping the impact Spielberg’s greatest work has when viewed on the big screen, a two-month retrospective at BFI Southbank this summer offering just such an opportunity. Few filmmakers transcend questions of viewer demographic quite like Spielberg, and his films are an irresistible invitation to surrender our cynicism in exchange for the promise of awe.

It’s in his set-pieces – those sequences that mark a dramatic apex – that Spielberg most brilliantly and iconically demonstrates his mastery of the medium. His building of tension and its often euphoric release is, quite simply, peerless.

As if you needed reminding, we took a look at a dozen sequences that see him at the height of his powers.

Jaws (1975)

“Peek-a-boo”

His problems with ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark were famously legion, but Spielberg knows all too well the power of the unseen, holding back a proper glimpse of an entire generation’s thalassophobic poster boy right up to act three. An iconic close-up leaves space for the 20-footer (“25! Three tonnes of him!”) to breach the frame, a startled Roy Scheider backing up into immortality: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Spielberg sets the stage for the simpatico rhythms of editor Verna Fields and composer John Williams as our mismatched on-screen triumvirate prepare for the first-wave attack. Grace notes texture the scene – a slipped foot, the point of a harpoon – as a breathless tour of the boat serves up a complete sense of the space of the upcoming battleground. Tension mounts as the harpoon’s rope is fastened to a barrel, and released with a successful shot and pursuit, as Williams’ trumpets shift from stabbing anxiety to triumphant fanfare.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

“Ascension”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Given it’s the only film by Spielberg to be originated and written by the filmmaker himself, it’s unsurprising that Close Encounters proves to be his quintessential text. A neurotic masterpiece of suburban angst, it’s a film entirely devoid of cynicism; one that finds liberation in the regressive abandonment of the shackles of responsibility, exemplified in the cinematic rapture of its finale: a literal ascendance to the wonder. As Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary boards the mothership, John Williams’ score borrows a phrase from Pinocchio’s ‘When You Wish upon a Star’, while Spielberg blinds us to thoughts of Neary’s forgotten family with a deus-ex-machina sculpted in light. The 1980 special edition would – at Columbia’s insistence – take us inside the ship; a cathedral to special effects and overindulgence where the Pinocchio theme takes centre stage. It led Pauline Kael to note: “It was as though your memories had been mugged.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

“Getting the ball rolling”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Spielberg takes just three minutes at the very beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark to establish the iconic accoutrements of Indiana Jones. Shot from behind as he leads a traitorous Alfred Molina and his plus one through the jungle, we take him in piece by piece before a cocked pistol sees the whip drawn, a step forward from shadow into light (fedora-tip here to master DP, Douglas Slocombe) revealing the bronzed, bestubbled visage of cinema’s preeminent Cash in the Attic fan. Three tarantulas give way to dozens as we pass through the cobwebbed passage to the idol (“Nobody has come out of there alive”), Indy’s theft of which activates the Spielberg pièce-de-résistance. The slow journey in sets up our familiarity with a series of booby traps for the frantic dash out, but Spielberg knows the value of surprise as well as escalation, throwing in the cinematic coup of a giant, rolling boulder for good measure.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

“Lift-off”

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Spielberg’s ongoing relationship with composer John Williams arguably peaked with E.T.’s most iconic set-piece, the auteur theory reduced to rubble when faced with the symphonic ecstasy that underscores the first bike ride through the skies. It’s a sequence of breathtaking simplicity, just 10 shots of soaring elegance; the seventh that immortal silhouette against a full moon. Spielberg covers the journey through the woods to the cliff edge in a series of medium shots before E.T. takes control of the bike. Tension builds in Williams’ prelude to the main theme; a combustible sense of anticipation charged in one tingling close-up before Spielberg cuts wide for its majestic release. The film breaks hearts with its later meditations on friendship, love and loss, but prepare for tears here too, induced by a rapturous sequence of pure cinematic joy.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

“Nice try, Lao Che!”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Given the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark and with Spielberg now established as a household name on the back of the E.T. phenomenon, expectations were high for his first sequel. If there was ever a question of how to top the iconic prologue of its predecessor, Temple of Doom answered it resoundingly. For all the persistently problematic issues regarding its racial and sexual politics, few of Spielberg’s films can match it for sheer number of staggeringly orchestrated set-pieces. The opening serves up a series strung together: from Busby Berkeley-inspired song-and-dance number to 30s gangster-movie shootout and car chase; from plane crash to mountain-toboggan and raging rapids ride. It’s a full 20 minutes before we can catch our breath. Spielberg’s wit and jaw-dropping construction are on peak form, and we’re still an hour away from the mine-car chase and the breathtaking crosscutting of its preceding dust-ups.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

“Toy planes”

Empire of the Sun (1987)

With so many of Spielberg’s films fashioning a journey from darkness into light via an embrace of the fantastical, Empire of the Sun insistently inverts such a trajectory. In terms of imagery, it’s one of the director’s most poetic works, a terrific early scene setting out the steadily abraded line between fantasy and reality, between war games and the horrors of war itself. Jim (Christian Bale) absconds from a party, abandoning his glider for the wreckage of a downed fighter-plane. Spielberg gives Jim’s imagination free rein, before a search for his toy finds him face-to-face with an embedded troop of Japanese soldiers. It’s a sudden juxtaposition of adult and childhood worlds which Jim barely comprehends, the first of a series of collisions that serve to nullify the luxury of imagination when faced with the need to survive.

Jurassic Park (1993)

“Where’s the goat?”

Jurassic Park (1993)

Spielberg displays his mastery of classical construction and spatial awareness in the most iconic set-piece of his most financially successful film. Holding up the editing rhythms of Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attack to many a contemporary blockbuster is to compare organisation to chaos. Spielberg is all too aware that the modern recourse towards rapid cutting as shorthand for dynamism will always be found lacking without an established sense of a scene’s geography. Not that he’s averse to a little shorthand himself, here exemplified in the inspired simplicity of concentric shockwaves through a glass of water. Serving up an extended tease before the main event, Spielberg simultaneously familiarises us with the pieces on the board as he builds anticipation in waves – all the better to land a sucker-punch of misdirection as the prelude to all-out assault.

Schindler’s List (1993)

“Aktion Krakau”

Schindler’s List (1993)

It’s to his historical pictures that Spielberg’s most vocal critics point when decrying what they see as reductive tendencies in his portrayal of real-life events. There’s a fine line, they argue, between honest representation and aestheticising for dramatic effect, one the director frequently crosses, coating history with a veneer of cinematic melodrama. The dramatic irony employed in the gas chamber sequence of Schindler’s List suggests they may have a point, even if questions as to the filmmaker’s intent seem a challenge too far. A certain red coat aside, he’s on much surer ground with what must rank among his greatest sequences, the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. This sustained scene is charged with frantic terror, as Spielberg verbally establishes the basic layout of the space before darting between handheld sub-scenes and striking imagery, the tempo fuelled by confusion and horrifying brutality.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

“Dog green sector”

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

By the end of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Saving Private Ryan may emerge confused as to what it means to say about war; but at the end of its opening (godawful prologue aside) siege of Omaha Beach, there’s little confusion as to what it means to say about the set-piece. The 20-minute-plus sequence remains a staggeringly visceral achievement, Spielberg arriving tooled-up with a full cinematic arsenal to ensure a startling present-tense immediacy. We’re still feeling the aftershocks of its influence: its handheld, vérité style now the go-to shortcut for kinetic immersion in action filmmaking. Janusz Kaminski’s desaturated palette serves to deglamorise combat – as if the multitude of blown-off limbs didn’t already – while Spielberg double-prints his way through shell-shock effects and questionable ironies. The film quickly settles into a jingoistic trudge, but the sheer scale of its opening gambit makes as strong a case as any for Spielberg having taken over where David Lean left off.

Minority Report (2002)

“Red Ball”

Minority Report (2002)

The sheer volume of information transmitted in Minority Report’s 15-minute prologue makes for one of Spielberg’s most complex set-pieces. It establishes the film’s future milieu, introduces the players and lays out the rules of engagement: the process by which Tom Cruise’s ‘pre-crime’ unit can predict and intercept a murder before it takes place. What ends in a race to catch up with time begins with a fragmented visualisation of how the scene will play out. Spielberg’s crosscutting between locations grants a spatial awareness to the audience that he denies his protagonist; the tension drawn from our – and the murderer’s – position a heartbeat ahead of Cruise. Spielberg plays with the motif of prefiguration throughout, a cut to a pair of scissors piercing the eye of a mask and the killer’s assertion that he’s blind without his glasses pointing forward to Cruise’s own passion play to come. In a film loaded with religious symbolism, it’s only after the loss of his own eyes that he’s finally able to see.

War of the Worlds (2005)

“Contact”

War of the Worlds (2005)

“That’s so weird, the wind is blowing towards the storm,” says Tom Cruise to his neighbour, giggling nervously as they look to the sky. Lightning strikes, stopping as quickly as it begins, the calm before the real storm. Spielberg is back in the suburbs, warming up for the bleakest of his event spectaculars, a close encounter of the post-9/11 kind. If 1977’s benign visitation was couched in suburban anxiety, War of the Worlds proves a study in trauma. The emergence of the alien colossi and subsequent attack are impossible to detach from the real-world terror of 2001, Spielberg’s appropriation of indelible imagery marking the film as his most contemporaneously engaged. The set-piece acts as a thrilling kickstart to a film heading to some dark places (reminder: come the apocalypse, stay out of Tim Robbins’ basement), a moral inquiry into the survival instinct that ditches heroics for a more human mess of fear and impotence.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

“Bagghar”

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

After a string of ‘serious’ pictures and that Indiana Jones sequel, Spielberg took advantage of the advancements in motion-capture technology for a return to full-blown P.T. Barnum mode. One can feel the glee with which he approaches the gravitational elasticity afforded by his 3D, animated world, exemplified in a third-act chase captured in one impossible master shot. With Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock in pursuit of a stolen scroll through the steeply descending streets of Bagghar, Spielberg’s camera swoops and dives with their falcon adversary, pirouetting through the demolition derby they leave in their wake. Without any cuts, the sequence’s rhythms are determined by movement and textured by Spielberg’s trademark visual asides. Serving up four magnificent minutes of tanks, motorbikes, bazookas and zip-lines, it’s an astonishing feat of directorial engineering, a bravura pursuit by land, sea and air.

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