Spielberg killed the summer blockbuster

The curtains have all but closed on the summer of 2011 — on “Pirates 4,” on “X-Men 5,” on “Harry Potter 8” — and Steven Spielberg couldn’t be happier.

After all, the moviemaker-turned-billionaire-media-mogul has a lot to celebrate. He’s won two directing Oscars, his movies have grossed (unadjusted) over $8 billion at the box office, and he’s the father of the modern blockbuster. But if “Green Lantern,” “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” or “Transformers 3” are any indication, there’s something off in the summer film market these days. And Steven Spielberg’s the one to blame.

Don’t misunderstand me. “Jaws,” Spielberg’s first great picture and watershed directing achievement, was a piece of suspenseful perfection that frightened an entire generation out of the water and probably had Ron Jon’s Surf Shop calling for his head. And even if the film’s awkward half-mechanical, half-puppet Great White couldn’t scare a crippled seal, the movie itself is universally considered a classic — why? Because it was a truly innovative approach to the textbook thriller, and audiences have eaten it up, ate it up, and will continue eating it up for years and years.

“Jaws” set the stage for all of our contemporary summer blockbusters and effectively reshuffled American cinema, leading to a long string of popular summer hits throughout the late-70s to early-90s: Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” a young James Cameron’s “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Die Hard,” featuring Bruce Willis in his breakout action role, and on and on — all genuinely great action films that smashed the box offices.

But these films, championed by Spielberg, set a commercial precedent that, whether good or bad, still persists to this day. Of course, film has always been a business, and investors pour their money into them for lucrative dividends. But these movies were different beasts altogether — producers loved them for the financial gain, and audiences loved them because they were simply great pictures.

So how did we get from “Jaws” to “Green Lantern?” Spielberg again.

1993’s “Jurassic Park” is the director’s highest grossing film and, because of its groundbreaking use of CGI, probably his most important. But while “Jaws” taught us that great films could still make bank, “Jurassic Park” inadvertently made clear to us that special effects could trump script, performance, and direction.

Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times.

This year’s top three money-grabbers — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” — use absurd levels of CGI, but that doesn’t make them bad films. You get what you pay for: two-plus hours away from duty and obligation. And some $4-$5 billion worth of box office ticketholders would probably agree with me. But there are obviously some other issues at work here that raise legitimate questions: What’s up with all the sequels? Is 3-D the next woeful step in CGI-storytelling? And why is Michael Bay honestly still allowed to make movies?

Then again, this might just be needless naysaying.

The truly good films do tend to rise to the top, and people easily forget bad movies. (Can anyone name the five best films from last summer not named “Inception?” — I came up with “Toy Story 3” after ten minutes. That’s it.) So the issue here is probably just producer laziness. It’s always easier to set off multiple explosions, sprinkle some dialogue in between the blasts, and slap the tag of “summer blockbuster” onto the front of it. Audiences will still see the film, either praise or denounce it, then move on to the next one.

So as responsible as he is for the current dearth of great summer films, Spielberg did his job — make gripping films that earn backers piles of money — and for all his mainstream criticism, he is still a great filmmaker (see: “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” if you have any doubts). The thing is, Spielberg’s not really making movies anymore.

And that leaves us with the hot mess we endure every summer.

But all’s not lost. Christopher Nolan’s finale to his critically acclaimed Batman series is slated for a summer 2012 release. J. J. Abrams is slowly beginning to develop into a capable Spielberg stand-in, following the success of “Super 8” (produced by Spielberg himself). And despite what “Cars 2” might have led you to believe, Pixar will be back next year, just as great as they’ve always been. Here’s just hoping that Michael Bay might eventually get on the same page.

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