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Steven Spielberg: Don’t Look Back

on September 13, 2015, 3:15pm

Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet.

COS_Music_Movies_Moods (2)Steven Spielberg has a lot of chutzpah.

That was the first thought that came to mind after reading last week’s Hollywood Reporter article mentioning that the New Hollywood-era pioneer might spearhead reboots of classic Universal franchises like Back to the Future and Jaws. The piece actually focused on Spielberg using his Jurassic World box office leverage to negotiate a better distribution deal for his production company, DreamWorks. But most readers, myself included, skipped the industry jargon and sank our ravenous incisors into that one-line speculative morsel. And not many of us seemed to like the taste.

I feel silly now about my disgust. Why should I care if Spielberg partners with Universal and takes audiences back to Hill Valley or Amity Island? I’m not overly precious about movie properties, not even franchises like these that I grew up with and adore. I’ll never forget how a friend of mine once threw a fit in a theater lobby over not wanting our group of friends to see The Grinch because she feared Jim Carrey would besmirch the legacy of her favorite Christmastime television special. Try as I might, I just couldn’t make my heart grow enough sizes to not buy a ticket anyway. And even though I occasionally contribute to a CoS feature called Producer’s Chair, I generally shy away from offering career advice to filmmakers who own enough Oscars to hoist one in each hand with a gold statue to spare. A new Jaws will neither pick my pocket nor tear off my leg, so god bless, right? Wrong. Again, why such a negative gut reaction?

Spielberg Jaws Back to the Future

It’s also not as though Spielberg has shied away from revisiting past triumphs, often to small-but-vocal pockets of criticism. Film purists bemoaned and South Park lampooned his decisions to digitally alter some of his most beloved movies. Who can forget the placating walkie-talkies-for-guns swap featured in E.T.’s 20th anniversary edition? And while the Jaws franchise may have jumped the shark without him, he’s been at the helm as either director or producer for the duration of other long-running franchises. Indiana Jones’ hat and bullwhip barely had time to gather dust after 1989’s Last Crusade before rumors about the archaeologist’s next final adventure made another installment (or several) seem all but inevitable. It’s also doubtful that Spielberg’s producer’s chair for the money-printing Jurassic Park franchise will grow cold anytime soon. For the record, I have no real gripes about either of those franchises — both of which I also grew up on — returning and potentially outstaying their welcome. I was admittedly curious about peeking in on Henry Jones Jr. as a senior citizen (why’d it have to be aliens, though?), and count me in for Jurassic Universe (where else can you go from World?) in 2018.

So, let’s check the scoreboard. I’m fine with geriatric adventurers leaping from moving vehicles and swapping punches and also with dinosaurs wreaking havoc pretty much anywhere they like from here to eternity, but “get your damn hands off” Marty McFly and mechanical great white sharks. How’s that for drawing a definitive yet completely arbitrary line in the sand?

DeloreonI’m not alone, though. Earlier this summer, Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and partial rights holder of the franchise alongside writer Bob Gale, lambasted the idea of his trilogy being revisited: “Oh, god no. That can’t happen until both Bob and I are dead … I mean, to me, that’s outrageous. Especially since it’s a good movie.” Here’s praying that Zemeckis outlives us all, but, more to the point, he’s right: these are good movies we’re talking about remaking. This summer I had the opportunity to see both Back to the Future and Jaws on the big screen for the first time. It felt like I was riding shotgun in the DeLorean and serving as third mate on the Orca (with gruesomely optimistic chances for advancement). Marty and Hooper were my wing men as I rekindled a love for these films that had somehow dampened over the years without me realizing. Back to the Future remains a timeless father-son story turned beautifully on its head and Jaws a perfectly paced thriller that makes a toe-dip in the swimming pool feel like a risk not worth taking. These are really good movies.

We’re undeniably living in a recycle-reduce-reuse film era of reboots, remakes, and redos. Never has what’s coming soon to a theater near you relied so heavily on the past. Cash register cha-chings aside, I can only think of two reasons why a film or franchise should be remade or rebooted: to continue a story worth telling or to update a concept so that new audiences can also enjoy it. I don’t see either of these prospective reboots ticking those boxes.

Setting aside the unthinkable possibility of having to recast the part of Marty McFly, what’s left to be explored in Hill Valley? We’ve already thoroughly navigated the space-time continuum alongside Marty (recent past, distant past, present, altered present, and future) and know that the McFlys will turn out fine because Marty learned the ultimate lesson from his adventures: “Your future is whatever you make it.” And if we’re really grasping, I suppose we could go down the multiple Batmobile route and update the make and model of the time machine (commence nerd riots), but what else from the franchise hasn’t aged well? As long as adolescence includes self-doubt, buttheads like Biff, and the feeling that a better life is always just out of reach, Back to the Future will never feel antiquated.

As for Jaws, the obvious inclination would be to recast the temperamental “Bruce,” likely the most difficult actor Spielberg has ever directed, with a fresher fish. No doubt the technology available to modern filmmakers could make for a far more lifelike great white, but would that authenticity render us any more terrified as Jaws scales the stern towards Quint or bull-rushes Brody at the end? Spielberg, for all his technological innovations as a filmmaker, presumably understands that it’s ultimately the emotions experienced aboard the Orca, not the special effects lurking in the water below, that fuel that film’s terrifying and triumphant conclusion.

I suppose that’s the rub, then. Back to the Future and Jaws reboots feel pointless to me, and that’s why I cringe — selfishly. Here’s a visionary who helped invent the modern blockbuster, created lifelong film lovers by ushering multiple generations of children into theaters, and stoked the embers of countless imaginations, but his influence goes far beyond that. Spielberg has spent the last 40-plus years not only creating worlds but reshaping how we view our own. For countless millions, his on-screen legacy defines our very concepts of things like dinosaurs and shark attacks and, far more significantly, provides the images through which we reflect on our troubling, often shameful, histories: war (Saving Private Ryan), slavery (Amistad), and genocide (Schindler’s List). Whether it’s a rush of adrenaline or a sobering look at humanity, Spielberg’s films document our time here. As he pushes 70 — a fact that no time machine can alter — I’m far more interested to see what he has left to create rather than remake in the years to come.

If Spielberg ever does get to reboot Back to the Future or Jaws, I’ll be tempted to paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Spielberg was so preoccupied with whether or not he could that he didn’t stop to think if he should.” But that’s a cheap shot, or at least an inexpensive one. So, I’ll borrow from Doctor Emmett L. Brown instead: “Our future is whatever you make it, Steven. So make it a good one.”

Pretty heavy, huh?

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