Spielberg By Numbers – War of the Worlds


War of the Worlds (2005)


The Plot: (VERY LOOSELY based on the H.G. Wells novel) Aliens invade Earth. Madness ensues.

Seen It Before?: Yep. Saw this in the theater, actually. It FREAKED me out, but I’ve grown to appreciate it more in recent years.

Writing (6): OK, so first off we need to address how well it addresses the source material. I’m probably going to get shot for this, but I think it certainly knows what it needs to do, even if it stumbles here and there.

Wells wrote this book as a slap in the face to English readers who had grown comfortable with the colonialism of the British Empire. He would have read about peoples being wiped out, such as the natives in Tasmania, and that definitely made him angry. So he wrote this as a way to put people in the position of the conquered and then end it with the message that invading a foreign place and killing its inhabitants is literally a crime against nature with nature, not humanity, defeating the invading aliens.


Spielberg isn’t using this film as a commentary on colonialism, but he is definitely reacting to the senselessness of mass violence and exploring the feelings of helplessness that all Americans felt when New York was attacked four years earlier in 9/11. This film was also released only months before Katrina hit and chillingly predicts the violence that erupted as the city was left to fend for itself early on in the disaster.


I think where the script trips up is when it tries to add in the whole broken family plot. I know that’s a common theme that Spielberg likes to explore, but it’s done to such an extreme level that I think it muddies things.

But this is very much a visual film, and so script issues aside, it can still be very effective.

Acting (7): Tom Cruise is genuinely good in this. Say what you will about him, but he’s a good actor. I tend to think of this film as more of a silent film in that so much of its impact is visual, so his reactions to what is happening really sell them as genuine horrifying tragedies as opposed to a backdrop to a dumb action flick, which I appreciate.

The rest of the cast is a bit shakier. Dakota Fanning gets TONS of flak for her performance, but I genuinely find it genuine. If a kid was thrown into a situation like this, they WOULD be terrified and would be upset and panicked. I guess people were expecting her to be a fully competent mature superhero with James Bond’s ability to disassociate from his emotions and deal with tragedies with cold resolve. Like…she’s a little girl, guys…


The characters I like the least are the son (I can’t even remember his name) and Tim Robbins’ character, Ogilvy. The son is selfish and petulant and adds nothing to the story except to be a bit of a source of conflict with tom Cruise’s character. And the actor just doesn’t add any layers to the character to make us invest anything in his story.


Tim Robbins is great, but again, he plays Ogilvy as so wacky that we breathe a sigh of relief when he’s removed from the story.

Visual Style (10): OK, this is where this film succeeds beautifully. For all its issues, this film looks GREAT.


Spielberg decided to shoot the film more or less from eye-level and avoid sweeping cinematic panoramas to more closely replicate the news footage/found footage look of the 9/11 attacks. We see the tripod’s invasion from the level of people. There are no JurassicPark-esque panoramas or Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-esque visuals. We don’t even see the main action of the invasion except for a brief look on a TV screen. This ties in with the novel in which much of the narrator’s narration happens when he’s walking through ruined cities after the attacks, looking with horror on how easily humanity has been destroyed.


This chillingly recreates how most of the world saw the 9/11 attacks. It was all via the news stories and home video and pictures. One of the most effective scenes is where Rachel sees the bodies floating down the river after some sort of calamity. We know nothing about what happened, but just seeing the aftermath is almost scarier because it’s obvious there’s nothing these people could have done.


Plus, I LOVE the design of the tripods and the aliens. They feel familiar enough that there’s no question that this is War of the Worlds and not an Independence Day clone. The tripod’s tentacle with the camera on the end is also a great callback to the film version from the 1950’s, which I appreciate. Also the scene where the tripods begin using human blood to fertilize their red weed is soooo creepy, and I dig it.


Also, this isn’t necessarily visual, but I have to say this is also one of the first movies that I saw where I was very aware of the sound design. The lightning at the beginning, the tripod rising out of the ground, the tripods’ booming calls, they all sound AMAZING.

There’s a reason this film was nominated for three Oscars in technical categories (though it lost all to King Kong).

Music (9): John Williams’ atonal score is wonderful with some great Jaws-esque pounding themes as well as some great use of choirs. Williams is one of those composers who doesn’t use choirs a lot, but when he does, he uses them very well. Apparently he used a mens choir in the score, singing waaaaay down at the bottom of their range so they’re barely audible.


I really want to see this with headphones so I can appreciate the score in its layered awesomeness. It feels like a more mature incarnation of the Jaws score, but because it doesn’t have a catchy “main theme” it didn’t get as much attention as Williams’ other scores. But it’s legitimately a really good score and takes some interesting risks that I think pays off well.

Genre (7): The original novel is a horror novel. It’s not an adventure a la Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, nor is it a fantasy romp  like The Time Machine. It’s a terrifying portrait of what it is like to be conquered from the point of the view of a helpless people with no way to fight off the attackers who want to use the conquered as resources. When this film plays of up the horror aspects, it works. Near the end, in order to appease audiences who wouldn’t be able to handle a more pessimistic worldview in the wake of the horror of 9/11, the film does become a bit of an action flick where Ray is able to single-handedly destroy a tripod (which is kind of eh since in the book the only tripods they’re able to destroy is by using a ship, the Thunder Child, in a brutal kamikaze run that ultimately only delays the Martians enough so the people can escape). And then we get the military heroically shooting down the disoriented tripod, but that doesn’t bother me that much since the alien inside is already dying.


But overall, this film keeps things closer to the horror aspect of things. The first tripod attack is bewildering and upsetting, but Spielberg never lets it become an action-packed chase scene. It’s a terrifying pointless slaughter, and Ray isn’t a hero. He’s just running for his life while people are indiscriminately vaporized around him. Plus, the tension comes to a head in the basement scene where Ray is forced to become desperate enough to kill Ogilvy in order to save them, even though they are found out anyway, making the death of Ogilvy even more senseless.


Overall Thoughts: Uneven writing and intentions don’t diminish the amazing visuals and score for this film that can’t ever live up to the original book, even though it does effectively speak to Americans dealing with the horror of 9/11 effectively.

Total Score: 39/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Amistad (41)
  13. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  14. War of the Worlds (39) RT liked this one a bit more than The Terminal, but audiences liked The Terminal better.
  15. The Terminal (39)
  16. Hook (39)
  17. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  18. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  19. The Sugarland Express (35)
  20. Always (34)
  21. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  22. 1941 (27)

Next up, we’ll return to the world of the historical drama!


Spielberg By Numbers – The Terminal

Why is Tom Hanks perfect!??!

The Terminal (2004)


The Plot: (Based on a true story) A Eastern European man gets stranded in an airport for several months when his home country suffers a political coup.

Seen It Before?: Yep! Saw this one in theaters and loved it.

Writing (7): This is very much an actor’s film, much more than a writer’s film. Some actors handle the dialogue a lot better than others. I think the overall structure is pretty smooth, even though it does drift into more contrived situations here and there that rob the story of some of its earnestness. I think some things could have been trimmed down to help the pacing.


But there are many moments of quick-paced dialogue that were obviously a lot of fun to write.

Acting (7): Tom Hanks’ acting in this one is FANTASTIC. He so effectively portrays a man who’s second language is English so well, you find yourself pondering whether this isn’t Tom Hank’s identical twin who grew up in Ukraine. He’s so lovable and genuine and sweet without coming across as a Pollyanna-type. He’s not a caricature; he’s a real person. I thoroughly enjoy everything about his performance in this one. It’s perfect.


Stanley Tucci is also wonderful. I love the actor, and it’s pretty great how we can relate to him. He starts out a very likable dude, but as he begins to realize that this guy isn’t going anywhere, and his presence could disrupt his chances at promotion, his empathy towards him wanes. And we’ve all been there. Especially those of us who work in customer service. You’ll have people toward whom you’ll be friendly and happy, but when your encounter with them becomes a multi-hour problem-solving fest, you begin to sort of resent them (even though you have to keep being nice). And so when Tucci’s character grows colder toward Viktor, it’s not because he’s a bad guy. It’s because he’s not used to dealing with lingering problems. He likes fast-paced movement, solving problems in succession, going from issue to issue. But with Viktor, he interrupts that pace that Frank is used to, and so it’s totally understandable that he would become more of a villain.


The weak point of the film is probably Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Amelia. Zeta-Jones is a sensational talent. She’s my favorite part of Chicago (2002), and her character is a delight in The Mask of Zorro (1998), but in this one, I think the script just wasn’t a good fit for her. Her cynical, flawed character is supposed to be a foil to Viktor’s sweet optimism, but I think the character doesn’t really ever become all that likable. The script swings her from charming to crass, and Zeta-Jones just isn’t ever able to find a good balance between those disparate elements. You just don’t ever cheer for she and Viktor to end up together.


Visual Style (9): Coming on the heels of the extreme experimental look of Minority Report and the colorful warmth of Catch Me If You Can, this one reins in its visual look, choosing a colder more naturalistic visual style. I think that helps us empathize with Viktor because the airport is very recognizably an airport. It’s filled with familiar sounds and colors and signage. The Cinematographer could have gone more experimental with it, making the airport a more unreal place, perhaps reflecting Viktor’s sense of isolation and confusion, but I think going in a more natural direction was a better move. We can much more easily place ourselves in his shoes.

The one beautiful moment that goes for more of a fairy-tale sparkliness is when Viktor reveals the fountain he built to Amelia. It’s shining and brilliant and genuinely magical, and it stands out in a special way.


Music (8): John Williams’ score is light and breezy, and adds a lot of heart to the story. I like the Danny-Elfman-esque whimsy in scenes such as when Viktor learns that he can return the carts for quarters, but I also like the warmth and romance of the scenes where Viktor is drawn to Amelia.

I like how Spielberg lets Williams come to the forefront in many scenes and let the scene play out as more or less a silent film, which is what Spielberg/Williams do best. It adds a classic, old-school quality to the film that is a lot of fun.

Genre (8): I think to call this a romantic comedy would oversimplify it. The romantic subplot is a small part of the larger story. We do also get the relationship between Enrique and Dolores, which is cute, but feels a bit TOO cute for this film.


I think dramedy is probably the best description. One of the major themes of the film is disappointment, and I like how we get to see this in a number of different ways. This film is pure character, and regardless of the genre, it’s a fairly solid character portrait, even if the fringes of the plot fray a bit here and there.

Overall Thoughts: A sweet charming film featuring one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.

Total Score: 39/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Amistad (41)
  13. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  14. The Terminal (39) (RT doesn’t care for Hook, so this one moves ahead)
  15. Hook (39)
  16. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  17. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  18. The Sugarland Express (35)
  19. Always (34)
  20. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  21. 1941 (27)

Next up, we go back into sci-fi land for War of the Worlds, a controversial reboot of the H.G. Wells classic.

Spielberg By Numbers – Catch Me If You Can

Why haven’t I seen this one before!?!?!?

Catch Me If You Can (2002)


The Plot: (Based on a true story)  The story of boy genius Frank Abagnale Jr. who successfully impersonated a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer while forging millions of dollars in fraudulent checks as he tries to stay one step ahead of the FBI agent trying to track him down.

Seen It Before?: I haven’t, which is apparently a crime against the universe because this is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in a long time.

Writing (10): The writing is so slick, it’s hard to actually focus on the writing and not just get swept away by the amazing pacing and snappy dialogue. It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t feel like it. The characters all stand out, and the dialogue feels both artfully refined, but also very natural.


In some other Spielberg films, the scripts sometimes give us lines the actors have a hard time getting through believably, but with this one, everything feels like its coming from the characters and not from the writers via the characters.

Acting (9): I’m super upset that Christopher Walken didn’t win the Oscar he was nominated for for his work in this one. He plays goofy characters so often, so it’s easy to forget that he’s a FANTASTIC actor. So much of his performance in this one are the little facial tics or understated body language, but it just works beautifully to create this wonderful flawed likeable character whose ambiguity adds so much to the film’s landscape.


Tom Hanks, as always is perfect. He gets to show off his comedic talents along with his warmth and depth as Frank comes to regard Carl as a sort of secondary father figure. Some of the film’s funniest moments come from Carl’s deadpan reactions to the growing insanity around him.


And, of course, we get Leo. I’m super sad he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for this one. His performance is so wonderful. He’s manipulative and sneaky, but he’s also deeply vulnerable and desperate for validation. He’s believably young while believably mature enough to pull off everything he does. That’s VERY hard to pull off. Either he’d come across as being too mature for his age or too young to be taken seriously, but Leo juggles the many layers of the character so beautifully.


Shout out to the many smaller performances in this one. So many amazing actors have brief roles in this one (Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, etc.) and each of them is allowed to shine to the point where you remember their characters even though they don’t get tons of screen time.

Visual Style (8): The bright vibrant colors work really well to convey the lighthearted mood. Spielberg’s greatest visual talent is setting up shots that use light, and this film has such a great warmth to it, and I think that adds a lot to the film. It’s a psychologically interesting character study, but the warm inviting visual look keeps things moving along without getting too heavy.


Also, the opening credits are a DELIGHT. I’ll use a screencap of them to move to the next criterion.


Music (10): It’s great to see John Williams trying a completely new style. I love the jazzy bouncy music. There’s not really so much any kind of recognizable theme outside of the opening credits, but the bounce and sass of the score has such a unique personality that it adds so much. This is very much a 60’s caper film a la Ocean’s Eleven or Facade, and the score gleefully embraces its filmic heritage, enhancing the colorful visuals and snappy dialogue with a score that suggests a great many marbles bouncing through a Rube Goldberg machine that propels the plot forward. It’s a delight without ever feeling generic or cheesy. It’s just a fun unique score that works well in the context of this film.

Genre (9): This is a mishmash of a few different generic conventions, but it works well together for the most part. It takes a while to establish itself in the beginning before it launches into full on 60’s crime caper/chase dramedy, but once it gets going, everything just fits together really well.


I also appreciate how this film finds its own unique corner of the generic spectrum without feeling derivative. It’s filled with homages to various previous film styles, but it doesn’t ever feel cut-and-pasted. Spielberg is good at that.

Overall Thoughts: A fun slick stylish caper that features some fantastic performances. A whole lot of fun.

Total Score: 46/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. Catch Me If You Can (46)
  4. E.T. (45)
  5. Jurassic Park (44)
  6. The Color Purple (44)
  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  9. Jaws (42)
  10. Empire of the Sun (42)
  11. Minority Report (41)
  12. Amistad (41)
  13. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  14. Hook (39)
  15. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  16. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  17. The Sugarland Express (35)
  18. Always (34)
  19. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  20. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’ll be seeing Tom Hanks again! See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Minority Report

This is just a really entertaining film.

Minority Report (2002)


The Plot: In a future where technology can predict murders before they happen , one pre-crime officer becomes a fugitive when the system predicts that he will kill someone, but he suspects that he’s being framed in order to discredit the system.

Seen it Before?: A couple times before, but I like it more every time I see it.

Writing (9): The script is excellent, with all manner of really clever twists and turns throughout. The final act is like a parade of “what?” “What?” “WHAT!?!?” and it’s fantastic.

My only gripe is that the dialogue feels a bit stilted here and there. The cast is wonderful, but you can tell they have to sort of stumble through patches of awkward dialogue. But this is only in a few scenes. The overall plot moves with breakneck speed, and you can’t help but get sucked into it.


Acting (8): I really like Tom Cruise in this one. There’s a lot of depth to his character, especially with his tragic past. The scene where he’s reliving old videos of his son, the scene where we see what happened when his son was kidnapped, and then the scene where he confronts the man whom he thinks stole his son are all incredibly acted. They could easily be hammy, but Cruise goes for raw emotion and it works really well.


I also really like the depth in Max Von Sydow’s performance. He’s likable, but once we realize what he really did, there’s a simmering malevolence beneath the calm exterior that’s so creepy.


Kudos also to Colin Farrell. At first you just KNOW he’s the bad guy, but when he realizes that they’re all being set up, the shift is so natural it doesn’t feel like a random switch for dramatic purposes. You realize that he’s genuinely searching for truth and it’s not just a witch hunt.


The rest of the cast isn’t as strong, but it’s not a big deal since they’re mostly just obstacles or window dressing in John’s journey.

Visual Style (9): Spielberg is quoted as saying to his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who won Oscars for his work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) that he wanted to create the “ugliest dirtiest movie” they had ever made. I think Spielberg and Kaminski came out of A.I. with a more daring experimental approach that I think contributed a lot to this film’s unique look.

For a film that is set in such a slick future, I’m intrigued that chose such a gritty visual style. It recalls the muted colors of Saving Private Ryan, but avoids the crisp sharpness of A.I. Now, there are definitely other movies that are grimier in terms of the set and lighting (I’m thinking of the industrial dampness of Alien), but I think making the camera work itself rougher and more gritty in this film adds a great element.


Not only is John’s work life a shiny facade for a damaged, unkempt interior, but so many of the characters have a conflict between their external and internal selves and I think the crisp shiny sets combined with the shaky, gritty camerawork expresses that well.

Now once John escapes into the grimier parts of the city, we get plenty of physical ickyness that shows that, even though pre-crime has lowered the crime rate, the city has done nothing to combat the rampant poverty and drug use that has reduced the inner city to a moldy, gross, collection of tumbled-down apartments.


My only issue is how the film sometimes turns to gross-out humor for a laugh (ie, a blinded John groping about in the fridge and accidentally grabbing the green spoiled milk and black moldy sandwich instead of the fresh milk and nice sandwich that are right there) that doesn’t really add much to the film except to make you breathe a sigh of relief when he finally is able to get out of that place.

Music (7): The music works in terms of its background atmosphere, but there really aren’t any memorable themes that stand out. This film has many elements of the neo-noir genre, and ambient music is often an important part of such films, and I think Williams could have created a futuristic equivalent to the “moody saxaphone riff” that became a cliche in the 40’s. Instead, he scores the film as if it’s a slick action film (which it kind of is, but we’ll talk about that in the next section).


Genre (8): Spielberg went into this wanting it to evoke the moody atmosphere of film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, and I think it works, for the most part. It was marketed as a slick action film, but I think the film’s best moments are the more thoughtful scenes. It’s ultimately a mystery film, and that’s what gives the script it’s headlong pace that just pulls you in.


Again, as is often common in Spielberg films, sometimes things dip toward the comedic, and in this one, it doesn’t always work. Certain scenes (like the jetpack fight scene) edge into more slapstick goofiness that one would find in a generic action flick, but not in a moodier cyberpunk film like this one. Now, it’s still entertaining, but I think the film could have evolved from Great Film to Classic Film if it had committed more fully to the cyberpunk/film noir style a la something like Bladerunner.

Overall Thoughts: Great twisty plot, fantastic visual style, and a great lead make this a lot of fun to watch and analyze.

Total Score: 41/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Minority Report (41) (According to RT, this one beat out Amistad by 20 points)
  11. Amistad (41)
  12. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  13. Hook (39)
  14. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  15. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  16. The Sugarland Express (35)
  17. Always (34)
  18. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  19. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re moving away from the sci-fi world and entering the real world with Catch Me If You Can.

Spielberg By Numbers – A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

This is both very much a Spielberg film and also very not a Spielberg film. Let’s see how it stacks up.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

AI 2

The Plot: The life of a robot child who explores the dangerous and beautiful world around him in search of his mother who abandoned him.

Seen It Before?: Yep, though only once.

Writing (7): The three-act structure works really well for creating this world. We get the clean home in the beginning, the terrifying world of “flesh-fairs,” and then the poetic quest for “The Blue Fairy” amid the jagged sinking world of Manhattan. Add to that a prologue that asks questions but offers no answers, and then an epilogue featuring a world in which humans are extinct and hyper-advanced robots are sifting through the rubble, and you get a poetic (though occasionally overlong) robot fairytale.

AI 7

The dialogue feels trapped between Spielberg’s two preferred rhythms: that of a heightened reality and that of real life. I think that’s the Kubrick influence. This is Kubrick’s film, one that he worked on for a long time. But then he passed it to Spielberg before he died. As a result the script oscillates between Kubrick minimalism and Spielberg drama. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t (there are a number of really awkwardly delivered lines). But when it works, it’s pretty wonderful.

Acting (8): Haley Joel Osment does a beautiful job of portraying a robotic child. In the beginning, he’s kind of creepy, but as he learns human mannerisms and develops, you grow to cheer for him as he explores what it means to be an individual. The scene where he confronts the other David and is so angry that he’s not unique that he destroys it is done so wonderfully. I can see any other actor overdoing the scene, but Osment infuses it with enough emotion to give it impact, but not so much that you forget that this is a robot.

AI 4

Another shout out to Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe. He seems immediately trustworthy, but you come to realize that this is only because he’s programmed to be appealing. He’s not evil or dangerous, but the level of arrogance programmed into him to make him attractive also means that he can be very self-serving. And yet, we see him grow a bit as the film progresses, progressing to the point where he feels protective of David, saving him near the end.

As for the rest of the cast, they feel a bit distant and flat, but I feel like that was intentional. That may very well be Kubrick’s influence. We saw him use that same technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But since Spielberg was the one who oversaw the actual shooting, I’m wondering if he encouraged the cast to go for a colder, more distant type of performance in keeping with Kubrick’s style.

Visual Style (10): Despite the film’s pacing issues, you can’t deny that this film looks beautiful. It’s a wonderful blending of Kubrick’s artfully constructed composition and Spielberg’s striking use of light. Spielberg obviously put a lot of thought into paying homage to Kubrick’s style, but I like that he also infused it with his own bit of magic. This allows Spielberg to challenge himself and find new ways of framing and shooting scenes that will push him to take greater chances in future films, which only makes him a better director in the long run.

AI 3

Music (8): John Williams’ score is very subtle in this one, adding atmosphere and drama, but not as effectively as in his other more minimalist scores. I DO really like the piano piece that ends the film.

AI 8

According to behind-the-scenes material, Spielberg didn’t show Williams the last seven minutes of the film and let Williams compose the piano piece as a sort of symphonic poem telling the story as Williams saw fit, and then Spielberg edited what he had shot around the music, which is VERY Kubrick-esque (think of how Kubrick shot and edited scenes based around pre-existing symphonic pieces). But Spielberg also did that with the end of E.T., editing the scene around Williams’ triumphant music. But, unlike E.T., this one ends with a dose of Kubrick-esque ambiguity that I think works really well.

Genre (7): While, visually, I think the blending of Kubrick and Spielberg works spectacularly, in terms of plot and pacing, the three acts all have different genres (each with their own strengths) which causes the whole thing to feel disjointed. Act 1 with David and his mother is filled with so much creepy tension at the beginning that once it becomes more heartfelt, it feels a bit too little too late, which robs the scene where she abandons him of its full impact.

AI 5

Then Act 2 has a very brisk pace and everything feels more like a Bladerunner-type of dystopia with grimy streets filled with garish neon signs. The pacing is much better here, and it whips by in no time at all because this is the section where you really become invested in David’s story. This is I think the most Spielberg section of the whole film.

AI 1

Act 3 is very much Kubrick’s. Now, the Pinocchio metaphor is pure Spielberg, but the quiet meditative quality and the epic imagery combined with the slower camera movements is very much Kubrick. The final scene in the extreme future feels very much in the vein of 2001, and I know a lot of people don’t like it because they find it slow and strange, but I ADORE it specifically for that reason. I love slow ponderous sci-fi, so maybe I’m weird. This is also why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of my favorite Trek films.

AI 6

But regardless of everything, I love how this movie looks and how it’s paced. It’s unfortunate that the three separate acts don’t combine together well enough to create a truly exceptional film, though. As a labor of love in tribute to Kubrick who started working on the film but couldn’t finish it, I think the film succeeds. But as a classic film among the greats of Spielberg’s canon, it juuuuust isn’t able to hold its own.

Overall Thoughts: A visually beautiful film that functions as a love letter to Kubrick’s genius, but it fails to find the cohesion needed to make a huge impact.

Total Score: 40/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Amistad (41)
  11. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (40)
  12. Hook (39)
  13. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  14. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  15. The Sugarland Express (35)
  16. Always (34)
  17. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  18. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re staying in sci-fi land with Minority Report!

Pixar By Numbers – Part 7


It’s been a while, but Pixar By Numbers is back!

Alright, first up we have…

Cars 3 (2017)

cars 3Overview: After a devastating crash, Lightning McQueen has to decide if it’s time to retire or keep racing. His situation is complicated when Rust-eze is bought out by a wealthy businessman who doubts McQueen’s ability to get into racing shape by the next season.

The Concept: 8/10

I actually like the back-to-basics approach this one takes. It feels much more of a sequel to the first one than the second one. The clash of old and new is cliche, but it makes for an entertaining film.

The Characters: 7/10

McQueen’s arc is great, and ties in really well with his growth in the first movie, but I was surprised how all the secondary characters become SO secondary that the focus is basically JUST McQueen and Ramirez. And that’s fine, but I would have liked to see more Sally. She and Lightning are a thing and yet she’s so far on the sidelines, we don’t even get any hints that they’re in a relationship at all. I would have liked at least one scene where he gets to talk through some of his insecurities and issues with her.

I felt like Nathan Filion was sorely underused. He’s a delight, but his character became more of a catalyst to move things along rather than a genuinely interesting antagonist.

I will say, I LOVED how Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson got to be an integral part of the film. I guess they used deleted scenes from the first movie for his flashback scenes, but it was really awesome to hear him again.

The Story: 7/10

The plot is super predictable, but it’s got a soul. Even though you can see the twists coming miiiiles away, you don’t mind, because it moves along with a fun pace that never feels draggy or rocky. McQueen’s overall arc is actually really poignant, a sort of more mature progression from his arc in the first movie. I was pretty impressed.

The Humor: 7/10

I actually liked that this one wasn’t as funny as the previous ones. There’s still a lot of amusing moments, but it wasn’t as wacky or bizarre as the second one. There wasn’t really a lot of super memorable stuff (probably because the side characters have such small parts) but it served the story well. I feel like there could have been a better balance of humor in order to appeal to kids more, but I think the filmmakers were trying to play things safe. Not much stands out, but at the same times, nothing descends into ridiculous territory.

The Heart: 8/10

What Pixar is best at is presenting adult issues in situations that children can empathize with. No child anywhere is going to face issues of retirement/feeling obsolete and out of touch, but if they are faced with an adult in their family who IS dealing with such things, they can understand where they’re coming from. 

And even though it was obvious waaay in advance, Ramirez getting to be a racer like she’d always dreamed was a nice changing of the guard. I must admit to getting a bit gooey inside when McQueen came out with Hudson’s color scheme and number. If they do continue the franchise, I look forward to seeing how this new mentor/student relationship progresses. But if it doesn’t, this was a great way to end things.

Overall Score: 37= 74/100

And then we go to…

Coco (2017)

Coco-Family-Poster-PixarOverview: The story of a young boy who wants to be a musician like his idol, but his family has banned music because of Miguel’s ancestor who chose music over family. When he steals a guitar from the mausoleum of his idol, who he believes is his own relative, he’s cursed and sent to the land of the dead where he must obtain the blessing of a family member before sunset or he will stay there forever.

The Concept: 10/10

This movie is beautiful. The entire Day of the Dead art style is rendered to spectacular effect. Each Pixar film has focused on a different group of characters (superheroes, toys, monsters) but I think was the best possible treatment of ghosts/spirits that they could have done. The visuals are stunning.

The Characters: 8/10

Hector and Miguel are incredibly-written characters. I think Hector is one of Pixar’s most multi-layered and thoughtfully-written characters. I just adore both of their arcs. Miguel has such an infectious energy and enthusiasm, but also a resentment that pushes him to find answers and not trust anyone (except for the one person he shouldn’t trust).

I also loved Imelda. When we see her through Miguel’s eyes, she’s threatening, but once we get to know who she is, she very nearly steals the show. I LOVE her singing at the end. It’s just one of those moments that makes you want to get up and cheer.

My only complaint is the family back in the real world (except Coco because she’s adorbs). Their Footloose-esque ban of music seems very “plot point” as opposed to a decision consistent with their family’s lingering pain at Coco’s dad’s leaving.

The Story: 9/10

The Plot is a bit predictable, especially once we get to the reveal of the villain, but overall, everything moves with such a steady pace that you don’t mind. I think the whole focus is the characters, and their arcs are given enough space to breathe without things feeling rushed. Plus, there’s a great balance of the hilarious and the thoughtful.

I also like how the music is seamlessly integrated into the story. It’s allllmost a musical, but it blends everything together so well that everything feels like a logical progression from what came before. It’s intelligently crafted and a lot of fun.

The Humor: 9/10

When it’s funny, it’s hilarious. The humor doesn’t feel tacked on, nor does it feel forced. I love all the sight gags, and I think Diego is one of the most awkward hilarious sidekick characters ever. I could watch him fall over and be weird forever. Also, the relateable family moments are a delight, and it’s just wonderful. The comedy is balanced throughout, and I’m a fan.

The Heart: 9/10

This one’s really emotional, but not in an over-the-top manipulative way. It didn’t have me bawling the way other Pixar films have, but it’s still got a wonderful message. I think the central conflict is a bit heavy-handed, with music ultimately bridging the gap between the past and present, but the characters are so well-rounded and interesting that you don’t mind. I think this one is a good sign that Pixar is moving out of their slump and continuing to stay relevant.

I do think they need to try shaking up their story-telling methods, though, because the ending is very predictable, and I think that hurts its emotional impact a bit. When Pixar started blazing trails with more sentimental stories and making disappointment a recurring theme, it was great, but I think it’s time for them to go in new directions.

But overall, this is a wonderful movie and I can’t wait to get it. Definitely would recommend.

Overall Score: 45=90/100

Let’s see where the ranking stands:

  1. Finding Nemo (96)
  2. Wall-E (94)
  3. Monsters Inc. (94)
  4. Inside Out (92)
  5. The Incredibles (92)
  6. Coco (90) I’m pretty happy where this one ended up on the ranking.
  7. Toy Story 2 (88)
  8. Toy Story 3 (88)
  9. Up (88)
  10. Finding Dory (88)
  11. Toy Story (86)
  12. Ratatouille (86)
  13. Monsters University (80)
  14. Cars 3 (74) (I’m liking the steady progression of each Cars films as they go)
  15. Cars 2 (72)
  16. Cars (68)
  17. A Bug’s Life (64)
  18. Brave (64) 
  19. The Good Dinosaur (60)

Spielberg By Numbers – Saving Private Ryan

This one’s intense.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Plot: Set during World War II, the story of a group of soldiers who go behind enemy lines in France to find a soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action.

Seen it Before?: Our English teacher traumatized the class by showing us the first fifteen minutes of the movie in junior high school (we were going to be watching the whole film, but a few people started crying and we had to stop. And then parents panicked and we never got to finish it). Never got around to watching the whole thing.

Writing (9): The dialogue feels completely natural, even when it’s not. Robert Rodat’s script moves with an effortless ease that really makes you marvel at how well he’s able to keep things moving forward and focused despite the episodic structure.

I also like how the script keeps the characters from becoming stock types, which is a common thing in quest stories like this. Each character has their own collection of admirable traits and character flaws, and we become invested in them not as a heroic troupe, but a group of people all trying to stay alive in a horrific situation.

My only issue with the script is the frame story with the older Ryan. It feels incredibly contrived and a bit sappy. And the fake out as to the older man’s identity in the beginning doesn’t work as it seems to suggest that he’s having a flashback to the Omaha Beach attack, but his character wasn’t present at that time. The story as a whole is driven by such brutal realism and heartbreaking humanity that the fairy-tale quality of the older Ryan comes across as a bit forced.

Acting (10): This film begins the AMAZING team-up of Tom Hanks and Spielberg that will give us some incredible work down the road. I love how Hanks’ character isn’t the stoic straight man that you’d usually see in this sort of situation. He’s a human guy who’s fighting to keep things together, and you just grow to care so deeply for him the way his men care for him. Hanks is incredible anyways, but this is definitely one of his best roles.

The rest of the cast is filled with some really well-known names that you’d never expect to see in a serious war film such as Nathan Fillion or Adam Goldberg, but they all work together beautifully. Few characters drift into the background, and the camaraderie between them all feels very genuine. I especially liked the performances of Jeremy Davies (Corporal Upham) whose character learns a brutal lesson about the realities of war. For so much of the film, he’s a timid cowardly person, but I like how he didn’t get a huge redemption moment where he heroically saves the day (even though it’s set up that that is exactly what is going to happen when the gunners run out of ammo and he is left holding the very ammo they need). His saving of “Steamboat Willie” leads to Miller’s death in the end, and it’s Upham who ultimately executes the man he saves, but it’s not a heroic moment. It’s a tragic moment where we see a naive man learn that in the landscape of war, one can’t always afford to be a “good” person. Davies sells this tragic character arc beautifully.

Visual Style (10): To modern viewers, the visual look of this film appears very conventional, but we have to sit back and realize that Spielberg essentially set the standard for the washed-out grays and olives that every other filmmaker on earth copied for years afterward. At the time, it was innovative and iconic.

I also want to praise the sound design here. It’s related to the feel of the film, so I’ll put it here, but I’ve got to say the ominous distant creaking of the approaching tanks before the final confrontation has got to be one of the greatest uses of ambient sound in a film. It’s such an unearthly sound, and it never became a film cliche. That particular ghostly sound is completely unique to this film, and adds so much to the build up to that final battle. Mad props to the sound team.

Music (9): John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” is a GORGEOUS piece of music. I also really like the understated music that underscores the rest of the film. This is a film whose visuals have to take center stage, and I think a huge sweeping score would detract from the shocking realism of the film. In other films where Williams wrote more understated music, it came across as bland or uninspired, but in this one, it feels like an integral part of the film landscape. I think Williams has definitely done better, but this is overall a fairly solid score.

Genre (10): Everything about this film feels very cohesive. Its simple plot (brave a harsh landscape in search of a symbol of hope and victory) gives the whole thing a universal feel. Yes, it’s primarily a war movie, but it’s also Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey.

But within that Epic Quest framework, we’ve got a unique war film that doesn’t idealize anything. It doesn’t demonize the Germans and it doesn’t present the Americans as glowing paragons of virtue (except for Ryan himself, but he’s the McGuffun they’re questing for and therefore doesn’t have to be all that flawed or human). It doesn’t show war as anything glamorous, and it doesn’t even say much about the overall cause or purpose of the war. We have characters that say they want the war to end and they want to win the war, but the film keeps the focus on characters who want to survive and go home, not the governments who are fighting each other.

I also like how the film, on several occasions, sets up a situation that would lead to any number of standard film cliches, but then subverts that and gives us a brutal death or a loss of nerve instead. It’s no wonder this film became the gold standard for pretty much every war film that came afterwards.

Overall Thoughts: An iconic war film that somehow manages to simultaneously fit within established Epic Quest conventions while subverting a great many Hollywood narrative conventions.

Total Score: 48/50


  1. Schindler’s List (50)
  2. Saving Private Ryan (48)
  3. E.T. (45)
  4. Jurassic Park (44)
  5. The Color Purple (44)
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (43)
  8. Jaws (42)
  9. Empire of the Sun (42)
  10. Amistad (41)
  11. Hook (39)
  12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  13. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  14. The Sugarland Express (35)
  15. Always (34)
  16. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (33)
  17. 1941 (27)

Next week, we go on a quest back into sci-fi land! Also, I FINALLY got my hands on Cars 3, so once I see that, I’ll be able to do the next Pixar By Numbers as well. See you then!