Blu-ray Review: “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection”

Written by Blu-ray Reviews, Film

Dennis Weaver in “Duel” is one of four Spielberg films in this collection making their Blu-ray debut.

Spielberg BlluI’m always suspicious of these specially packaged Blu-ray collections, especially ones that are obviously repurposing previously released discs. However, the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection is definitely one of the finer box sets I’ve come across. The release comes from Universal Studios and covers eight of Spielberg’s films for the studio. Included  in this set are the brilliant restored version on Jaws that came out a couple of years ago, E.T., Jurassic Park, and its sequel, The Lost World. What makes the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection special is the other four films: Duel, The Sugarland Express, 1941 and Always, marking the first time any of them have appeared on Blu-ray.

Duel was a made-for-TV film Spielberg directed in 1971 for ABC. Written by fantasy/thriller mastermind Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend), it stars Dennis Weaver as a normal joe driving in the California desert who makes the mistake of angering the driver of a tanker truck. The truck driver (who remains unseen throughout the film) takes out his rage by chasing Weaver and doing his best to run him off the road. This feud escalates and becomes deadly, in what remains a tense and scary thriller. Duel was a smash success on TV, so much so that an additional 15 minutes were added to the final cut and it was released theatrically in Europe. Duel announced a new voice in motion pictures, garnering the young Spielberg the attention of Hollywood legends, Richard Zanuck and David Brown.

Spielberg convinced Zanuck and Brown to let him make his feature film debut with the true story of and ex-con who kidnaps a highway patrolman in order to spend one last free moment with his children. Spielberg (who co-wrote the story for the film) expanded on the idea to include the con’s wife. To appease studio execs, Spielberg was told to cast a star in one of the roles. Goldie Hawn, who’d won an Academy Award in 1969, but was best known as the giggly blond on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, was eager to show her dramatic chops. She signed on for the role of the wife/mother and the cameras began rolling on The Sugarland Express (1974).

Often overlooked amongst Spielberg’s early works (his next movie would be Jaws), The Sugarland Express is an inventive and beautifully imagined movie. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the all time greats, makes this a must for any cinefile. The Sugarland Express was one of the first features to use the compact Panaflex camera, allowing for remarkable camerawork done inside a patrol car, including a tracking shot from the front seat to the back seat, and a 360-pan within the car. Hawn is excellent and Spielberg proved that he was a gifted storyteller.

In 1979, after two blockbuster films (the aforementioned Jaws and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Spielberg tried his hand at broad comedy in the vein of 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. With a script by Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale, and an all star cast that included John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Dan Aykroyd, Warren Oates and Robert Stack, 1941 is a loud, hyper ensemble film that documents December 13, 1941 in Los Angeles, CA. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fears surfaced that the Japanese would attack the California coast next. 1941 takes that premise and builds on the paranoia as a comedy of errors.

A Japanese sub searches for Hollywood to bring American culture to its knees. A loose cannon fighter pilot patrols down the coast trying to intercept the sub. A goofy young man trying to win the heart of a local girl plans for a big dance off. A horny General’s aid does his best to score with a secretary who gets turned on by planes. And a family living on the Santa Monica coast is given an anti-aircraft cannon to use in case they sees any enemy airplanes.

1941 remains a mixed bag. There are some genuinely funny moments, and others that go on for way too long (especially in the restored cut of the movie). While Spielberg was definitely of the same generation as the National Lampoon and the original Saturday Night Live, this kind of over the top comedy never seems like his wheelhouse. It looks great on Blu-ray, and John Williams’ score sounds splendid, but 1941 definitely falls in the middle of the pack when you consider the great director’s long filmography. Fellow Popdose critic, Robert Cashill, will have an interview with Bob Gale later this week.

The final film in this collection that appears for the first time on Blu-ray is 1989’s Always, an adult fantasy/romance that was Spielberg’s first movie remake. In the film, Richard Dreyfuss plays a fire-fighting pilot who dies while saving his best friend, played by John Goodman. Dreyfuss’ ghost refuses to go to heaven until he can help his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) move on from her grief. Always also features Brad Johnson as a new pilot who falls for Hunter, and Audrey Hepburn (in her final film role) as an angel who helps Dreyfuss adjust to the afterlife.

Always is a part of a period in the late eighties when Spielberg was trying to shed the image that he only made crowd pleasers and couldn’t handle mature films. This criticism was crap because E.T. contains some of the most accomplished and resonant filmmaking of the 1980s. Always is sweet, and as with all of Spielberg’s films, looks amazing on Blu-ray. Its pace is a little methodical in some places, but it’s perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Each of the films in the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection contain bonus footage. Unfortunately, both The Sugarland Express and Always are quite lacking, with only the theatrical trailers. It would have been great to hear Spielberg reflect on The Sugarland Express, seeing at it was his first theatrical film. Likewise, as Always was a remake of one of his favorite movies, 1943’s A Guy Named Joe starring Spencer Tracy, I bet Spielberg could offered insight about that film, why he loved it, and then done a comparison between the two movies. Nevertheless, don’t let those drawbacks prevent you from checking out this collection. Jaws, E.T. Jurassic Park and The Lost World contain more than enough bonus features to keep you busy until next year.