After the release of Signs, Time Magazine notoriously called M. Night Shyamalan “the next Steven Spielberg.” Believe it or not young readers, it made some sense at the time. Like Spielberg, Shyamalan had directed films from typically derided genres and turned them into cross-demographic successes both commercially and critically. The number of directors who could take a ghost story (The Sixth Sense), superhero movie (Unbreakable), and alien invasion (Signs) and make them work for both awards committees and ticket buyers is very small. Of course, since then, we’ve learned that Night was a three-trick pony (maybe four, depending on your opinion of The Village) after the trio du crap of Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. He might be more aptly called the next Joel Schumacher or even the next Uwe Boll today.
If it’s not Night, then who IS the next Steven Spielberg now? If Time were to go back and revise their cover for 2010, who are the directors turning typically niche genre product into mainstream success? Who can balance the unusual in genres like sci-fi or blockbuster action but still keep them relatable to a mass audience and a wide demographic? Who can find the human in the superhuman? Believe it or not, the list is very, very small. There are directors who make Spielberg-sized blockbusters but we don’t think anyone would compare the likes of Michael Bay or Brett Ratner to the man who made Jaws. In putting together this feature, the most striking thing was how few people are even attempting projects that feel as original and influential as what Spielberg did in the 1970s and 1980s. But we didn’t want to give up without making a few suggestions….
by Brian Tallerico
Frank Darabont (with glasses) on the set of The Mist
and Joe Johnston on the set of The Wolfman.
Of course, Frank Darabont and Joe Johnston have been around long enough that it’s unlikely they’ll find the success of Spielberg at this point in their careers but their styles are so clearly influenced by the man who gave the world Close Encounters of the Third Kind that it would be remiss to completely ignore them. Darabont took the typically genre-specific Stephen King and made arguably the two most beloved films based on his books – The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile – and he’s even delving into television not unlike Spielberg with the upcoming pilot episode for the highly anticipated adaptation of The Walking Dead. Despite not quite living up to that Shawshank potential, most young directors would consider it an honor to be called “the next Frank Darabont.” As for Johnston, he’s perhaps the most obvious choice out there as he wears his Spielbergian aspirations on his sleeve with films like The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and, obviously, Jurassic Park III. If this article was written a decade ago, he might be near the top of the list but Hidalgo and The Wolfman reminded most viewers of, well, not Spielberg.
Duncan Jones (wearing the hat) on the set of Moon
and Neill Blomkamp (left) with David James on the set of District 9.
Calling someone the “next anything” after one film seems a bit sketchy, but Duncan Jones’ Moon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 are two of the best debuts of the last decade and both films accomplish that Spilebergian feat of finding the human in the alien. If we had to pick just one “new guy,” Jones’ Moon seems to herald someone more interested in the relatable side of science fiction than big budget special effects and might make him the better choice, but no one saw Moon and Spielberg rarely had a problem getting his films to a mass audience. Blomkamp has the eye for spectacle that was a part of most of Spielberg’s biggest hits and he accomplished the truly amazing feat of getting a sci-fi film nominated for Best Picture. But, honestly, Blomkamp feels more like “the next James Cameron.” Either way, it seems clear from their debuts that both gentlemen will be around for a long time to come.
J.J. Abrams on the set of Star Trek.
J.J. Abrams is perhaps the most obvious choice given his involvement with Spielberg on the upcoming Super 8. Abrams has proven to have not only similar taste to Spielberg but a remarkable ability to take unusual subject matter and make it easily accessible to all. From working with Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible III) to his obsession with all things alien to even elements of Lost, Abrams has followed a very Spielbergian path to superstardom (with perhaps the exception of Felicity). Films like Cloverfield (which he produced) and Star Trek worked because they turned blockbuster spectacle into relatable human drama. He found the heart of the Trek franchise again by bringing the focus back to the bridge and the saga of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Abrams’ gift is that he plays to both the geeks who want to know how the red matter works and the masses who think Chris Pine is cute. Like Spielberg, he takes product that typically fits into a small demographic and crosses the borders.
Christopher Nolan on the set of The Dark Knight.
His films don’t have the sentimentality of Spielberg, but Christopher Nolan definitely has the same massive scope and willingness to take risks that made Spielberg such an innovator in his prime. At first glance, he may not seem like “the next anything” but both Nolan and Spielberg have used their knowledge of film history to deliver unique entertainment. How different is Nolan’s cinematic magic trick in The Prestige from the funhouse rides that Spielberg turned into an art form? Spielberg infuses his best films with his unmistakable personal style. You know when you’re seeing “A Steven Spielberg Film.” And the fact is that very few people nowadays have that sense of personal filmmaking. So many movies feel like they were made by a committee that the name after the “Directed by” credit seems to mean less with every passing year. Except there’s no mistaking the potential of “A Christopher Nolan Film.” Just ask the people currently awaiting Inception like the great oasis that will save us from the creative desert of summer 2010. Spielberg was once in the same position – the man whose blockbuster ability could save a lackluster summer. Nowadays that’s Nolan. And Pixar…
Peter O'Toole (right) and Brad Bird recording vocals for Ratatouille.
Photo by RTR – © Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios,
All Rights Reserved & Sigourney Weaver and Andrew Stanton recording
vocals for WALL-E. Photo by Eric Charbonneau – © Disney/PIXAR.
All Rights Reserved.
Who’s really producing movie magic these days that’s more memorable than the folks at Pixar? Who can cross demographics from young to old and male to female in the way that Spielberg’s blockbusters did? Pixar is the new Steven Spielberg and arguably their two brightest stars are Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) and Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) – and we mean that as no slight to John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Pete Docter, and the rest of the talented gang at the most important studio working today. Just as Spielberg used fears and dreams of childhood like an extra-terrestrial in the closet or something dangerous in the water, Bird and Stanton have taken standard plots like a youth reaching for independence (Finding Nemo) or the desire to be something more than others think you should be (WALL-E) and turned them into completely unique cinematic experiences. And Bird’s The Iron Giant may not be Pixar but it’s Spielberg-inspired to its core in it’s E.T.-esque embrace of understanding something not of this world. His status as a director may have changed in the critical world but Shyamalan still credits Spielberg as his main inspiration, recently telling Time, “I was 10, 12 years old when E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. My jaw dropped. My life changed. If he wasn’t there, maybe I wouldn’t have made movies.” Who in Hollywood right now is making films more influential than Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton? They are the next Spielberg!