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Under the Radar: The Lesser Known Spielberg

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Jan 02, 2012 | 10:01am EST

When you think of director Steven Spielberg, one of the most celebrated and prolific directors working today (he has two movies, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, currently in theaters), several landmark films leap immediately to mind—E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just to name a few. These, however, represent merely the tip of the iceberg for Spielberg’s career. There are plenty of titles within his catalog, both as a director and a producer, that unfortunately are largely overshadowed by these tentpole films.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Duel (Directed)

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An everyday schlub is driving across a nameless American highway when he cuts off an eighteen-wheeler. Not a big deal, right? Happens all the time, right? Too bad for our motorist, that truck holds a grudge and what is initiated by this otherwise forgettable act of discourteous driving becomes a cross-country nightmare.

Duel was one of Spielberg’s very first directing jobs. This made for TV movie, based on a story by the legendary Richard Matheson, showcases Spielberg’s ability to create suspense and theatricality out of almost nothing. The fact that we never see the driver of the truck makes it seem sentient, a machine with a vendetta and a mean streak. In fact, if you pay attention to the framing of certain shots, you could make the argument that Duel was sort of his audition for Jaws.

*batteries not included (Produced)

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Moving now to one of Spielberg’s producing credits, 1987’s *batteries not included tells the story of a group of tenants who refuse to leave their apartment building, which is scheduled for demolition. A greedy land developer sends gang members to try and intimidate them into leaving. Just when all hope seems lost, the tenants receive some unexpected help from above.

What’s so great about *batteries not included is how it takes a great sci-fi concept, the arrival of tiny clockwork robot aliens, and frames it within an extremely down-to-Earth context. The mixture of practical and computer-generated effects is also quite impressive.

1941 (Directed)

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We are all well aware of Spielberg’s artistic interest in Word War II. As a director, he’s given us Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and he has produced the groundbreaking television series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. But in 1979, his first tackling of the subject was approached from a much more irreverent angle. 1941 spins a whacky tale about how California residents prepared for what they felt was an imminent Japanese invasion post Pearl Harbor. The film, co-written by Robert Zemeckis, is an absurd mix of satire and high-flying slapstick featuring an all-star cast of comedy giants. 

Innerspace (Produced)

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Director Joe Dante has collaborated with Steven Spielberg on multiple occasions. The two were among the four directors, along with John Landis and George Miller, who helmed the four segments of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Spielberg also produced a number of Dante’s films, including 1987’s Innerspace. The film is about a scientist who is miniaturized, along with his specially designed craft, and accidentally injected into a goofy store clerk. The film seamlessly blends science fiction and screwball comedy in a way that is impossible not to enjoy. Martin Short is a riot as the ill-fated clerk.

Animaniacs (Produced)

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One of the great things about Spielberg as a producer is that he chooses a wide array of projects. You may think the idea of seeking out an animated series from the mid-90s, especially as an adult, is a bit juvenile, but the Spielberg-produced Animaniacs is a show that is just as much for adults as it is for kids. Animaniacs routinely makes reference to, and mercilessly lampoons, everyone from politicians to classic Hollywood stars. Broken into various segments, the show features an array characters, including a group of pigeons who are direct parodies of the three principal characters from Goodfellas as well as a super-intelligent mouse modeled after Orson Welles. The silliness of Animaniacs may have the kiddies guffawing, but the clever writing and deep well of references makes for a far more grownup cartoon.

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