What followed Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was an impressive track record of ambitious and entertaining blockbusters like nothing seen in Hollywood before, many of which would go on to receive further universal acclaim. The success Spielberg was having with his film career led him to create his own production company Amblin Productions (later Amblin Entertainment) which he founded in 1981 along with film producers and frequent collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. All of the films Spielberg directed from that point forward would be produced by Amblin.
Spielberg made an attempt at comedy for the first time with the film 1941, a period war satire (it even parodied Jaws) released in 1979 and written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (the writing team who would later create Back to the Future) that takes place days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and stars a huge cast that includes Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Ned Beatty among many others. Unfortunately the cast list might be the most impressive thing about the film. It was not well-loved by audiences or critics initially, although it has grown a cult fan base over time.
For his next film, the Jaws director would team up with Star Wars director George Lucas on what would become one of the most famous movies in both men’s careers. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) written by Lawrence Kasdan and based on a character created by Lucas was an action-adventure film starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, a globetrotting archaeologist who tries to find the ancient Ark of the Covenant before a group of Nazis does. Essentially doing for the adventure genre what Star Wars did for the sci-fi genre, this highly entertaining movie’s popularity led to the sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) which Spielberg also directed.
Biggest of all of Spielberg’s films in the eighties however was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Written by Melissa Matheson and produced alongside Kathleen Kennedy, E.T. told the story of a young California boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) who befriends an alien who is lost on Earth after being separated from his ship. It also starred Peter Coyote as the government agent looking for E.T., Dee Wallace as Elliott’s mom and Drew Barrymore, who achieved fame thanks to her breakout role in this movie, as Elliott’s little sister Gertie.
The film broke the record previously held by Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time and like Jaws it even received a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. The film was a major artistic success as well and it set the standard for the “boy and his alien that is hunted by the government” formula which featured elements that would be repeated in many later films such as The Iron Giant, Lilo & Stitch and Bumblebee. Furthermore the film achieved something similar to what Walt Disney achieved with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when he made audiences fall in love with a princess before making them cry over her death, only this time it was an animatronic alien.
Spielberg was executive producing many films through Amblin in addition to directing in this period. Some of these films would achieve similar blockbuster success, including Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante), The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner), Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis), An American Tail (1986, Don Bluth), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis) and The Land Before Time (1988, Don Bluth).
One film that Spielberg did not direct but was heavily involved in the creation of was the supernatural horror film Poltergeist (1982) directed by Tobe Hooper and based on a story by Spielberg. Spielberg would have directed the film himself but it was being distributed by MGM and Spielberg had an exclusive contract with Universal, although he was said to be on the set every day. Some even say Spielberg deserves a co-director credit on the film but that is still open to dispute. Nonetheless, the film was excellent and received critical and commercial success.
After directing the “Kick the Can” segment in the largely unsuccessful Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), an anthology reboot of The Twilight Zone for the big screen which he produced alongside John Landis, Spielberg created another anthology, only this one was for television and called Amazing Stories. Originally running for two seasons from 1985 to 1987 on NBC, Spielberg came up with the stories for many of the episodes and even directed the first episode “Ghost Train.” Other filmmakers who directed episodes of the Emmy-winning show include Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Robert Zemeckis, Irvin Kershner, Brad Bird and Ken Kwapis.
A turning point for Spielberg away from fantasy, action and large-scale spectacle came in 1985 with the film The Color Purple. Based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker about an African-American girl and the struggles she faced against sexism, racism, domestic violence and other problems in the South during the early 20th century, this film can be seen as Spielberg’s first real adult drama and against all odds it too was a success with critics, audiences and awards shows, thus paving the way for Spielberg to expand his palette in the future, which would contain big-budget blockbusters as well as small-budget dramas. The film also introduced many people to Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (a year before her talk show came to daytime television).
After The Color Purple, Spielberg directed Empire of the Sun (1987) a war epic based on the WWII-set semi-autobiographical 1984 novel by J.G. Ballard about a boy who goes from a wealthy British lifestyle to war prisoner in a Japanese internment camp. It starred Christian Bale and John Malkovich and was originally going to be directed by David Lean, but David Lean fan Spielberg took it up instead. Spielberg saw it as a loss-of-innocence story and and it received a good reception from critics but not a lot of attention at the box office.
Another film directed by Spielberg that would be even less popular was Always (1989) a romantic fantasy based on the 1943 Victor Fleming film A Guy Named Joe which starred Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman and tells the story of a dead pilot who comes back as a spirit to mentor a new pilot, a pilot who ends up falling in love with the spirit’s old girlfriend. This received a lukewarm response from critics and audiences and some would accuse the film of being overly sentimental, which was a common complaint towards Spielberg by the eighties.
Oh well, you can’t hit a home run every time. But Spielberg was not done yet. He was still at his artistic peak and had yet to accomplish some of the most impressive things in his entire career.