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Steven Spielberg’s best action scenes rely on horror, not spectacle

Screenshot: Jurassic Park

Prolific video essayist Patrick H. Willems is back with another thoughtful look at cinema. This time he’s examining—and defending—the work of Steven Spielberg. Willems argues that although Spielberg’s known as a slightly sappy director, what makes his action films successful is the horror he embeds in them. Spielberg’s most memorable action set pieces don’t just offer visual spectacle—they’re kind of terrifying, too. To prove that point, Willems examines the T-rex attack scene in Jurassic Park and the masterful way it builds tension.

In the T-rex attack, everything is shot subjectively; we see things through the characters’ perspectives and focus on how they’re feeling in the moment. Other than one wide establishing shot at the beginning, the sequence stays in close-up to root the situation in the emotional reactions of the characters. And there’s a mix of humor and tension early on in the sequence (like the chewed-up goat leg landing on the roof just after Lex asks where the goat’s gone) that allows the audience to take an even bigger emotional journey. Rather than just focus on cool-looking action, like so many contemporary blockbusters do, Spielberg uses the sequence to create a very specific mood.


Willems also expands his video essay to make a larger point: Some of the best blockbuster directors come from a horror background. Unlike other first-time action directors who might be tempted to turn over a big set piece to a second unit director where it will be robbed of their authorial voice (Willems plays some footage from Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World to drive the point home), horror directors already know how to craft tense sequences. Willems cites Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro, James Wan, Gore Verbinski, and James Cameron as just a few of the blockbuster directors with horror roots who were able to adapt their skill with horror set pieces into action ones.

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