Now we’re out of the woods. Every one of the remaining films is at least good, and their ranking is more a reflection of where they stand against Spielberg’s absolute classics than of their individual quality. You could almost consider the last four entries a separate list of Spielberg’s worst films; now we’re on to ranking his best.
Always is as close to a straight-up “chick flick” as Spielberg ever got. Toss Rachel McAdams in the Holly Hunter role and Patrick Dempsey and Ryan Reynolds as the male leads Pete and Ted and you could probably release this thing tomorrow. And in a lot of ways, it feels like a dry run for the following year’s Ghost. But aside from using a much better oldie (The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as opposed to “Unchained Melody”), Always is a lot more understated with its ghostly presences; we don’t get Richard Dreyfuss walking through people or levitating pennies, just those around him being completely oblivious to his being there. It’s a smart approach, as it makes the film less about Pete’s physical state (or lack thereof) and more about how what he observes changes both him and his reason for still being on Earth.
There’s a nice bit of misdirection as we’re first led to believe Pete has been sent back to help Brad Johnson’s Ted become an aerial firefighter, when actually he’s there to help his former love (Hunter as Dorinda) move on from his death. Where the film falls down a little bit is on the other side of the equation: Pete learning to let go of his former life. Ted and Dorinda begin falling for each other, to which Pete naturally takes exception. The only problem is that I didn’t feel any real chemistry between Ted and Dorinda. This is supposed to be a romance that finally allows her to put Pete behind her and move on. It should have some kind of passion to it, a spark, but it never feels that way. It just feels like two people who get along and decide to go out. Maybe that’s the point, that life’s not about big flashing chapter stops, but rather about slow transitions from old to new. But in a film that’s trying to be an old-fashioned movie romance (it’s a remake of A Guy Named Joe from 1943), I don’t think a more realistic approach is to its benefit.
When this film is in the air, though, it’s absolutely spectacular. Spielberg is clearly a bit of a prop-plane fanatic, if this, 1941, and Empire of the Sun are any indication, and any scene with a plane on-screen just pops with life and energy. It’s enough to make me wish he’d ditched the entire ghost/romance aspect and just done a film about these men who dive into fires to drop water from the sky. Or even a film about John Goodman’s character running his training school. Goodman’s in full-on chubby jovial sidekick mode here, and he’s wonderful; he even gets a pretty good dramatic scene with Hunter where he tries to convince Dorinda it’s time to start living her life again.
So it’s a film that has a lot of common with some of Spielberg’s failures: great look, lots of emotion, but a script that has aspects that drag the whole thing down a bit. But it also feels like it has a fully invested Spielberg on-board; A Guy Named Joe was a big inspiration of his, and remaking it seems to have fired his creative juices. It’s not a perfect film, but it certainly works as a throwback to the tear-jerkers of old, and on those terms, it’s a success.
Tomorrow: A film that will live in infamy.