Spielberg. Whenever I hear this name, I instantly think of roaring T-rex’s, homesick aliens and adventurous archaeologists. So, when I got the chance to write a retrospective article on his light-hearted drama starring Richard Dreyfuss as a slightly-comedic spirit of the dead, I jumped on the opportunity.
Always is, as you’d expect, not your typical Spielberg flick. There aren’t that many monsters causing unprecedented kinds of havoc, nor is there a heavy armoury of CGI footage taking over. No, this film brings everything down a notch. Well, everything except the usual Spielberg class.
And, in an unusual turn for Spielberg, Always is a remake of an older film, called A Guy Named Joe. In previous efforts, Spielberg has always moved or strayed a bit from his source material (Hook, for example), but here he stays well within the grounds of the original, minus the war-time backdrop.
Always stars Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman as pilots who specialize in taking out forest fires through fire retardant sands, water and other compounds. Pete (Dreyfuss) is your cocky pilot, allowing himself to fall into hapless situations which could lead to his own and other pilot’s injury, while dousing the widespread fires. Dorinda (Hunter) is the apple of Pete’s eye, though not nearly as good a pilot as the very talented Pete. Goodman plays the part of Al, yet another talented pilot, but also best friend to both Pete and Dorinda.
In the opening shots we see the recognizable photography of Spielberg, as we see these fire-fighter jets rushing in and out of shot, that’s if the camera isn’t simply riding alongside the planes.
It is during these shots that we see just how reckless Pete is with his flying, as he very nearly crashes when he uses up all his fuel, the carrying wind being his only saviour. As a result of this, Dorinda explains just how worried she is of him every time he takes a seat in the cockpit, half expecting to get the phonecall every person that’s in love dreads.
Anyways, Pete decides there and then to give up what he does, and look into taking up the position as an instructor to become such a pilot, as he was told by Al of such a position opening up near by.
Cliché alert: Pete gets a call, and is needed to go on one last job, as there is an out of control forest fire with many of the other pilots out of action for one reason or another. Dorinda stays in the tower as Pete and Al head off to help fight the blaze.
This blaze eventually gets to Al’s plane, igniting one of his engines. Al is unable to put the flame out, and an eventual explosion is almost certain. Pete takes his plane on an almighty nose dive, and releases his fire retardant sand onto Al’s wing, thus extinguishing the flame.
Yet, with such a dive, it takes an awful lot of effort to get back up. Pete fights with all his might, and at the last minute, manages to manouver the plane upward. However, as he came so close to the ground, he had to fly through the fire tearing the forest to bits. Initially his plane looks untouched, and he and Al smile at one another from their separate birds. Then, a spark goes off on Pete’s engine, and with that the fire-fighter explodes.
Next thing we see Pete walking through a burnt out forest, and finding a small grass patch, where Audrey Hepburn (in her final film appearance) appears as the angel Hap, who informs Pete that he is indeed dead. But, before he can make his way up to heaven, he must act as a spirit guide, “the divine breath”, for another pilot. A form of purgatory, if you will, not allowing the soul to continue on until it has done its job.
Enter Ted Baker – a rookie pilot about to attend lessons to become one of the fire-fighter elite. Pete is instructed by Hap to take the handsome devil Ted under his wing, and show him the way, though Ted will never know. The lessons, we soon find out, are being taught by Al. We also find out that it has now been 6 months since Pete was killed in the blast; to quote Hap, “Time is a funny thing”.
Through acting as Ted’s subconscience, Pete can’t help but revert back to his old ways and start making fun of Al. This leaves us with a ghost even more likeable than Casper ever was. However, it does lead to Ted getting into trouble with the instructor, and eventually leading to his dismissal from the course.
Ted’s divine breath does eventually give him the courage to return to the course and aim to be the best fire-fighter pilot that he can be, but it also leads to Ted meeting up with Dorinda, Pete’s love who has still not really come to terms with his death. Despite this, a budding romance ensues.
Pete tries his hardest to stop the romance from blossoming, and can’t bear to watch as the two share their first kiss. Pete and Dorinda’s song then comes on the radio, putting an end to her and Ted’s date. Pete then wakes in Hap’s presence again, where she tells him that he was not only sent here to help Ted, but to also say goodbye to Dorinda (unfinished business – the classic for keeping ghosts/spirits on this plane).
Anyways, a new forest fire comes up that requires attention from many as there are some ground-fire fighters stuck within the blaze that need rescuing. Ted, who has since become a very apt fighter thanks to Pete’s help and guidance, comes up with a plan to save his fellow fighters.
Dorinda, not able to see another love get taken form her by a forest fire, takes matters into her own hands and attacks the fire herself. With Pete’s spirit by her side, Dorinda manages to make an escape route for the trapped fire-fighters. It is at this moment that Pete finally opens his heart to her, telling her everything that he wished he had said a year ago, but didn’t.
As Dorinda has to make an emergency landing in a nearby lake, Pete helps her one last time by giving her the courage and strength to swim out of the submerged aircraft. He then lets her go forever, as she runs into the arms of Ted. As Pete turns and walks away and toward heaven, he leaves us with “That’s my girls… And that’s my boy”, showing he can let the relationship between the two grow, as all he now wants is happiness for Dorinda.
Throughout this film we do see some of Speilberg’s characteristic sparks. As previously said, the flight sequences are somewhat reminiscent of Indiana Jones, while the love shown brings thoughts of a certain homesick alien to mind. Always is a light hearted drama with a comedy kicker, and it shows us that Spielberg is not a one trick pony, relying on summer blockbusters. This isn’t Michael Bay.
Granted, it is not Spielberg’s strongest film, for obvious reasons. Just look at his filmography. But, as a romantic film, it’s a shame that other film’s of this genre aren’t made to this quality. Spielberg seemingly takes this type of movie and makes it his own.
Is it an important movie? Almost definitely, as it sets the tone and pace for many movies of this type of storyline. A year after the release of Always, came the film known as Ghost, for instance. Similar general principal, in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the director of Ghost watched Always a few times before filming.
The storyline is quite similar, right down to the end where the leading male isn’t able to tell his opposite female how he feels until it’s too late. It really is a mystery to me why Ghost did so much better at the box office than Always. Well, apart from who we see hooking up with who in each of the films.
All in all, Always is by no means the greatest film that Spielberg has presented us with, but not quite his worst either. Somewhere in the middle, almost forgettable. Which is a shame, had it done well at the box office, it could have surmounted other films which took its plot and seemingly won over the audience. It does show how Spielberg has a range of directorial skill, not only with the task of controlling blood-thirsty sharks or cloned dinosaurs. He is a director in a class of his own, which few can measure up to, but many strive to attain.