During the end credits of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, we see a series of faces from earlier scenes in the movie, all engaged in various forms of shouting. At that point, you realize that the film has had one overriding, annoying characteristic: It’s very loud.
I was watching Spielberg’s new production, The Goonies, and trying to remember what it reminded me of, when that credit sequence flashed into my mind. The Goonies was exactly the same sort of experience: grating and noisy.
Aside from grating and noisy, the first thing that should be said about The Goonies is that it isn’t all Steven Spielberg’s fault. He co-produced and is credited with the idea for the movie, but his marvelous directorial touch is definitely absent. Spielberg chose veteran director Richard Donner (Superman, Ladyhawke) to helm. (The handsome exteriors were shot in Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore.)
Somehow this just isn’t Donner’s kind of movie. The story—about a group of kids who stumble into an old-fashioned buried-treasure caper—calls for charm, wit, and high energy. It’s certainly got the latter, as the film follows the thrill-a-minute rhythms of a bad night in a haunted house. But when someone screams in horror every 30 seconds or so, it gets numbing after a while.
Spielberg’s idea was not a bad one. At least since Treasure Island, kids have dreamed of being lifted from humdrum reality into some exotic adventure, preferably one involving one-eyed pirates and treasure and pieces of eight. The Goonies begins with the kids (members of the titular society) discovering a crusty old map in an attic.
The map leads them to an abandoned lighthouse and the maze of catacombs (and the series of boobytraps) that snake underneath. Adding to the frenzy, and hot on the kids’ trail, is a trio of bloodthirsty criminals and their imbecile brother (played, under much freaky makeup, by John Matuzak, former head-basher for the Oakland Raiders—whose symbol is a one-eyed pirate).
The kids are drawn sketchily, with a reliance on type: There’s a fat one, an Asian one, a loudmouthed one. The only time a sense of wonder or innocence enters their adventure is toward the end, when they get closer to the treasure they are pursuing.
I would guess the cause of the film’s lack of distinctiveness is the distribution of authority; Donner may have been the director, but Spielberg was the head honcho, and worked closely with screenwriter Chris Columbus (who wrote Gremlins). Thus The Goonies has no particular sensibility behind it. It feels more like a movie made by a committee that thinks it knows what the young audience is going to want to see this summer.
They may be right; the preview audience I saw the film with seemed enthusiastic. But to me, The Goonies is strangely uningratiating—and a sense of ingratiation is exactly what the film needs the most.
First published in the Herald, June 1985
Millions loved it, and it ended up the #6 top-grossing film of 1985. If you were a kid, it seems to have been an important film, then and now. Just excruciating. Maybe, come to think of it, it actually is a Richard Donner kind of picture.