He tugged at heartstrings with "E.T." and "War Horse," played on our deepest fears in "Jaws" and amped up the Cold War paranoia in "Bridge of Spies."
Now Steven Spielberg is returning to his favorite target -- the adrenal gland -- with the release of "Ready Player One," a high-octane love letter to the thrilling family films of the 1980s that made his fame.
Starring Tye Sheridan, the movie is based on a 2011 novel about a teenager on a treasure hunt in a virtual reality game, in a world torn apart by an energy crisis.
Sheridan plays teenage gamer Wade Watts, who finds himself inside an addictive virtual reality world called Oasis in the year 2045.
Hoping to escape the squalor of his trailer park in a futuristic Columbus, Ohio, Wade puts on the Oasis headset and gloves and is transported into the body of an avatar named Parzival.
Within the program he discovers clues to a game embedded by its mysterious creator, played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, that promises the winner full ownership of the Oasis.
The all-star support cast also features Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller and Simon Pegg, who told AFP at the world premiere in Hollywood on Monday that shooting the movie felt like experiencing the future.
"We had a VR set that we could go into. We could put the mask on and actually have a look at the set that we were gonna be in," he said.
"Because you know, when you're in the grey room, you're like 'what am I looking at?' so we could have a little look at it before we start acting, which was a real treat."
'You can do anything'
In the world of Oasis, Wade encounters 1980s pop culture icons such as Freddy Krueger and the Iron Giant, and gets to race the DeLorean from "Back to the Future" as he weaves to avoid huge wrecking balls.
King Kong, R2-D2, the Joker and Mechagodzilla all get screen time while the classic 1960s Batmobile whizzes through the streets -- and there is even a glimpse of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980).
"I was born in 2025, but I wish I'd grown up in the 1980s, like all my heroes," Wade says in voiceover.
Spielberg told the crowd in San Diego, where the movie was previewed last year, that the source novel by Ernie Cline was "the most amazing flash-forward and flashback at the same time about a decade I was very involved in -- the 1980s."
The veteran filmmaker said he had relished directing a sci-fi feature about the dystopian world people would be living in almost 30 years in the future.
"People are leaving the country and all of a sudden virtual reality gives you a choice, gives you another world to exist in," he said.
"And you can do anything in that world -- anything you can possibly imagine."
Spielberg actually cut most of the novel's references to his own movies, but this hasn't stopped critics suggesting that the big-screen "Ready Player One" is a kind of cinematic autobiography.
The critics have been mainly positive, yielding a 79 percent "fresh" rating from more than 200 reviews collated by Rotten Tomatoes, which described it as "a sweetly nostalgic thrill ride" that played to Spielberg's strengths.
Not everyone is on board, of course. The Chicago Reader described the sci-fi epic as an empty "special-effects maelstrom" in which a taciturn Sheridan is in constant danger of "being out-acted by his own avatar."
Wednesday preview screenings gave the production, scripted by Cline with Zak Penn ("The Avengers"), its first $3.8 million, and it is expected to come out of the four-day Easter weekend atop the domestic box office with $45-$50 million.
Penn remembers the 1980s as a decade of technological breakthroughs in the arts, pointing to the Walkman personal stereo, video consoles and the advent of the personal computer in people's homes.
"And also films: the move towards blockbusters... really changed the way people went to the movies," he told AFP.
"I think a lot of stuff happened in those 10 years that really has had some lasting impact."
Universal's "Pacific Rim Uprising," Marvel's "Black Panther" and Lionsgate's "I Can Only Imagine" are expected to vie for second place over the holiday weekend.
The also-rans will include Lionsgate thriller "Tyler Perry's Acrimony" -- starring Taraji P. Henson as a vengeful wife -- and Pure Flix's "God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness."