In the encyclopedia of 1980s movies, Steven Spielberg gets his own volume. No other filmmaker so fully exhibits what cinema was doing in that decade than Spielberg. He directed some of the most entertaining and popular films of the decade including E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones movies. As a producer he was, perhaps, more influential, putting his distinctive aesthetic on such films as Gremlins, Goonies, Poltergeist, Back to the Future and more. Films he had his hands on are quite simply the movies of the 1980s. He helped create and shape blockbuster cinema. HIs films would influence countless other big budget, family escapist films for decades to come.
None of this was certain in 1982. He’d had big hits in the late ’70s with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with 1942 he’d had a big bomb. He kickstarted the ’80s with George Lucas making one of my all-time favorites, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But E.T. was something different. It’s a movie about an alien who gets left behind on Earth. It’s also about divorce and the emotional craters it leaves behind.
That’s a theme Spielberg would revisit over and over throughout his career. His own parents divorced when he was young and it clearly had a deep impact on his life. He touched on this in Close Encounters showing the destruction of a marriage when Richard Dreyfuss’ character deserts his family after an encounter with aliens. There we followed Dreyfuss into a journey of hope, paying little attention to his family once he leaves. With E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, we stay with the family seeing the emotional scars leftover in the wake of the father leaving to be with another woman.
So E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was a gamble. It was a deeply personal, big-budget science-fiction film from a director who had certainly proved himself, but who was not the juggernaut we know today. To say that it paid off would be to woefully understate the facts. Bringing in $619 million in worldwide box office receipts, it surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time (a record it maintained until being unseated by Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park). It was nominated for nine Oscars, listed as the 24th greatest film of all time by the American Film Institute, and is truly a classic family film.
For its 35th anniversary, TCM and Fathom Events are bringing it back on the big screen for two days only. I got to catch the first screening yesterday. The last day to see it is Tuesday, Sept 19.
I brought my six-year-old daughter with me to this screening. She is perhaps just a little too young to thoroughly enjoy it. I had forgotten just how scary the film is at times. She spent a large part of the first half of the film hiding under her blanket, whining that she didn’t like this movie. Having seen the movie countless times over the years, I had forgotten just how ambiguous the movie is in its initial scenes over whether E.T. is to be feared. Spielberg films it in darkness and John Williams’ score creates a tense, almost eerie ambiance up unto Elliott’s first real encounter with the alien. But as we get to know just how cute and cuddly he is, my daughter lightened up, so that by the time Elliott and E.T. are flying across the moon in his bicycle, she was jumping up and down enthusiastically in her chair.
Having just watched Close Encounter of the Third Kind on the big screen a few weeks ago, it is fascinating to think of the similarities and differences between these two “alien landing” films made by the same director just a few years apart. In Close Encounters, humans become obsessed with locating aliens who have made very brief contact. Richard Dreyfuss’ character loses a bit of his sanity making mountains out of mashed potatoes and garden supplies. He quite literally abandons his family in his quest to find the aliens. In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an alien comes to visit a little boy and in the process helps bring a family torn apart by divorce closer together. I’m not sure if Spielberg intended that juxtaposition in those films but its certainly interesting to ponder.
What else can be said about E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial? It’s a terrific film. I’ve loved it since it first came out. It’s funny and inspiring, heart-warming and beautiful. It’s a film that will be loved generation by generation throughout time.