Spielberg’s Alienation — 30 Years Later
Next week will mark thirty years since E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial first waddled onto the big screen and captured the hearts of a moviegoing public not yet jaded by the coming age of CGI-laden popcorn porn. That’s three decades, folks. To put that number in perspective, consider that you can be old enough to run for president and still be too young to remember seeing this movie in the theater.
Steven Spielberg’s quietly thoughtful story was as accessible as they come: a lonely California boy, distraught over his parents’ recent divorce, takes in a stray alien and discovers the true meaning of friendship. While summer blockbusters were still a new concept in 1982, this one managed to generate the kind of mass-market hoopla that few films do today. It put Reese’s Pieces on the map. It made a star out of Drew Barrymore. It even had kids believing they could call outer space with their Speak & Spells. It was family-friendly fare at its finest.
But like so many additions to the feel-good pantheon, this corny tale of tolerance and companionship was inspired by equal parts solitude and suffering. Spielberg would later call it his second most personal film, behind only Schindler’s List in terms of stories he’d felt a burning need to tell. His own parents split up in the 1960s, a time when broken homes were still the exception, and the subsequent banishment to latchkey limbo drove the boy Spielberg to seek refuge in a world of make believe.
“I responded by escaping into my imagination,” the director recalled in Joseph McBride’s 1997 Spielberg biography. “My wish list included having a friend who could be both the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore. And that’s how E.T. was born.”
Steven Spielberg, closeted tortured artist that he is, probably gets as much credit for inventing the summer blockbuster than anything else in his storied career. His second feature film, Jaws, was released in June 1975 to a nationwide audience, breaking the tradition of introducing movies to individual markets one at a time and allowing audiences to build slowly.
By virtually all measures, E.T. stands as the pinnacle of Spielberg’s early blockbuster career (it remained in the top five at the box office for a full six months after its release). And yet, truth be told, if the movie were released today, it would probably fall flatter than a buddy picture featuring Mark Wahlberg and a talking teddy bear (remember who said it). It’s not just that kids weaned on CGI monsters would scoff at an animatronic alien, or that the media landscape has changed so dramatically, or that 21st-century viewers would rather cozy up to their tiny screens than go out to watch big ones. E.T. differs from today’s big-budget summer fare for another reason: Its screenplay, written by Melissa Mathison from Spielberg’s concept, was not based on preexisting material. No comic books. No reboots. No best-selling novels.
The notion that a completely original movie could become the highest-grossing film in any given year seems almost impossible today. In fact, since 2000 it’s happened only once, with James Cameron’s Avatar. But that over-hyped adult cartoon was more about its technological prowess than what it passed off as a story. Indeed, when judged against the current climate of summer cinema, E.T. is a member of an almost extinct species—a big-screen juggernaut born on the big screen.
Still, the movie gave us something to talk about thirty years later, and that counts for something. Today’s studio suits might ponder this thought as they sit around the conference room trying to figure how many superheroes they can cram into next summer’s mindless tentpole. It’s safe to say we won’t be talking about The Avengers thirty years from now. For those of you who have already forgotten, that’s some big movie that opened a few weeks ago.