ET At 40: Why The Spielberg Classic Feels So Unusual Today


Its influence resounds today, and not only in the film’s most obvious descendants, such as Netflix series Stranger Things, with its self-conscious nostalgia for 1980s family filmmaking. It’s not too much of a stretch to see its legacy in the way Pixar has cornered the market for children’s entertainment, from Toy Story (where the toys can be seen as stand-ins of sorts for children) to Turning Red. However while Stephenson agrees that the film has been extremely influential, he thinks that few who have tried to make films “specifically in the ET mould have quite reached the harmony of ET”.

Indeed, if Spielberg’s fantastical, child-focused storytelling feels influential in the world of film and TV, ET’s more heartfelt elements and the time it accords to everyday life – as well as the way it doesn’t shirk pain and sorrow – feel strangely old-fashioned now and perhaps more aligned with arthouse cinema than with the frantic landscape of blockbusters. A likely cousin of ET, in this respect, is Céline Sciamma’s recent Petite Maman, which also has a supernatural dimension, and a resolutely child-centric, deeply emotional narrative. Here, as in ET, a lonely child, whose parents appear to be separating, encounters a fantastical playmate, a kindred spirit (in this case, by time-travelling to meet her own mother as a child); again, as in ET, the child is filmed sympathetically and with the sense that she is her own free agent, exerting an influence on the world around her. Another film clearly indebted to Spielberg, but which feels hampered by Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, is Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck (2017), which also premiered in Cannes: also set in a world of children, and again attempting to conjure a sense of wonder from the adventures of children, the film features a somewhat sorrowful child of divorce in the main role. The clear suggestion of Spielberg is there in the script, but it sits slightly uncomfortably with the more eccentric and twisty directorial vision of Haynes.

If ET has an unmistakably large footprint over the subsequent film landscape, spawning a reinvention of youth cinema as being led by youth themselves, from The Goonies to The Hunger Games, it has also dated, in the sense that we are no longer used to the care of its writing, its sheer cinematic craft (visible, for instance, in Spielberg’s delicious nods to trademark shots of confrontation in traditional westerns, when the children are escaping the adults, filmed marching ominously down a road in a row). Does the film hold up? Haskell, somewhat cryptically, tells me: “I think it stands up for the most part, but also might be retitled The Long Goodbye.” Perhaps in this sense, ET signalled the start of a new type of cinema, but also rang out a protracted cry of farewell to its own type of cinema, one which is governed foremost by emotions, and where action, fantasy and the otherworldly are only considered in terms of what they bring to bear on authentic human lives.

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