ET at 40: Why the Spielberg Classic Feels So Unusual Today

Its influence resonates today, and not just in the film’s most obvious offspring, such as Netflix’s Stranger Things, with its self-conscious nostalgia for making ’80s family movies. It’s not that hard to remember its legacy. can be seen in the way Pixar has cornered the children’s entertainment market, from Toy Story (where the toys can be seen as a kind of replacement for children) to Turning Red. While Stephenson agrees that the film has been extremely influential, he thinks that few who have attempted to make films have “achieved the harmony of ET specifically in the ET form”.

Indeed, if Spielberg’s fantastic, kid-centric stories are making an impact in the world of film and TV, the more heartfelt elements of ET and the time it spends on everyday life — as well as the way it doesn’t shy away from pain and grief — feel strangely old to – now molded and perhaps more in line with arthouse cinema than with the frenetic landscape of blockbusters. A likely cousin of ET in this regard is Céline Sciamma’s recent Petite Maman, which also has a supernatural dimension and a resolutely child-oriented, deeply emotional story. Here, as in ET, a lonely child, whose parents seem to be breaking up, meets a wonderful playmate, a kindred spirit (in this case, traveling through time to meet her own mother as a child); again, as in ET, the child is filmed sympathetically and with the feeling that she is her own free agent and influences the world around her. Another film clearly indebted to Spielberg, but hampered by Spielberg’s signature sentimentality, is Wonderstruck (2017) by Todd Haynes, which also premiered at Cannes: Also Set in a World of Children, and another attempt at a ​To evoke a sense of wonder from children’s adventures, the film stars a somewhat sad child of divorce. Spielberg’s clear suggestion is present in the script, but it fits somewhat uncomfortably with Haynes’ more eccentric and twisty directorial vision.

If ET has an undeniably large footprint on the ensuing film landscape, spawning a reinvention of youth cinema as led by the youth themselves, from The Goonies to The Hunger Games, it’s also dated, in the sense that we’re no longer used to the care for his writing, his pure cinematic craft (visible, for example, in Spielberg’s delightful nods to signature confrontation shots in traditional westerns, when the children escape the adults, filmed marching ominously in a row). Will the movie hold up? Haskell, somewhat cryptically, tells me, “I think it holds up for the most part, but it could also be retitled The Long Goodbye.” In that sense, ET may have heralded the beginning of a new type of cinema, but it also heralded a prolonged farewell cry from its own type of cinema, one largely ruled by emotion, where action, fantasy and the otherworldly considered only in terms of what they affect authentic human lives.

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