Although Steven Spielberg was only 36 when "E.T." came out in theaters, he was already an established filmmaker. He'd directed "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "1941," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." At this point, even if "E.T." had been a total flop, it didn't seem like he'd have too hard a time bouncing back. As the man himself told Rolling Stone in a 1982 interview: "When I started 'E.T.,' I was fat and happy and satisfied with having the films I had on my list. And I just didn't feel I had anything to lose."
Spielberg, of course, didn't end up losing anything. "E.T." went on to beat "Star Wars" as the highest-grossing film of all time, only getting beaten at the box office a decade later by "Jurassic Park," which he also directed. The movie was so big that Neil Diamond made a whole hit song about it, and it's been referenced and parodied so often in the decades since that even if you haven't seen the film, it probably still feels like you have.
It's a somewhat surprising outcome, considering that Spielberg didn't really make this movie for a mass audience; he made it mostly for himself. "I had nothing to prove to anybody except myself," he said, "and any people who might have wondered if I ever had a heart beating beneath the one they assume that Industrial Light and Magic [the Lucasfilm special-effects company] built for me." Spielberg had already proven he could direct amazing, memorable action sequences; with "E.T." he proved that he could also make viewers cry.
Possibly Spielberg's Best Film
When compared to most of the movies today that break box office records, "E.T." is unique in just how light on the action it is. Most big box office performers are movies like "Avengers: Endgame," "Jurassic World," and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," where half of the movie's appeal is just how impressive the action looks, especially on the big screen.
The other difference is how aggressively earnest it is the whole way through. The film fully embraces the sincere, emotional worldview of its child protagonist, and doesn't care at all if the more cynical viewers might find it too sappy. There are jokes, of course, but there are none of those little meta winks to the audience modern moviegoers have been trained to expect. There's a comfort to these meta jokes in movies — they promise the audience that they won't have to feel anything too emotional if they don't want to, and "E.T" denies its viewers any of that.
Yet if you look at other truly massive box office winners — the ones that kept performing well in theaters even months after they were first released — "E.T." doesn't feel like that much of an outlier. Both "Avatar" movies, "Titanic," and "Top Gun: Maverick" were all films that Hollywood doubted before they came out, and they ended up slowly but surely beating everyone's expectations, one surprisingly-strong weekend performance at a time. Like "E.T.," these movies fully embrace the emotions of their story, even at the expense of being potentially corny, and general audiences loved it. As much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's irony-tinged writing strategy seems like a safe, dependable bet, movies like "E.T." prove that an earnest film done well is where the real money is.
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