E.T.: The Extinguished Triumph

A while back on Twitter the subject came up of movies that were huge when they came out, but were now barely thought about. The example being discussed was James Cameron’s Avatar, but I feel like there’s an even bigger subject: Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

(When I first saw the logo for the movie, knowing nothing else, I thought it was going to be a scary movie. Spielberg had made the sometimes-frightening Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the scrawled text looked more to me like violent scratches than a child’s handwriting.)

E.T. exploded onto the scene in 1982, and took a completely opposite path from most movies of its type. The science-fiction blockbuster was in its heyday, but was still seen as kid stuff. E.T., on the other hand, showed up for news and family magazines.

In fact, I recall “Starlog” magazine being furious with Spielberg because he was giving all this attention to mainstream publications, leaving nothing for the geek crowd who felt they were owed something from him. The editorial in Issue 63 is publisher Kerry O’Quinn complaining that everyone else got E.T. press before they did, and urging readers to write, complain, and boycott this crass treatment. Starlog was unable to understand why they were getting the cold shoulder, but in retrospect it was obvious: Spielberg didn’t want a sci-fi movie that everyone would love, he wanted a movie everyone would love that happened to feature an alien.

And speaking of aliens, check out that “People” cover. That’s E.T., up close and personal, well lit and clearly photographed. There was no teasing about this alien, as with, say, Alien. Spielberg wanted E.T. to be as real as, say, John Travolta.

And it worked. E.T. was everywhere. The movie wasn’t just one of the highest grossing ever, it was part of the cultural landscape. “E.T. phone home” was a nationwide catch phrase, toys were everywhere, Reese’s Pieces were seen as a viable alternative to M&Ms. It was showered with award nominations.

And now, nothing. I hang out on Twitter, in a crowd that regularly discusses “classic” nerd stuff and nobody ever mentions E.T. Apart from an occasional “phone home” reference, it seems to have vanished from public awareness. Its 30th anniversary in 2012 came and went without a peep. In fact, the only time I have heard people talk about E.T. in the past several years was in regards to the infamous Atari videogame that supposedly sunk the first videogame wave and was buried in the desert.

How did something so huge become nothing in such a short amount of time? I have no idea. It could be that Spielberg followed E.T. up with…well, stuff like The Color Purple and Always, instead of more E.T., or even more science fiction. I don’t know. Maybe Starlog’s boycott finally took effect.

For me, it’s a more drastic case than Avatar (which I haven’t seen, so it’s not a thing I think bout at all, much less anymore). Avatar made more money than E.T., but the big difference with it was that Avatar was built on its role as spectacle. It was huge. It was expensive. It was in 3-D, which was something that was crazy at the time. Even as they walked out of the film, people didn’t seem to care about any of the actual characters or plot of the movie, just the effects and technical aspects. While it was still in theaters it didn’t seem like something that anyone was interested in beyond the experience of viewing it, so for it to drop out of consciousness when no longer in theaters isn’t surprising.

How do you go from having Neil Diamond sing his own filk song about you to being absolutely nowhere?

Hang on, maybe I just answered my own question.

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