E.T. vs. Poltergeist: Two sides of the same Spielberg coin?

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Feb 17, 2015, 10:43 AM EST

It was the summer of 1982 and Steven Spielberg had two big blockbuster movies out at the same time, released a week apart from each other in June. One was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which he directed and for which he came up with the story. The other was Poltergeist, on which he was a producer and co-author of the screenplay. Although the director of Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), it's been widely believed for years that Spielberg was the film's "shadow director." One look at the movie bears this out: It looks a lot like the work of Spielberg and like nothing Hooper ever did before or since.

Either way, Spielberg was the main creative force on both films, and a closer look reveals that, in many ways, they parallel each other to a large degree -- with one major difference. In E.T., the unknown element injected into the lives of a suburban family is benevolent and from another planet entirely; in Poltergeist, the unknown factor is malevolent and very much a part of this world. The release of these two films so close together, both containing thematic and narrative elements that were on Spielberg's mind at the time, suggest they were -- unconsciously on the part of Spielberg or not -- meant as mirror images.

Both films arguably lead back to the same source: Night Skies. After finishing Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- another tale of contact with aliens who turn out to be friendly -- Spielberg wanted to tackle the dark side of the same concept and came up with the story for Night Skies, which would follow human beings under horrific attack from some truly nasty alien explorers. Spielberg had a script commissioned (by John Sayles), had creature designs worked up (by Rick Baker) and even had a director in mind: Hooper. But eventually he decided to focus on just a single element of the story -- one of the aliens turns out to be kind and befriends a boy from a broken home -- and Night Skies turned into E.T.

But perhaps Spielberg did not abandon Night Skies entirely, taking the idea of a terrifying otherworldly intrusion and turning his "science horror" movie into an outright horror film with Poltergeist. And with both E.T. and arguably Poltergeist coming from the same DNA -- Night Skies -- it seems almost obvious now that the two pictures would emerge as a Jekyll-and-Hyde view of the same basic concept.

Let's look at the facts: both movies are set in bucolic, almost cookie-cutter California suburbs. Both are centered around families with three children whose ages roughly line up, although the makeup of those two families is somewhat different. Both feature intervention in the story's events by outside agencies -- in the case of E.T., it's the government, while in Poltergeist it's a team of parapsychologists. And of course, both films are set in motion by those families coming in contact with those unknown forces we mentioned earlier -- one rooted in scientific theory and the other rooted firmly in the supernatural.

But what was Spielberg trying to say with his twin films, one filled with darkness and the other with light? The answer, perhaps, lies in the personal history of the man himself. Spielberg was one of four children born to Arnold and Leah Spielberg, and the seemingly idyllic family was shattered when the couple split up. Steven went to live with his father in California, while Leah and Steven's three sisters ended up in Arizona. 

The idea of a family asunder, and of parents too distracted by their own concerns to pay much attention to their children, has been a constant theme throughout Spielberg's entire filmmaking career. If artists create their art partially as a way to solve the questions of human life and behavior that perplex them, then the question of why people fall out of love -- with themselves, with each other and with their families -- and grow distant is the one riddle that has haunted Spielberg his entire life.

In Poltergeist, the Freelings are essentially whole and pretty much the picture-perfect archetype of a suburban American family -- which is probably how a young Spielberg saw his own clan. The teenage Steven could not understand the forces that drove his mother and father apart, splitting his family into two factions, just as the Freelings cannot understand the supernatural powers that are attempting to destroy them. The mystery of how the seemingly indestructible unit that we know as the family can implode so suddenly and so drastically could only be explained -- to Steven Spielberg circa 1982 -- in the most violent, supernatural terms possible.

That family configuration is already fractured in E.T.; Mary (Dee Wallace) is a single mom in the film, and we never really are told where her ex-husband is. We just know that her middle son, Elliott (Henry Thomas), is lonely and lost without that traditional family structure. It takes an outside force in the shape of a wise, benevolent alien -- representing the science, technology and stories of imagination that the young Steven himself escaped into -- to give Elliot a feeling of love and hope once again.

Poltergeist is about the attempted destruction of the family unit by forces that we cannot understand or control; it only has a (relatively) happy ending because Spielberg can almost never bring himself to end on a bleak note. But E.T. does bring us a family that has not made it through the wringer intact, and it shows how that family also needs an outside intervention -- one that is somewhat more understandable - to at least put it on the road to healing. From within his own psyche, and his own struggle with the concepts of love and family, Steven Spielberg gave us two of the greatest genre films of all time ... perhaps not even realizing that in many ways he was telling one grand story.