Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
In the summer of 1982, Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The movie was a smash hit, breaking box office records, adding acclaim to Spielberg’s already impressive body of work and creating an entire subgenre. While not the first film produced under Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (aptly named after Spielberg’s first commercially released film, the short Amblin’), E.T. would give the production company its logo: A short animation featuring Elliott and E.T. on a bicycle flying in silhouette past the moon, replicating the most memorable sequence in the movie.
In the 40 years since E.T., the name Amblin has been used to describe a certain kind of coming-of-age adventure. Featuring specific elements—children with absent or otherwise distracted parents, the freedom of bicycles in a child’s life, raging hormones, overreach from authority figures and pushed boundaries of horror imagery acceptable in a family film. These qualities are vital to making what is known as an “Amblin movie.”
Movies such as The Goonies and Super 8 have drawn from these specific traits—attempting to capture that same magic by utilizing many similar story elements, expanding where they deemed necessary, or copying straight-up wholesale—to varying success, and this formula has been repeated on television in shows like Stranger Things. Even Star Wars is planning on drawing inspiration from Amblin, as Spider-Man trilogy director Jon Watts is looking for four child actors to co-star with Jude Law in his Star Wars: Skeleton Crew series.
It’s vital to recognize just how influential Spielberg’s story remains today. It managed to capture youth in a bottle and sell it to the world via celluloid. The nostalgia that these titles emphasize isn’t genetically tied to the ‘80s (although some of these titles desperately try to capture that era.) Rather, this subgenre focuses on the timeless fears of adolescence that everyone faces and how an epic adventure can change a life forever.
Here are the elements making up an Amblin film:
E.T.’s Elliott (Henry Thomas) became the prototypical Amblin kid blueprint. Being ten is hard enough, but his parents have recently separated, and that absence is felt by his entire family. His siblings Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore) are handling the separation in different ways; Michael chooses not to discuss it, enjoying his youth driving cars and playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, while Gertie is still a little too young to fully understand the ramifications. When E.T. comes into their lives, the alien fills the absence in their home, providing Elliott a chance to grow up exponentially from this otherworldly encounter.
Super 8 is intrinsically tied to the Amblin formula, so much that director J.J. Abrams had the old Amblin logo dusted off for the beginning of the feature. Spielberg was even part of the project as a producer. Super 8’s Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is reeling from the tragic death of his mother, but he’s not the only one suffering. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), was always able to count on his wife to take care of his son and his home. Now he has to split his responsibilities as a cop and father, as the greatest threat to his town is on its way. Their grief manifests in different ways, but the most significant item that Joe holds onto is a pendant given to him by his mother, which plays a pivotal part in the conclusion. Super 8’s family dynamic drives many of the most significant dilemmas in the movie.
Bicycles, Always Bicycles
One of the biggest signifiers of a child’s coming of age is when they get their first bicycle. It’s a measure of freedom that allows them to travel beyond the constraints set for them by their parents. Remember that nostalgia thing? Many adults have a vivid memory of when they got their first bike, how they would enjoy cruising around the neighborhood with their friends. The bicycles in E.T. capture that same sense of joy and adventure. In one of the most memorable sequences, Elliott, Michael and Michael’s friends use bikes to outrun the police and government agencies trying to capture them. Even though they are eventually cornered by police with shotguns, E.T. lifts them (and their bikes) to safety far outside the reach of the law.
Stranger Things so precisely captures the Amblin ideals that it must’ve been created in a lab by the Duffer Brothers to do so. Within the show’s first eight minutes, the boys have played a game of D&D while Mike Wheeler’s (Finn Wolfhard) parents are on parenting cruise control, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has tried to get the attention of the older Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and an unknown scientist has been presumably murdered by some alien. Then, they bike. Cinematographer Tim Ives gives special prominence to those precious modes of transportation before Chief Hopper (David Harbour) emphasizes the importance of bicycles: “A bike like this is like a Cadillac to these kids.” There’s nothing as liberating and important to a child as their two-wheeled ticket to freedom. The two shall never be separated when trying to create a project in the vein of E.T.
It might feel like a toss-away sequence in E.T., but there is still a moment spent with Elliott crushing on a classmate. There’s a girl (Erika Eleniak) in his class who seems interested in him, but as relationships go at that age, neither Elliott or the girl say much to each other. When E.T. starts drinking beer in Elliott’s home, he has already established a mental link with Elliott, making it seem like Elliott is inebriated at school. After freeing all the frogs scheduled for dissection in science class, Elliott stands on the back of a classmate and kisses his crush before being taken away by the teacher.
Raging hormones are an essential part of growing up—especially on screen. If there isn’t some kind of disagreement between friends over a particular love interest, then something isn’t working with a script. While it never amounts to much more than an innocent misunderstanding, two brothers are both smitten by the high school cheerleader, Andy (Kerri Green) in The Goonies. Mikey (Sean Astin) is firmly in the little kid category, but when he stumbles into a corner and kisses Andy, he’ll never forget that moment. Andy didn’t remember her love interest Brand (Josh Brolin) wearing braces, but she thought the kiss was great anyways. It isn’t until the climactic finale that all three laugh at the case of mistaken identity.
For a significant part of E.T., the antagonist is only recognizable by the keys rattling from his belt. His characterization is so insignificant by Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, that when it came time to give the character an official name he was known simply as Keys (Peter Coyote). The script ultimately tries to redeem him as a man whose obsession with extraterrestrial life forms has been his passion, and who wants to do what’s in his power to save E.T. Even with his good intentions, he’s still a flawed authority figure whose own narcissism outweighs the wellbeing of others.
Stranger Things has a plethora of adults that either take advantage of their position or fail to live up to a certain standard. When the audience is first introduced to Hopper, he’s drunk on his couch. He shows up to work late and refuses to take calls until he’s good and ready. Certainly, some kind of tragedy has influenced his fall from grace, but this cop is not suited for duty. Another shadowy authority figure is Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who was not only responsible for many of the experiments that haunt the town of Hawkins, Indiana but also for working on a number of test subjects including Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Children look to authority figures for guidance, but many of the characters in Amblin adjacent properties are just out for themselves.
Scary, But Not Too Scary
There are some moments in E.T. that even cause adults to tense up. Whether it’s the jump scares or the trauma of seeing E.T. die, the movie can be legitimately frightening. The Goonies have the threat of the Fratellis always behind them, and the first introduction to Sloth (John Matuszak) would likely cause anyone to jump from their seat. The ultimate goal is to find a balance between being scary and family-friendly.
That’s why Stephen King’s stories like Stand By Me fit under the Amblin formula far more than those like It: Chapter One. They both have a group of preteen-to-teenage children going on an adventure and coming out the other end totally changed. But where those properties exist under or outside the family-friendly umbrella changes their relationship to Spielberg’s standard.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.