Opinion: Watching Steven Spielberg’s films during quarantine offers a reminder of fiction’s ability to build imagination and wonder

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, escapism can be found through viewing the films of Steven Spielberg.


Pedro Barragan, Arts Reporter

If these last few weeks of quarantine have taught us anything, it’s that we require art now more than ever. Plenty of us are searching for what show to binge next, which classic novel to take off the bookshelf, or delving deeper into the relaxing world of Animal Crossing.

For me, when the University of Iowa extended spring break and announced classes would be going online, part of me recognized I’m stuck in a reality dimmer than the one I was in before quarantine. I needed something that wasn’t bleak or close to reality, so I started watching Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.

I was amazed at how I was still entangled by this story of a boy’s friendship with an alien, how this friendship filled the void left by an absent father. The moment that struck me the most while re-watching was the iconic scene when Eliot rides his bike with E.T. on Halloween night, the two flying with their silhouette lit by the moon. It’s a moment most people recognize in pop culture, and I grew emotional, seeing how Spielberg wishes to not only “wow” but also move his viewers. It’s not just exciting, it’s beautiful, too, because it’s a filmmaker denying to tell a story constrained by reality.

After viewing the feature I had to go back and re-watch the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, films I hadn’t seen since the times when I had checked out VHS copies from my middle school library. I had to revisit each of these tentpole flicks; going back into stories with adventure and happy endings.

With so many CGI infestations in film and television, viewers can forget what the iconic moments in Spielberg films meant when they originally appeared on screen. From an archeologist escaping a giant rolling boulder to a brachiosaurus taking its first steps, Spielberg’s worlds are filled with excitement and wonder, elements necessary to briefly take moviegoers away from life.

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Spielberg’s films also offer honest interpretations of humans, with characters carrying flaws that make them relatable even if they may be witnessing otherworldly sights. There’s a tiny moment in Jaws where Roy Scheider’s police chief returns home, devastated once again for  letting his community down by letting them swim in shark-infested waters. He comes home to see his son mimicking his moves, to where Scheider creates ridiculous faces to see if he follows. He later asks for his son to give him a kiss and his son asks, why? He replies “‘Cause I need it.” It’s a moment where the hero admits he’s vulnerable, something individuals may ache to reveal to their loved ones, especially in the moments like today.

Even Spielberg’s grounded features do not wish to solely depict tragedy, but rather to present stories of hope where the protagonists find themselves prevailing over real-life travesties. One of Spielberg’s lesser known titles, The Terminal, is a post 9/11 story about an Eastern European immigrant whose country is at war, preventing him from either returning home or entering the United States, leaving him stuck at an airport. The film is a critique about who the U.S. allows into the country, but instead of being purely serious, it turns into a comedy. Rather than create a purely painful image of the immigrant experience, Spielberg makes viewers laugh and cheer.

Watching these films has turned into a necessity to keep myself in high spirits as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Spielberg’s films take viewers into worlds unprecedented to our knowledge, told by real people, and allows them to let go of reality and become entangled in fantasy.