05 April 2006
100 films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
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starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore
written by: Melissa Mathison
directed by: Steven Spielberg
PG, 115 min, 1982, USA
There are certain cultural experiences that tend to define a generation, sometimes a song or a novel or a current event, but quite often it tends to be a film that transcends demographics and is able to reach people on an intimate level. For a variety of reasons, few films can accomplish such a feat, but the ones that do are permanently burned into our collective memories. Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one such film. The story, for the uninformed, centers around Elliott (Henry Thomas), a little boy trying to adjust to his parent's divorce and the myriad of things boys his age must adjust to. Then one night he encounters E.T., an alien accidentally left behind by his spaceship. They form a fast friendship, even to the point where Elliott begins to feel what E.T. feels and react to what he does and sees. But as E.T. stays separate from his own kind, it begins to have negative consequences on his health and, by extension, Elliott's. He attempts to "phone home", but it may be too little too late.
It had been roughly fifteen years since I last saw E.T., a long time to be sure, but an eternity when you consider that my primary focus back then was less on cinematography and technique and more on sports and creating havoc. As a result, the E.T. I remember only somewhat resembles reality. Certain things are lodged in the back of my head--the Reese's Pieces, the NASA men, and the rest of the iconic images--so it was surprising to watch it again and realize just how different the actual film is from the film in my memory. The childhood version of me found the film to be by and large creepy. But what do kids know anyway?
In actuality, very little, but they do have the unique ability to respond to stimuli without the burden of knowledge and cynicism. So when E.T. propels the bicycles across the face of the moon, a child is much more likely to believe they're flying, rather than assuming the film is using some form of rear projection or other such effects. It's that innate sense of wonder that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial employs more effectively than the vast majority of films dare dream. It has the ability to move people to tears with a simple tale of a friendship that transcends all barriers.
One thing Spielberg does in the early going is model the visual style of the film after all the alien invasion B movies of the 1950's. At every opportunity he fills his night exteriors with fog and lights cutting through the haze. He puts more light then is even remotely plausible in the shed where E.T. is hiding, so when contrasted against the fog, it tends to glow with an otherworldly eeriness. And this is before either the characters or the audience has met the alien, so there's an amount of unease about the scenes where Elliott is sitting in the lawn chair armed with nothing more than a flashlight. For all we know, the alien could pounce on him at any moment. There's always that risk in an alien film: they're either friendly or hell-bent on world domination. Rarely is it something in-between. And sure, you could assume that since this is from the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) that the aliens are likely to be peaceful, but young directors love to try new things, so you never know.
So when we discover that E.T. is indeed friendly, a lonely soul accidentally left behind, we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Elliott and his family will indeed be safe, that no one is going to get shot with a laser. Elliott, for his part, does what virtually every boy his age would do in such a situation: he treats E.T. like a cross between a little brother and a pet that's followed him home and he won't be allowed to keep. That is, he hides him in the closet, confiding only in his brother and sister, who despite some conflict earlier in the film are more than willing to help. The task of keeping E.T. a secret serves to unite these siblings in a common cause. Gone is the constant bickering and yelling of the film's early scenes. When Elliott is teased in school, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) actually sticks up for his brother against his friends. They learn, in some small way, what it means to be part of a family, growing closer in pursuit of a goal.
Of course, they don't become nearly as close as Elliott and E.T., who actually form a bond so tight that their heart rhythms begin to operate in sync. They begin to share experiences, such as E.T. drinking beer while Elliott gets drunk during school and mimics the actions in the movie E.T. is watching on television. This is by no means an original way to show that two characters are of a like mind, but by tying their fates together in a supernatural way, Spielberg is able to present it in a new way and it's so effective that when they lay side by side on the verge of death, you can scarcely stand the thought of what might happen. As an audience member, you're torn between wanting E.T. to be able to phone home and re-join his family and wishing he could stay on Earth with Elliott and his family. But if they're to both live healthy and productive lives, they cannot stay together. E.T. cannot stay on Earth and Elliott cannot leave his family behind, and so ends one of the great friendships in all of cinema.
 A small part of this has to do with the fact that I had trouble tracking down anything other than the re-release version, so some things are different.
 Especially when you consider that this is the same man who wrote Poltergeist (1982).