E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some drinking and swear words, but only the ones your kids already know and use when you aren’t listening.

E.T.’s success is all but alien, or should be by now. It’s a Universal Studios ride and the emblem of Amblin Entertainment. Until the re-release of Star Wars, it also had the honor of the cinema’s highest grossing film at $800 million worldwide – not bad considering its $10 million budget – not including the oodles in merchandising (including the worst video game of all time). It garnered four Oscars (sound, sound effects, visual effects, and score), a fraction of its nine nominations (director, picture, editing, cinematography, and Melissa Mathison’s screenplay). And did we forget the countless endorsements (including American Film Institute) that consider it among the greatest films of all time?

Even when we throw all of the acclaim aside – as we should anyway when considering the “quality” of the film – E.T. is the most endearing and personal film on Steven Spielberg’s extensive résumé. As it unfolds, we feel the blood and sweat and tears that went into it – even shedding some of our own along the way. Every time I watch E.T. turn pale and Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas start bawling, a part of me dies inside, only later to be rejuvenated when the flowers blossom once again. As a movie, it’s simultaneously the saddest of tearjerkers and most uplifting of melodramas; but as an experience, it’s life altering. Like the best films, the person that goes in the theater is different from the one that comes out.

As the movie opens, a spaceship has ET3landed and creatures begin to gather samples in a foggy forested area. Suddenly, tall pale-skinned beasts carrying torches infiltrate the area, wearing key rings and clamoring as they go. The excitement forces the ship to exit prematurely, leaving one of its passengers behind. From the forest we’re taken inside a middle-class, suburban home. A young boy named Elliot (Thomas) is bickering with his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) and his immature friends (KC Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell). When he goes outside, Elliot thinks he hears something in the shed and approaches.

Though no one believes Elliot’s story of what he saw, later on he lures a creature into his room with Reese’s Pieces. Elliot names the creature E.T., and introduces him to things like toys, Halloween, and a dog. Some things – like Speak and Spell, beer, and Tom & Jerry – E.T. discovers on his own. Elliot eventually tells his brother and sister (Barrymore), but knows better than to tell his mother, or any adults for that matter, fearing that they’ll freak out and “give it a lobotomy or do experiments.” We never know exactly where E.T. is from – and we don’t need to – suffice to say he’s from somewhere in space and wants to go back.

Spielberg shoots the film almost entirely from a child’s level, allowing us to experience things from Elliot and E.T.’s points of view. We see the mother (Dee Wallace) scrambling throughout the movie, occasionally stopping and swelling up with tears. She’s very busy and stressed out, and for good reason, as a now-single parent of three. There are loads of other adults, mostly government officials who chase after E.T. But we rarely see their faces – merely their belt lines and shoes – and only catch portions of their conversations, making them essentially foreign to us. Though he never appears in the film, the children’s father certainly plays a role – an embodiment of the “foreign adult.” There’s a specific moment that illustrates this, when Elliot and Michael discover a shirt their father left behind. They innocently smell it, initially finding it familiar before realizing it has since turned foreign. When I watched the movie as a young boy, I assumed Peter Coyote’s role (known only as “Keys”) was that of the father figure. I now realize this assumption isn’t entirely without merit as he kindly opens up to Elliot at one point – exhibiting a similar fascination in E.T. – but ultimately seems separated amidst surroundings of plastic tubes, jump suits, and glass. He has become more alien to Elliot than E.T.

“From the beginning, E.T. was a movie about my childhood – about my parents’ divorce,” Spielberg said. “My parents split up when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I needed a special friend, and had to use my imagination to take me to places that felt good – that helped me move beyond the problems my parents were having, and that ended our family as a whole.”ET2

It’s not entirely sad – in fact it’s far from it. There are laugh-out-loud segments, from E.T. hiding in stuffed animals and getting hit by the fridge door, to Michael asking Elliot for directions to which he responds, “I don’t know, mom always drives me.” Spielberg once again called on John Williams for the score, which sounds eerily similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but peaks during the movie’s famous flying bikes scene, which inspires both awe and happiness.

Like Mike Leigh (director of Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake), Spielberg shot the film in order to guarantee genuine emotional responses from his young actors. Leigh famously withholds major plot devices from all the actors, except the one delivering the character twist. The decision, without a doubt, was a good one. Barrymore, the incomparable child star, here plays the pigtailed younger sister who teaches E.T. to speak, develops his fashion sense, and kisses him goodbye in the emotional finale. She’s wonderful as the perceptive Gertie, who innocently comments on what she senses. MacNaughton plays the older brother, and does so with the right amount of restraint – after all, younger brothers rarely get along with older brothers at that age – so that he doesn’t take attention away from Elliot. Thomas’ role is iconic. He got the part while emotionally rehearsing a scene and making Spielberg cry. He felt the child’s uncanny power, and, soon, so would we.

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