“Elliott, I don’t think he was left here intentionally, but his being here is a miracle, Elliott. It’s a miracle and you did the best that anybody could do. I’m glad he met you first.”
“E.T. phone home.”
“I’ll… be… right… here.”
Is there any more of an iconic shot of the dream-like possibility of cinema then a kid’s bike (complete with alien in a basket) being silhouetted against the full moon over a forested landscape? Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is yet another masterpiece and I would argue one that has had one of the longest reaching imprints on Spielberg’s reputation. He has dealt with awe and wonder before, brilliantly in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but here is a more indelible child-like stamp.
Most of the scenes in this movie, a viewer will notice, are shot from the perspective of Elliott (Henry Thomas) or E.T. After E.T and his race of aliens land on earth followed by circumstances that cause the spaceship to leave quickly, E.T. becomes stranded on this strange world and immediately at mercy to adults with trucks and gadgets and gizmos. The adults who run around in the brush on a hill in California (above Los Angeles) are never really defined. We don’t know what many of their faces look like nor do we know their names and we cannot even always make out what they are saying. Their scientific looking instruments are seen and the flashlights piercing the darkness creating one of those famous Spielberg trademarks of high contrast lighting. Why did Spielberg shoot the film like this? Because the towering adults running around in the tall grass are not important except to communicate an imminent threat but short little E.T’s viewpoint is the primary concern.
E.T. will wander into the shed in the backyard of a suburban California home. The split-level kind in a seemingly endless real estate development. Young Elliott becomes aware of a visitor hiding in the shed and is shocked to encounter a gentle, alien presence. He coaxes E.T. into the house with (do you remember it?) Reese’s Pieces. Eventually, the siblings get introduced to the extra terrestrial including Gertie (a crazy young Drew Barrymore) and Michael (Robert MacNaughton). The secret is kept from the Mary, Elliott’s mom (Dee Wallace) and other adults.
The bond that develops between Elliott and E.T runs deep. The alien possesses powers of telepathy so Elliott experiences what E.T feels. Being that is the case, it is a film about empathy and a good chunk of sub-thematic elements is Elliott’s longing desire for a father. Elliott’s kinship with E.T. supplants the loss he feels as a result of a broken home. NY Times film critic AO Scott writes: “But Elliott, the suburban child who befriends the galactic wanderer, suffers in his own way from the want of a home. A middle sibling, a child of a broken home, a latchkey kid, he seems even amid the clutter and clatter of his tract house every bit as lonely — as alienated — as his visitor. In the final scene, as E.T. is reunited with his kind and he and Elliott say their tearful goodbyes, we become aware, almost subliminally, that another reunion has taken place. The frayed bonds among Elliott…, Gertie…, Michael…and their mother, Mary…, seem newly strong and tensile; the family, like the yellow flower on the kitchen table (a potted metaphor, but a lovely one nonetheless), has blossomed in the presence of a stranger. Elliott is also, at last, going home.”
Much has been written about Spielberg’s parents divorcing when he was young and Spielberg reportedly having an imaginary alien friend that helped him get through that troubling time. The film critic, Gary Arnold with The Washington Post, called this film “essentially a spiritual autobiography” by Spielberg.
Of all the Spielberg canonical movies that have come before including “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “1941” (let’s forget about that last one shall we?), this one seems more central to who he is as a movie-maker or at least what his reputation has become in Hollywood. I would not say E.T. is his best movie of that lot but the child-like wonder that we experience when we all think about Spielberg very much started here.
E.T. deals with weighty family themes, is suspenseful, has science fiction elements and is surprisingly really funny. The movie is a true cross section of genre and we can sense how personal it is to Spielberg. To the millions of people who have seen the movie, it is pure magic in the best sense of the word.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
1941 (Review here)