Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out of Competition)

Academy Award wins: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Sound

Inducted into the National Film Registry:  1994

1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL holds a special place in my heart, as it does for a whole lot of people.  It was the first film I ever saw, and as a filmmaker myself, this was understandably a watershed moment in my life.  Despite only being two or three years old, I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday.  My mother plunked me down in front of the TV and popped in this bright green VHS cassette to entertain me while she cooked dinner.  My eyes didn’t move from the screen for the ensuing two hours, transfixed by what I was seeing.  By the end, I was a blubbering mess, and when my mom asked me why I was crying, I responded: “it’s just so saaaad!”.

Something about E.T. connected with me on a primal level.  I didn’t get this kind of visceral response when I watched TV, or even with the next-earliest film I remember seeing (Disney’s PETER PAN (1953)).  I was living in the suburbs of Tualatin outside of Portland at the time, so I felt that the suburban-based events of the film were happening right out in my backyard.  As far as first films go, E.T. is probably a perfect choice, as it truly captures the magic inherent in cinema.  Oddly enough, I can’t remember watching it another time since then, but after re-watching it the other day, I zeroed in on crazy little details that captivated me when I was 2, such as the rainbow blinds in Elliott’s room.  It all came rushing back to me, transporting me to an innocent state of mind, untainted by the cynicism of adulthood.

For director Steven Spielberg, E.T. was also a transformative experience.  It’s the film that convinced him he was ready for a family of his own.  Even though he wouldn’t be married for another three years, the acknowledgement of “readiness” is still an unfathomably huge ideological shift in a man’s life.  As such, E.T. shows a marked change in attitude towards family and responsibility.

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After the success of 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turned his attention to a long-gestating alien invasion idea called NIGHT SKIES.  After careful consideration, he decided it was better to create a friendly alien, so that the film could be told from a child’s point of view.  He reached deep back into his own childhood, calling on an imaginary friend he had created to cope with his alienation in school and his parents’ growing marital discord.  The lonely child archetype is seen a lot in Spielberg’s films, but E.T. places it front and center.  And in the process, it becomes one of the most personal stories that Spielberg has ever told.

The film is set in a generic, geographically-unspecified suburban town, where an alien (affectionately known to us as E.T.) has been accidentally left behind by his spaceship.  A young, lonely boy named Elliott discovers E.T. has taken refuge in his backyard shed, and they form an instant bond.  Elliott takes the creature in, revealing its existence only to his siblings. Meanwhile, a group of scientists and government bureaucrats are searching for E.T., whom they witnessed getting left behind.  As they converge on Elliott’s home, and E.T. begins to weaken from an Earth ecosystem that can’t biologically support him, Elliott and his siblings have to find a way for E.T. to reconnect with his spaceship before the government finds them.

There’s a common saying in the film business: “never work with children or animals”.  You can’t direct an animal, you can only manipulate it into doing the desired action.  Children are a little easier to direct, but they lack discipline and the level of skill that comes with years of experience.  Spielberg had his work cut out for him by fashioning a story where a group of kids were the focus, but incredibly, E.T’s child performers are pitch-perfect.  Henry Thomas plays Elliott, the misunderstood and lonely boy at the center of the story.  He’s somewhat of an avatar for Spielberg as a child, dealing in the same marginalized existence that the director experienced in his school days.  Thomas anchors the film with an authentic, engrossing performance, and it’s strange that he never went on to a larger career in film after this.

By contrast, Drew Barrymore obviously did go on to bigger fame as an actress, so it’s incredibly striking to see her as Elliott’s little sister, Gertie.  Even as a girl barely out of toddler-hood, she displays the same kind of spunkiness that is so evident in her adult persona.  Knowing her problems with drug abuse later in life, it’s somewhat tough to watch this pristine, innocent version of her—a version completely unaware of the rough years that will lie ahead.  Thankfully, she came through it all okay and avoided the typical Hollywood overdose tragedy.

Seeing as the film is told form a child’s perspective, Spielberg wisely chooses to portray the adults from the waist down for the majority, save for Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote.  Wallace plays Mary, Elliott’s mother who has been left to raise a family of three rambunctious children all by herself.  She whirls through the film in a breathless huff, always on her way to the multiple jobs I assume she has.  The whereabouts of the father are left enigmatic, but Wallace’s stressed, courageous performance goes a long way towards filling in the gaps.  The great thing about her character is that she’s not the “cynical nonbeliever” that adults are so commonly portrayed as.  While she’s initially terrified of E.T. when she discovers it, she becomes supportive of her kid’s attempts to return the creature to his spaceship.

Coyote is the only other adult who’s given considerable attention by the camera.  He plays a man known only as “Keys”, evidenced by the dangling keys that hang from his belt.  For the bulk of the film, it’s implied that he’s this ominous force relentlessly tracking E.T. down—a directorial decision further enhanced by the fact that Spielberg holds off on showing his face until well into the second act.  Keys is ultimately revealed as a benevolent character who is trying to help them after encountering these aliens himself in his own childhood.  Strangely, I found the character to bear a striking resemblance to Elliott, right down to the huge ears shared between both actors.  It’s a far-fetched theory with no further evidence to support it, but I had the distinct thought that perhaps Keys is the adult Elliott, who travelled back in time to save his alien friend.

In terms of Spielberg’s collaborators, E.T. marks the rise of one his closest and most trusted: producer Kathleen Kennedy. Having first served as a production assistant under screenwriter John Milius on 1941 (1979), she rose through the ranks from Spielberg’s secretary to executive quite quickly, thanks to her ability to distinguish a good story.  She co-founded Amblin with producer (and eventual husband) Frank Marshall and Spielberg in 1981, and since then has become Spielberg’s key producer.  She recently became president of Lucasfilm in 2012, so it’s uncertain how future collaborations with Spielberg will pan out.  One thing I will not be surprised of, however, is if she eventually goes on to be the head of Disney– and the company will be all the better for it.

To accomplish E.T.’s iconic visuals, Spielberg recruits a new cinematographer, Allen Daviau.  While the general look of the film is signature Spielberg, there’s one glaring difference: the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio.  Until E.T., all of Spielberg’s feature films had been shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so why does he change up here?  My guess is that Spielberg felt the family genre had no need for panoramic vistas, choosing instead to emphasize character over spectacle. There is no doubt, however, that E.T. is one of Spielberg’s most gorgeously realized films (despite the blandness of the suburban setting).  The colors are bright and strong, with the predominantly earth-toned palette giving a natural feel to the visuals.  Spielberg favors wide compositions as well as evocative silhouettes, which creates an inspired hybrid of Rockwell/Americana imagery and intrigue.

In the days before CGI, Spielberg relied on a mix of special effects disciplines to realize his vision, from landscape matte paintings, to spaceship miniatures, to the complicated animatronics of the E.T. puppet.  The camerawork, while classical in nature, is actively telling the story through elaborate dolly movements and swooping aerial shots.  All of these visual elements blended together result in some of the most iconic shots in cinematic history.

Composer John Williams returns, winning his second Oscar from his collaboration with Spielberg.  The E.T. theme is arguably cinema’s most iconic—it’s a sweeping, magical piece of music that’s full of heart-bursting wonder.  They simply don’t make film music like this anymore; you’d be hard-pressed to find a theme so earnest and uplifting today, much less anything so instantly memorable.  Williams’ work adds a substantial degree of magic and emotion to the film, and while Spielberg’s story would be effective without it, it’s Williams’ score that puts the film over the top and captures our imaginations.

If you had to choose only one film that would serve as the complete reference of Spielberg’s style as a director, E.T. would most likely be it.  The film contains all of Spielberg’s trademark visual conceits: lens flares, the low angle “awe/wonder” shot of characters looking off-camera in amazement, the suburban setting, the Hitchcock-pioneered vertigo zoom, jump cuts, city lights laid out in a flat vista, etc.  His recurring thematic conceits are all present as well: the use of aliens as part of the storyline, the broken family with a neglectful/absent father, an innocent/childlike perspective, and the upbeat/optimistic tone.  In many ways, it is the ultimate Spielberg film.

E.T. is easily the most self-referential of all of Spielberg’s films, chock full of little in-jokes to his past films and to those of his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK collaborator George Lucas.  As such, E.T. is Spielberg’s first movie to openly acknowledge an awareness of his direct impact on pop culture.  For instance, Spielberg indirectly references his work on Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY when one of the characters sings the TWILIGHT ZONE theme (the series that made Serling a household name).  Of course, Spielberg would go on to contribute a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) as his next project.  There’s a John Ford movie playing on the television in one scene, which is an instance of Spielberg acknowledging one of the filmmakers that influenced him.  The open referencing of elder directors and the recycling of their style is a tradition that largely began with the Film Brat generation, populated by the likes of Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Lucas’ STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) are also heavily referenced, from the inclusion of Greedo and Boba Fett action figures to a Yoda costume during the Halloween sequence (complete with a musical flourish of the Yoda theme by Williams).

 Ironically enough, E.T. would go on to secure its own distinct merchandising empire that rivaled Lucas’ creations. Spielberg’s future involvement with HOOK (1991) is foreshadowed when Mary reads “Peter Pan” to Gertie, but this can also be read as an apt metaphor for Spielberg’s child-like approach to storytelling in general.  And of course, there’s the much-publicized depiction of Reese’s Pieces, the inclusion of which not only ignited sales of the candy but kick-started the practice of product placement in mainstream studio filmmaking.

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Still riding high off of the flyaway success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg found yet another massive hit in E.T. Box office receipts surpassed even Lucas’ STAR WARS to become the highest-grossing film of all time (an honor that held until Spielberg broke his own record with 1993’s JURASSIC PARK).  E.T. went on to win a slew of technical Oscars, and critical praise was so near-unanimous that Spielberg was invited to a private screening and reception with President Ronald Reagan at the White House.  Not many directors get to meet the leader of the free world, let alone watch one of their creations alongside him.  This development marks Spielberg transcending his the station of his occupation, becoming recognized as a genuine voice in American culture.

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When E.T. was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1994, the film became a cornerstone of Spielberg’s cinematic legacy.  The director acknowledged the profound effect E.T. had on his career by incorporating the iconic “bicycle across the moon” shot into the logo for Amblin.  Simply put, E.T. is the kind of film that only comes around once in a lifetime.  Many have tried to imitate it or emulate it, but none have come close to capturing the same sense of magic and wonder as Spielberg so effortlessly did.  My mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was giving me a profound gift when she popped in that cassette tape on that fateful day: a lifelong love of film and its many wonders.  I fully intend on showing E.T. to my own kids, and I suspect many others will do the same.  As it is passed down from generation to generation, it will achieve what eludes 99% of other films: true timelessness.

E.T. is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal

Credits:

Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Director of Photography: Allen Daviau

Production Designer: James D. Bissell

Editor: Carl Littleton

Composer: John Williams