A little prelude: For years I’ve been playing with the idea of a video essay series, but we do not have enough time to do everything we’d like to do in our lives. What follows is basically what I’ve intended as one of the first batch of those videos so don’t be surprised if in the future I finally find myself with the free time to put them together and I lazily recycle this post for that video.
A further little prelude: I am aware that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is among the most beloved and popular films by that most beloved populist of cinema Steven Spielberg. It would have to be: it was the highest-grossing picture of all-time until Spielberg decided to make dinosaurs walk the Earth and its titular alien character is one of the quintessential icons of pop culture in the 1980s. And yet I never encountered very much of that love in my personal life: I certainly adored the movie since I first saw it at 10-years-old and I’ve seen the movie numerous times in cinemas but while seeking out people in my life who share my affinity for the movie, I come up short. Even when I took a course in film school on the films of Spielberg, the professor just straight up dismissed that movie. So objectively it’s the case that E.T. does not need defending, but in my experience… that movie gets endlessly shrugged off. Maybe I keep terrible company.
The most obvious point of criticism is that it is the most blatantly sentimental and emotionally manipulative movie of Spielberg’s, a showcase of all his most characteristic and romantic saccharine moods. And well… yes, of course, it is. Art functions that way: it is meant to provoke a response out of you and a majority of that art (particularly cinema) already has an specific reaction it considers ideal to itself. Maybe that’s not a strong excuse if it’s not your flavor and Odin knows I have my share of movies that I completely reject their cloying approach to it. But I consider Spielberg to be among the best storytellers of the modern age because he knows the exact right arrangement of ingredients to get the most profound passionate reflexes out of my heart and when it’s firing on as many cylinders as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial does, I can’t intellectually resist that. I am wholly vulnerable and in awe of the power Spielberg flexes in making one of the ultimate emotional experiences in all of film.
What I can try to do intellectually is to break down how I believe it works, but first of course the acknowledgement on what E.T. is for those who have lived under a rock for the last 40 years: Written by Melissa Mathison and very clearly owned by Spielberg the whole way through, the screenplay begins with a scouting group of aliens that land quietly in a forest outside of Los Angeles. Ostensibly this landing was not quiet enough to avoid government officials chasing back into the ship and off the ground, leaving behind one unlucky member who rushes into the suburbs and is found by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). As Elliott gives shelter to the creature – whom is named E.T., of course – we learn about his broken homelife with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), baby sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and recently divorced mother Mary (Dee Wallace). Such a life has left Elliott with an unspoken empty feeling that’s filled by E.T.’s friendship with him, a bond that appears be psychically compelled. Still E.T. of course is not on this planet to stay and Elliott with his family and friends assist to get E.T. in contact with his ship.
That magical friendship connection at the center of the movie is its own awareness of what it’s doing: it’s telling us how to feel in every moment, through a variety of strategies all of them successful to me. This begins with Elliott’s perspective and the way the movie manages to align with him. Cinematographer Allen Daviau – in the first of his three collaborations with Spielberg – fills the movie with all sorts of hazy exterior atmospheres whether the soft darkness of the forest, the foggy light of the backyard, or the sleepy oranges of an autumn sunset (this happens to have my second favorite Halloween sequence in any movie not about the holiday for the reason of those colors, the first place prize going to Meet Me in St. Louis). There’s a whole lot of beautiful sunset and night skies captured unlike anything in Spielberg’s filmography in their comforting shimmering darkness. But the secret weapon of his camerawork is how much of it remains eye level with Elliott, most impressively in the long takes where a variety of angles will need to be taken to intersect past Elliott’s head to reach the subject he’s looking at (the biggest reason I wish I could have made this a video essay: there’s a specific shot about a quarter into the film that demonstrates this impeccably, where E.T. is obscured and covered but Elliott if looking at an empty door frame and then following his hands over a work bench). It is perhaps responsible for being the most dignified a child’s perspective could be without losing that character’s inexperience or condescending to Elliott as an expressive human being, inviting us to see the world from his level.
What I really didn’t recognize until the most recent watch (the 40th anniversary IMAX re-release in August) is how Spielberg and Daviau use that camera level technique to properly shift between human perspectives. Because certainly Elliott is the main protagonist but E.T. turns out to be a film also dedicated to how this one little creature impresses upon every member of that family (all of whom are meeting Thomas’ level in sophisticated performances – Wallace’s labored maternal tension is my pick for best-in-show but I wouldn’t also hesitate in claiming Gertie’s eager fascination is my favorite performance in Barrymore’s life-long career). In the below clip, you can easily tell by eye levels who is taking over this wildly variable sequence as constructed by the wise measures of Carol Littleton’s editing – the best of Spielberg’s many “dinner” sequences, which is a thing he does great and often, it turns out – from Elliott and Michael’s argument to Gertie’s earnest repetition of what’s said to Mary’s attempt to control things and the spot where it all collapses.
Anyway, that was a lot of rambling about only one of the major tools Spielberg has in his arsenal to control the viewer’s emotions in synchronicity with Elliott. And it’s wild how many of those words spared describing E.T. himself as designed by Carlo Rambaldi. Rambaldi in all his wisdom made an absolutely ugly creature whose ugliness is in the right gauge to make him absolutely adorable in his extended neck, his squat body, and his marvelous large eyes. Those eyes are easily the closest this creature comes to expressiveness and it’s never anything other than unthreatening in the relaxed open-and-close of his eye lids combined with his lazy smile and piercing blue eyes. It is not impossible to recognize how such a pudgy thing could appeal to children in its benign weirdness even before we see the magic of that glowing finger and in turn to the credit of Rambaldi’s animatronic puppet and the imagination of the child cast to work together as scene partners.
But just as there’s only so far we can get before having to talk about the titular entity in E.T., it is impossible to discuss a Spielberg film from his most successful era between the late 70s and early 80s without talking about the man behind the music: John Williams, who used many of Spielberg’s productions to craft together his most iconic melodies and E.T. is no exception. In fact, much like one can say that Star Wars is emotionally driven by Williams more than anything, it’s no doubt that E.T.‘s emotional tenor is determined by Williams’ compositions and this was legendarily something Spielberg recognized to the point of having the climax from the famous bicycle chase on to the final cut to black entirely re-edited AROUND Williams’ score rather than force Williams to compose to the film’s rhythm. This turned out to be the perfect directorial call to allow Williams the grounding to carry all the thrills and awe and sensations of that very packed finale without sounding like the music is straining one bit, letting its spirited themes build up to a climax that wallops me. The last few minutes of quiet in the final shots before the last note is blasted is probably what I find most disarming as I try collect myself in the dark of the credits against sprinkling piano notes playing. In those final moments, Williams and Littleton as collaborators truly hit the sweet spot between triumph of helping your friend and the tragic sadness that they will now leave your life in a beautiful powerful way.
And if I could backtrack a bit, just as Williams is the star of those big emotions of that finale, the place-setting he makes with the first half of the film is responsible for setting us up for that intense sequence of sounds. Indeed, he helps guide us through Elliott and E.T.’s kindred recognition that they have a companion to help their lonely souls find their place again. The first hour finds Williams under the sequences shaping tonal moods rather than letting coalesce into a musical vocabulary, that’s what the action-packed second hour is for.
Somehow it doesn’t feel like I’m ruining the trick by recognizing these components to Spielberg’s direct aim into the viewer’s core. Even when I’m thinking about Daviau, Littleton, Rambaldi, and Williams’ contributions during my later adult watches, the full picture still remains intact and sophisticated even knowing the hands behind the veil. That’s a picture about a specific group of people failing to connect and learning by the luck of a small alien who landed into their lives, specifically able to align the perspective of an isolated young boy and a divorced mother and even a distanced government functionary (as I must give it up to one more cast member: Peter Coyote is probably the closest we come to an antagonist** in the film but his interrogations are so concerned and betray a history of fascination that generously give him as much sympathy as any other character) with limitless grace. And that fluidity through which E.T. uses its construction to understand and appeal to every member of its central cast is probably why it remains as impactful to my core as an adult as it did when I was a child watching it alone in the dark.
Even in a year that has seen Spielberg literally make his semi-autobiography, I am still pressed to suggest E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial remains clearly his most personal film: it taps into his full powers as a crafter of cinematic marvel, his deepest anchors to childlike amazement, and his effortless understanding of how to tell specific and complex feelings by a specific arrangement of compositions, visual and audial. So what if he’s laying it on thick? He gets the job done just the same and better than any other storyteller I can think of. When you’re the best at something, I don’t think you should have to apologize for a damn thing.