E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, and Dee Wallace.
As #24 on the AFI Top 100 List, E.T. was my next film to watch for my Top 25 project (for more info on this project, see this post). Although E.T. was one of the films that I was already familiar with, it had been a long time since I had seen it from start to finish — probably close to twenty years, at least. So while I did have some idea of what to expect from this film, my expectations were cloudy and incomplete at best.
Steven Spielberg is a wonderful director and a consummate story-teller, and this story was perfect for his style. It possesses a satisfying narrative unity – it’s the kind of story that makes the viewer care about the outcome and care about the characters. In addition to the emotional resonance this film carries, Spielberg endowed it with beautiful visual spectacles, taking advantage of the hilly suburban terrain of the setting to create tension and develop stunningly beautiful shots while keeping the story based firmly in a familiar reality.
Spielberg is masterful at creating suspension, and with this story his techniques were simple but effective. From the beginning of the film we catch glimpses of the eponymous alien, but we only see him in silhouette or from behind. Little by little, we are shown a finger here, a foot there, a shoulder, an arm. This technique creates an intensified interest in the film: when do we get to finally SEE him? When Elliot’s flashlight first illuminates the alien’s face, we are as stunned as he is. Spielberg does the same thing with the government agents pursuing the alien. We keep seeing a man’s torso, with keys dangling from his belt, but we don’t see his face until almost the end of the picture. In fact, in the credits, the actor playing this man, Peter Coyote, is named simply “Keys.” The other agents working with this man are equally faceless and nameless. Even when they interact with the central characters of the story, most of them are wearing space suits with helmets that obscure their faces. They are meant to represent the unsympathetic, mechanistic acts of big government – an anonymous entity that refuses to listen to the desperate pleas of a young boy.
I love the way Spielberg utilizes the hills of Elliot’s neighborhood in so many interesting ways. On one occasion we see the ominous helmet tops of the space-suited agents rising up from the hillside as they march toward Elliot’s home. Later, he uses the same effect to reveal the police cars chasing the boys as they aid in E.T.’s escape. In another shot, we see the boys silhouetted against the setting sun as they ride their bikes across the horizon. The hills create an exciting setting for the chase scene as well — the police and government cars can’t easily follow the boys’ bikes as they leap over the terraced hillside of a housing development, giving the children a distinct advantage over the might of the adults.
The most exhilarating and definitely most memorable moment of the film is when Elliot is carrying E.T. in his bicycle basket and takes off flying into the sky due to E.T.’s supernatural abilities. The shot of Elliot’s bike passing across the face of the moon is so iconic that it has become the symbol for not only this film, but also provided inspiration for the logo of Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio. One thing I had forgotten was the second time in the film that this technique is used. Against the backdrop of the setting sun, the four boys on bicycles who are taking E.T. back to the forest rise up to fly in silhouette. This is a stunning effect.
Another interesting aspect of the film was the medical scenes involving Elliot and E.T. When E.T. appears to be dying, the medical personnel talk over each other, push each other out of the way, and try all different kinds of procedures in an effort to save his life. It is extremely realistic and exciting. I was surprised to learn that these “actors” were in fact real doctors – Spielberg’s own internist and a bunch of his colleagues and friends. Spielberg said that he could never have scripted something so realistic, and that actors would have had a very hard time spouting all that medical terminology. But these doctors slipped into the roles they were so comfortable performing in real life, even though they were “working” on an animatronic puppet, and brought a realism to these scenes that would be almost impossible to replicate otherwise.
I think one thing that makes this film so successful is the honest and heartfelt acting by the children, especially Henry Thomas as Elliot. In one of the DVD’s special features, the actors are brought together 20 years after the release of the film to discuss their memories and experiences. All of the actors talked about the fact that the E.T. puppet was so realistic that they actually experienced real feelings for it. Drew Barrymore (who was six when she participated in this film) said that while on the one hand she knew that it wasn’t a real creature, on the other hand she came to love it and believe in it, as though it was one of her real friends. Henry Thomas remarked that the eyes were very expressive, and I think he has touched on the key to this film’s success. The animatronics effects were so advanced and so lifelike that even adults could sympathize with the alien and his predicament.
Therefore, I think the reason this film made it into the top 25 is due to its emotional resonance, its stunning visual effects, and its ground-breaking portrayal of a space alien as a sympathetic and likable creature. Its emphasis on friendship, loyalty, and the courage to do what’s right regardless of the consequences has endeared this film to the American and worldwide film audience.