E.T.: The Extraterrestrial

Year: 1982

Production: Universal

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore

Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison

115 minutes; Color


10-year-old Elliott (Thomas) meets an alien, "E.T.", who has been accidentally left outside Los Angeles when his spacecraft and its crew - which we infer include his parents - is forced to depart rapidly to avoid a search party sent out by a human task force. Elliott and E.T., who demonstrates various psi powers, become friends. E.T. wants to "phone home", and builds a communication device out of household objects. But he soon begins to sicken in our fallen world, as does Elliott, now emotionally linked to E.T. As the task force finally targets the alien traces they are searching, and invades Elliott's home (where he lives with his two siblings and his mother: the father has left home for good), E.T. becomes terminally ill. After the apparent death of the alien child, Elliott and his friends, and proving in the nick of time that he can still levitate bicycles, E.T. escapes the adults, returns to the rendezvous, is reunited with his kind; and leaves.

Almost certainly the most commercially successful film ever made, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial confidently alternates finely controlled sentiment and humor, the choreography of all this being almost flawless. But for some it is not a film that grows in the memory; for them the loneliness of the lizard-like but soft-eyed E.T., whose parents have left him, and of Elliott (another E...T), remains merely sad in a curiously unreverberant way. Countering his response, however, is the luminosity of the film, and a sense that its presentation of the epiphanies of childhood is truly joyful. The careful structuring of emotional release can be seen in the handling of adult males. They are first seen (only from the waist down) as hulking and affectless, but turn out to be concerned and sympathetic as E.T. sickens drastically; and the most empathetic of them is clearly destined to marry the deserted mother. Elliott's elder brother undergoes a similar transformation earlier in the film. There are echoes throughout of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904), as envisioned in the Walt Disney film Peter Pan (1953); this was also to be the source of Spielberg's later Hook (1991).

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Neatly described by Variety as "the best Disney film Disney never made" - and indeed from its opening nocturnal chase through the woods the film is shot through with allusions to the world of Disney - E.T. is an even more triumphant piece of film-making than Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). For all its many splendors, however, it is the lesser of the two films. Whereas in Close Encounters Richard Dreyfuss is the ordinary man who escapes his mundane life by dint of his commitment to his dreams and is liberated by dreaming, Thomas' Elliott (E . . . T) is a child who loses himself in his dreams. Dreyfuss is a man in an adult world who has kept his childlike sense of wonder alive at great cost (to those around him, notably his family, indeed he could be Thomas' father at one remove, as well as himself) and is rewarded for his faith by a miracle as great as the parting of the Red Sea. Thomas is merely a lonely child whose world is dominated, not by commitment to dreaming but by the lack of a father. As such the character may accurately reflect Spielberg's own childhood - he has called E.T. his most personal and autobiographical film - but in comparison to Dreyfuss, Thomas is not called upon to defend his dreams, merely to protect and assist the extra-terrestrial that takes up residence in his toy cupboard and becomes his new plaything.

The evocation of childhood is masterful (the film is virtually completely shot from hip height, a literalization of a child's perspective) as is the way Spielberg effortlessly moves from terror through comedy and death to climax on the "magic" BMX bike ride. But, whereas in Close Encounters Spielberg was careful to stress the different responses (and needs) of the various characters (scientist, mother, dreamer, etc) involved with the meeting with the aliens, E.T. is far more one-dimensional, far more emotional, as in the overstressing of the empathy between E.T. and Thomas, for example (as children deserted by fathers?). Similarly, the film's religious overtones (the death, resurrection and ascension of E.T.) which led it to be joyously quoted (as if the Bible?) by born-again Americans, like its strangely unmotivated narrative, suggest that Spielberg was working very close to his unconscious. In a sense, the film is similar to John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953), a movie whose narrative collapses under the strain of Ford's attempts to articulate his idealized society. Of course, E.T. does not collapse, but then its aspirations are far more modest. Like Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Thomas learns that, even without a father, there's no place like home, but whereas she has to be courageous, ingenious and caring, has to go on a quest to find home (like Dreyfuss in Close Encounters), Thomas is only really called upon to be caring. Similarly, for all its celebration of wonder and innocence, in E.T. too much is explained - Elliott needs a father, gets E.T. - and too much is too close to the surface for the sense of mystery of the power of the imagination and man's dreams (Dreyfuss' vision in mashed potato) to remain.

The film's major achievements are in the simplicity and directness of its vision and Spielberg's ability to both articulate that vision and transfer to the audience/screen relationship the E.T./Elliott empathy (the film is very affecting). Its major weakness, however, is the comfortableness of that vision, which Spielberg has interrogayed himself in Poltergeist (1982) which he wrote and produced but strangely did not direct.

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