HE IS AFRAID. HE IS ALONE. HE IS THREE MILLION LIGHT YEARS FROM HOME.
When Richard Attenborough accepted his two Oscars for Gandhi in 1983, he acknowledged the fact that he had just beaten one of the favorites. “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies,” he said. There is an abundance of love stories surrounding the arrival of E.T., describing for instance how critics at the Cannes festival, weary of the official entries, fell in love with the film, and how moved President Ronald Reagan was at the private White House screening.
At the heart of this beloved classic is a story about an imaginary friend that Steven Spielberg invented as a kid when his parents got divorced.
The film opens with a bunch of aliens on a mission to Earth. When government agents suddenly appear, they abort and depart in their spaceship, leaving behind one of them. The creature has no choice but to venture into a Northern California suburb where he’s discovered by a boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), who brings him home. The only ones to learn of Elliott’s secret are his siblings, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore), who agree to keep the alien hidden from their mother Mary (Dee Wallace). As Elliott begins to feel a special connection to the creature, he and his brother and sister realize that the extra-terrestrial needs to somehow “phone home” and get back to his own planet. Meanwhile, those government agents are on his trail…
Hypnotizing in all its sweet childishness
When I watched Super 8 last week, I realized that perhaps this is the time to revisit good old E.T.. Super 8 borrows heavily from Spielberg’s film, especially in its depiction of childhood and that rousing finale. Thomas is ideal for the part of Elliott who not only conveys heartfelt emotions but also makes a convincing drunk in an amusing sequence that shows the psychic connection between him and E.T.. This was also Barrymore’s breakthrough and she’s adorable as little Gertie who gets a kick out of dressing up the poor alien in a dress, wig and hat (“you should give him his dignity”, Elliott points out).
As for the adults, they’re either clueless (like Elliott’s mom) or cold-hearted government shills (represented by Peter Coyote’s character), scaring the living daylights out of the kids and the alien. The only hope for mankind as far as relations between humans and aliens go is the love of a child, which seems like a natural conclusion for Spielberg after Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977) where the connection between the species was best made via an adult (in the shape of Richard Dreyfuss) willing to have an open mind toward the unexplained. As in that film, Carlo Rambaldi helped design the look of the alien – and this is quite an achievement. After all, there was every chance of this rubbery creature merely generating ridicule… but his demeanor is actually hypnotizing in all its sweet, funny, endearing childishness.
When the time comes to say goodbye, Spielberg has so skilfully built our emotional tie to E.T. that it’s impossible not to shed a tear along with Elliott/the younger Spielberg.
John Williams’s music score is certainly a reason why the finale is so powerful. There is another scene much earlier in the film where E.T. makes Elliott’s bicycle lift from the ground and fly away (one of the movie’s iconic shots courtesy of cinematographer Allen Daviau), boosted immensely by Williams’s music. The same spirited cues return for the finale, but in that context the music simply opens our tear ducts. As E.T. points to Elliott and says “I’ll be right here”, the Christ allegory is complete… but who could object to those pretensions under these circumstances?
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 1982-U.S. 115 min. Color. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Melissa Mathison. Cinematography: Allen Daviau. Music: John Williams. Visual Effects: Carlo Rambaldi, and others. Cast: Dee Wallace (Mary), Henry Thomas (Elliott), Peter Coyote (Keys), Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel… C. Thomas Howell.
Trivia: Debra Winger contributed to the voice of E.T.. The alien’s face was moulded upon those of Carl Sandburg and Albert Einstein. In 2002, the movie was reissued (at 123 min.), with a few technical changes, the most controversial of which was providing agents with walkie-talkies instead of the original rifles.
Oscars: Best Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing. BAFTA: Best Score. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Original Score.
Quote: “How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?” (Thomas)
Last word: “The first thing we did – because I knew Henry was 10 and Drew was six and Robert MacNaughton [Elliott’s older brother Michael] was 14 or 15 I think – I shot the whole film in continuity. So we began at the beginning and ended at the end. So at the beginning of the movie, E.T. could have been a coyote out in the backyard. By the end of the picture on the last day of shooting, they were actually saying goodbye to E.T. And so there was an emotional curve that was taking place in everybody’s collective subconscious, just based on the fact that we were telling the story one page at a time, one day at a time.” (Spielberg, Entertainment Weekly)