Friday, January 06, 2012

The Films of 1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

"I don't think he was left here intentionally, but his being here is a miracle, Elliot. It's a miracle and you did the best that anybody could do. I'm glad he met you first."

- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The biggest movie of the great year 1982 was a modest little story about the unexpected friendship between a gentle little boy...and a lost alien.

Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial shattered box office records on its release and became the highest-grossing film of all time, even beating out George Lucas's powerhouse Star Wars (1977). 

On a personal note, I remember trying to see the Spielberg film three times, and being confronted each time with lines that stretched around the movie theater, and beyond that, around a city block.  Finally, I nudged, bumped and pushed my way into an overcrowded, tiny multiplex auditorium, and there were literally people camped out in the aisles, seated on the floor.  I've never again been in such a crowded, uncomfortable viewing environment, but when the movie started, that questionable environment just drifted away.  The crowded house fell silent as Spielberg's story captured the imagination.

The summer of 1982 was the summer, no doubt, of E.T.

Yet even thirty years after its blockbuster theatrical debut, the emotional miracle of Steven Spielberg's E.T. remains the film's steadfast ability to make a viewer feel young again; to make the audience sympathize with the world and viewpoint of a child, in particularly the world of lonely Elliott (Henry Thomas).  Spielberg accomplishes this miracle in several deliberate and intelligent ways. 

First, Spielberg's film persistently adopts the physical viewpoint of a child, his camera approximating a level roughly, at the mid-riff of an adult.  His camera stays at a child's eye level, in other words, for the majority of the picture.   And yes, the world looks quite different from down there.

Secondly, the screenplay by Melissa Mathison routinely and persistently makes allusion to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, a well-known fairy tale of perpetual childhood and youth.  Spielberg has often been accused of suffering from the "Peter Pan Syndrome" in terms of his personal fascination with "fantasy" and so-called "childish" material. But here, the story of Peter Pan functions ably on a thematic level, and furthers the director's conceit of making a movie that expresses a child's viewpoint.

And thirdly, E.T. highlights a canny production design that assiduously stresses the importance of friendly "monsters" lurking in modern American pop culture. Spielberg builds a case that a child's "open" mind is the one that can best accept the idea of aliens or the out-of-the-ordinary, or the wondrous.  After all, children are by nature imaginative and trusting, and so can readily accept the notion that what is ugly, or what appears menacing (like the Incredible Hulk, for instance...) can actually be good or heroic.  Spielberg here pioneers the cliche or convention I term "This Boy's Bedroom" (seen also in Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars [1986] and recently in J.J. Abrams' Super 8 [2011]) in which a child's internal, emotional, imaginative life is reflected by the toys/memorabilia/hobbies he showcases/displays in his room.

In short, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial -- through this accumulation of carefully wielded film techniques --lands willing viewers back in the bodies and minds of their younger selves, and then depicts a magical, almost timeless tale of cosmic friendship that appeals to our most basic and pure emotions.  It sounds ridiculous, of course, to make such proclamations about "the child within," but in large part, Spielberg's technical choices and selections encourage the idea of awakening that inner kid.

Specifically, in asking us to set aside cynicism and "turn on" our heart lights, Spielberg -- with less sentimentality than he would demonstrate in the later stages of his career -- speaks powerfully in E.T. to the lonely kid inside us all.

"I'm keeping him."

In E.T., an alien spacecraft peopled by pint-sized botanist aliens is forced to leave behind one of the crew on Earth as curious humans approach the forested landing site. 

The stranded and frightened alien escapes from several human pursuers, and makes its way to a small suburban community in California.  There, E.T. befriends a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), his brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) and his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore).

E.T. moves into Elliott's house, evading the attention of Elliott's newly separated mother (Dee Wallace).  Soon, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiotic relationship, experiencing each other's emotions. As the days pass, E.T. plots to construct a communicator so he can contact his alien ship, and arrange for a rescue.  "E.T. Phone Home."

Unfortunately, agents of the government move in to capture and study E.T., even as the alien begins to succumb to an illness associated with his time spent on Earth.  Under the watchful eyes of scientists, E.T. and Elliott are studied, and then E.T. seems to die.

After his apparent death, however, E.T. is unexpectedly resurrected, and Elliott, Michael and Gertie race him to the forest, where his spaceship is returning. 

There, in the woods, two friends must say farewell...

"I'll believe in you all my life, everyday. E.T... I love you."

As the insightful  film scholar Phil Hardy wrote in The Film Encyclopedia, Science Fiction (William Morrow and Co., New York, 1984; page 374), E.T.'s "evocation of childhood is masterful." 

As Hardy also observed: "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..." 

Indeed, Spielberg goes to dramatic lengths to present the world in E.T. as a child might view it, both as wondrous and occasionally terrifying.  As far as the terrifying part goes, E.T.'s pursuers are visually characterized as silhouettes, with swirling flashlights, and jangling keys (hooked to a belt).  These pursuers are designed and visualized to be feared as a monstrous "others" but not recognized as least starting out.  They are, as kids would note, "bad guys."

These pursuers are visualized by Spielberg as shadows, mostly, because their motives and personalities are in some way opaque or incomprehensible to children.  These men are symbols of an adult world that Elliott and the others do not understand, and so that's how Spielberg physically represents them: amorphous threats lacking faces. 

Also, one can't fail to note that these figures or darkness and shadow -- with their blinding flashlights and jangling, cacophonous keys -- somehow represent the mysterious nature of science and technology; mysteries somehow antithetical to the organic nature of gentle E.T, a friend the audience is asked to countenance emotionally, not in terms of "what he represents" to men and women in white coats, or in the annals of human history.

Many of Steven Spielberg's films involve broken homes, or the ways that adult lives negatively impact those of children (Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1978], Jurassic Park [1993], and War of the Worlds [2005]), and E.T. follows along the same lines.  Elliott is a sensitive, lonely boy who is having a difficult time because his Mom and Dad "separated recently" and it hasn't "been easy."  When confronted with a mystery in the garden shed, Elliott seeks someone to trust, and notes that his absent Dad -- were he present -- would surely believe his story of a monster/goblin/coyote in the back yard.

Clearly then, Elliott is seeking to find his way in the world alone, and not having much luck with his family connections.  When he befriends E.T., that connection is instant for Elliott.  He and E.T. develop an empathic link, and suddenly know one another totally and thoroughly.   No more mysteries.  No more confusion.  No more capriciousness.  As a kid, don't we all wish for this?  For someone who 'gets' us?

When Elliott (whose give name begins in E. and ends in T., by the way), first speaks to E.T. he suddenly becomes a motor mouth, speaking literally a mile-a-minute.  It's as though he's had to keep his own counsel and feelings to himself for so long that he just can't keep the words from spilling out now.  E.T. is like the (imaginary?) friend who wants to listen, wants to understand, and will never, ever let you down.   Again, he is the kind of friend that kids, especially lonely ones, might dream about.  Discovering E.T. is, in some sense, about wish-fulfillment.

All of this information about Elliott and his isolation from the adult world is sensitively presented in terms of dialogue, but Spielberg's decision to shoot the film from the visual perspective of a child makes the movie all the more heart-breaking and affecting.  We all know remember how, as children, we sometimes felt alone, or small, or confused by our parents' seemingly mercurial behavior.  This movie plays around in that world beautifully and often humorously.  Why exactly can't we call our big brother "Penis Breath" again?

It's quite significant that the one adult man we eventually get to know as a person and not as merely a menacing silhouette, Keys (Peter Coyote), lauds Elliott and his behavior.  He even mentions his own dream from childhood.  "I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old," he says.  He is thus the adult who wishes to be young again.  Peter Pan, all grown up.  Discovering E.T. and Elliott has awakened that child in Keys.  And suddenly, Elliott receives the approbation of the heretofore missing father figure.

That world of children is also excavated in the film by numerous references and allusions to Peter Pan, the story of a boy who refuses to grow up and wants to dwell forever as a child in Never Land.  At first in E.T., Elliott notes that "only little kids can see," E.T., a development which suggests the populace and precise nature of Never Land: only children can get there.  Later in the film, Gertie and her Mother are depicted actually reading Peter Pan, and again there is a discussion about a being/person that only children can see or believe in.

Thus E.T. himself is an embodiment of Peter Pan's child-like milieu.  Like Peter, he can (magically) fly.  And like Tinker Bell, E.T. can come back from the dead if only children wish it to be so.  As Elliott's Mom meaningfully notes, Tinker Bell "thinks she could get well if children believed in fairies."   Here, E.T. comes back to life because Elliott will always believe in him.

What Spielberg gives audiences here is a newfangled Peter Pan story for the 1980s, one in which aliens will come to Earth, perhaps, if we believe in them.  This is the film's ultimate, optimistic destination.  In a beautiful and expressive image, Elliott finds a spaceship at the end of the rainbow.  At the end of childhood and belief (as visualized by the rainbow), there are wonders if only we open our eyes to them, the film seems to state.

One thing I didn't rationally understand (though perhaps intuited or felt...) when I saw this film as a twelve-year old in 1982, is that Steven Spielberg makes his case for cosmic friendship and acceptance by threading pop culture images of friendly monsters and aliens into the film. 

On the TV, This Island Earth (1951) plays in the background, and of course, that's the story of friendly Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and the doomed Metalunans. 

While out trick-or-treating, E.T. encounters Yoda, the Jedi guru of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). 

In Elliott's bedroom, we see quilts and light switches featuring imagery of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, a "monster" with good intentions and a fearsome physicality. 

In short order, we are also introduced to Lando Calrissian, Hammerhead, Snaggletooth, Walrus Man and other "beings" from the Star Wars (1977) cantina.  There is also much discussion of the Dungeons and Dragons world, where goblins, elves, and other magical creatures exist in the imagination, and act alongside (and against) heroes.

Cumlatively, the idea roiling under the surface of E.T. is that these pop culture influences actually lead children towards an acceptance of what is different, of what might seem terrifying on first blush, but which is actually merely strange in appearance.  Aliens, goblins, and monsters are people too, and to understand them we must look past their two-fingered "sucker"-type hands (another visual reference, perhaps to 1953's War of the Worlds, minus one digit...).  

E.T. purposefully asks audiences to accept that which is alternative or seem different, and judge it not by how it looks.  On the contrary, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiosis, and so come to understand the feelings of one another.  No matter how different or alien someone may seem, they possess the same feelings that you do.  That too is E.T.'s message.

Some industrious film critics have also compared E.T. to Jesus Christ, and it's easy to see why.  Like Jesus, E.T. is resurrected and ascends to the Heavens, if not Heaven itself.  Like Jesus, E.T. can perform all brands of miracles.  And from both characters (and their respective mythologies) we glean the idea "judge not lest ye be judged."

Despite such a parallel, E.T. gleans its emotional power not from such intellectual comparisons, but from its understanding of friendship, and of the give-and-take, ebb-and-flow that all great relationships must endure.  The end of the film is heartbreaking because it very succinctly understands the simple emotional resonance of having to say "goodbye."

E.T. asks Elliott to return to his home world with him.  Elliott asks E.T. to "stay."  In the end, neither can give up their lives to be with the other, and the friends have no choice but to part.    I remember there was not a dry eye in the house when Elliott spoke his farewell to E .T., and said "I love you."  

"We could grow up together, E.T,"  suggests Elliott, filled with hope, and that's the dream of all children.  Life is always easier with a buddy at your side.  I remember, during my own childhood, having to say goodbye to a dear friend who lived next door to me.  He had lived there for three years or so (from 1979 to 1982, just about) and we had become best friends.  And then one day it was all over because his parents wanted to move.  The difficulty of saying goodbye is one I haven't forgotten.

If you've ever seen E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, images from the film will certainly resonate in your memory.  There are  movies out there about cleverer aliens, or more spectacular ones.  But there have rarely been films about aliens that feel as intimate as E.T. does; or that take us back to that vulnerable passage to adulthood. 

E.T. is a movie about an alien who meets a human kid.  But the secret is the kid already feels like an alien, himself.

And, unless you're very, very lucky, you've probably felt that way about yourself at some point too.

Given that you "don't win in life," as Michael says vis-a-vis Dungeon and Dragons, the closest thing we have to winning on Earth is discovering friends we cherish, and spending time with them.  The enduring magic of Spielberg's E.T. remains that -- in this one instance -- not only "little kids" get to see E.T. 

We all get to see him, and in doing so, we remember a special time in our own lives when his brand of magic seemed possible.


  1. A friend of mine and I went to a sneak preview of ET a week before the movie officially opened. Our primary reason for going was to see the regular feature afterward which was Warlords of the 21st Century (aka Battletruck). We had no idea we were about to watch a masterpiece (ET that is, not Warlords of the 21st Century).

    It's funny what little pre-opening marketing they did for movies back then. We knew nothing about the film other than that it was directed by Steven Spielberg. Today, they would've been hyping ET for at least six months prior to opening.

  2. B-R-A-V-O, John. An absolutely splendid review of this Spielberg classic. I think you captured the exact magic of this film in your review. And I'm really fond, too, of your recollection of trying to see this one, especially in relation to your age at the time and the circumstances. It's interesting that this film so encapsulates a child's perspective (including wonderment and fears) in its telling. I'd say it is the antithesis in story and scope of John Carpenter's THE THING (also out that year) and its more bleak 'adult' viewpoint toward the introduction of an alien life-form into our midst. Yet, both are utterly fantastic for what they express from their end of the spectrum.

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it still pisses me off royally that 'The Academy' managed to get it so damn wrong for Best Picture that year! Richard Attenborough's 'Gandhi' was a very good biopic of a great man. BUT, in no way, shape or form was it BP that year. Simply, E.T. was it. I'd add, compared with other Spielberg films up for Best Picture, this was solid throughout -- sometimes, Steven's pics, even the great ones, don't start or end as strong as one would expect they should. There, I said it ;-).

    What a way to start this year, John! Well done. Thanks for this.

  3. "E.T." is still a magical film and remains timeless. I'm glad that Spielberg has recently advised watching the original theatrical release rather than his touched-up special edition, because it's really the better of the two. It is truly a masterpiece of filmmaking

  4. I like E.T. Extra Terrestrial, I really do, but it’s not for me. I know that doesn’t make sense, but give me a moment to try and connect the pieces. I appreciate E.T. for its technical craft. I appreciate the visual collaboration between Spielberg and DP Allen Daviau; that this was Spielberg’s first feature film shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the intentions for which are quite clear: the POV world of a child is vertically declined, tall, and in a way said aspect ratio further accentuates indoor environs as only a child would see it inner world.

    Note that the walk-in-closet that connects Elliot’s room with Gertie’s is the film’s most secret, intimate place. When the three of them – Elliot, Gertie and Michael – huddle together and look upon E.T., hiding amongst stuffed animals, the specific framing brings them (emotionally) closer to the audience in such a way that could never be achieved anamorphically. We share this moment of discovery with these kids at a warmly physical level, as if we were actually in the room huddled along next to them. The framing also allows visible the octagon shaped, flower decorated, stained glass window, which, along with a single dim lamp, bathes the scene in an amniotic, womb-like glow. The technical, aesthetic choices of this scene connect with the audience so intuitively, so subconsciously, that they become perfectly seamless with the emotional context of the characters.

    This scene, and the way its setting and circumstances are expressed cinematically, is but one example of many throughout the film. The direction is superb. The musical score is superb. The acting and casting is superb. Henry Thomas delivers a nakedly honest performance as a boy of all boys and, begrudgingly, I am forced to admit that 7-yearold Drew Barrymore is the most shamelessly adorable child-screen presence in the history of the medium: “Wwhuh..where’s Mexico?”. Yet Dee Wallace as the lovingly attractive mother is the key means for adult audiences to perceive, and respond to, the children in the film as we would our own. All of these elements work masterfully.

    Still, I just can’t quite get into E.T. personally. I can recognize how and why others do, but I always watch it with a certain detachment. It’s the excess sentimentality that stops me short. No, I don’t think it cheap or manipulative; it’s something completely sincere from Spielberg. But I simply don’t think it is for everyone. There are moments in E.T., particularly in the third act, that I consider downright embarrassing--for us, the audience, as we’re beaten into a state of emotional blubbery. It’s just too much for me. By that I mean that at a certain point a switch inside me is flipped: I don’t feel anything, or, I tend to feel less and less as the characters start crying more and more. I began studying the imagery and direction more than feeling it; impressed by what I see, but only technically, objectively. I’m a bigger fan of Poltergeist. Go figure.

    In any event, good review. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Hi everyone, great comments here on my first "films of 1982" feature (on E.T. The Extra Terrestrial).

    Neal: You're absolutely right about E.T. and the lack of pre-hype back in the day. Wasn't there some kind of kerfuffle between Spielberg and Starlog over the movie, and coverage of it? Regardless, the final film speaks for itself. E.T. is, as you say, a masterpiece.

    Le0pard13: It's wonderful that you bring up the weird yin and yang of 1982: it gave us both Spielberg's E.T. and Carpenter's The Thing (and both from Universal, right?) You couldn't ask for better "mirror reflections" in terms of an alien-on-earth movie-going experience. As you know, I'm a huge fan of The Thing...I think Carpenter's movie is one of the best ever made. E.T. is also a masterpiece...and what a double feature they'd make.

    I also share your anger with the Academy over its failure to recognize E.T....for Gandhi. I remember being spitting mad that year during the Oscars. Hollywood has this awful tendency to reward "prestige" projects like Gandhi and deride sci-fi, fantasy and horror. This is a clear cut case of that. Gandhi was fine. E.T. was outstanding. The wrong film won!

    Hi Jamie: I read that interview too, and was glad to see that Spielberg is rejecting these retro-active "improvements" (with CGI) that seem all the rage, especially with George Lucas. Films are a product of their times -- for better or worse -- and it is a fool's game to try to update them and erase the original context. Doing so only creates a mish-mash (example a: Lucas's director's cut of THX-113, now with CGI scorpions!!)

    best to all,

  6. Cannon:

    I had just finished typing my responses to the earlier comments and then saw your excellent comment!

    My god, I love you. Can I just say that?

    Your comment is extremely thoughtful and extremely balanced. And on some level, I agree with you. I think E.T. is an extraordinary film, but personally speaking I too prefer Poltergeist. We are of the same mind on that preference.

    And yet, I am enamored of E.T.'s technical brilliance and the excavation of a child's inner life. I think it's magnificent, a masterpiece. And yet, yes, I do prefer Poltergeist. I've watched E.T. probably three times since 1982. I've watched Poltergeist probably a dozen or so times. That film scares the heck out of me every time...

    Thank you for saying it well, and for presenting an affirmative but also well-balanced view of the film!


  7. I have to say I'm with Cannon on this one. I do respect and appreciate E.T.'s technical merits but the film itself doesn't do much for me. I remember enjoying it as a kid when I first saw it but having caught up with it again a few years ago it has not aged well with me while other Spielberg films (JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) have. Go figure. I've always felt that Joe Dante was a much better director in dealing with children characters within the science fiction and fantasy genres. For me personally, I prefer EXPLORERS over ET.

  8. Hi J.D.!

    Thank you for your excellent comment. Like I said in regards to Cannon, I can definitely see and get behind the point being made. I prefer Poltergeist.

    I can't say I prefer Explorers, though I never watched it again after my theatrical viewing in 1985. I remember acute disappointment in the climax (after a great start), as all the universe was reduced to goofy aliens who like watching human sitcoms. I need to watch the film again, but that was my response was a fifteen year old!

    Excellent comment!


  9. This is probably going to sound weird, but this has been simmering on the back burner for decades...

    I was 10 years old when E.T. hit and it was the most devastating cinematic experience of my life. And not in a "good" way.

    You see, I identified with Elliott to a, perhaps, unhealthy degree. My parents, though not technically divorced, were as close to separated as you can get and still claim you're married. My dad was never around (traveling, always traveling) and my mom was deeply bitter about it. He was a transient we'd see only briefly, who'd stay just long enough to get in another shouting match with my mom then high-tail it out again.
    My mom did the best she could for my two brothers and me, but there was never much real happiness, just a sort of resigned acceptance. But, at 10, I was able to distract myself most of the time and wouldn't have considered our lives particularly unusual or especially unhappy. I guess it never occurred to me to examine things too closely.

    Then E.T. landed. It was saying things that I wasn't prepared to deal with. It showed me a reflection of my own home life that hit me like a ton of bricks. I think that movie was the catalyst for my first ever bout with major depression. I was a different person after seeing it. Where other kids came away tearful
    but happy, I was in a fog of resentment and anger. But, at 10, I had no way to verbalize this except to declare to one and all that I absolutely HATED that movie. I felt assaulted, violated, and deeply, inconsolably sad. The
    emotions of Spielberg's tale hit way too close to home. Of course, all I knew was that I felt different now. I couldn't begin to understand what had happened or why. I just knew that I had undergone a dark and monumental internal shift.

    Anyway... not sure why I'm writing this except to say that no other movie (before or since) has affected me anywhere near so strongly. Your review brought it all up again, as I've steadfastly avoided the film since 1982. I couldn't bear to face it again, even much later on video and DVD. Too much baggage.

    I guess when (or if) it ever appears on Blu-ray, I'll finally sit down and see what happens. I'm turning 40 this year, so I guess it's about time!

  10. Count Zero,

    I'm glad you wrote to share your story, and I wish I had something smarter or more insightful to offer in response.

    I do know that Steven Spielberg actually had a childhood very much like the one you describe in your comment, and that many of his films represent a kind of working through of those issues.

    I think you see it yourself, by your comment, but it's not that you don't like's that the movie made you confront some serious issues in your own life, and worse, it did so when you were still young and not really able to enunciate or understand it all.

    As you say, you know it changed you, but you weren't sure why.

    I don't want to say you should revisit the film now, because that may or may not be the right thing to do. You have very personal feelings about the film, and it hits close to home for you. As a cinematic work of art, I think the film is very strong, but I can only suspect that if I had your perspective about it, I too would feel bothered or unsettled by it.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience with the film.


  11. John,

    Thanks for the reply. I'm normally not so effusive, especially with regard to person stuff like this, but reading your review really got it welling up again.

    You're quite correct about the reasons for my feelings toward E.T. I don't dislike the film at all. Having seen it only once (at age 10), I really can't say one way or the other what I think of it as a film. My memory of it is too colored by everything else that was happening at that time. It ripped me up because it was showing me all the things I wanted and wished for and needed at the time but could never have. I couldn't bear to let it touch the places it was reaching for.

    I'm a HUGE fan of Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters may well be my favorite film of all time), so E.T. has always been unique among his work for me as "The One I Can't Watch."

    I will say that I think this film is one of those ultra-rare "once in a 100 years" cultural phenomena that truly speaks to something elemental within all people. This may go some way in explaining the strength of my own (and others') reaction to it. Has there been any other film since '82 that's affected audiences quite so deeply? Offhand I can't think of one. Now that's an achievement!

    -- Ken