E.T. is the first Spielberg film (in chronological order) that I can remember watching as a young kid, so upon a rewatch, a bunch of things immediately came back to me, and I realized a lot of things that I think I somehow missed the first time around.
For example, Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his brother and sister are raised by a single mother (Dee Wallace), fresh off a divorce. There’s a scene early on in the film in which Elliot, insisting he saw a goblin, says that his father would believe him. Then when his mother says that his father isn’t here, Elliot reminds her that he’s in Mexico with his new girlfriend, causing his mother a lot of grief. I didn’t remember anything about the mother from when I last saw this film 15+ years ago.
Also, Elliot’s older brother, who you think is going to be a bit of a bully, is actually pretty awesome and helpful. I remembered this story are Elliot and E.T. versus the world, but there were people in their corner alongside them, even, to an extent, one of the scary scientist guys.
So Elliot is the middle child, sandwiched between older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Early in the film he meets an adorable, intelligent alien, that he later names E.T., who was left here when his space ship and fellow aliens had to flee after a mission was cut short.
E.T. is just observing the world and learning and helping people out. He has powers that include flight and the ability to heal certain wounds. Also his heart glows because it’s how his species keeps track of each other.
Elliot keeps E.T. in his room and teaches him about his life one day while he pretends to be sick. They bond, and then Elliot lets Michael in on the secret, followed by Gertie. One afternoon, while Elliot is at school, E.T. gets into the fridge and gets drunk on Coors Light (funny since Coors Light is a step above groundwater), and Elliot feels the effects of E.T.’s intoxication. Beyond it’s role as a comic relief scene, this establishes a connection between the two characters. Elliot can actually feel what E.T. feels.
Soon the three siblings all have a plan to help E.T. “phone home.” This takes place on Halloween night, and we get that iconographic scene of Elliot biking through the air, a hooded E.T. in the basket in front of him.
E.T., after configuring some sort of calling device, is able to contact his home, but he quickly falls ill. Because Elliot feels the same things E.T. feels, he falls ill as well. The scientists/military who have been looking for E.T. this entire time track him down to Elliot’s home, and they swarm in.
What I remember of this sequence from watching it as a kid was how horrifying it all felt. In the movie, though, doctors are brought in who do their best to revive E.T., they just don’t know how. So E.T. dies, and Elliot gets to say goodbye, but when he tells the alien he loves him, E.T.’s heart glows, the dead flowers come back to life, and E.T. excitedly starts saying “E.T. phone home.”
Elliot gets help from Michael and Michael’s friends to break E.T. out of there. A long bike chase ensues, but then E.T. again helps Elliot (and the others) fly. They reach the forrest as the alien ship returns and E.T. goes home.
This film is very magical. It’s all told through a kid’s perspective (Elliot and to a lesser extent, Gertie), and it’s about believing in something. It’s an optimistic movie, I suppose. In reading the IMDB trivia for this movie, Spielberg apparently said that this film is something like a dream of suburbia while Poltergeist (coming out around the same time and which he produced) is like a nightmare of suburbia.
So ignoring Poltergeist for now, E.T. most definitely feels like a dream. That’s partially because of the idea of wish fulfillment I touched on in a few of his previous films. Elliot needs something in his life. His father’s gone, his brother and his brother’s friends are mean to him (at least when they’re in a group), and no one believes’s him about seeing a goblin. So Elliot investigates on his own. He’s courageous, venturing into the crop fields behind their home in the middle of the night, alone. Actually, that brings up another point. Where are they? It looks something like Pasadena, but there’s no forest that close to Pasadena, and there are definitely no crop fields. When the siblings try to demonstrate where they are to E.T. using a map, they seem to point to the area near Lake Tahoe in Northern California.
So it’s a mashup of locations and features, kind of like what The Simpsons is able to do as a cartoon, having episodes set in the mountains, near the ocean, in farmlands, forests, wherever. That adds to the magical feel, because we could be anywhere, in a way, yet of course it probably just looks like parts of California.
Anyways, back to wish fulfillment. Elliot feels alone, and E.T. becomes his best friend. We never see Elliot with any other friends except for the one girl in his class that he suddenly kisses, re-enacting an old movie scene as E.T. watches it. E.T. seems to have some ability to control the people he connects with, also encouraging Elliot to save the frogs his class is about to dissect.
So Elliot has no friends, at least that we see. His brother is his friend, sure, but his brother also has his own group of friends (who don’t really tolerate Elliot). Add to that Elliot’s nostalgia for memories with his dad, and he’s clearly a bit of a sad kid. He doesn’t just stumble upon something, he wants to find that something.
The first time he sees E.T. clearly, he screams because it’s shocking, and E.T. looks frightening, or at least frightened. Rather than telling his mom out of fear or running inside, the next thing we see him do is lay out a trail of Reese’s pieces, luring E.T. into his home.
Elliot wants to exert some sort of control over his own life (and E.T.’s life), and just like that he’s in charge of this living creature. Elliot also becomes a little power-hungry. Before revealing E.T. to his brother and sister, he makes them promise to keep it a secret, and he makes his brother tell him that he (Elliot) is in control.
So losing E.T., as he does, is tough. It nearly kills him, after all. I’m not sure what else to say about it other than Elliot is a kid with a kid’s innocence, and he wants to believe.
Now, how about E.T.? It’s a while before we fully see E.T., just like it was a while before we fully saw the shark in Jaws or even the space ships in Close Encounters. But instead of just giving us glimpses, we actually see the shape and size of E.T., only we’re really far away.
So we see the outline of this funny-looking Yoda-like creature, wandering the forrest like a kid. That’s because, unlike the shark or Godzilla or other visually-arresting creatures, we’re supposed to identify with and root for E.T. He looks like this little kid, gazing up at the trees in awe. In fact, when we first see him waddling through forrest, he looks up, and then the camera looks up at the large trees from his perspective. We’re starting to see the world the way he does.
Most of the film transitions from that perspective to Elliot’s perspective. The camera is lower to the ground, and we’re on the same playing field as the children. This equates the perspectives and innocence of E.T. and the other kids. This also helps add to the magical quality of the world as well as the overall grandeur. The world is huge, but it doesn’t always feel so huge, particularly when you’re an adult and settling into the rhythm of your own life.
But for an alien on this planet for (presumably?) the first time, there is so much to explore, not just nature but also just the little things like comics, candy wrappers, television, etc. It’s all awe-inspiring. Similarly, the world is a huge unknown to someone like Elliot and even moreso to Gertie who asks, simply enough, “Where’s Mexico?”
Kids and visiting aliens are full of questions, and the adults are full of answers but oftentimes those answers are wrong, usually from the child’s perspective. So pulling back a little and referring back to the trend of wide-eyed children in Spielberg’s films, he’s making us children again. Maybe you’ve seen a million movies or seen it all in life, but you’ve never seen an alien, or encountered a murderous shark, or fought Nazi archeologists or led a long line of police cars across Texas.
His films show us things we haven’t seen or, if we have seen it before in movies, he tries to ground it in our reality with relatable, real characters. Sure, at this point in time there had been other action movies and monsters in films, but I’m going to assume that a lot of them focus so much on those spectacles that they forget about the people surrounding it. I might be wrong, of course, but a lot of modern movies do that too. I saw Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice for the first time a couple weeks ago (the 3 hour extended version no less), and I can’t think of a single, strong character moment. In Spielberg’s films there’s always humor and believable, complex characters.
For example, you have the Halloween scene in which they pretend E.T. is Gertie (under the white sheet of a homemade ghost costume), and E.T. tries to fix the “ouch” that is the fake knife through the head of Michael’s costume. Then when their mother says how great they look, they all say thank you, and E.T. does too.
I was dying during that moment, and also during a few others.
I’m not sure what my point is about all this, except that maybe other movies should try to be more like these Spielberg films, when applicable. The problem is that other movies do try to copy Spielberg, but they often copy the exterior, situational moments rather than the heart of the movie that drives all those moments.
So to wrap this all up, what I admire about these Spielberg movies is how adventurous and explorative they are. There are so many moments where (considering the year they were made and the technology available) I wonder ‘how did they do that?’ Couple that with the consideration of the small moments, and each film feels so rich and cared for. Being a good director, as many have observed, isn’t about doing everything, but having an idea of what you want to do and hiring hardworking, smart people to do their job well. So that’s how you get stuff like this: