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Dissecting the Classics – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

March 9, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Wide Release Date: June 11, 1982
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Melissa Mathison
Produced By: Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy
Cinematography By: Alan Daviau
Edited By: Carol Littleton
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Henry Thomas as Elliott
Robert MacNaughton as Michael
Drew Barrymore as Gertie
Dee Wallace as Mary
Peter Coyote as “Keys”

What Do We All Know?
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of the biggest success stories of all time. It broke Star Wars‘ record box office and stood unchallenged for over a decade before Jurassic Park surpassed it. It’s beloved family film that somehow combines science fiction with a fairy tale and creates something magical. E.T. is a pop culture institution; the alien itself, its small collection of lines, the relationship with Elliot, and John Williams’ magnificent score are all instantly recognizable. It may be Steven Spielberg’s most beloved movie, and for the man that made Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List that is no small feat.

But it’s also one of those movies that, while generally agreed upon to be good, is also one of those that questioning one’s opinion about. After all, the film is one most of us have seen as children, whether we were there in 1982 or had it passed down to us by someone who was. Spielberg is also the master of emotional manipulation, so are we all overrating a simple little story about a boy and his alien? Has Spielberg cast a spell on all of us? Or is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial actually deserving of all the praise it gets?

What Went Right?

The plot of E.T. is as simple as it gets. An alien is stranded on earth and befriends a young boy named Elliot. They bond with each other, Elliot helps “E.T.” find a way to communicate with the other aliens (“E.T. phone home!”), the government tries to intervene, Elliot and his brother help him escape, and they say goodbye. It’s an “a boy and his dog” story but with an alien so ugly that it’s cute. But if you’ve read even a small sampling of my columns, you know I tend to champion simple stories as long as there’s a good movie going on around it. Spielberg is a master of this sort of thing; most of his big movies have an easily understood hook that get you into the theater and then stay in your mind because of quality character work and powerful emotion.

The film’s strongest theme is empathy and communication between sentient beings. Elliot’s bond with E.T. is fueled by their loneliness: E.T. is alone because he is stranded, but Elliot is alone because his father left and that has strained his relationships with his mother and brother. They overcome initial fuel through the magic of Reese’s Pieces, find ways to talk to each other, and develop a sort of telepathic bond that allows Elliot to feel E.T.’s feelings and express them. Henry Thomas is able to sell the innocent, pure love that a child can have for a friend. Since much of the film is shot from Elliot’s viewpoint, it’s hard not to get caught up in that bond.

An immense amount of credit must also go to Carlo Rambaldi, who designed the animatronic puppet that brought Spielberg’s alien to life. The man behind the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and the Xenomorph head in Alien) created a creature that was definitely based on grey aliens but had its own distinct qualities, like the long neck and the brown leathery skin. Most important were E.T.’s enormous childlike eyes and pupils, which has proved to be the key to differentiating aliens we should be wary of and aliens we should empathize with. I also think a key trait is how non-threatening E.T is; short, squat and with stubby fingers, he’s not scary at all. As such, it doesn’t require a big leap for us to start thinking of E.T. as having feelings and thoughts, which the animatronics convey exceptionally well.

There’s a couple of scenes that I want to highlight. First is the scene in which E.T. gets drunk, and therefore so does Elliot. Not only is this a creative and entertaining way to showcase this bond between them, but it’s also a testament to how good the characters are even apart from it. Henry Thomas has a lot of fun in this scene, but it’s also a showcase for the team working on the creature. Second is the scene in which our heroes are sick and a medical team is trying to help them. As an adult, this scene still gives me unease, but I have to imagine that for children the tension is increased substantially. Everyone is quiet and understated except for Elliot, whose worry is palpable.

Lastly, there are not enough positive things to say about John Williams’ score. Williams is the movie music god of the twentieth century and his contributions to films are always indispensable. But even if we grade on a curve, he is critically important to E.T.‘s success. When a movie is this dependent on emotions, Williams bridges the gap between an alien puppet and a kid with limited range.

What Went Wrong?

So this is usually the part where acknowledge places where a movie falls short for me, but I’m going to do something different this time. I have an unusual history with E.T., as it wasn’t one of my childhood favorites and while I absorbed parts of it through TV, I didn’t actually see the film in its entirety until my twenties. The film has two things which I am not inclined to be forgiving towards; screaming children and a friendly little alien. I almost always find child actors to be grating, though I think we’ve seen improvement in recent years. And any aliens that even halfway resemble Greys is a tough sell for me; I’ve always been creeped out by them. Throw those two elements into a Spielberg movie where I know I’m going to be emotionally manipulated, and I’ve always had my guard up when it comes to this movie. I’ve always acknowledged it as an important movie and a well-made one, but never considered it to be a classic or a personal favorite.

Until I watched it again for this column. This time, I was completely wrapped up in the movie from start to finish, somehow managed to not cry during E.T.’s fake death, and utterly failed at not crying during the final goodbye. To paraphrase Siskel and Ebert, this is a movie that disarms you as a viewer and lures into its magic, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t get caught up in it. Maybe it’s because I’m more attentive and noticed things that I was unaware of on previous viewings. Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in the tail-end of my twenties. But this is a movie where whatever flaws that exist barely register in the grand scheme of things.

And In Summary…

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a movie that took me a few viewings to really connect with, but I can safely say that it is a genuine classic that is not underrated in the slightest. Spielberg is casting a spell of sorts to get it there, but that’s what he does best. The film has one job; making you care about the bond between E.T. and Elliot and wrenching drama out of it. It achieves this goal by filming mostly from the perspective of those two leads, a script that is full of creative and iconic sequences, and one of the best scores of John Williams’ distinguished career. It’s also highly influential; one can see its footprints on films as diverse as The Iron Giant, District 9 and It, as well as Netflix’s Stranger Things.

I think it’s also a film that’s sort of taken for granted; most of us see it when we’re young and thus never have to consider a world where this premise was a difficult task. One of the reasons Steven Spielberg is a great director is that he’s able to come up with high concept ideas like a giant killer shark or an imaginary friend that happens to be an alien. He has a gift for bringing his imagination to life, which is why he’s always been so good at presenting children’s media. And no film is a better showcase of that then E.T.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky

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