E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Review
I was five years old when I went to the movies for the first time. I was dumbstruck by the experience; bowled over. I'd seen plenty of movies by that point, that's for sure, but with my first cinema experience, my mind had been given nothing that could have prepared me for what I was about to experience. We had to queue up outside too until the doors were opened and we all filed in and bought tickets. Of course, being five yeas old, the burden of payment was not on me, and this left me free to become preoccupied with the scent of sweets and popcorn hanging in the air. As we moved along the queue, I quickly became transfixed by a small cardboard cutout of a brown wrinkly creature, no taller than me, with bright blue eyes and a glowing finger.
This little fella was E.T. And I was about to have my tiny mind blown.
The tale takes place in a nondescript, unassuming, sleepy suburban town in middle America. A young boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas) is coming to terms with his parents' divorce. He's something of an outsider, doesn't fit in. He tries his best to get involved with his older brother's friends and their D&D games, but he's different, something of an outcast, and kids can be cruel sometimes. They don't let him play. They make him order pizza on the promise that they will allow him play, but they won't really. Elliot knows this, but he orders them pizza anyway, just so he's included to some extent.
Along with Elliot's older brother, Michael (Robert McNaughton), he has a younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Being the middle child is tough at the best of times, but when your older brother is old enough to cope with changes to your family life of gargantuan proportions, and your younger sister has seen too few summers to fully understand these changes, being the middle child can also be quite lonely.
Elliot is a typical kid, struggling to grow up in a big old world that he doesn't understand. His mother is the quiet, stoic type. All but a kid herself really, she's a young single mother, coping well for the sake of her kids. It's the all too common scenario of unseen troubles in an otherwise pristine suburban hamlet.
One night, deep in the woods that lie on the outskirts of their idyllic and sprawling suburban town, something unusual is happening. A group of Extra Terrestrial botanists, searching through the local flora, are forced flee when a team of shadowy adult pursuers beset them. In their hasty emergency take-off, they accidentally leave one of their kind behind.
Elliot is out collecting the pizza delivery when he notices something strange in their garden shed. There's a peculiar light emanating from it, and some very unusual noises. Emboldened by his compounded loneliness and curiosity, he decides to investigate. When Elliot and E.T. come face to face for the first time, both are utterly terrified. E.T. flees back to the woods, and Elliot runs screaming into his house. He frantically tries to explain what he saw, but of course, no one believes him.
Elliot's plight for credibility continues the next day when the he sets about finding this mysterious creature. If it had wanted to hurt him, it had had ample opportunity the night before, but it hadn't tried hurt him. In fact, it had seemed arguably more freaked out by their surprise encounter than he had. Elliot manages to find E.T. and lure him back to his house with a trail of candy. At first, he keeps the creature a secret from everyone, unsure about whether to unveil this epic discovery, or to keep it to himself. Elliot decides to entrust the secret with his siblings, and enlists their help in keeping E.T. safe from harm. This is Elliot's first experience of being the one to whom his brother looks to for answers. A glimpse at how it feels to have the respect of his older brother. Of course, not being an egotist, Elliot's main concern is for the creature with whom he is beginning to develop a bond.
The two soon discover that they share more than a common love for peanut butter cups, when Elliot begins to feel some sort of inexplicable psychic bond with E.T. It seems that there is a kind of physical manifestation in Elliot of the creatures emotions and feelings. When E.T.'s curiosity leads him to drink several beers from the fridge, Elliot feels drunk whilst at school. When E.T. falls over, Elliot feels the bump on his head.
When E.T. falls gravely ill, Elliot does too.
As the story unfolds, the bond between Elliot and E.T. becomes ever stronger both emotionally and physically. Elliot, along with his brother and sister, take it upon themselves to protect E.T. from the dangers of the world, and in particular, adults who might want to do experiments with him. E.T. starts to become quite homesick after a while, and its clear that something's not quite right when the creature starts to fall ill. Desperate to help, the children feel a duty to aid him in trying to communicate with his friends in the hope that they might come back and rescue before the Government acquire him for experiments and other unthinkable things.
With both E.T. and Elliot becoming more and more sick, and with the Government now interfering severely, it becomes a race against time to get E.T. back to his own kind, and Elliot and his family have a monumental task of outwitting and outrunning the might of the government and the police put together.
E.T.'s life depends on them as they embark on one of the most amazing adventures imaginable.
It's the stuff dreams are made of. A meek and outcast kid finds a stranded alien being with whom he begins to bond. After friendship has blossomed, the kid must help the alien to get home before the shady government capture him to do experiments on. It's a tale that has seen many incarnations over the years, but what this one does differently, is emotion.
If I was describing a movie to you and I said the words “Spielberg-esque”, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's hard to put your finger on what it is, but it's something to do with realism of emotion. He manages to impart something special into how the characters interact with one another, something unique that captures the imagination whilst simultaneously tugging the heart strings of the audience. Let's just call it “magic” for now. None of his movies, and believe me I do not say this lightly, carry that particular magic better than E.T. does.
It began as something of a personal movie project for Spielberg after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he decided to take the alternative perspective and shoot the entire movie from the children’s point of view. Where Close Encounters was very much an adult-centric movie, made for adults, E.T. revolves entirely around the kids, and looks at a situation not dissimilar from that of Close Encounters, but from behind the eyes of a child. It's remarkable how well Spielberg manages to do this. It's a handled with a transparency and honesty that you only really get from kids. Since Spielberg was almost 35 years old when he helmed this, some 7 years after he directed Jaws, I'm personally dumbfounded by how intricately he weaves this emotional tale, and how he manages to do it with the honesty of a ten year old boy.
Even adults watching E.T. can relate to Elliot's character. Not only does he manage to convince you of the authenticity of the the young boy's emotions, but he seems to be able to make the audience regress somehow; we involuntarily drop our barriers and we empathise wholly with Elliot and his plight.
The foundation of this is down to two things. Firstly, it's how talented the young actors are. Naturally gifted you might say. Secondly, it's the fact that Spielberg's mind is not unlike that of a child in many ways. He's able to talk to them in a way that makes them feel a bit like he's one of them; like he understands them. It's not faked either, his mind is genuinely bursting with imagination and ideas and playfulness, and children sense this in an adult. This puts Spielberg in a unique position with the kids he was working with on E.T. When they see that Spielberg is in fact a lot like them, they open up a lot more for him. He can talk to them in a way that helps them understand exactly what it is their character is feeling at any given time, rather than just saying “Stand over there and look scared”. He coaxes out of these young talented actors an authenticity that is so often lacking with children in movies. And this in turn helps us, the audience, to focus more on the energy and emotion that the kids exude, at times forgetting that they're acting at all.
Going back to the first point, let's give credit where credit is due. These are a bunch of very talented kids. Though some have seen more success than others in their ensuing career, you simply cannot take anything away from the performances in E.T. Henry Thomas does a wonderfully convincing job as Elliot. His screen test was quite something – Spielberg had seen him and liked the look of him for Elliot, but wanted to know if he could act. Thomas was brought in and sat down on a sofa where Spielberg explained to him that he wanted him to react to a man arriving at his door to try and take away his best friend. When the casting director reads the lines off camera, Thomas's reaction quiets the entire room, commanding their attention with a fragile, frightened and upset response. After a pause, Spielberg can be heard off camera saying “Kid, you got the job.”
Spielberg was relying on Henry Thomas to carry the role with confidence, since without a believable lead, the emotional narrative of the movie would fall down. Given that Spielberg's focus was not to make an alien movie, or a Sci-fi movie, but to make a movie about change in a young boy's life, these were big boots for Henry Thomas to fill at a mere ten years old. Spielberg had initially set out for E.T. to be a movie about how divorce affects pre-adolescents, echoing his own experiences as a teenager when his own mother and father got divorced, which gave Spielberg all the tools he needed to coax a great performance out of the young boy. That being said, as his screen test shows, he didn't need much coaching.
Robert McNaughton does a great job at the older brother, Michael. Though not a great deal is asked of McNaughton in the role, he's solid, and manages to pull off the big brother attitude reasonably well, convincing us every step of the way that he's known and teased Elliot his whole life.
However, towering high above the performances of both Henry Thomas and Robert McNaughton, is the incredible performance of the rather tiny Drew Barrymore. She is utterly captivating as the younger sister, Gertie. Cuteness is the order of the day for Gertie, though she does have one particularly touching scene in which she tearfully looks on at E.T. barely clinging to life as the medics desperately struggle to keep him alive. As she stands at the end of the bed, comforted only by her mother's hand and her teddy bear, the team of medics attempt to restart E.T.'s heart with a defibrillator. The sight of this tiny, helpless little girl literally jumping with fright and horror when they shock him is so genuine that it's enough to make even the toughest and meanest among you “get something in your eye”. It's spellbinding stuff to watch, and I defy anyone who watches it to deny that in the young Drew Barrymore, Steven Spielberg had found an absolute gem.
Let's not forget about the Extra Terrestrial himself. E.T. for short. Taken on his own merits, there's enough emotion and life imparted to the creature mechanics by it's operators that you would be forgiven for thinking that someone was inside a suit the whole time. There wasn't. The majority of the time it was a machine in everything but the arms, those belonged to a girl who had unimaginably long fingers. Spielberg had been no stranger to malfunctioning equipment stalling the shooting schedule, and he wanted to ensure that there were no hiccups akin to those he experienced on Jaws. Rather remarkably, everything went perfectly to plan. Problems with creature animatronics plaguing the production were literally non existent. I guess there'd be plenty of time for that a few years down the line with Jurrasic Park.
Of course, this edition being the anniversary edition, you're probably worried about whether or not this version includes the additional material that Spielberg allowed the re-release of the movie ten years ago to contain. Now, before you start freaking out and hyperventilating that this is another Episode I, II and III scenario, rest assured that Spielberg had resisted the urge to change the movie too much at all. At most, it was the inclusion of a couple of scenes that, had he had the technology available to him at the time, he would have included in the original release. I can confirm that this version is the original theatrical release and does not contain these additional scenes. Some of them do feature in the deleted scenes, and I'd urge you to take a look. It's weird seeing E.T. with a CG face, but at the same time it's also refreshing in some ways.
Besides the wonderful cast that Spielberg surrounded himself with, he also had a way with the camera. It's like a sixth sense of knowing exactly what to point the camera at to achieve a shot that people will remember for years to come. There's the shed scene where Elliot rolls the baseball into the shed, which is glowing brightly with a white light, bathed in soft steam and smoke. It's instantly recognisable as a shot from E.T., a boy standing with a baseball glove on, looking into a maical light coming out of his shed. Or the shot of the moon with the bike's silhouette riding across it. It's such an iconic image that there's no mistaking it as E.T. Not only that, but it manages to capture almost the entire emotion of the movie in one still image. Interestingly enough, that was a real moon, not faked. The bike was faked, I'll grant you that, but the giant moon backdrop - all real. It also became one of the things that I wished would happen to me when I was a kid riding my bike, we all have our dreams, and I remain hopeful.
Yet one of the things that Spielberg does with E.T. that means so much more than iconic images or coaxing a great performance out of young actors and actresses is something far more subtle. Barring Elliot's mother, no adult features prominently in the movie until the third and final act, beyond the occasional obscured appearance. Whenever an adult is in shot, they are either silhouetted, or they're shot over the shoulder, or at hip height. No faces. Spielberg deliberately goes out of his way not to include adults in the first two acts in order to preserve the purity of this movie being intended to be perceived from a child's point of view. It works so well. He even went the extent of instructing adult actors not to look into camera during the scene at the beginning of the movie when the researchers turn up and chase the stranded E.T. away.
What this means is that you never see any adult characters in the movie that are not obscured in some way, right up until the point when the military and the government converge on their house towards the end of the movie, and Keys (Peter Coyote) enters the house in full hazmat suit. Even then, adults are, on the whole, distant from the central characters. All bar one, Keys, named so because up until his first full appearance, all we saw of him was his keys clipped to his jeans. He's a sympathetic researcher who tries to help Elliot in whatever way he can. It's not a huge part looking back at the movie now, but it's one that made enough of an impact when I first saw it for me to remember him clearly. Funny the things that stick in your mind.
The effect that not showing any adults in the movie is really quite something, and it genuinely makes the experience that much more emotional. We don't have to constantly jump between understanding how a child must be feeling to understanding how an adult must be feeling, throughout the whole movie, adults are very much seen as outsiders, and we buy into this so willingly as the audience. It's exactly what Spielberg wants from us, to drop our guard and remember what it's like to feel emotion in the same way that a child does, allowing them to freely wash over us in the same way a kid does.
By now, you're probably noticing (much like I am) that for a movie about an Extra Terrestrial, I'm not really talking much about aliens. Well, this is the other cornerstone of Spielberg's dexterity when it comes to making movies. It's a slight of hand that uses one image to slip another one past you almost unnoticed. E.T. is not about discovering a new breed of life, nor is it about exploration of space. It's not even about science fiction really. It's about filling a father-figure sized gap in a young boys life with something that will provide as much, if not more meaning than the real thing. It's about a family pulling together in the saddest of times, and bonding in a way that they had thought impossible given their circumstances. It's about innocence being broken and then rebuilt. It's about imagination, honesty and love; three things that make it utterly impossible for us not to feel a strong, genuine emotional attachment to the film. It's a masterpiece, and there is little greater praise.