Before I get too much into the analytical nuts and bolts on whatever I have to say about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, let’s address an online theory about the film. It goes like this: E.T. demonstrates the ability to move things with his mind, he seems to recognize a kid dressed like Yoda for Halloween, and George Lucas had some members of his race appear in the Republic Senate during Phantom Menace. Ergo, the theory goes, E.T. is a lost Jedi.
I don’t buy it for a simple reason: Henry Thomas’ Elliot, while he is showing E.T. around his room, takes a moment to identify by name a small collection of Star Wars action figures. Clearly Star Wars is a fictional story in the world of this film. And since Lucas and E.T. director Steven Spielberg are close friends who have collaborated together in the past, well, that more or less tells me everything I need to know about why both this film and Phantom Menace reference the work of the other.
OK, now I feel like I can talk this film.
A few folks here at Gabbing Geek like to talk box office and such. I am not one of them, but let’s take a minute to consider the economic oddity that is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Here you have a film that was a gigantic success at the box office, and yet was kept off any sort of home video for years. It never spawned an official cinematic sequel. The title character appeared everywhere, gaining a board game I can distinctly remember, and a video game that no one wanted to play ever. And yet, despite all that, one of the biggest stories about the behind-the-scenes making of that I can remember from the time was that Mars, Incorporated declined to let the production use M&Ms as the candy Elliot uses to lure the alien into his house. As such, the honor went to Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces, and you gotta know Mars has been metaphorically kicking itself over that decision ever since. The Mars reps apparently thought E.T. looked a little too scary for kids.
But as I was rewatching it for this project, the thought that came to my mind is this may be the most Spielbergian movie Spielberg has ever made. He’s maybe made a better film in his time (and he’s got one more coming up in the countdown), but this film here has all the trademarks of his style. Iconic imagery? Check. A sweeping John Williams score? Check. A focus on if not the family than at least the kids in it? Check. A story that might get dismissed as schmaltz if it came from a lesser filmmaker? That’s a big check.
And yet, so much about this film works because Spielberg was at the height of his directorial powers. His kids here aren’t completely sweet innocents, nor are they dropping sexual references with an adult undertone. They may use profane language, but they still sound like kids. The adults in the film are just smart enough to be a good obstacle, and the kids aren’t wise in ways to make the adults look too foolish. That’s a tough balancing act, something not even movies Spielberg himself produced could accomplish (I’m looking at you, The Goonies!). Heck, the film may have some antagonists in the form of the government scientists, but they hardly come across as evil, just ignorant. When Peter Coyote’s agent explains he’s been looking for proof of alien life since he was Elliot’s age and he’s just amazed by it, I’m actually inclined to believe him. He isn’t there to deliberately cause harm. He does it more accidentally. Top-billed Dee Wallace is kept mostly in the dark, and her default mode is caring for her kids, and she gets to come along to witness the alien’s departure. Sure, the government and the police may be trying to stop the kids from getting away, but once E.T.’s spaceship comes back, all resistance from the authority figures melts away.
But aside from the kids, the real star here is Spielberg himself, perfecting a story he was trying to tell (and told very well) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s the story of a friendly alien, a botanist from the looks of things, who gets accidentally left behind when humans come to inspect his ship full of confederates taking plant samples from a California forest. Despite having a pair of very stumpy legs, E.T., as he is eventually known, can apparently move really fast when he has to. He eventually finds himself in the back yard of Elliot, a ten year old boy being raised with his brother Michael and sister Gert by a single mother. The film lacks any big name stars unless you count young Drew Barrymore as Gert, and for our purposes here, I sure don’t. After Elliot and E.T. scare the crap out of each other, Elliot finds a way to reach out through the universal gift of candy, the two bond on multiple levels, there’s some trick-or-treating, a way to phone home using a bunch of 1980s household objects where the most advanced tech may be a Speak & Spell, and after a truly tear-worthy moment where the alien appears to die, he revives like an outer space Jesus and goes home. E.T. learns a few rudimentary words, many of which are highly memorable lines in their own right, and Spielberg used the image of Elliot riding his bike across the moon as the symbol for his production company for a damn good reason: it may be the most iconic shot in any of Spielberg’s many films.
And those are the big moments. Spielberg fills his screen with wonderful compositions, like scientists in spacesuits walking in a line over a hill, or even just odd details, like how Elliot apparently has a framed photo of the family dog in his room. In an age of sequels, remakes, and bad McDonald’s commercials plagiarizing an all-time classic, maybe they just plain realized that one of these was enough. And you know, I am fine with that. Sometimes you only need to say things once.
No, they only needed to say it once.
NEXT UP: We’re headed to 1980 for the sports biography to end all sports biographies: Raging Bull.