Following Raiders, Steven Spielberg gets back to science fiction and gives us his most personal film in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
I have a confession to make. It wasn’t until the late 1990s/early 2000s before I watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. A lot of this is because I am prone to nightmares and like Mars, Inc. at the time, I thought E.T. was scary. Let me tell you how wrong I am for this line of thinking.
What if the alien from Close Encounters of the Third Kind stayed behind as a foreign exchange student? This is one of the thoughts that director Steven Spielberg had on the set of that film. Combine this with Spielberg’s own need to tell a story about his parent’s divorce and the result is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The broken family theme is recurring in Spielberg’s filmography since he’s coming from his own experience. Close Encounters was made from an adult’s point of view. However, Spielberg chooses to focus on the children in this film. In a way, this film would also help Spielberg prepare for fatherhood.
But beyond this theme, we can look at how both Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. bond throughout the film. The bond is so tight that Elliott can feel E.T’s pain or whatever. Look at the frog scene, for instance! On that note, I do not fault Spielberg for cutting Harrison Ford out of the film. Even when it comes to Michael (Robert MacNaughton), Spielberg also draws on his life experience. Michael’s character arc sees him eventually become his brother’s protector rather than tormentor. This is certainly no different than Spielberg teasing his younger sisters to taking care of them after the divorce. The growing friendship between Elliott and E.T. should be a lesson for all of humanity. If human and alien can get along, why can’t the rest of us?
When you’re working with a lot of young children, it limits the amount of hours you can work with them on set. Because of this, Spielberg needed E.T. to be working properly ahead of time. The last thing a filmmaker needs is the biggest star of the film to not be working correctly. In any event, all of the work paid off because the result is a sci-fi classic that all families can watch.
“Disney was a stigma in the early 80s but I still felt that I had made a Disney film and I was also pretty convinced the box office fate would be the same,” Spielberg says in the bonus features. And yet, he felt comfortable with making the fame. The first time the studio got to see the film in Dallas was “an unprecedented reaction” per Spielberg. This is when filmmakers know they have an instant classic.
The visual effects shots led to some of the most iconic visuals in cinematic history. The shot where Elliott and E.T. are flying against the backdrop of the moon would later inspire the Amblin Entertainment logo. But all of this aside, this isn’t the type of film where we look back and discuss the effects. This isn’t to say whether or not the visual effects age well or not because when I look at the film, I’m focusing more on the story. Years later, the visual effects don’t take me out of the film.
You cannot discuss this film without bringing up the brilliant Oscar-winning work from composer John Williams. I don’t know how he does it but the score is magnificent. Spielberg and editor Carol Littleton rework the finale chase to work with Williams’s score. If you pay attention to the scene where Yoda walks by, Williams even calls back “Yoda’s Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t know how many composers would think of this but it’s brilliant. According to the bonus features, Spielberg didn’t tell George Lucas about this ahead of time. George Lucas was “amazed and flattered.” Lucas would pay back the reference by having E.T.’s species appear in the Galactic Senate during the prequels. Fun fact: the score marks Williams’s third time in sweeping the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy, and BAFTA.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of the greatest films ever made.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITER: Melissa Mathison
CAST: Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas