This week: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
UK Certificate: U
US Certificate: PG
Intended audience: All ages
Let me say up front that E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is my favourite film of all time. It is also a genuinely great piece of cinema worthy of inclusion in any list of the greatest films ever made, and I will brook no argument to the contrary. Aside from the fact that the film is outstanding on every artistic level and an acknowledged classic, E.T. essentially converted me to cinema in a Damascus-Road type experience as a seven-year-old, circa 1982.
For those who have had deprived childhoods or otherwise somehow not seen this, the plot concerns a benevolent alien accidentally stranded on Earth who befriends a young boy dealing with the separation of his parents. The boy, Elliot, names the alien E.T. and helps him secretly build a transmitter, enabling him to “phone home” and ask his spacecraft to return and pick him up.
This is Steven Spielberg’s greatest film, and as director he is in complete command of his material. Take the superb, wordless opening; a terrifying night chase in the forest that had my heart in my mouth when I saw the original release as a child in 1982. Or the brilliant way he shoots most of the film at a child’s eye level, mostly depicting adults the way they appear in Tom and Jerry cartoons, from the waist down. Then you have that iconic moon bicycle fly-by; one of the most memorable images in cinema history. These and many other moments were the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place.
The cast are uniformly superb. Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and the often overlooked Robert MacNaughton (as Elliot, his younger sister Gertie, and older brother Michael respectively) provide the greatest, most convincing, most realistic child performances I have ever seen. Dee Wallace is equally good as Elliot’s mother Mary, and Peter Coyote is wonderful as NASA scientist Keys; at first a menacing presence (depicted from the waist down with a set of keys hanging from his belt, complete with jangling sound effects), he later confesses to the same loneliness as Elliot, longing for a friend from another world.
Melissa Mathison’s deceptively simple screenplay (which contains zingers such as “How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”) strikes a perfect balance between thrills, comedy, tragedy, reflection and exhilaration; celebrating childhood innocence, courage, and love. Its piercingly astute examination of a child’s world is reflected no better in the quite brilliant scene where the mother is literally unable to see a drunken alien staggering around her kitchen because she is so absorbed in the stresses and concerns of the adult world.
E.T. is also about the universal human need for home, something anyone can relate to, as well as prejudice. E.T. himself is deliberately ugly, and at first quite frightening, but later when Elliot reaches out to him, the subtle but inherent message that people should not be judged on how they appear but on the content of their character becomes clear.
On top of all this, the film contains a plethora of Christ allegories. E.T. comes down from the heavens, is sheltered in humble surroundings, performs miracles (healings, and later far more spectacular feats), dies, rises again, and ascends. Nowhere is this allegory more apparent than the almost unbearably upsetting scene where E.T. gets sick from being on Earth too long and the NASA scientists find him.
To have the safe, familiar atmosphere of one’s home violated and transformed into a nightmare of hazmat outfits, plastic sheets and invasive scientific equipment is a truly terrifying idea for children, and as such acts as a deeply traumatic crucifixion metaphor – nothing less than a stroke of psychological brilliance on Spielberg’s part. E.T.’s subsequent death is so upsetting that for a child really nothing in the history of cinema compares to it, except possibly the death of the mother in Bambi. However the scene is also Exhibit A in Spielberg’s genius at manipulating the audience. Viewers are weeping one minute and laughing the next, as Elliot absurdly attempts to cover up E.T.’s subsequent resurrection by pretending to cry.
Every other aspect of the film, from the editing to the cinematography and special effects, are absolutely outstanding. However, the real man-of-the-match award (other than Spielberg) has to go to composer John Williams. His Oscar-winning music for E.T. is, for me, the greatest score for any film ever made, even excelling his outstanding work on other films. Just watch and listen to the act three chase and finale. Never have I seen such a perfect fusion of music and image, culminating in arguably the single most exhilarating moment in any film ever made, as E.T. levitates the bikes and they soar into the golden sunset. Adjectives such as magnificent and soaring fall pathetically short of describing the emotions experienced.
It’s mostly because of the very last scene that E.T. is frequently cited as the most tear-jerking film of all time, but it’s certainly an “up-cry”. Even though E.T. has to say goodbye to the children and go home, this is emotionally satisfying and above all, right. What’s more the appearance of a rainbow as the spaceship flies off is a beautiful and appropriately hopeful image indicating that Elliot’s experience has empowered and changed him for the better. Certainly that was the case for me, when I first saw the film as a child. Even now, countless viewings later, it remains an absolutely lovely experience every time I watch it.