Blog Directory CineVerse: An appreciation for an out-of-this-world masterwork

An appreciation for an out-of-this-world masterwork

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial turned four decades old last month, which makes now an ideal time to take a closer examination of this work of wonderment and better understand how it has forever impacted cinema and the greater culture. Take a moment to ruminate on the following observations about this film, and consider how Steven Spielberg's masterpiece continues to enthrall audiences across the world (to listen to the latest Cineversary podcast, which celebrates E.T.'s 40th anniversary, click here).

Why is this movie worth celebrating 40 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial still packs a strong emotional punch 40 years after its release, likely because director Steven Spielberg focuses less on science fiction, fantasy, and special effects and more on real-world enchantment to convey a very personal narrative from a kid’s perspective – and that child can be any one of us, regardless of our age, if we put ourselves in Elliot’s shoes.
  • Despite old-school special effects limitations of its era, compared to the dazzling CGI wizardry of today, E.T.’s effects hold up, especially the animatronics involved in making the alien look realistic and move and express itself believably. Many are not fans of the 2002 special edition rerelease in which Spielberg took a George Lucas-like approach to snazzing up E.T. with new effects and inserting a few cut scenes. The CGI in that version makes the alien look plastic-perfect; Plenty prefer the rough-around-the-edges rubbery charm of the creature’s appearance in the 1982 original.
  • It still matters because of its music, too. The secret weapon behind the film’s effectiveness is the brilliant score by composer John Williams, which ranks #14 on the AFI’s list of 25 greatest film scores. This soundtrack does a lot of the heavy emotional lifting at critical moments, such as when Elliott brings the creature into his home, the flight across the moon sequence, the death and rebirth of E.T., and the poignant farewell.
  • Additionally, it has stood the test of time because its legacy hasn’t been diluted by inferior sequels, which often happens to film franchises that suffer lesser subsequent chapters following the first installment. At one time, Spielberg pondered the idea of helming a sequel, but thankfully he didn’t. So E.T. is the rare blockbuster masterpiece that had no follow-ups or prequels. And that means its reputation hasn’t been tarnished in any way.

How was E.T. innovative or different, especially compared to previous sci-fi films about aliens as well as earlier Spielberg pictures?

  • It’s a rare science fiction story about benevolent aliens; many sci-fi works feature extraterrestrials that are violent and destructive to humans. Here, the message is that strangers from different worlds can and should coexist peacefully and find a way to communicate.
  • The creature design was quite distinctive compared to previous iterations of extraterrestrials on film. E.T. exhibits characteristics of several types of animals: It has the long neck and wrinkly skin of a giant turtle, the anthropomorphic body of a long-armed ape, the moist membranes of a frog or other amphibian, and the sound of a purring cat when content or sleepy. Its oversized blue eyes are wonderfully expressive, and it waddles adorably like a penguin. Its fingers, skin color, and texture resemble the aliens from the 1953 War of the Worlds. Still, E.T. is a relatively unique otherworldly organism that doesn’t borrow from past pop culture extraterrestrials like a classic Roswell-era alien or a Close Encounters of the Third Kind creature.
  • Some believe E.T. turned aliens into pop culture icons and gave a memorable face to an alien being that was safe for and acceptable to children. Nevertheless, this creature was not devised to be undeniably cute and cuddly. E.T. has tactile and visual qualities that give it a strange, outlandish appearance. At the same time, its short stature, enormous peepers, and docile temperament make it non-threatening and endearing.
  • Spielberg wisely chose to shoot many scenes from a child’s vantage point and height, bringing the viewer to Elliott’s level. Except for Elliott’s mother, all the adults in the film are shown from the chest down, silhouetted, shot from afar, or facelessly obscured until the third act, when the government officials infiltrate Elliott’s house. As in Charlie Brown cartoons, the grown-ups are secondary, voiceless, amorphous characters on the periphery.
  • Although we are shown snatches of the alien early on, we don’t see him in complete, detailed form until the second act, when he becomes a fixture inside the house. As in King Kong, Jaws, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, and other major genre entertainments, the filmmakers follow the proven rule of not fully introducing the creature until later in the story, which organically builds anticipation and excitement.

In what ways was E.T. was influential on cinema or popular culture?

  • This was the feature that proved family films could be commercially successful and popular again. Disney and other studios had difficulty making inroads at the box office with family fare in the years prior to E.T. Hollywood was skittish in this era about putting serious resources into a movie designed to appeal to all ages. But the gamble paid off handsomely.
    • In 1983, E.T. overtook Star Wars to claim the title of the highest-grossing film ever; by the conclusion of its theatrical run, it had grossed $359 million in North America and $619 million worldwide. In fact, the movie sold more than 120 million tickets in its initial U.S. theatrical run. Adjusted for inflation, E.T. today remains the fourth highest-grossing motion picture of all time, behind Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music.
  • It firmly established Steven Spielberg as the world’s most popular and famous director—a man with the Midas touch after consecutively helming Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now E.T.
  • It helped usher the era of product placement into the movies, for better or worse, by featuring merchandise like Reese’s Pieces, Star Wars toys, and Coca-Cola.
  • E.T. inspired inferior knockoffs like the notoriously bad Mac and Me. But it also influenced later quality works like Starman, Gremlins, The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, The Iron Giant, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Lilo and Stitch, Super 8, and Earth to Echo.
    • Additionally, E.T. inspired Neil Diamond to record the hit song Heartlight, which rose to number five on the Billboard charts in late 1982.
  • We can credit E.T., as well, with catapulting the careers of Drew Barrymore and Peter Coyote.
  • It’s an intimate, engaging movie that Steven Spielberg considered his most personal film. Steven Spielberg said in an interview: “E.T. was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt after my parents broke up. [It was] the first movie I ever made for myself.”
    • Hence, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial gave Spielberg the confidence to craft more personal films in the years to come. He established himself as the definitive action-adventure and sci-fi filmmaker between Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But starting in 1985 with The Color Purple and continuing through Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and beyond, we saw new facets of his talents and different genres explored beyond summer blockbuster fare.

Why was Steven Spielberg the right director for E.T., and what distinctive qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Spielberg had the right approach: Treat this more as a story about a fractured family and the effect of the fantastical upon their lives instead of making this a special-effects spectacle heavily steeped in science fiction tropes.
  • As he expertly demonstrated in Close Encounters five years earlier, this man knew how to accurately depict suburbia, believable family dynamics, and the authentic architecture of consumerist culture – the products we purchase and the content we watch and value. Every room in Elliott’s home has a lived-in look laced with plausible remnants of the early 1980s, another testament to Spielberg’s golden touch.
  • As evidenced in the existing footage of the filming of E.T., the director had an intrinsic knack for casting the ideal child actors and nurturing them to deliver the exact performances he wanted for every shot. He became a kindly and compassionate father figure to these three child actors. Spielberg gave them latitude in improvising some of their lines and letting them be the kids they were, knowing that the story was more about them, not the extraterrestrial. Many like to think that the dad missing from the lives of these three siblings was really offscreen all the time in the form of Spielberg himself.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in E.T.?

  • Seeing life through a child’s eyes. This film is told from the emotional and literal viewpoint of a child: The camera is often placed at a kid’s level, and the point of view is commonly Elliott’s or E.T.’s.
  • Christ-like rebirth. This is an uplifting story about a vulnerable creature who can work feats of magic yet gets sick and dies before being resurrected. As in the New Testament, this reborn figure must leave this world and his apostles behind. True believer Elliott says: “I'll believe in you all my life, every day.”
  • Disconnection from home and family is not healthy. E.T. needs to return to his kind and his world; he is rejuvenated because he has reconnected with his native loved ones. This suggests that Elliott, too, must find a connection and treasure his life with his kin in suburbia, even if he doesn’t always fit in so well and lacks a father. It also underscores how E.T. and Elliott are connected and similar; think about how “E” and “T” are the first and last letters of Elliott’s name.
  • The value of maintaining a sense of wonder and imagination. This picture makes you feel young again and taps into the mysteries and energy of childhood—how magical it is to find something genuinely precious that’s your unique secret, trying to find your place in a world where you don’t fit in, and being in awe of the marvels and mysteries of the universe.
    • It speaks to the power that children have to possess a powerful sense of imagination, preserve awe and reverence for magic, be resourceful and resilient, remain open and receptive to the idea that aliens, monsters, or the supernatural can exist, and connect and communicate with life and nature in a way that most adults have forgotten or can’t.
    • It references Peter Pan in the film and often plays on that tale’s themes: that you can fly, have adventures, wish upon a star for a miracle, and defeat the pirates (or, in this case, the adults trying to take E.T. away). . Remember that the “Keys” adult character is like a grownup Elliott or former Peter Pan—he’s been “wishing for this since (he) was 10 years old.” He, too, wants to be a kid again.
  • The importance of tolerance, compassion, and understanding. Film journalist John Kenneth Muir wrote: "E.T. purposefully asks audiences to accept that which is alternative or seem different, and judge it not by how it looks. On the contrary, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiosis and so come to understand the feelings of one another. No matter how different or alien someone may seem, they possess the same feelings that you do."
  • Feeling trapped and imprisoned. Spielberg cleverly frames E.T. and the children behind window and door blinds, grates, screens, and lattices, likely for two reasons: first, to suggest that there is only a thin veneer separating this alien creature from humankind, which implies that we share more similarities than you think; and secondly to symbolically convey that Elliott’s home, while a refuge, can also be a prison keeping E.T. from his true home beyond the stars.

What is E.T.’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Its greatest gift is that it remains one of the best family films ever. Thanks in no small part to the decision to frame the narrative from the children’s point of view and often place the camera at their height, E.T. strikes a chord with our inner child—the one who experienced lonesomeness, awkwardness, misunderstanding, or alienation when we were young. It’s especially relevant to offspring of broken homes and divorce, middle children, and kids who grew up in the suburbs, which ticks all the boxes for Elliott.
  • E.T. requires you to be an actively engaged viewer—it involves your feelings and moves you. Films that evoke a strong emotional reaction in audiences are potent pictures that tend to be remembered and revisited. For kids in the 1930s and 1940s, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo, and Bambi claimed that mantle; in the 1950s, it was Old Yeller; in the 1960s, 101 Dalmations served that role; in the 1970s, it was Benji; and in the 1980s, E.T. continued that tradition.
  • Consider that the scenes depicting E.T.’s fading health and death are collectively protracted. Spielberg brings audiences to the depths of sadness and loss and then quickly elevates us to heights of hope and exultation, causing an unforgettable emotional pendulum swing. For younger viewers, this may be one of their first exposures to the death of a major character in a movie: a death that leaves a lasting psychic imprint. Families who want to impart spiritual messages to their children are heartened by the rebirth of the alien, which suggests the possibility of an afterlife. Likewise, E.T.’s message of “I’ll be right here" comforts viewers young and old that our loved ones never really leave us so long as we remember and cherish them.
  • Revisiting E.T. can create added resonance for adults who relate to Elliott’s mother and how concerned she is over her children, their well-being, and her home.

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