by Daniel Suddes
The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – Director: Steven Spielberg Screenplay: Melissa Mathison Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote OSCAR COUNT (4) – Best Effects – Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Music – Original Score, Best Sound
Steven Spielberg is the most positive minded filmmaker working. I have never really known him to not try to find hope in the bleakest sources. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Minority Report’s ending feels mawkish, as does the ending to A.I. But here is a film that actually gives a sense of hope and wonder to the populace. Since its release in 1982 (where it received one of the longest, if not the longest, standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival) it has never left the public conscious. I gave up trying to count how many times people have quoted the “E.T., phone home” line to me, or how many times I have seen the bicycle scene redone. But those segments have never lost their luster, and neither has the film.
Why is that? The film’s tone is not really original – it reminds me of the sort of children’s science fiction stories from the 1950s. I imagine Ray Bradbury could have written something similar earlier in his career. But then, it WAS not done before E.T. By the time it was released, the story was so obvious that the brilliance was in the fact that Spielberg was finally able to articulate it properly.
Many people have tried to interpret the film in many different ways. Some see a Christ allegory in the titular alien (an unusual interpretation, given that director Steven Spielberg is overtly Jewish) and some rave about the ingenious use of POV shots. My personal favorite aspect of the film is how little the adults play into the world of E.T. Everything is about what the children think and what they believe in. I have always felt that E.T. was merely a child himself. The way he conducts himself resembles a frightened little boy (even though E.T. doesn’t have a gender) who has been separated from his parents in the mall.
This actually helps build more of a sense of wonder about the whole thing. We know what adults would do (and did in the film) to new life forms. The children actually treat E.T. with respect – and considering that E.T. is one of the few aliens that represent no threat whatsoever to people. In fact, considering his gifts, he may be one of the best aliens ever depicted. But he is different, and therefore a threat.
Children, as a general rule, exist outside of politics. They do not possess the prejudices that supposedly more sophisticated adults do. Philosophers would call it the “tabula rasa” but that is just taking away from what is special about it. E.T. is one of the best reminders of this trait in children. Maybe that is why people still come back to it repeatedly. It is a reminder of a trait that more people wished society had (the desire to actually try new things) but one that they have lost.
That is why, to me, the best scene is one in which E.T. and Elliot are separated, but still possess and influence over each other. The scene involves Elliot being required to dissect a frog for a class while E.T. is simultaneously watching TV. Elliot eventually releases all the frogs, creating chaos, while E.T.’s mind gives Elliot images of a television show he is watching, which Elliot then acts out with classmates. It is wonderfully executed from a technical standpoint (the jump cuts and cinematography are excellent) but there is also quite a lot of depth to the film in showing Elliot’s passions and his connection with E.T. Lesser films would have tried to explain it (by having Elliot speculate about his psychic connections out loud) but by showing what is happening – that is much stronger. The film is full of moments like this one, but this one may be the culmination in what Spielberg was trying to accomplish.
Did You Know: Apparently, Michael Jackson owned one of the many puppets used in the film. Another original was used in a series of commercials for Progressive Auto Insurance aired during the 1999 Super Bowl. By that time, most of the rubber used on the puppet had disintegrated.