Better phone home and let them know you’ll be a while, because this one is special. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are taking a look back at a film in the career of Steven Spielberg, one of cinema’s most successful and influential directors. This week concerns one of his most profitable and beloved films, E.T., a sweet and moving story of friendship and connection between a lost alien and a little boy. E.T. is not only one of Steven’s greatest works, it’s one of his most personal, as it delves deeply into themes that have characterized the director’s entire career.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
One of the events in Spielberg’s life that had the most profound impact on him as a person and an artist was, without question, the divorce of his mother and father. While he was growing up, his mother had an affair with his father’s best friend, and his father left the home. Not knowing the full story, Steven became embittered toward his father. As Steven’s career as a director progressed, he would process this event through his work as form of therapy. He first touched on this theme in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but in E.T. he would confront it head-on.
The origins of E.T. came from an abandoned project entitled Night Skies, in which a party of malicious aliens terrorized a family in a farmhouse. In the story, one of the kinder aliens would be marooned, and would befriend the family’s autistic child. Steven fell in love with this element of the story, and he developed it into its own film. The horror elements of Night Skies would go on to inspire Poltergeist and Gremlins, while the human/alien friendship angle would get fleshed out in its own script penned by Melissa Mathison, whom Steven had met while filming Indiana Jones.
The finished film E.T. tells the story of an awkward little alien who gets accidentally left behind after his team of botanists visits Earth. He is found and befriended by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), and as he and his siblings learn more about “E.T.” (short for “Extra-Terrestrial”), they help him build a signal to contact home, and Elliott and E.T. become empathically linked. However, E.T. and Elliott soon both become critically ill, and government agents descend upon their home. In the end, they both recover, and a ship returns to take E.T. back to his people.
Out of all of the films in Spielberg’s career, E.T. can be isolated from the rest as the one that most accurately reflects who he is as a filmmaker. It includes all of the most predominant motifs and defining hallmarks of his work: spectacle, state-of-the-art wizardry, family-oriented adventure, slices of suburbia; and most importantly, his senses of sentiment and warmth. It also contains the elements of science fiction and youthful protagonism that would prove to be enormously influential, and it stands today as one of Spielberg’s most acclaimed and cherished works.
And partly why it works so well is that it comes from a place very close to his heart. Traces of autobiography are present all over E.T. in ways that they are not in any other Spielberg film. Steven has expressed that as a child he would often envision an imaginary friend that would keep him company at times when he did not have a brother or father who could. E.T. is that friend. Elliott, written as a child with a father who has left the home, is a young Steven being gifted an extraordinary friend who could fill the void left open by the absence of his father.
Elliott’s older brother Michael, who often teases him and his sister, was born of Spielberg’s own tendency to tease his younger siblings growing up. As life soon becomes challenging for the three children, Michael is thrust into the protector role as he helps ensure Elliott and E.T.’s safety. Elliott’s mother represents Steven’s own mother in her child-like spirit, as Steven has described her as if one of his siblings. E.T. himself is Steven: representing times in his life when he felt alienated and alone, such as when Steven was bullied as a child for his Jewish heritage.
In dealing with such personal subject matter, E.T. is a markedly emotional film, and due to this it requires some significant acting chops on the part of its child actors. Steven and his casting director did a magnificent job, as E.T. offers some of the best child acting in film. Henry Thomas is immensely affecting as Elliott; his young vulnerability just radiates the pangs of familial separation and loss, and his performing work is sensational in the more dramatic scenes, such as when E.T. appears to die, and in the heart-wrenching ending when E.T. and Elliott say goodbye.
The film famously heralds the breakthrough of a little Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s little sister, whom Steven considered for Poltergeist, but utimately favored for E.T., as her streak of feisty spunk made her a perfect fit for Gertie’s rebellious nature. Robert MacNaughton hits the right chord as Elliott’s older brother Michael, as he is just right in both looks and physicality to convey a mischievous older brother. Dee Wallace as the children’s mother is excellent at expressing that child-like spirit I mentioned earlier, while also reflecting the pain of losing her husband.
The way E.T. was shot was unusual for Spielberg and for a film in general, as it was filmed in roughly chronological order. The child actors were also kept, whenever possible, from seeing E.T’s puppeteers. These were done to give the children a sense that they were actually living the story, and to illicit more natural performances. It worked in a spectacular way. Another directorial choice of Spielberg’s that enhances the film was to frame everything from the point of view of a child and/or E.T., shooting adults mostly from a distance or from the waist down.
The special effects for E.T. himself were designed by Carlos Rambaldi, who previously worked on the effects for the little aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The goal was to render E.T. both totally foreign in appearance, while remaining personable, though while not being too cutesy, and ensuring that no one would believe it was someone in a suit. Staffers of the Jules Stein Eye Institute helped design the eyes, and they are the true soul of E.T. The elongated neck is also noteworthy, as it functions to signify E.T. is feeling safe and showing trust when it is extended.
The finished product is a true wonder of special effects ingenuity, and serves as a reminder of the value of practical effects in an era in which CGI is too often relied upon. The film also boasts one of cinema’s most iconic sequences, that being when Elliott’s bike flies past the moon, as well as one of the most compelling of scores from John Williams, a soundtrack that only heightens what is already a true tear-jerker of an emotional film. And that is mainly thanks to Steven baring his soul to craft what is an utter masterpiece, and one of the best works of his career.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at a film that Steven collaborated with a few other notable directors on, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming from Hulu, and for digital rental from Vudu. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.