Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.
When a movie is a hit it’s sometimes called “home run.” But Steven Spielberg doesn’t hit home runs he hits Grand Slams. If there is any film that absolutely defines Spielberg in my mind it’s this one. This film is a complete and total success both as entertainment and within the framework of the director’s objectives.
It’s very odd to look at these films in retrospect after most of them have already gone on to become world-wide phenomena and see that many studios rejected not only this film but many other successful Spielberg ventures. Oddly enough Hollywood insiders have always viewed him as a risk-taker. This film’s success, however, shouldn’t have surprised anyone at all. In E.T. we have a wonderfully structured story that seamlessly crosses over from fairy tale to comedy to drama without ever missing a beat. It always keeps you emotionally involved both through the story and with the assistance of the score.
One of the most impressive things about this film is the dialogue. It is often humorous and insightful. The thing that makes it stand out is how succinct it is and how perfectly adept to the situation. A prime example of this is during the emotional good-bye between E.T. and Elliot. They meet each one points to their heart and says “Ouch” then they exchange pleas “Come” and “Stay.” Four lines of dialogue, four words exchanged between the two of them yet that says it all; can it get any tighter than that? The best part is that it works so brilliantly. The comedic dialogue is just as effective Elliot is asked, “Did you explain school to him?” and in response Elliot says “How do you explain school to higher intelligence?” There have been entire films on the subject of how futile public education is and in that one line everything has been said.
Another great detail in E.T. is the use of inside jokes. First, we see Elliot introducing E.T. to the characters from Star Wars and later in the Halloween sequence we see an homage to that film as well as to Night of the Living Dead and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. One thing that makes E.T. special is that it uses situations that all of us can relate to from our own childhood even if it’s only there for a second. There’s bickering amongst siblings, the use of comics, adults that just won’t listen to what you have to say, Halloween, being caught daydreaming by a teacher and many others. Spielberg implemented enough shared experience that even if we didn’t feel that Elliot was a snapshot of our past we could identify enough to get lost in the story. What also aids the story a great deal is the almost supernatural connection that E.T. and Elliot form. It’s akin to what identical twins are supposed to have according to parapsychologists. The connection of their emotional and physical states leads first to some very comedic moments with Elliot sharing E.T.’s drunkenness and also the magical mimicry of the John Wayne film. Later on it leads to some of the most emotionally wrenching scenes where E.T. and Elliot are sharing an illness. Everything is so beautifully set up in this film that you might even stop and consider, “Hey, didn’t that come out of nowhere?” but upon examining the film you’ll find there really are no holes in the narrative. An example of this being the bike flying one of the most brilliant moments ever recorded on film. It still catches me off guard but it was set up when E.T. levitated the balls in the kid’s room to demonstrate where he came from.
To measure a film’s impact it is probably best to look at landscape of the entertainment industry a few years later as opposed to just looking at initial box office returns. In both regards E.T.’s impact was enormous. There was a cheap copy-cat film a couple of years later called Mac and Me along with a very successful television series that took a different angle called ALF. Even scenes in E.T. had an impact, for example, the anti-dissection episode is now another staple in the sitcom book of ideas. The reason that this film epitomized Spielberg so well is not the emotional intensity although that has a lot to do with it and it’s most definitely not the fact that there are aliens involved. What makes it such a trademark in my mind is that it is such a resounding success.
This film is also timeless, it will never, ever, ever seem dated no matter how much magic computers can conjure up you’ll never be able to put aside a story as involving and touching as this one, it’s a classic and it’s quite hard to imagine someone making a film this beautiful, one of the best films ever made.