By Marc S. Sanders

It’s easy to give credit to a magnificent script by Melissa Mathison when talking about E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  However, director Steven Spielberg clearly invented tricks of his own off her page.  Thus, E.T. strikes a chord with me on a very personal level. 

While my parents never separated or divorced, in my adolescent years I did not have any kind of relationship with my father.  He left for work at 4:30AM and would not come home until nine at night.  He worked Saturdays as well.  I hardly saw him.  He hardly conversed with me.  One time, later on in life, he explained to me that he just never knew how to connect with a child.  It was only then that I understood why his response of “Oh wow!” amazement seemed so fake when I showed him how the wings pop off of my Star Wars TIE Fighter.

Mom was the constant in my life with regular Saturday trips to Burger King, and the comic book and toy stores, while singing along to Barry Manilow in the car.  The adults I viewed in my childhood were mom and my grandmother, Helen.  So, I understand why Steven Spielberg opts to only include Mary (Dee Wallace), the one adult in full focus through most of his picture.  Mary has recently separated from her husband leaving her to tend to their three children. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is the youngest. Michael (Robert MacNaughton) is eldest.  Elliot (Henry Thomas) is the middle child and main character of the story.  These kids have no other important influence in their lives except their mom and maybe Michael’s buddies.  Their father is only mentioned to be vacationing in Mexico with his new girlfriend, but never seen.

After an alien ship departs Earth while looking for plant life in a California forest, one of the passengers is sadly left behind.  Through a series of suspenseful moments, Elliot welcomes the stranger from a strange world into the comfort of his room full of toys and games.  A connection is immediately made of trust and friendship, but on a science fiction level, there is also psychic bond.  Somehow, Elliot and E.T. share one another’s thoughts and can feel what the other feels.  In a humorous moment, E.T. gets drunk on beer while being left at home alone.  This leads to disruptions caused by Elliot during a frog dissection scene in science class.  Even deeper though is that E.T.’s biological make up doesn’t appear to be suitable for a long stay on Earth.  As E.T. gets more and more ill, so does Elliot.  It is up to him and his siblings to help their new friend “phone home” so he can be rescued. 

The interference in all of this are the government officials who are surveying the suburban neighborhood for clues on E.T.’s whereabouts.  Wisely, and because Mathison’s story is told primarily through the perspective of children, Spielberg shows these men from the waist down.  After all, if Elliot and the others can’t identify with these adults, why is it necessary to show their faces? (In Jaws, the townsfolk can’t identify with the man-eating instincts of a great white shark.  So, why is it necessary to show the animal?)  One adult in particular is a man who has a keychain clipped to his waist.  The film credits the character simply as “Keys” (Peter Coyote).  Only when the safety of Elliot, E.T. and the family are intruded upon in their home, does Spielberg show the faces of these scientists and G-men.  Still, most of them are displayed with intimidating radiation suits and masks on.  If they absolutely have to be shown, then they are going to look more obscure and threatening then any alien from outer space.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial will always remain as of one Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievements.  That’s saying quite a lot considering his other films like the Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List, Jaws and Saving Private Ryan.  What sets this picture apart from those others is the gamut of emotions it sends to the generations of audiences that continue to watch the movie over and over again.  It’s very funny at times.  It’s also very scary, and it can be very sad as well.  At one point, Elliot has to explain why a daring escape for E.T. must occur because “This is reality, Greg!”  Of course it is, no adult would ever believe what they’re involved in.  It takes a child to comprehend this wonderment.  The unknown is frightening as well.  What exactly is leaving footprints behind in the shed?  Is it a goblin?  Also, why are frightening looking figures with helmets and astronaut suits barging out of bright light into every doorway of their home?  As well, how does someone from another place adapt to a foreign environment of stuffed animals, flowers, and what’s on T.V. or in the refrigerator?  In two hours time, Spielberg answers for all of these dynamics. You develop a kinship with not just E.T., the cinematic creation, but also the kids who snap at each other and sometimes affectionately curse and tease one another. 

You also feel the sadness of a mother who is trying her best to uphold a home while hiding a sense of abandonment herself.  E.T. was left behind, but so was Mary.  Dee Wallace provides an exceptionally tear-jerking experience on Halloween night.  The following morning, she is distraught to find a missing Elliot finally return home with a high fever.  I see my mother in that scene each time I watch it.  Now that my mom is gone, it’s even more meaningful.

Spielberg’s film also works beautifully with an original score from John Williams.  Williams’ music speaks a language for the characters of the film.  Sometimes, his orchestration is foreboding as someone unseen lurks nearby.  Other times, it soars as the adventure kicks into gear with an outstanding bicycle escape from the government.  Williams also relaxes the pulse of the audience for the tender moments while a friendship of love and support is being built.  Watch how the score enhances the fantasy when E.T.’s fingertip glows and heals a cut on Elliot’s hand.  Williams hits a note that is in sync with Henry Thomas’ amazement.  The best sample of Spielberg’s craft blending well with Williams’ work is when Elliot’s bicycle soars into the sky with E.T. as a passenger.  As they ride across the backdrop of a full moon midnight clear, this movie provides one of the greatest shots in film history.  If there was ever a reason to prove why an original score is so necessary in film, it’s important to use E.T. as an example.

Steven Spielberg was especially sensitive when making E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  I saw an interview with him where he decided that once E.T. departs the children of the story, the actors themselves would never see him again.  He insisted on that with young Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas, and he warned them in advance.  Because he was steadfast in that decision, their performances were all the more genuine.  Their tears of love and sadness were kept authentic.   In one documentary, footage following the end of shooting with E.T. shows Barrymore completely distraught in the comfort of Spielberg’s arms.  Spielberg knows that everyone suffers loss.  It’s a rite of passage in life.  My first loss was my grandfather at age 9.  Imagine coming to the understanding for the very first time that someone you’ve grown close to will never be seen ever again. 

That’s the magic that Steven Spielberg possesses.  He can make anything feel real.  His fantasies and frights are true in nature.  Nothing appears ham-handed.  When watching a film from Spielberg, you’re enveloped in its environment.  What’s in front of you is what will terrify you or laugh with you or make you cry.  What you are seeing, and hearing will allow you to reminisce on a time in your life when you were scared or sad or happy or lonely.  Steven Spielberg might have used people from outer space in his films to tell us that we are not alone.  However, we are also not alone in our feelings.  Steven Spielberg reminds us that we all encounter these emotions at point or another and therefore, there’s nothing wrong with responding like any other human being would. 

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