Look to the skies!
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an enjoyable film for the whole family. But under its charming story of a boy and his alien is a story of loss, abandonment, and anxiety that goes deeper than normal sci-fi films. It is an indelible film from the 80s, set in the 80s, but about the future.
This trailer plays by all the rules of the time. You never get to see the alien and come away with only a vague sense of the plot. Apparently an alien gets left on the planet by his spaceship when some hunters or soldiers see the lights. He is then hiding with a young boy that he has befriended until a group of soldiers in hazmat suits comes to the house.It is the next film by Steven Spielberg. The trailer also reminds audiences of Spielberg’s previous films such as, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It doesn’t appear to be a scary alien considering there’s a young boy as a protagonist.
The Fiction of The Film
A group of alien botanists are collecting samples at night in a forest on Earth. They sense something is amiss and return to their ship and depart; all except for one lone creature who has strayed too far. A group of trucks with men and flashlights, and even one with keys on his belt, aggressively search the woods for any sign of the creatures. The lone alien hides in the grasses and makes his way into a local neighborhood.
At one of the suburban homes, a group of boys are playing Dungeons and Dragons. Elliott (Henry Thomas) wants to join in, but his brother Mike (Robert MacNaughton) makes him go get the pizza from the delivery driver instead. Returning to the house, Elliott hears something. Thinking it’s the family dog, he checks out the shed in the backyard by throwing a baseball into it. The ball rolls back on its own and the creature flees.
Elliott tries to convince his mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), that he saw something, but when she and the other boys go look there’s nothing. Using candy, Elliott manages to lure it back to his house where he hides the creature in his closet before falling asleep. He feigns being ill to stay home and “play” with the creature. He shows the alien, who he’s nicknamed E.T. (for extra-terrestrial) to his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and Mike.
E.T. uses telekinesis to levitate some balls of clay, symbolizing his planetary system, while the kids show him books, and maps explaining where they are. When Elliott goes to school, E.T. wanders around the house, and discovers beer in the fridge, which he drinks. An empathetic bond between alien and boy causes Elliott to behave as if drunk causing his mom to come get him. When he arrives at home he discovers E.T. has picked up rudimentary english from watching television plus an idea to create a signaling device to communicate with his ship.
On Halloween, the boys dress E.T. up like a ghost to sneak him out of the house and into the woods where he and Elliott set up the device. Elliott returns home the next morning feeling ill, without the alien. Mike goes out looking for E.T. and finds him near dead in a culvert. When he returns home a number of unmarked cars and vans descend upon the house, with men in spacesuits–scaring everyone. They are led by Keys (Peter Coyote), the same man from the woods.
The scientists poke and prod the alien, all while Elliott screams for them to stop. The boy continues to get sicker, suffering the same fate as E.T. through their bond. Suddenly the link is severed and E.T. dies causing Elliott much grief. But he soon returns to life, re-energized that his compatriots have heard the signal and returned. Elliott and Mike steal the van with the “dead” body of E.T. in it, enlisting their friends on bikes to help. The boys all evade the government agents and return E.T. to the woods to leave on his spaceship. He asks Elliott to come, and Elliott asks him to stay. The two understand that they must part and E.T. says goodbye to the family, reminding Elliott that he’ll be “right here,” pointing to Elliott’s heart.
“E.T. phone home.” – E.T.
History in the Making
Welcome to the 100th film reviewed by Sci-Fi Saturdays, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.This series has been focusing on iconic, fun, and genre-defining science-fiction films from 1950 to the present, and E.T. certainly fits that mold. It’s hard to believe it now, but this was only Steven Spielberg’s sixth directorial film, and his second science-fiction film after Close Encounters of The Third Kind. It was also the third Best Director nomination for the young director, who was batting .500 on his nominations–more on the films accolades shortly. E.T. cemented Spielberg as a top-notch director that could make successful and entertaining films which would connect with audiences worldwide (as if this wasn’t already known from his previous work). He used this power to get the films made that he wanted to see, producing the ones that he chose not to direct.
As a return to sci-fi for Spielberg, E.T. seems like a much more focused version of Close Encounters; fine-tuning the film thematically and special-effects-wise. It was based on a story by Spielberg and written by Melissa Matheson, who’s writing credits also include the Spielberg segment of Twilight Zone The Movie (1983), The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), and Kundun (1997), as well as being Harrison Ford’s wife for over 20 years. This was a prominent step in Hollywood for female writers on blockbuster films. There were certainly female screenwriters in the business prior to this, but how many had worked on the major blockbusters of the last 10 years, let alone be nominated for an Academy Award? Besides Best Original Screenplay, E.T. was nominated for 8 other awards including Cinematography, Film Editing, and Picture, which it lost to David Attenborough’s Gandhi. It did take home four Oscars for Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects, and John Williams amazing Original Score (and his 4th Oscar after Star Wars, Jaws, and Fiddler on the Roof). That’s pretty incredible for a science-fiction film blockbuster. Still, not quite the level of Star Wars’ 10 nominations and 6 wins, but incredible nonetheless.
But by far the biggest impact the film made was at the box office. Award winning films did not always equate to the most popular films. And the most popular films of the late 70s and early 80s were often not award worthy material. Here, the magical formula was achieved and E.T. equated to box office gold, with a whopping 16 weeks as the number one film. Sixteen weeks in theaters. That’s unheard of in today’s market. It soon surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time and maintained the record for 11 more years until Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) debuted. It’s continued media sales for home video and other merchandise topped the charts as well. Perhaps the only place it faltered was in the ill-fated Atari 2600 video game adaptation, which is often considered the worst video game of all time.
Most genre work to date had cast humans in the roles of aliens. That means anthropoidal creatures like Star Wars’ Chewbacca, or the apes in The Planet of the Apes. Occasionally the costume might be crafted in a way, using special effects and other tricks, to hide this fact, such as the Daleks in Doctor Who, or the xenomorph in Alien. And sometimes a puppet would be used. Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back is the best modern example of using a puppet to create a being that appears to be alive and can interact with other actors and its environment. That is, until E.T. showed up. E.T. was a much more complex puppet than Yoda, with more cables and wires moving the various bladders and appendages. But sometimes E.T. was a costume for a dwarf to wear, or in at least one case a young boy with no legs that could walk on his hands. The 80s were the beginning of new advancements in special effects that would be able to successfully create non-humanoid characters that could perform and emote, rather than just be a “thing.”
Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial plays on the wonderment of alien visitation, but this time instead of focusing on a group of people and the strange aliens, it focuses on a single boy and a single alien. Spielberg’s take on what it would mean to be visited by aliens was again about the uplifting of the human race and the potential benefit to mankind from the encounter. His idea is not that vicious monsters come to Earth for our women, or that creatures want to subjugate or kill us for reasons unknown. His aliens are peaceful botanists that are collecting samples, and like so many families that are in a hurry to leave for Paris, accidentally forget one of their own. E.T. is left alone on a strange planet with humans that want to kill him (at worst), or keep and study him (at best). In this film, people are the monsters.
And not just people are monsters, but the United States government. In a departure from the standard alien-type of plot where the non-humanoid is the monster (see almost any film about space aliens, Invaders From Mars, The Day of the Triffids, or Alien are all examples), this alien is not belligerent at all. It is only looking to survive and eventually leave. The film casts adults in a role of being the scarier threat by using some very subtle cinematography. Spielberg had the film shot from a lower height, approximately the eye height of Elliott and E.T., if not lower, to put the audience at their level, which helps identify with the characters. Next, other than Mary–the mother–no other adult’s face is shown until Keys is revealed 80 minutes into the movie. All the government agents are either in shadow, backlit, or filmed from the shoulders down. This also includes Elliott’s teacher. The lack of showing their faces keeps the audience from forming an attachment with them and sets them up as opposing Elliott and his friends. The fact that the government plays such a part in the film was the continued trend of faceless corporations or fascist-like governments opposing the protagonists. Close Encounters set up a similar theme, making the government culpable in duping citizens. But also films like The Day of the Dolphin, Night of the Comet, and Scanners are examples of this trend becoming more prevalent in cinema in the 70s and 80s.
The best sci-fi films (and maybe the best movies in general) hold up a mirror to the audience and show them the highs and lows of being human. E.T. plays off some pretty strong themes for a film that is designed as a work for younger audiences. Themes of loneliness, grief, and oppression are all evident in the struggles of both E.T. as well as Elliott. Seeming like a slice of life from the 80s, with the kids hanging out playing D&D, riding their bikes, or falling in love, the film also deals with the realities of that era. Gone was the idea that families in films were perfect. This was not The Brady Bunch, or even Happy Days. Divorce was real. Families fought. And sometimes it was hard for the single parent to work things out. Kramer vs Kramer (1979) was one of the first mainstream films to address this fact. Spielberg really captures the chaos of family life with the overlapping dialogue and cacophony that he shows in the group scenes, much as he did with the Neary family Close Encounters.
Elliott is trying to keep it together, but he doesn’t really understand what has gone on. He knows that his Dad is not there and that upsets him. Michael picks on him, or criticizes him, constantly for not understanding what his mother is going through. “Why don’t you grow up? Think how other people feel for a change,” shouts Michael at Elliott when the younger boy says something less than thoughtful in front of Mary. A strange sentiment, considering that Elliott is the most thoughtful and feeling character in the film. Elliott has a poster in his wall saying “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” He decides to free all the frogs in the biology lab so they won’t get hurt. And of course, he adopts a space alien like a lost puppy. The filmmakers take this to an extreme ideal by having Elliott and E.T. share an empathetic bond. What one feels, so does the other. This compassion, and connectedness, is just the cure to move both characters out of their lonely states and start healing.
The film also provides a commentary of suburbia. In what appears to have been a planned release, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial came out one week after the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist. Both films look like they exist in the same neighborhood, and in fact, replicate the feeling of a number of neighborhoods from 1982. While E.T. focused on the wonder and enlightenment of suburbia, Poltergeist looked and the scary aspects of the cookie cutter conformity. Elliott is the protagonist that discovers an alien and takes the audience on a heartfelt, wondrous, and sometimes anxiety inducing rollercoaster ride protecting this “immigrant” from the forces that be, reuniting it with its fellow travelers. On the flip side, Carol Ann is a victim of, at best, unscrupulous real estate contractors that took shortcuts on the building of the homes, and at worst, an evil hell mouth that spawned in her closet. Both homes look the same from the outside, but the stories inside are drastically different. Both things were true of suburbia in the 80s. The beige homogenous exteriors of modern life all hide different sorts of secrets.
The Science in The Fiction
As with many of Spielberg’s films, the director attempts to inject as much reality and authenticity into his work, even in fantastical situations such as this one. Much work was done crafting ideas and backstories on the alien race of botanists, even if that is not something that is shared in the final film. These were not alien soldiers on a warship. They were peaceful scientists cataloging the flora of planets in the galaxy. A simple shot of the inside of the ship at the beginning of the film shows a number of these alien plants that have been collected in the travels of this one ship. It helps speak to the larger theme of isolation and vulnerability when the ship leaves E.T., showing that the culture is not dangerous, at least in the standard sense.
The beings also have a complex biology that works differently than humans and earthbound creatures. The audience is not meant to understand the nature of the weird heartlight, which acts as a shared warning system between the various members of the ship crew, or just exactly how E.T. is able to make the plant grow or heal Elliott’s cut finger. Nor is his telekinesis or his empathy link explained. The alien-ness of the creature speaks enough for these explanations to not matter. In this case, it’s more about the connection between the boy and the alien that matter and not how that connection works.
The film also depicts some cautious scientists and government workers. The agencies that descend on the house all wear bio and hazmat suits, protecting themselves against any potential space germ that the alien may carry. These are good precautions of course, as The Andromeda Strain illustrated. Germs or microbes from outer space, if they ever come to Earth, may be a dangerous pathogen for humans. Hence, the over abundance of caution. And also the suited and faceless men provide more nightmare fuel for a paranoid family that is being invaded in their own home.
The Final Frontier
E.T. has had several re-releases over the last almost-40 years, with the most controversial one being in 2002. Much like his friend George Lucas’ re-release of the Star Wars Trilogy in 1997 with additional footage and digitally edited scenes, Spielberg too made changes to E.T. to fix problems he perceived in his original cut. These changes include benign changes of additionally shot footage that was restored, digitally recreated E.T. creatures–to make up for the shortcomings of 1982 special effects technology, and the most talked about: the replacement of shotguns in the police hands with walkie-talkies. This perceived political correctness to the film was looked on by many as a destruction of a piece of film history, which exists for good or ill. The original cut of the film still exists for people to watch and make the choice about which version they like best.
E.T. would also inspire numerous filmmakers and entertainers. Michael Jackson was a huge fan and even contributed his narration to an audio book of the film. Singer Neil Diamond released an album later in 1982 entitled Heartlight, which featured a single by the same name inspired by the film. The remainder of the 80s were replete with other tales of benign aliens looking to explore and be at peace with humanity. These include films like Starman, Mac & Me (more of an E.T. rip-off than the others), Cocoon, and Explorers. Spielberg would also go on to make some other blockbuster sci-fi films, starting with 1993s Jurassic Park. His future slate of titles also includes the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the dystopian Minority Report, and a remake of The War of the Worlds.
If there was any doubt that science fiction was here to stay as both popular entertainment and critical film, one only needs to look at June 1982 as an example of peak sci-fi. Just prior to this explosion was the US release of The Road Warrior in May. Then in June there was at least one sci-fi film per week and Sci-Fi Saturdays is looking at most of them. June 4th had Star Trek II, which was featured last week. June 11th was E.T., followed by the sci-fi adjacent Firefox on June 18th. And finally on June 25th was Blade Runner, Megaforce and The Thing. The rest of the year had other great films too, including Tron, The Beastmaster, Pink Floyd: The Wall, 48 Hrs., and The Dark Crystal! What a great time for movies!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.