More than any of the Steven Spielberg's other films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial depends on a childlike sense of wonder. The first of the director's works to predominantly feature a child in a major role, E.T. could be seen as a prequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, albeit in a far-out sense. In essence, the film is Close Encounters as told from the perspective of a child, and E.T. may be the only companion piece to present itself as a quasi-prequel by way of the infancy of the camera itself.
Spielberg uses scores of low-angle shots to capture the mise-en-scène, imbuing the early scenes, of the massive mother ship and a group of agents (always framed in such a way to mask their faces), with the heightened of the unknown, the unfathomable. Both the child protagonist and the highly evolved alien are small, and though only one comes from another planet, Earth holds crushing mysteries and exaggerated evils that neither can fully comprehend. I can think of no other Spielberg movie that makes such extraordinary use of light, light that constantly seeps into rooms, light that makes interiors seem stifling and cramped, dreaded light that threatens to expose the benign alien to the forces that which to torture and experiment upon him.
But this perspective also captures the flip-side of the unknown and incomprehensible, that of eye-popping wonder. The stranded alien has just the right amount of intelligence (or, more importantly, the ability to express that intelligence), neither a simpering idiot nor so advanced that you sit there waiting for him to telepathically crush his tormentors into flesh cubes. E.T. has telepathic powers and can learn language rapidly, but he's also been dumped in unfamiliar territory, and the customs and trinkets of this world delight and scare him as they do a child. With only a human kid to guide him, E.T. never travels to the world's monuments, never mulls over the Grand Canyon or the Parthenon or considers the creative glory Renaissance or the wanton waste of the Crusades. He doesn't need to; beer, TV and Reese's Pieces contain enough mystery.
Even the use of light can morph from the ominous quality of flashlights and headlights and blazing suns to something altogether more gorgeous. The two most memorable shots of the film involve light: Spielberg contrasts the oppressive sun that made Elliott's house so lived in yet so uncomfortable with the glow in E.T.'s finger when he heals injured (even dead) animate objects. The microcosmic sun in E.T.'s finger reminds us that, for the discomfort our closest star creates on the frame, the sun is still a giver of life, just one of billions like it yet the alpha and omega of this planet's ability to survive. Naturally, if one of the best shots places an entire sun in a fingerprint, then the other should display the moon, no? There are moments, numerous moments, of E.T. that do not hold up outside of childhood (especially in the ludicrous special edition made in 2002, but more on that later), but its most parodied scene, of Elliott and E.T. flying a bike over an image of the Moon simply too large to exist without causing our oceans to destroy every coastline in the world, works every time.
Spielberg points to E.T. as sort of the Rosetta Stone of his career, the one film that contains the elements to unlock the rest, and that's largely true. Both Elliott and, in a sense, E.T. suffer from the absence of parents. Elliott's father has divorced his mother, something the boy does not fully comprehend even as it impacts his emotional vulnerability; during a dinner near the beginning, Elliott tries to tell his mother of the creature he saw out in their tool shed, and when she suggests he call his father, Elliott obliviously mentions that his father is in Mexico with his new lover, unaware of the pain that statement causes his mother. Elliott's mother tries her hardest to take care of her three children, but the husband's departure places the onus of providing for those children entirely on her shoulders, and Mary spends most of the film stopping in at the house just long enough to get ready to leave again to work. E.T., inadvertently left on Earth when his ship fled from the government agents, has also been left to grow up without a guiding, knowing influence in a threatening world (when Elliott and his brother Mike eventually escape with E.T., they have no idea where to drive; "I don't know streets! Mom always drives me!" the boy screams to his older brother). Ultimately, the mind link E.T. and Elliott share takes on a special resonance when the alien does return with his family at the end, as the alien who beckons E.T. back aboard the ship could most easily be seen as the extra-terrestrial's father, and perhaps Elliott will feel what it's like to have a dad again through him. Probably not, though, but the beauty of E.T. is that, by the end, Elliott no longer needs a father figure to guide him.
Just as no other Spielberg film has so openly dealt with his most personal themes of distant fathers and finding one's way through adolescence, so too are the good and bad aspects of Spielberg's cinema most blatantly on display. The sentimentality is often affecting but occasionally cloying, shamelessly ripping at the heartstrings in its effort to please. Many of the comic interludes are terrific, especially the mash-up between E.T. getting drunk at home and telepathically transferring his intoxication onto Elliott in a science class, but too many overplay the Precocious Child card, either with Elliott himself or his toddler sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). There are also numerous examples of the toxic professional influence of Spielberg's friend, George Lucas, as Spielberg packs E.T. with so much Star Wars merchandise that the film too often feels like an advertisement for Lucas' opus. I'm sure these references got chuckles at the time, and I imagine that, as the film plays to children, the inclusion of toys and quotes from the most wonder-filled franchise in movie history likely hooked kids who had all the same action figures and dressed up like Yoda on Halloween. But an adult eye can see only dangerous cross-pollination, the kind that would ultimately seep into their collaborative projects and dilute them.
Of course, the biggest weakness of E.T. can only be seen in retrospect, or more specifically in contemporary context with the re-edited version the director released back in 2002. In a completely misguided attempt to somehow make the film more kid-friendly -- for God's sake, Steven, it's a film that's only friendly to kids -- Spielberg edited out guns used by authorities to threaten the young characters as per the adult Barrymore's objection to guns. In their stead, the director placed walkie-talkies in the hands of police officers, thus turning them from the menacing force they are meant to be into overgrown children who might as well be playing Cowboys and Indians and making pew-pew noises to signify shooting. Frankly, however, the greatest offense involves the clumsy addition of digital effects for E.T. The digital touch-ups of Close Encounters are tasteful and only intermittently obvious, but the digital facial movements jar with Carlo Rambaldi's original puppet work. In fairness, even that advanced puppet had its drawbacks, but E.T. looks like a silent comedian with this new "overacting." This example of re-editing may be the most visible example of the negative impact of Lucas and Spielberg's friendship on Spielberg's professional decisions, as one imagines that the director got the idea to unnecessarily muck with things because his buddy got away with it back in '97.
I always felt that the technological hindrances in the puppet worked well within the everyday marvel that E.T. elicits. Sure, the model's not perfect, but it still astonishes, just as TV fascinates E.T. That's E.T.'s greatest strength, one that endures long after I unfortunately outgrew some of the movie's other pleasures. Spielberg, always in love with the old kids' stories and Disney films, clearly bases the story on Peter Pan, a connection plainly visible even without the scene of Mary reading the book to Gertie. Peter Pan concerns a child dumped into a fantastical world that he explores with other kids. But Neverland cannot sustain its hero, who longs for true emotional connection with someone, just as Earth cannot physically sustain this alien (setting up an interesting parallel for Spielberg's adaptation of War of the Worlds years later). For all of E.T.'s flaws, the degree to which the director commits to reworking such classic children's tales shows a man not seeking to capitalize on the box-office draw of family movies -- though E.T. did become the highest grossing film of all time upon release, the second of three of the director's films to hold that distinction at some point -- but genuinely tapped into a sense of eternal childhood. That has its downsides, chiefly a stunted emotional complexity that can be seen here, but the earnestness it engenders keeps me coming back to Spielberg longer after I set aside childish things.
Writing about E.T. presents a challenge for me, because I must acknowledge that it is one of the finest films a child could watch. However, I am no longer a child, nor do I have one of my own to whom I could pass the film down. If I ever do have a child of my own, I shall certainly show this to him or her, and I imagine the joy I took from E.T. as a kid will return as I watch it impart its joy on the next generation. Right now, though, I feel the same way I do when I go to a Renaissance Festival: no longer young enough to marvel at the jousts, not broken down enough by age and the world to light up at seeing all of God's creatures greasily smoked and impaled on a stick for easy munching. For every scene that holds up brilliantly to these post-pubescent eyes, another sags, weighed down by a line reading that ventures too far into the screaming territory of high-pitched indignity or so-on-the-nose-the-glasses-just-slipped-off tidbits involving Elliott's home life or the importance of accepting life's mysteries and growing to love them. Still, this negativity stems from my own position in life, not the film's issues. Only Steven Spielberg could make a film where shadowy adults ruthlessly chase down an alien, only to paint them as eager and empathetic when they finally put the creature on their operating table, and only Spielberg could get away with it. Huh, this film really does epitomize him.