It would be hard to argue against 'E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial' being Steven Spielberg’s best film, the one film that fulfills all the promise of the once wunderkind youngster whose childlike viewpoint of spectacle cinema resulted in a monumentally successful and influential career. Looking back, E.T. is a culmination of all of Steven Spielberg’s skills, the man firing on all cylinders, delivering a film so silly, corny, unhip and yet impossible not to be moved by.
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Robert McNaughton
By Alan Bacchus
The fact is E.T. represents the perfect storm of creative inspiration. It would seem everything in Steven Spielberg’s career had been leading to this point. The personal story of a young boy, burdened with the divorce of his parents, who finds solace in another forgotten soul - an alien botanist accidentally left on Earth by his extra terrestrial colleagues - is told with a lean and energetic directorial style and filled with beautiful backlights, elegant camera moves, naturalistic comedy and magic realist wonder.
To say Spielberg doesn’t emphatically push his emotional buttons would be denying the inherent joys of this picture and its whole purpose of being. Spielberg, who like his idol Alfred Hitchcock always made ‘point of view’ a conscious thematic touchstone, is more explicit with this than in any of his previous films. Spielberg views the world through a child’s eyes. It's not only his camera placement, as he composes his adult actors at the waist and never shows their faces, but the dramatic treatment of the story. This was the first film of the adults vs. kids theme of '80s family cinema, and at every turn Spielberg presents the world from the mindset of the children. Whether it’s the childlike logic of using Reese’s Pieces to make first contact with E.T., or camouflaging him amongst the various toy dolls in Elliot’s bedroom, Spielberg is remarkably consistent in tone.
There was also something marvelous about Spielberg’s dialogue in those days – a spark of naturalism not present in his movies today. And certainly the performances he gets from Henry Thomas, the precocious Drew Barrymore and the teenaged Robert McNaughton are one of a kind. Even a small role from C. Thomas Howell and his BMX cronies made an impact. And Allen Daviau’s cinematography and John Williams’ aggressive music score, as if directed by an energetic child with an expensive toy box, are amplified for maximum impact.
E.T. would not be made as well by Spielberg today. Think about how risky this venture is for a filmmaker at the height of his career: a story about a space alien who befriends a young boy going through the pains of a divorce, a film with no stars, hung on the performance of a 10-year-old and a goofy-looking rubber alien that doesn’t talk. And so in spite of its obstacles, E.T. hangs on the unique singular unabated vision of its director, free of the safety net of the older mature filmmaker he is today. Only the spark of Walt Disney in the 'Golden Age of Animation' can compare.
Sadly, there was a palpable shift in Spielberg’s career after this. He just wasn’t the same. There were two lesser Indiana Jones pictures later in the decade, a couple of admirable but equally flawed ‘mature’ films in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun and a failed return to the awestruck magic realism in Hook. And although Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and his other varied films of the 2000s were well crafted, exciting in parts, sometimes moving, and critically and commercially successful, he was never the same.
The spark in Spielberg had gone out after E.T.. This is not uncommon with artists and filmmakers. Francis Coppola’s career can easily be defined as before Apocalypse Now and after. For Spielberg the shift was palpable, as if he exhausted all of his creative energies into E.T., the end of one phase of his career and the beginning of another.
E.T. is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment. It's chock full of extras, including those from the 20th Anniversary Edition. But thankfully, aside from a digital restoration in picture and sound, the film edit has reverted back to its 1982 state. Excised are the deleted scenes inserted into the special edition from 2002. Gone are the CGI E.T. and those pesky 'walkie talkies' that digitally replaced the guns from the original version. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for coming to your senses.