Monday, November 14, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.5: Steven Spielberg's E.T.

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today’s entry is Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Grade: 99 (A)

After Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg considered a number of eventually abandoned projects. Two stand out: one, a sci-fi film called Night Skies, would feature a family being terrorized by aliens after befriending a kind one; the other, Growing Up, would be a small, personal film inspired by Spielberg’s childhood. Night Skies was split into two films. The more horrific moments became Poltergeist, the aliens replaced by ghosts. The sweeter half was combined with Spielberg’s autobiographical film. The result, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, is the director’s most personal film, and his greatest, a celebration of friendship that doubles as the greatest film ever made about childhood.

Elliott (Henry Thomas) is a ten-year-old boy. He has a sixteen-year-old brother, Michael (Robert McNaughton), and a five-year-old sister, Gertie (a young Drew Barrymore). The three children live with their mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), who has recently divorced her husband. The three live in a loving but uneasy environment, unsure of how to act around their mother sometimes. Michael often teases Elliott and Gertie, as older brothers are wont to do, but no more than most siblings. Elliott is a lonely child who often feels caught in the middle of his sister, who needs more of his mother’s attention, and his brother, who would rather spend time with his friends.

One night Elliott finds a strange creature with huge eyes, a glowing heart, and magical healing powers. Initially frightened, he eventually brings it back to his house. Elliott and his siblings befriend the alien, nicknamed “E.T.”, and have carefree moments of humor and bonding with it. When it learns to communicate with them, it tells them that it was left behind by its ship and friends, and that it needs to go home. The creature and Elliott develop a psychic bond of sorts: it feels what he feels, and likewise. When the two grow ill, the children help E.T. build a device to communicate with its kind and “phone home” in order to leave. But things grow complicated as their mother learns of E.T.’s existence and as government workers (led by Peter Coyote) close in on E.T.’s location.

E.T. is full of suspense, humor, wonder, and awe. Spielberg’s mastery of Old Hollywood techniques is in full effect here. His Hitchcockian instincts make the most thrilling sequences (particularly the film’s famous bicycle chase near the end) as exciting as anything ol’ Hitch ever dreamed up; the early, frightening scenes of people stalking E.T., combined with how little we see of E.T. at the beginning, borrow from Hitchcock as well. The Howard Hawks/David Lean style “men on an adventure” plotline comes into play as well, only this time Spielberg taps into the feeling of children re-enacting their favorite adventures. The film’s sense of imagination and joy is as vivid as anything in the best Disney films, but the vision is pure Spielberg. The director never talks down to the audience (Roger Ebert applauded Spielberg’s decision not to subtitle any alien communication or spell out everything E.T. does). He instead presents his greatest imaginations and lets the audience take it from there.

Disney’s Peter Pan (or any iteration of the story, really) is a major influence on E.T. (the mother reads the story to Gertie as E.T. and Elliott overhear). Both stories involve three highly imaginative siblings going on a real adventure. Both show how lonely and confusing childhood can sometimes be. Both feature a rag tag group of children coming together to overcome adversity. Both feature a creature with magical powers. And both celebrate childhood, imagination, and fantasy. E.T. is most often tagged as a “science-fiction” film, but aside from the presence of an extra-terrestrial being, that label hardly applies. The film has the heart and soul of the greatest works of fantasy.

The film’s greatest appeal to childhood wonder is a sequence straight out of Peter Pan: E.T. dies on an operating table; the scientists couldn’t save him. Elliott tearfully bids goodbye to his friend and proclaims his love. Suddenly, E.T.’s heart begins to glow again. Elliott has saved E.T. with his love. Observant viewers will note that his mother’s earlier reading of Peter Pan highlighted the section in which the reader pleads for its child audience to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life. It is the same principle, one that Spielberg uses to great effect.

The classic Spielbergian mistrust of authority is present in E.T., but Spielberg’s most good-hearted film has no real villains. E.T. understands that children often fear what they don’t understand. Elliott doesn’t want to dissect a frog, and his compassion for the animal doesn’t take into regard his teacher’s point-of-view. Elliott later frees the class’ frogs in a hilarious scene in which he and E.T. grow drunk after E.T. drinks some of his mother’s beer.

This ties into something later: E.T. and Elliott fear the government agents that pursue the alien. These men don’t want to hurt E.T., but they don’t consider the effect their scientific curiosity has on him (similarly, Mary can’t see the alien until Elliott and Michael show her). It takes the heart of a child to save E.T. and bring him home. Spielberg’s purest vision is one of his great explorations of tolerance (a reoccurring theme from Close Encounters to Schindler’s List to Munich), and at the end of this one, everyone learns to love. This message could be saccharine in lesser hands; the key is Spielberg’s utter sincerity and refusal to spell his message out for everyone, resulting in a genuinely sweet movie.

One of Spielberg’s greatest strengths is his ability to work with child actors, from early films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to later works like Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and War of the Worlds. E.T. is the finest example of this. Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote aside, most of the cast is made up of young actors. Spielberg’s decision to film E.T. in chronological order (unusually difficult in most cases) caused the children to grow real, emotional attachments to the subject, resulting in believable performances from all (Barrymore’s later career was never as good). Henry Thomas is particularly natural as protagonist Elliott.

How is E.T. Spielberg’s most personal film? Spielberg grew up as a child of divorce, unsure of his place in the world. To escape the emotional trauma, Spielberg often played with imaginary friends. It’s no coincidence that Elliott and “E.T.” have similar names; this is Spielberg’s fantasy come to life. As an older boy, he was very protective of his mother and teased his younger sisters (similar to Michael). If Spielberg never writes an autobiography, E.T. would more than suffice. His decision to tell his story as a science-fiction combines his personal experience with his gift for making his imagination seem universal.

In lieu of a conclusion, I’m going to break from my usual choice to forego putting myself in the narrative. I could go on and on about E.T.: on its warm-hearted humor, its great sense of how children talk and see the world, and on its expert craftsmanship. I could incessantly rave about John Williams’ greatest score, a swooning, romantic, rhapsodic piece of pure cinematic joy and wonder. I could, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to share something.

E.T. isn’t just my pick for Spielberg’s best film. It is also, next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, my favorite film of all time. I share this not as a validation of my opinion (although I do strongly believe this is one of the greatest of all American films), nor as a way to put down Spielberg detractors (although they can all go to hell). At their best, Steven Spielberg’s films are exciting, wondrous, adventurous, and moving. I grew up watching Jaws, Jurassic Park, Hook, and the Indiana Jones films, but I’ve come to believe that E.T. is Spielberg’s clearest expression of the optimistic, big-hearted worldview that colors many of his finest films.

E.T. is as magical and lovely a film as I’ve ever seen, and it reminds me of why I go to the movies: to think and to feel. E.T. forces me to do both: to consider who I am, where I came from, how I got here, and where I’m going; and to feel as open about it as I can. My childhood is in E.T., as is my adolescence, and my young adulthood. I have no doubt that I’ll revisit the film for many years to come, and that I’ll share it with my children and my grandchildren. I don’t think it makes me a sap. This film is too good-hearted to dupe me, and too intelligent to need to. I can think of no better way to end than with Roger Ebert’s summation of his review: “This film made my heart glad.”

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