E.T. is Jaws inverted. They both involve invasions of small communities by an alien entity. In one, the invasion disrupts the community until authority accedes, and takes control of the situation. In the other, the invasion becomes welcome, until the invasive surveillance state intrudes and disrupts his benevolence.
Both were, of course, directed by Steven Spielberg. Jaws was his first major feature film. E.T. formed the second of the one-two punch with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, after the disappointment of 1941, solidified Spielberg’s place as the dean of commercial Hollywood filmmakers. And both contain the hallmarks of Spielberg’s filmmaking personality. Raiders is nostalgic spectacle with an eye towards the past. E.T. is a special effects extravaganza with a deep emotional core (almost, but not quite dripping into sentimentality) that displays the filmmaker’s deep connection to middle class life.
The opening scenes of E.T. could come from a science-fiction horror movie, but from the inverse perspective. We open with an alien ship on a California hill. But the aliens are benign. It’s the response to them that is menacing: faceless government agents making messes and stomping through the forests paths the aliens have smoothly moved through.
They do chase the aliens off, leaving one of their own behind. He seeks shelter and ends up in the toolshed of Elliot (Henry Thomas.) Elliot is the middle child of a divorcee (Dee Wallace). Being a middle child, he’s not the responsible older one nor the cute little one, and so everyone assumes his story about a goblin in the shed is just attention-seeking.
But he eventually draws the goblin into the house, this odd brown little man. He then introduces it to his siblings. E.T. is essentially a children’s movie, but it makes itself so in a more clever way than is initially apparent. For the first two-thirds of the film, the only adult face that is seen is Dee Wallace’s. There are other adult characters, but their faces are not seen because they do not truly penetrate the child’s world. Elliot’s mom is an integral part of his life, no other adult is.
E.T. has a connection with Elliot. How it forms and what it means is unspoken, but it becomes clear when E.T.’s Coors drinking makes Elliot drunk at school. But the lack of an explicit connection is part of the film’s intrinsic respect for the intelligence of its audience, even assuming the audience will be children.
There are no hushed speeches about how Elliot and E.T. are linked. There’s no surprised dialogue when E.T. raises a dying plant to its fullest, and no shouts when that plant, and E.T., start to die. There’s an intrinsic assumption (maybe mistaken today) that the people watching the film are paying attention.
As a special effects film, it is “dated”. Though to any keen observer, every film is “dated” because there are visual cues in every frame for when the film was made. But the notion of “dated”ness indicates that the visual sophistication of the special effects have been surpassed.
And, despite me being an antiquarian snob, I must admit watching the E.T.’s wobbling about makes them look a little silly. But the interaction between the obvious puppet and the child actors dispels the obvious fakery. The audience believes in the E.T. character because it has a heart, and you can feel it.
The reality of the suburban world around the child characters makes their interactions with their alien invader all the more authentic. E.T. was one of the films in regular rotation on my VCR. I’d caught the emotional impact, but I couldn’t appreciate the artistic achievement at the time.
Spielberg creates a child’s world around an alien invasion story. Adults would be worried about contamination and conquest. Kids are simply scared their parents might find out. It’s not for nothing the first adults we see in the film are those invading Elliot’s household, dressed in what looks like astronaut gear. The government, the authorities, are the real invaders. The first adult face we see is Peter Coyote, whose character is never given a name. He assures Elliot that he is just like him, and wants what’s best for E.T. But he sits mute and helpless as the alien apparently dies.
The special effects do not look like modern CGI. The alien costume looks like some dude is fidgeting under duress inside it. The famous flying bicycle scenes do not integrate as well as modern Marvel Iron Man suits and whatnot. I do not care. There’s magic in this movie, just as much as when I saw it as a kid in the ’80s.
There’s also filmmaking know-how. Spielberg knows how to use the foreground space of his camera, editing, and jump cuts. The shots of Elliot going to the apparently haunted tool shed look like they were cut out from a story book. E.T.’s a masterpiece, which at once looks its age and hasn’t aged a day.
E.T. has been released on Blu-ray by Universal. The release contains a Blu-ray, DVD, and a digital code. There’s no information to indicate that this is a new transfer of the film. This 40th Anniversary Bonus edition include a pair of new extras: “40 Years of E.T.” (20 min), interviews with fans of the film like J.J. Abrams and Ethan Kline, and “TCM Classic Film Festival: An Evening with Steven Spielberg” (28 min).
Archive extras include “The E.T. Journals” (54 min), composed mostly of original behind-the-scenes footage; Deleted Scenes (4 min); “Steven Spielberg & E.T.” (13 min), an interview with the director; “A Look Back” (38 min), an archive featurette from the 20th anniversary DVD; “The Evolution and Creation of E.T.” (50 min), another documentary from the previous DVD; “The E.T. Reunion” (18 min): a round-up with Spielberg, Thomas, MacNaughton, Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, and Kathleen Kennedy; “The 20th Anniversary Premiere” (18 min): a featurette about composer John Williams performing the film’s score; “The Music of E.T.” (10 min) an interview with Williams; and photos and trailers.