Article By: Dan Clark
Childhood should be a special time in all of our lives. Where we have yet to be ruined by the cynicism of our society, and our hopes and dreams reflect the purity of our souls. Childhood can also have its fair share of tribulations as well. Tragedy and heartbreak are not segregated to specific age groups. There are few directors who can encapsulate the ups and downs of childhood better than Steven Spielberg, and there is no better example of his ability than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. is the embodiment of the youthful imagination so many of us lost long ago. The atmosphere is full of palpable wonderment and curiosity. While it’s lack of shame causes it to overdue its emotional relevance at times, it still maintains a passionate credence few films could ever dream of. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has become more than just a movie—it has become a rite of passage to adulthood.
The core of E.T.’s success lies in its ability to establish a quality relationship between E.T. and Elliott (Henry Thomas). It’s the classic boy and his dog tale, but in this case the dog can talk and is actually from another planet. In the film a group of aliens have come to Earth to study our planet’s plate life. They are noticed by a group of humans causing them to quickly flee the planet. In the chaos one alien is left behind, and is forced to hide amongst suburbia to avoid detection. Elliot eventually encounters the alien, and they begin to form a very unique relationship. Spielberg makes this relationship work by allowing it to evolve in an organic way. We gain insight to who these characters are as they explore their curiosity of one another. Small moments like Elliot laying a path of Reese Pieces to lore E.T., and in return having E.T. hand the candy back to Elliot clues you into the kindness of both of the characters.
Spielberg doesn’t look down upon characters based on factors like age. In the case of E.T. that fact is literal. His camera is almost always shot from the perspective of a child. Everything is up close and personal to further connect you with the narrative. Seeing this story unfold through their eye levels is more than a aesthetic choice. It is a symbolic representation for the validity of their feelings. Plus it reminds us older folks what it’s like to be a kid again. In fact the only adult face that is shown for the first half of the film is Elliot’s mom (Dee Wallace). All the other adults are either shown from neck down or have their face obscured by shadows, which isolated this story to an intense personal level.
Credit must also go to the child actors. Henry Thomas along with Drew Barrymore and Robert Mac, who play his brother and sister, succeed at doing what good young actors should—they act like their actual age. They aren’t just ‘saying the darndest’ things for cheap laughs, nor are they speaking well beyond their years. Dialogue in general is messy—they talk over one another, many of their jokes are odd, and conversations abruptly shift focus. Moments like kids playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons felt like Spielberg was shooting a special episode of National Geographic called, “Adolescents in their Natural Environment”. When films are made the vast majority are not shot in sequence. The last scene may end up being the first thing you film. Spielberg choose to shoot E.T. in sequence, and that choice paid off in dividends. The final teary goodbye would be difficult for any actor, but for a child that challenge is expedited. By shooting in sequence an amount of real life emotion was surely to come through—even if it does borderline on cheesy in some moments.
One aspect that can easily be missed is the overall look of the E.T. creation. It is this clumsy flump with gangly arms and a wide face. E.T. gingerly travels along with awkward waddle like movements. Simply it is kind of ugly–but endlessly charming. This look helps mold its welcoming pesonality. E.T. also provides a great deal of comedy. For example when he discovers the effects of alcohol, which leads to a multitude of hijinks. There are also smaller moments like its attempt to embrace a young child dressed up as Yoda for Halloween. You can also sympathize with E.T’s plight. Being separated from your loved ones is a universal dilemma we can all share in. The kinship shared between Elliot and E.T. is unquestionably the films heart. Their bond is almost supernatural, though not fully explained the events give you all the explanation you need. Spielberg shows restraint by not spelling out everything in minute detail. His trusting of the audience is something to be appreciated.
Something not be appreciated is Spielberg’s decision in 2002 to release a special edition. He must have caught a bug from his good friend George Lucas because it does everything possible to bring down the original film. E.T. has been digitally ‘enhanced’ and is now much more of a CGI creation. This choice was completely off-putting. The CGI is subpar at best, making it look like a fan made alteration. If you are deciding which version to watch stick with the original. Sometimes the old ways are best, and this is proof of that statement.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is effective at tapping into the wonderment of childhood. Being able to go on magical adventures with your secret friend is something children’s dreams are made out of. Flying bicycles, mystic powers, and alien spaceships provide an assortment of exciting adventure. A person of any age can appreciate the emotional weight that is created. Even if your youth has passed you by you can get immersed into nostalgic exploration of friendship.