Eight Reverse Shot writers revisit Steven Spielberg’s 1982 phenomenon, which, even after a slew of financial behemoths, became his most iconic work, a children’s film to rival The Wizard of Oz in popularity. The writers' opinions evince the possibility of a generational divide (does it depend how old you were when you first saw it?), as well as a more major point of contention: is it sappy and sentimental or a heart-aching portrait of loneliness and that first taste of sadness?
Welcome to the World
By Chris Wisniewski
Thanks to a rigorous Catholic-school education, I learned at a young age the perils of assuming the first-person voice in my writing. Over time, I’ve become less stringent, but when I take up the pen, literally or figuratively, I still try to keep myself (or my self) out of it; it seems both prudent and proper. Yet having been charged with stringing together some 400-odd words about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I just can’t get past myself—it would be impossible for me to talk about this movie as a cultural artifact, an artwork, or an experience external to my personal encounters with it, as though I could somehow reflect upon or evaluate its power, value, or meaning apart from me.
My mother—no cinephile, she—likes to wax nostalgic for the definitive and seminal cinematic experience of her life, when she as a young teen saw The Sound of Music on the big screen. For her, all other moviegoing will forever whither in the shadow of Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp, with its glorious scale (the church! the dress! the bigness of it all!). Considerably more the cinephile, I sometimes like to pretend that my seminal movie moment was a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm at the Castro Theater, when I was a fully formed 21-year-old. In truth, though, it’s E.T. I must have seen it with my parents at the age of four during the 1985 rerelease. It is my earliest movie-theater memory, and in fact one of the oldest of all of my memories. I tell myself this was my first movie. I refuse to confirm that with my parents, so essential is this unsubstantiated claim to my identity as a movie watcher and movie lover.
Unlike my mother’s, though, my seminal moviegoing moment does not derive its power from spectacle—I don’t lapse into rhapsody when recounting the image of a boy and an alien on a bicycle, silhouetted against the moon. Instead, my first viewing of E.T. stirs feelings in me of profound terror. I think of E.T. in quarantine, slipping away, as an imposing medical team of government employees in full-body protective gear try, unsuccessfully, to save him. He dies, becoming an inert grey blob.
Yes, of course E.T. comes back to life. Elliott and the other boys in his town rescue him and deliver him, after a thrilling escape sequence, to the spaceship that is waiting to take him home. After E.T.’s resurrection, though, the movie still carries the weight of loss. Whether or not Elliott succeeds, E.T. will still leave him—if not through death or kidnapping by the government, then through his ascent into the heavens. The movie suggests the profound melancholic truth that to love is to hurt, to know that the person or thing you care for is transient, mortal. Loving is losing. You might argue that a four-year-old couldn’t have possibly understood an idea so sophisticated, but E.T. distills the sentiment to a single word that even a four-year-old can understand: “Ouuuuuuch.”
Not Feelin’ It
By Julien Allen
I came to E.T. late. Three weeks late, to be precise, which for a nine-year-old felt like a lifetime. I saw other people’s lunch boxes, masks, and figurines; in the playground there were crooked fingers and all manner of lamentable attempts to croak the words “E.T. phone home” properly. This was an early example of hype and a rare example of hype not working. Okay, maybe for the lame kid who hadn’t seen E.T. the grapes were a little on the tart side, but nothing about any of this was remotely attractive. I’d seen and adored Star Wars, a film packed with all manner of weird creatures, so what could possibly be so special about a single extra-terrestrial with a glowing finger and a face like a dried fig (albeit, on reflection, one with Liz Taylor’s eyes)?
I finally succumbed on a ferry trip from Portsmouth to Le Havre—I went with my dad to relieve the boredom—and was disappointed. It’s a one-trick film, so unless you buy into it early and big, you're left stranded with incessant product placement and unappealing children (worsened for me by the overuse of a young baseball-cap-wearing Drew Barrymore doing press for the film) looking through Allen Daviau’s overexposed lens at a part of Reagan-era west coast suburbia that it’s hard to imagine alien botanists wanting to visit on purpose. Did I laugh at E.T. dressed as a gypsy? No. Did my heart leap when the push-bike took off? No—I just wondered why Elliott was still bothering to pedal. Did I cry when E.T. was all white and dying by the river? Okay, yes. But even now I cry all the time in movies (I cried at The Muppets just last week and don’t get me started on War Horse). Years later I’m afraid the report card hasn’t much improved. It suffers by comparison with Spielberg’s earlier work because it aims lower—for a film about childhood there is not one scene approaching the rawness of the “cry baby” sequence in Close Encounters. If you love E.T. the character, you’ll forgive E.T. the film anything, but if you don't (and I confess I’ve never liked dogs in films, which might explain something), then everything will get on your nerves. If you don’t find it intrinsically “wondrous” then regrettably, there’s nothing else going for it. It's hard to pinpoint anything bad, but Spielberg has managed to do everything he does in E.T. better elsewhere—Close Encounters is cleverer and more awe-inspiring, Duel and Jaws are more exciting, A.I. is vastly more profound a treatise on childhood (and parenthood), and Raiders is so much more fun. And oh, God, that music—please make it stop.
For me, the film is just a baseball cap—with “E.T.” written on it in that font they stole from The Thing from Another World. It’s like Spielberg calling Robert Zemeckis’s kid by his first name to announce the best director Oscar for Forrest Gump. It’s what happens when he ignores his smarts. As an example of the purity of unfettered Spielbergian sentimentality, I’d frankly rather watch Always.
Music and Meaning
By Michael Koresky
It’s no coincidence that the poster design for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial echoes The Creation of Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. Spielberg suggested it, and John Alvin designed it that way. For folks of a certain generation, the image—of the benevolent space alien’s bony brown arm extending a healing finger to a cherubic digit from the right of the frame, a sparkling light emanating from where they touch, as though a torch has been lit—has become as iconic in its own way as its sixteenth-century inspiration. Because the film itself only teases with religious symbolism, the one-sheet may seem an oddly grandiose object only tangentially related to the lovely sci-fi parable at hand. Yet what the beatific visual gesture conveys, and what makes it stand the test of time as much as the film surely has, is that within this generic world there is something sacred. Cynics can get their hackles raised by such a suggestion, but since there is, inarguably, no other special-effects-driven Hollywood blockbuster that has ever dared to devote its entire running time to the mysteries, disappointments, and joys of that thing called love, I must admit I buy it hook, line, and sinker. A significant work of late-twentieth-century popular American art, E.T. sublimely palpates those difficult places in the human heart that make us the fragile beings that we are.
Ascending E.T. to its spiritually overwhelming plane is John Williams’s majestic score, which is one of the film’s simultaneously most lauded and mocked elements. The criticism against it is that it’s slathered on way too thick, underlining almost every moment of every scene, and instructing the audience what to think. An argument for it—my argument—could be that E.T. is actually a grand symphony as much as a sci-fi entertainment, a rich emotional musical. Williams’s constant scoring can undoubtedly become tiresome in other films, especially when it infects them with a case of the cutes (this happens even in otherwise dark works like the Indiana Jones adventures), but E.T. is his triumph. One can try to imagine the film without Williams’s soaring themes, but to what end? In the glorious, mysterious opening scene, in which the as-yet-unseen E.T. wanders a massive California redwood forest so enormous (and shot with such a child’s-eye view) that it seems like the vegetation of another world, Williams disorients even as he inspires awe with a spectacular melody that moves from minor-key dirge to major-chord elation and back again. Later, in the film’s most delicately constructed standalone sequence, Williams employs a trilling harp to unite the moment of Elliott’s finger healing, after cutting it on a saw blade, with his mother’s reading of Peter Pan to little Gertie, as seen and heard through a closet door. Of course, there’s the moment when the bike first flies over the moon, summoning an eight-note refrain so magnificent that it takes an already visually intense scene and rockets it into the stratosphere. And, yes, the tear-jerking finale, which, as the climax of a cinematic symphony, requires resolution as much as the fourth movement of Mahler’s ninth or Sibelius’s “Finlandia”; Williams doesn’t disappoint, politely drowning out our sobs by laying it on heavenly thick.
The emotional directness and overwhelming grandeur of Williams’s score, coupled with the unabashed earnestness of Spielberg’s expression of intergalactic love and friendship, is simply too much for some to bear. For me, it’s a work of awesome power. Of course, everyone has his or her musical taste—just as each of us has his or her own idea of what love is.
E.T. and Me
By Eric Hynes
When E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial opened in the late spring of 1982, I was eight, the ideal age for it. I’d been a moviegoer since at least 1977, when I saw Disney’s animated/live action hybrid Pete’s Dragon on the big screen, and became a total convert when I took in Star Wars during its extended run the following year, spurred by the Kenner toys onslaught. With my adolescence very much defined by Lucasfilm, and by a fascination with sci-fi and space exploration in general, and thanks to my devoted, movie-loving grandparents, I happily bided my time between Star Wars installments with the lower-rent likes of Flash Gordon and Superman II, and found myself further afield with, and baffled by, Time Bandits and The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I don’t remember having any advance knowledge of what I was going to see that stormy day in June of ’82, when my mother jacketed me up to go to a theater near the Staten Island Mall. The name was incomprehensible to me (it trumped Close Encounters of the Third Kind for hermetic, virulently uncompromised titling of mass-market product). My mother assured me the director was a maker of great space movies, but he was unknown to me. And the poster art, which featured no characters or scenes and very few words, was unhelpful. What made the strongest impression on me beforehand was standing in a line that snaked around the corner of the theater amid pelting rain. It was an event.
And it turned out to be so. I had never been so enchanted. Considering the circumstances, I don’t think I’ve been so since. It was the first film to literally make me jump out of my seat (when E.T. first appears in the cornstalks), and the first to make me cry (when E.T. “dies”—though not, as I recall, when he departs). I instantly related to Elliott as if he were me, or my best friend, or who I wanted to be. My attraction to the character was almost, or perhaps actually, carnal. It was nothing like my hero-worship/playacting identification with Luke Skywalker—Elliott was my age, and he was like me. Everything he did and said, how he loved and cared and felt misunderstood and scared, was familiar to me. I too had a schoolboy crush on a girl but hadn’t the slightest idea of what it meant, I too had a dirt bike, I too lived in my own head and bestowed meaning on inanimate objects, and dressed my bedroom with mobiles and figures and posters and Muppets. The connection was deep and felt significant, and extended to my relationship with E.T. himself. For approximately the next three years, I slept with a tan, big-eyed, heavy-bottomed, one-and-a-half-foot tall stuffed replica of the alien, my arm hooked around his thin neck, pulling the bulbous head flush to my chin.
Thanks to my imagination I lived inside the film for a long time, and thanks to that stuffed beast, and my affection for it, I carried the film around with me. E.T. forever altered the way I related to film. It defined what I came to expect from films in terms of emotional investment and wow-making wonder (while also providing me with a standard by which to appreciate and disapprove of subsequent Spielberg offerings), and encouraged me to do what Star Wars, despite all that formative obsessing and consuming, could never quite: it allowed my imagination and personal becoming—who I was and who I wanted to be—to feel like the same thing.
By Farihah Zaman
When it comes to the phenomenon of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, just a few years makes all the difference in the world—between experiencing it in the theater (and being part of the making of a legend) and watching it at home when it was already the video king. Born the year after its release, I was in the latter camp. E.T. was my most well-worn video until, embarrassingly, The Lion King, and I literally cannot remember a time when this film was not an essential part of childhood. Revisiting it now, I was amazed at how well the performances hold up—they’re downright restrained compared to many contemporary children’s movies, from the early Harry Potter films to the Spielberg co-produced Super 8. I just kept thinking, thank goodness Drew Barrymore made it through her drug-fueled adolescence, because this is still the best, most natural performance she has ever given, and I would hate for it to be ruined by some post-movie tragedy.
The other precocious little creature giving the performance of a lifetime? E.T. Decades after my initial repeated viewings of this film I still gasp when he first speaks to Gertie (“B!”), giggle when he scampers across the floor with his little hands raised in the air, cry when his body turns ashy gray on the surgical table. Beyond special effects that, even with modern eyes, seem to blur the line between technology and magic, beyond the dramatic lighting and swooping camera, beyond even the excellent and charming human actors, the success of this film hinges on our profound connection with an object made, reportedly, of chicken wire and clay (and one which a grown-up Barrymore has said in interviews she had believed to be real). Had E.T. not conveyed kindness, intelligence, and humor, through Carlo Rambaldi’s construction, Melissa Mathison’s writing, and Steven Spielberg’s direction, the film would have no tenable emotional center, and would hardly be the classic it remains today. E.T., the film and the little beastie himself, are proof that, in the age of such digitally inserted characters as Jar Jar Binks and the creepily rubbery Dobby the House Elf, some part of the human brain sees and, more importantly, feels, the difference between what exists physically and what does not. The latter is a lot harder to love.
Bringing It All Back Home
By Adam Nayman
Back in 1982, Steven Spielberg hadn't met a star he couldn’t wish upon, and E.T. stood as the apotheosis of his cinema of optimism, edging out the heavenly visions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). That film's somewhat uncomfortable depiction of a fundamentally dissatisfied suburbanite teleported out of his rut by benign aliens marked it as a literally escapist fantasy. E.T., which fleshed out its predecessors’ extraterrestrial visitors by making one of them its protagonist, was about the inverse: to quote one of its only rivals in the American populist movie canon, “There’s no place like home.”
“Home” for E.T. is basically a plot device. His attempt to get back to his planet drives the action, imposing a time frame and a set of narrative complications: can Elliott somehow get him there before the adults discover there's an intruder in their midst? But “home” for Elliott is more complicated. As many critics have pointed out, E.T. is far from an idealized portrait of domesticity—it's all junk food, unmade beds, and dinner-table arguments. In the most nightmarish scene, the home is transformed into a kind of alien space, invaded by government agents under the auspices of fumigation.
One of the side effects of the alien’s effect on his human friend, however, is that Elliott eventually grows more comfortable in his home life. The experience brings him closer to his siblings and even to his mostly oblivious mother, who is eventually integrated into #TeamE.T.; the separation-angst of the ending is tempered by the suggestion that on some deeper level, Elliott’s loneliness has been addressed: Spielberg’s comment that making the film left him ready to start a family of his own is more than a press-kit sound-bite. Several of Spielberg’s later films would address the desire for home from different angles, from the explicit, Peter Pan–derived longing of Hook to the nomadic anxiety of Eric Bana’s Mossad agent in Munich, but never with such plangent simplicity.
by Bruce Bennett
In summer 1982, I was hovering between years at NYU film school and out of the VCR sweet-spot described in the intro to this Spielberg symposium (part deux). It was the summer of Blade Runner, Star Trek II, and Carpenter’s The Thing at the movies and Police Squad (“in color!”) on the small screen, and it was the last time I lived under the same roof as my parents in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., where the heat and humidity rivaled Saigon’s. By day I worked an outdoor construction job alongside a guy named Pierce, whose successful side gig dealing LSD inclined him to let me do most of the heavy lifting. From my vantage point, Poltergeist’s suburban wonderland (on display that same summer), in which the American dream was built on a foundation of exhumed natives and where sitting too close to the TV would suck you in forever, had E.T. beat for verisimilitude.
Frankly, the story universe into which E.T. arrived by UFO shortbus seemed like a narrative padded cell. Melissa Mathison’s script had all the icky risk and scary conflict bleached out of it long before Spielberg digitally removed the guns in the 2002 rerelease. The one-two climactic punch combination—that E.T. could rise from the dead and that bikes could fly—were so solidly telegraphed earlier in the film that I fully expected some further plot complication that never arrived. Don’t get me wrong: I like being emphatically and shrilly told how to feel as much as the next guy, but there’s something fundamentally off about the tempo, timing, and meter of E.T. that no amount of score can cover up. I don’t think there’s anything anywhere in Spielberg that worked as poorly for me as the sequence of psychically augmented Elliott freeing the frogs and macking on his classmate. And that’s despite the fact that E.T. drinking beer and watching a Ford picture was arguably the only behavior in the film that I could empathize with. Like much of the rest of the film, Elliott and E.T.’s telepathic three-way has the same emotionally tone-deaf, self-indulgent urgency of 1941, Temple of Doom, Hook, and Spielberg’s (Mathison-scripted) segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie.
By Jeff Reichert
I was always more of a Star Wars kid. As confirmed by a quick call to my mother the afternoon of this writing, I wore out a VHS tape of Return of the Jedi through daily post-school viewings. As for E.T., she knew that I’d seen it, but couldn’t recall when, remembered that I’d liked it, but insisted it didn’t hold the kind of sway over my imagination that George Lucas’s Edgar Rice Burroughs–cribbing space opera did.
This isn’t hard to understand. Though both Spielberg’s and Lucas’s fictions center on the always-tantalizing tale of ordinary, anonymous boys made extraordinary by circumstances which unlock myriad powers they never dreamed they possessed (there is a series of books about a boy wizard which, I’m told, operate on a similar through-line) sending them on fantastical adventures, there’s a key distinction: At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is still special. Were his life to continue past the bounds of the film, he wouldn’t look back in wistful regret at the glory days. He’ll always be a Jedi Knight, and the Star Wars saga, though littered with setbacks, loss, and plenty of overheated sturm und drang about fathers, is still, essentially, little more than a tale of grand intergalactic success. It’s a perfect whole unto itself.
E.T.’s Elliott begins and ends his adventure as such an every-kid that he isn’t even granted the distinguishing mark of a surname. His suburban enclave feels so distant from any cultural and commercial center that it might as well be on the other side of Tatooine. Young, sensitive, oft-ignored Elliott is granted his moment in the sun in the form of an ungainly, wrinkled little alien that comes to him, almost doglike, after he leaves out handfuls of Reese’s Pieces in the forest. (Has this curious dichotomy between E.T. as family pet and E.T. as highly advanced space botanist ever been adequately remarked upon?) The two form a psychic bond rendering Elliott special; not only does he now harbor a great secret, he also has curious power.
And then, all of a sudden, it’s gone. E.T. has died, Elliott is headed straight back to anonymity—truly horrifying stuff. An explosion of his love (also a scary emotion for any youngster to experience) helps re-start his new friend’s life, but it’s only to provide enough time for a dramatic escape. E.T. leaves Earth, Elliott remains behind. The boy knows he’s done the right thing, but in the realization that the right thing is so cleanly severed from gratification and pleasure lies the seeds of adulthood, a land of complications, sadnesses, things left unfinished, possibly forever.
Herein is what may be the greatest trick of Spielberg’s moviemaking: his ability to convince us that the trials of utterly average lives deserve the screen time usually reserved for the extraordinary. He may use all the tools cinematic spectacle affords to draw us into the ordinary, but, at the end of his films, we’re very often left with a passel of middle-class folks who will go on living lives that will be full of happiness and regret, love and loss, success and failure, not unlike the masses of folks who buy movie tickets each weekend. Spielberg always seems to take us away, only to return us right where we started: ourselves. There’s a wondrousness to this that I’m glad was beyond the ken of my six-year-old self. Too early for that kind of stuff. Now, however, more please.