Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classic Movie Review from My Collection: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

A strange alien ship sits in a forest clearing. Small brown creatures rustle around in the brush. In 1982, anyone who’d seen a commercial or trailer for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial knew the story. But keeping in mind that when movies are written, filmed, and edited there is usually no concept of the marketing campaign to come, one might have surmised through this opening that it was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We all know the story now and it’s far from it. The two films are hardly even kindred spirits, so different are they in tone and execution.

Next the bright headlights of several vehicles come racing up to the forest edge. Feet pound the dirt and we see only legs running. Then the camera comes to rest on a set of keys dangling from the belt of one of these strangers. Instinctively we know we are seeing things from the point of view of someone small. It’s a frightened child’s perspective, which is pretty much what E.T. is when he is accidentally left behind by his people. And Spielberg knew better than anyone that his manipulation of point of view so early in the film would force his audience to identify more easily with the small people – and alien – in the film. For after all, this is a story about children coming to terms with themselves as creatures both in need of and giving emotions.

When a suburban boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), comes across the creature in his backyard, it’s the plaything and companion he’s been looking for. His older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), excludes him from activities with his friends (one of whom is played by a very young C. Thomas Howell) and sends him out for the pizza. Family life is made more complicated by the fact that Elliott’s father has abandoned the family, creating a rupture that leaves his mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), as the sole provider and caregiver for three young children. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is the youngest, about aged five.

The story was initially developed by Spielberg based on his own childhood experiences, but Melissa Mathison wrote the script. It focuses almost exclusively on the children in the story. In fact, Mary is the only adult whose face we see until the final act of the film when the government types and scientists take over the family home in order to capture and study E.T. With the exception of a chase sequence near the end, I can’t recall any significant use of high-angle shots. Almost the entire film is shot from a child’s perspective, forcing us to identify with both Elliott and E.T.

Mathison doesn’t bother with a lot of exposition. There are no scenes involving the bureaucrats discussing the presence of aliens on earth. We know nothing of their knowledge of the event. We don’t know why E.T. begins getting sick, although we can presume it has something to do with his being away from his home environment. All this adds to the illusion of its being entirely child-centric. The kids wouldn’t know any of this information, so if the audience did, the illusion would be spoiled.

The story arc takes Elliott and E.T. through a suburban adventure meant to conceal the alien from the adult world and rig up a communication device to contact his people to come retrieve him. Communication is the key theme that runs throughout the film. When they first meet, Elliott, rattles off explanations t E.T. of various toys in his bedroom. Later Gertie teaches him to talk a little with the aid of “Sesame Street” on TV, the 20th century’s greatest communication device. Elliott doesn’t communicate well with his family: he can’t make himself a part of his older brother’s life; Mary is too busy and pulled in multiple directions to really pay attention; and Elliott makes a major communication gaffe when he bluntly announces that their dad is with another woman in Mexico, a point that sends Mary into tears. But Elliott an E.T. develop an inexplicable psychic bond (even their names are lexically linked) that allows them to feel what the other feels. Their connection is so deep that they have achieved the ultimate level of communication: that which doesn’t require words and symbols anymore, but is simply understood in the mind. Spielberg drives that point home in one of the film’s best and funniest sequences as E.T. drinks beer at home while Elliott gets drunk at school.

And all the while, we continue to see this man from the waist down with a set of keys on his hip. He’s there in the forest looking for signs of the alien, and then he turns up at the house. Played by Peter Coyote, he is never named, but listed in the credits as “Keys.” He is the representation of the dangerous world of adults, but when we finally meet him as Elliott and E.T. are growing more ill together, we find he has benign motives toward E.T. He, too, has an element of childlike innocence that allows him to more easily make a connection with Elliott that will ultimately benefit E.T.

I remember watching the movie as a child and feeling that Keys was like a father figure by the end of the film. I even had this instinctive understanding that somehow Mary would get together with him. Watching all these years later with a better understanding of how filmmakers manipulate these emotions, I realized it’s the greatest error Spielberg makes. He deliberately positions Keys as the only adult in the film who ‘gets’ what Elliott feels for E.T. He functions almost as an adult version of Elliott, one who never fulfilled his childhood dream of an alien encounter. Then at the end as Elliott and E.T. are saying goodbye in the film’s most heart-wrenching and emotionally difficult scene, Spielberg frames Mary and Keys together as if they were husband and wife. At that moment, I knew exactly why I had that feeling as a kid. Spielberg wants us to think of them as a family unit. The arrival of E.T. helped Elliott – and, by extension, Gertie and Michael – feel more like an intact family in spite of the absence of their father, who has run off to Mexico with his new girlfriend. Spielberg could have achieved similar results without such a blatantly manipulative move. It makes no sense to suggest Keys as Elliott’s new father figure. A much stronger scene would have made it clear that Elliott will be well-adjusted even without the presence of a father because the experiences with E.T. have helped him grow up just enough to put away some, if not all, of his childish things.

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