Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Cinematographer: Allen Daviau
by Jon Cvack
I’ve seen this movie more times than I can remember in my youth. It’s a film where rather than remembering the details of the story I recall images and fragments - the Reece’s Pieces, Elliot showing off his toys and fish, the ghost costume, the frogs being released, the opening dialogue between the brothers and their friends, and the frightening introduction, as with no dialogue at all, trucks roll into the forest, dozens of men exit, searching for the creature, running aggressively through the woods. It took a long time for me to revisit the movie and as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, it was only after making a film that I’ve grown to appreciate the genius craft of great films.
Take for instance the fact that, with the exception of Elliot’s mom, Mary (Dee Wallace), we do not see a single adult face for the majority of the film. We see adult bodies and fractions of their heads, but oftentimes the voices occur offscreen. Having seen this film over a dozen times or so, I can’t believe I never noticed this fact. Only at about the 90 minute mark, as the third act roles, as we feel strangely threatened by other adults, do we get introduced to “Keys” (Peter Coyote) - the man who is always shown running through the forest with a heavy set of keys hanging from his waist, discovering that he was just as intent on saving E.T., and that there was no reason for suspicion.
I now believe that this was the reason the movie resonated so heavy with so many kids - as it treated them honestly, as they swore and make crude jokes, never allowing an adult in their world, except for the mom who understood them. The absence of other adults seems to work at the subconscious level - just as Elliot and his siblings hide within their rooms to keep E.T. away from their mother, we feel like we’re secluded from the adults in our lives while watching the film; in a shared dark space, enjoying a story that they couldn’t possibly understand. I’m not sure what it was about the way E.T. ate the Reese's pieces, or how Elliot showed off his Star Wars figures, or the shark chomper that he dips into the water, only that it got so far into the details of what’s important in a pre-teen's world.
My girlfriend and I watched the 20th Anniversary Edition, which might be one of the most tragic victims in attempting to update a film that didn’t need any polishing. We now see a computer generated E.T. whose entire mannerisms, from his eyeballs to facial expressions are in complete opposition to his practical self and its inherent limitations. It pulls you out of the film, as on account of having been made in 2002, the CGI looks gooey and unrealistic, to the point of looking worse than the practical puppet and immediately pulling you out of the story; the early 00s/late 90s, serving as a time when nascent computer graphics were good enough to compliment but rarely able to support an entire narrative, and while George Lucas did it well with the Star Wars re-releases, this 20th Anniversary is abysmal. Having noted to my girlfriend about how strange it was that Agents were holding walkie talkies rather than guns, I discovered that these were digitally added for the re-release.
I kept thinking of all the other 80s sci-fi kids movies I’ve seen - D.A.R.Y.L., The Explorers (link), War Games - and while all of these are great in their own way, Spielberg is such a master with the camera, showing us so much and telling us so little. The great films are the one’s whose images are burned into your mind; where before you press play they roll through and you grow excited to revisit them once again. To think that this film really only takes place in three locations - the school, the house, and the forest - and yet is able to feel so large and expansive is a testament to his expertise. By looking to the minute and showing it’s majesty, we are able to discover a much larger world than there actually is. Like a child who might only know their house and their relatives and the few blocks around their neighborhood, observing it as the entire world, where all other places they see are fantastical, Spielberg is able to put us into the mind of a child. It is not just a film about an alien, so much as allowing us to witness a story from the child’s point of view, without the pandering or condescension, with complete respect - except for the 20th Anniversary Edition.
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