Dir: Steven Spielberg
Gen: FROM WAR TO PEACE:ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
Most would agree that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of our time, so it is only right that we visit another of his films, made just 5 years after the first in our series, where he helmed the not to be sniffed at Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in between.
If Close Encounters was Spielberg’s idea of alien contact as an adult, then E.T. was him reflecting on his youth in a similar fashion. While both are personal films, E.T. sat a lot better with audiences for sticking closer to the family film model, starring a young Henry Thomas who blew the world away with his incredible performance. The humour and chemistry between him and the rest of the cast would be a high point of Spielberg’s ability to direct children and a laurel he would base many of his later successes on.
E.T. differs so much from its contemporaries for its perspective, shown through the eyes of children, namely Elliot, his older brother Mike and younger sister Gertie - a wonderful 6 year old Drew Barrymore. The story came from Spielberg’s personal experiences. Growing up without a father, he would have an imaginary alien friend that filled the void. Though it would only be when these feelings of loneliness re-surfaced in much later life that Spielberg began to channel this aspect of his childhood into a story and it was turned into a screenplay by friend Melissa Mathison.
To visually sell the story as a child’s tale, Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau opted for several unique camera techniques; shooting a lot of the film at waist height so adults appear unusually tall, almost never showing adult faces, and using lots of bright colours. Aided by the spontaneity of shooting with such a young cast, it’s amazing how much this all changes the tone of the film, not least of all complimented by what is one of John Williams’ most recognisable and uplifting scores, emulating twinkling stars, soft lullabies and creating a soaring, supernatural vibe with extensive use of harps and soft strings.
E.T. himself cost $1.5 million to make and was the labour of Carlo Rambaldi’s (Close Encounters, Alien) experimentation with animatronics, manoeuvred by two dwarves, a child born without legs and a professional mime throughout the shoot. The final product was not pretty, but there was something charming about his calm and silly demeanour that made him seem childlike. He had almost no command of English, waddled like a toddler, burped after eating and had a sense of inquisitiveness. Parents found him funny because he acted like a child, children found him funny because he acted like them. As the story develops E.T. is almost treated as a something of a sibling by Elliot, Mike and Gertie. Living in the closet that splits their rooms, they read to him, teach him, and dress him up like they would a younger sibling, fighting over him almost like a toy. He is treated as part of the family because they see past his image, having not yet been taught to fear that which they don’t know.
The first point of contact between man and alien is often a film’s climax but in E.T. the first characters we are introduced to are aliens. As trucks scream into shot and their headlights penetrate the peaceful forest, it is apparent that the aliens are under threat, not the humans. This is the perspective that the film takes throughout. The only significant adult male character is “Keys” (Peter Coyote) and his face isn’t shown until one hour and 20 minutes into the film, ratcheting up the tension as to his intentions. Once seen, his soft face and calm demeanour show a friend, but until then the tension is palpable. Aside from Keys and Elliot’s mother, adults are perceived to be a force of cold misunderstanding and authority. Throughout the entire film, almost all of the scaring moments and tension hinge on unwanted adult intervention or discovery, far from accidental and incredibly relevant to the idea behind the story.
Anonymity is a big part of the film. Elliot’s family are never given a surname, neither is their home or location particularly distinctive, one of the millions of homes in the San Fernando Valley. Elliot could’ve been anyone. As Keys reveals, he himself longed for an extraterrestrial friend as a boy, suggesting something of an understanding between the two, which the camera emulates in many later shots. In typical Spielberg fashion the characters are very relatable. Elliot wasn’t the son of an astronomer who watched E.T. crash to earth through a telescope. He was bullied into waiting for pizza by his brother when chance led them to each other, with Elliot’s calm and gentle temperament able to coax E.T. out of the darkness and into his life, forever changing both of them.
Often cited among the greatest films ever made, E.T. is another look at the less common peaceful meeting of humans and aliens, where Spielberg proved he was able to tell a similar story but in a more accessible way than he’d done in Close Encounters. Much has been made of the allegorical nature of the plot and deeper meaning, but at its most simple, E.T. is about a boy longing for companionship and finding it in a lost alien. It takes great skill to take something so odd-looking and make it touching, but E.T. solidified Spielberg’s reputation as a master of cinematic empathy. Heartfelt sci-fi films like this don’t come around often but when they do, they show us how science fiction is truly such a boundless genre, free to scare, or in this case charm us - often in the most unusual ways.
Carlo Rambaldi makes some on-set adjustments to E.T.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.