Stream of Consciousness: E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL

A deeper look at a director who truly lives, breathes, and sleeps cinema.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, and various other streaming services have revolutionized the way we consume movies and television, and each week I’ll highlight the best these services have to offer in this segment: Stream of Consciousness.

When Star Wars hit in 1977, it completely changed everything.  Science Fiction, which was once seen as a genre for children and weirdos had broken into the mainstream and become the biggest movie sensation the world had ever seen.  Studios were keen to greenlight nearly anything related to the genre, resulting in a boom that saw the resurrection of the Star Trek franchise as well as films such as Alien, Superman, and Moonraker.  The non-Star Wars pinnacle of this genre explosion was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, a film that wound up raking in over $600 Million dollars at the box office and is arguably the greatest children’s movie ever made.

Prior to E.T., Spielberg had cultivated a young career that had already seen such masterpieces as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  He’d already received two Best Director and three Best Picture Academy Award nominations, and his career looked to be unstoppable.  He was the most sought after director in the world and was even offered the role behind the camera for Return of the Jedi, but passed in order to make E.T.

It’s impossible to watch E.T. without noticing its parallels and its stark tonal contrast with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Close Encounters, which ends on a note of a father and husband abandoning his family to board the alien mothership, is a cynical look at the monotony of suburban living and is about mankind reaching out to these foreign beings.  E.T., in contrast, is a more sympathetic look at the difficulties of dealing with a father who has abandoned his family and E.T. is the one who has reached out and is learning from humanity.  By opening the film with the alien spaceship, one of the most intelligent decisions the film makes, we’re immediately keyed into the fact that straight from the start that E.T. going to be a completely different alien encounter film (more on this in a bit).

Himself a child of divorce, E.T. is likely one of Spielberg’s most personal films in that it addresses the issues of a boy growing up without a father and alienated by his family.  Elliot, the film’s young protagonist, is a surrogate for any child whose father (or mother) has left them for greener pastures, and Henry Thomas plays this emotional role with a sophistication beyond his years.  Spielberg manages to create a feel in his film that allows children to immediately recognize themselves in Elliot, but also allows adults to recognize their past selves without leaning into nostalgia.

What makes E.T. truly special, particularly for a children’s film, is the complete and utter lack of a villain.  Spielberg treats Peter Coyote’s unnamed character as a terrifying, looming presence, shooting him at low angles and obscuring his face, only to pull the rug out from under us with his first appearance.  His simple desire to meet an alien provides a look at what Elliot might be when he grows up.  It’s a smart choice that helps parents and adults reinforce their connection with Elliot.  Michael, Elliot’s older brother, becomes Elliot’s protector and confidant by the film’s end, and shows a love for both Elliot and E.T. despite the conflict between the brothers earlier in the film.  Even the police and government agencies trying to stop the boys from riding off with E.T. are simply bureaucrats who misunderstand the events unfolding before them.

Finally, E.T. himself is a marvel of puppeteering and special effects which fit right in with the pro-science fiction audiences of the day.  E.T. never ceases to look real and convincing, and his design is so unique and weird that he’s immediately identifiable as a species outside of our world.  His oddly barrel-shaped torso along with his gangling, two fingered arms are such bizarre features and are a perfect match for his wide eyed face and crane neck, and these features help make his design both instantly iconic as well as delightfully original.  The effects team are able to get an unbelievable amount of expression and emotion out of him that it allows this truly remarkable film to land every single emotional beat on display.

Spielberg, even in his worst films, has a cinematic touch that most directors couldn’t even dream of, and his visual flair and storytelling are on display throughout E.T.  The shot of the flying bicycle silhouetted by the moon is one of the most recognizable shots ever put on film.  Elliot’s first encounter with E.T. is an impeccably well put together scene, with something as simple as a pizza delivery and an over-lit shed creating a sense of tension that registers immediately with audiences. The chase scene in the film’s climax is paced and shot like something that could have been in an Indiana Jones film, and Spielberg wisely ends this action packed high with what might be his biggest emotional gut punch.  It is in these waning moments where Spielberg finds the film’s most identifiable comparison point to his previous film, Close Encounters.  

The film ends with what might be a director’s biggest self-refutation ever put on screen.  E.T., when finally reunited with the ship that previously abandoned him on Earth, says his goodbyes to the Thomas children.  When Elliot gets his chance to bid farewell to E.T., E.T. extends an offer to him: “Come”.  Elliot refuses the offer in order to remain with his family, and in turn accepts that he will never see his best friend again.  Spielberg, who by this point had not developed a reputation as an overly sentimental filmmaker, gets his first real chance to tug at the heartstrings of his audience and he knocks it out of the park.  This was not my first time seeing the film, and I was brought to tears by the ending and struggled to keep my emotions in check.

It’s nearly impossible to not find a live-action children’s film that is not, in some way, directly inspired by E.T. When filmmakers openly discuss trying to get that “Amblin feel” (referencing Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment) they are typically making references to the visual and stylistic feel of E.T. more than any other film.  It makes perfect sense that Steven Spielberg would, in just six years, retake the crown as the director of the highest grossing film of all time.  He’s a master of cinematic language in ways that most audiences don’t even realize; he’s able to use his camera, music, editing, and other techniques to tell the story or convey an emotion without most people noticing.  He’s a director who truly lives, breathes, and sleeps cinema, and no other filmmaker comes close to his ability to weave high art with popcorn movies.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is available to stream via Netflix.  Next week, we will continue to look at the films that captured the hearts and minds of audiences on our top-of-the-box-office timeline with yet another Spielberg: Jurassic Park.