By John Gruber
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Thanks to Santa Claus, I watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. last night with my son. The last time I’d seen it was in theatrical re-release at some point in the mid-80s, when I was 10 or 11 or so. (Remember before home video, when they’d re-release hit movies into the theater a year or so after their first run?) I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t watched it since then — just one of those movies that slipped through the cracks of my I should watch that again list.
Good lord what a magnificent picture. I remember from my childhood that E.T. was exciting and sad and funny and full of wonder. And how the dynamics of Elliott’s family felt very real — not like a movie family living in a house on a soundstage, but like a real family living in a real house. What struck me watching it now is how incredible Spielberg’s filmmaking is, how pitch-perfect the performances are, how gorgeous and evocative the cinematography is, how perfect the score by John Williams is, and how clever and honest the script by Melissa Mathison is.
There are no bad guys in the film, and yet it’s filled with tension and conflict. Spielberg shoots the adults hunting in the woods for E.T. as silhouettes, mostly from the shoulders down — establishing them as bogeymen without a word of dialogue or imbuing them with any of the sinister motives you’d expect from “government agents” in a typical kid’s movie. They’re just guys doing their jobs, but yet we know to root against them, because they don’t get it — they don’t understand what we (through Elliott) do.
There’s a justifiably famous line from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” E.T. takes this to heart in a way that is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 is cool and E.T. is warm, but in neither film is there any attempt to explain alien science far beyond our ken. There’s no attempt to explain how E.T.’s powers of levitation or healing work, or the mechanics of his symbiotic relationship with Elliott. They’re indistinguishable from magic and so Spielberg treats them as magic. (George “Midi-chlorian” Lucas could learn a lesson here.)
I watch a lot of kids’ movies these days, and E.T. stands out as the rare film that accurately and deeply evokes what it actually feels like to be a kid. (Particularly what it felt and looked like to be a kid in 1982; Elliott’s bedroom is filled with toys I owned.) Somewhere between E.T. and Jurassic Park, Spielberg lost his golden touch for directing child actors. I just couldn’t get enough of Drew Barrymore — so utterly adorable, but yet a genuinely frustrating and undependable seven-year-old kid sister. Henry Thomas (Elliott) comes across as bright, but very much a real 10-year-old boy. Compare and contrast to the brother and sister in Jurassic Park, who were so grating that I found myself rooting for the raptors. I think it was this general sense of dread regarding kids in a Spielberg movie that made me put off re-watching E.T. for so long. I was afraid I’d be disappointed.
But that fear was unfounded, and my memory of the film from childhood was correct. The only negative feeling the kids in E.T. evoke is jealousy, insofar as they make me wish, just as much today as in 1982, that E.T. had come to my house instead of theirs.
Jonas (just short of five years old) loved it; especially the parts where E.T. made the bikes fly. And the part where he drank beer.