When Elliott’s little sister Gertie first discovers E.T. hiding in her brother’s closet, Elliott tells her a white lie to keep Gertie from revealing the alien to their mother. He says “only little kids can see him”. It may be inaccurate – E.T. is by no means a figure of their imagination – but there is an element of truth to Elliott’s statement through the way Steven Spielberg tells his Oscar winning fairy-tale about a child who befriends an alien after his mother and father’s divorce.
For the majority of ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, Elliott’s secret new friend is only shown to the audience in moments when the children are alone. If adults are present, the titular alien is generally obscured, reduced to a silhouette by smoke and light or hidden from view with only his hands or feet perceptible. However, when the children are with him in the woods, their bedrooms or around the house in their mother’s absence, Carlo Rambaldi’s imaginative alien (costing upwards of $1.5 million to make and operated by three different actors, two of whom were little people and one a 12-year-old boy) is visible in all its glory. It’s a masterpiece in creature design that is detailed, creative and remarkably humane. The latter is one of the reasons ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ is so emotionally involving.
By telling the story in this way, Steven Spielberg sets ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ from the perspective of its young heroes. He shoots most of the film at Ozu-esque low angles with an emphasis on their faces to enhance this viewpoint. Meanwhile, Spielberg keeps the adults in the story out of sight as much as possible. The government agents on the hunt for E.T., the neighbourhood police officers, and Elliott’s schoolteacher are mostly photographed from behind. We rarely ever see their faces.
Steven Spielberg’s decision to capture ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ from this perspective allows us to understand that it’s a story not only starring children but about children. The concept of the movie is inspired by Spielberg’s own juvenile experience of creating an imaginary friend to escape from the distress of his parents’ divorce. Elliott, whose father has recently absconded to Mexico with his mistress leaving the family behind, is loosely based on the director himself. He now lives with his newly single mother Mary whose busy life means the children are frequently attention-starved. Elliott is also stuck with his brother Michael and aforementioned Gertie with whom he has a rocky relationship. E.T.’s arrival provides Elliot with a respite from the anger, confusion and hurt feelings facilitated by his father’s departure. The movie is a celebration of the power escapism has for young people.
Although fantasy is one of the key themes explored via E.T. and Elliott’s relationship, Spielberg’s movie is also about the journey Elliott takes to become empathetic. In a sense, it’s a coming-of-age story about a child learning to understand that he’s not the only one with feelings – people around him have them too. In the beginning of ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, for instance, Elliott is hostile to the other members of his family, alienated from them by the emotional fallout of his mother and father’s divorce. At one point he deliberately hurts his mother Mary by bringing up his father’s mistress after she refuses to believe he saw an alien in their backyard. “Think about how other people feel for a change,” his older brother Michael implores him after she is reduced to tears. However, when Elliott invites the alien (who was also abandoned by his family when their spaceship had to make a hasty retreat) into their home this begins to change.
The bond they have is stronger than friendship; Elliott and E.T. become quite literally attached as part of E.T.’s powers. When the alien is intoxicated during a slapstick sequence in which it consumes beer from the fridge so too does Elliott. In a heart-wrenching scene towards the finale Elliott comes close to dying when his buddy gets sick. Their harmonious connection teaches Elliott to value the feelings of people other than himself. It allows the dysfunctional family to unite by the movie’s rousing climax, heightened by John Williams’ iconic score, one of the greatest pieces of music in cinematic history.
This review is part of New In Cinema’s Steven Spielberg season in anticipation of ‘The BFG’. Find all our reviews and on-going rankings of Spielberg’s movies here.