In 1982, Steven Spielberg had proven himself as a bankable director. Spielberg had stunned the film going public with his debut film Duel. Made for television originally, Duel starred Dennis Weaver as a traveling salesman who is being tormented and hunted by a mysterious truck drvier. Shot in 13 days on a minimal budget the film was a taut suspense thriller that aptly showed Spielberg as a real director. This made for tv movie was so good it got a small theatrical run. Spielberg’s next movie was Sugarland Express starring Goldie Hawn. The story involved Hawn breaking her husband ( William Atherton) out of jail, hijacking a police car, and then attempting to get their child back from foster care. The film established Spielberg’s ability to take a real event and show how magical it could be.
The director finally hit it big with Jaws in 1975. The adaptation of Peter Benchly’s novel about a killer shark off the Coast of Amity Island, New York shows off Spielberg’s prowess in all it’s glory. The film is a tremendous horror movie. Spielberg used his three hydraulic sharks to their maximum power by delaying the great white’s arrival onscreen for as long as possible. On the other hand Jaws is able to reach another level of film making because of the character work done in this film. The characters seem so real that we can’t help but care for them and want them to survive. The heroes of Jaws were not the heroes of myth, but everyday people that went out to prevent others from dying and save their town. Spielberg is the one that drove those performances out of these actors.
Next came more success with Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. The director puts together a truly magical picture that makes you want to believe in life on other planets. Richard Dreyfuss is once again “Mr. Everyman” as Roy Neary, a man who has a near collision with an alien spacecraft and then has an uncontrollable compulsion to leave his family and set out to find his destiny. What he finds, is more than he ever could have imagined. Once again, Spielberg’s magic comes from grounding his characters in reality. He makes you completely identify with both Neary and his wife, who has to deal with her husband appearing to be going insane. When the emotional journey comes to an end, we feel relief along with Neary’s wonderment.
Spielberg’s first setback came in 1979 with his WWII comedy 1941. Even featuring John Belushi and Dan Akroyd couldn’t with help the film’s box office. Critics and audiences were lukewarm on the film and Spielberg would have to bounce back.
The director did so with Raiders of the Lost Ark, an homage to old 1930’s serial adventures. This rip-roaring adventure, featuring tough guy Harrison Ford as adventurer/archeologist Indiana Jones, was just the rebound Spielberg was looking for. Raiders went on to be the highest grossing film of 1981 and was nominated for Best Picture. Following Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg wanted to make a personal film that would touch both children and adult audiences. Once more Spielberg would look to the stars for his inspiration and would perhaps create the ultimate film of his career. Spielberg would once again prove that few directors can create a film of “art” as well as “entertainment” like he can. Spielberg would release the phenomenon E.T. upon the world.
E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial Starring Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore. Directed by Steve Spielberg.
The story begins in a wooded setting with the landing of an alien spacecraft. The interplanetary explorers seem to be studying the natural surroundings when a truck drives up, causing the aliens to flee. In the ensuing commotion, one of the aliens is left behind.
The story then moves to the suburban home of Elliot, a small boy living with his brother, sister and single mother. Theirs is a broken home with no father figure, as Elliot’s father has left his family for another woman. Elliot’s mother Mary (Dee Wallace) is barely able to take care of her family and keep control of her home. The children and their mother are coping with their circumstances and doing their best, but times are hard. Things are barely holding together for this family of four until the most wonderful thing happens.
On a normal night of games and friends, Elliot believes he sees something in the family shed. Upon further investigation, the boy finds he has discovered a benevolent alien being. The two seem to immediately bond. A day of playing hooky from school is used to familiarize Elliot’s new friend with as many aspects of Earth as a 10 year old can teach him. E.T. is able to learn even more by establishing a psychic link with Elliot. There are several scenes of E.T. bonding with not only Elliot, but his siblings as well. One of the best of these scenes is where Gertie, played cute as a button by Drew Barrymore, dresses E.T. up as a girl and teaches him how to speak. Another entertaining scene features E.T. going out for Halloween as a ghost. Both sequences are cute, but still tinged with a touch of sadness at the end, giving them more emotional gravity.
Things take a turn for the worst when E.T. begins to deteriorate due to a mysterious illness. Due to the mental link with Elliot the boy also suffers. Making things worse is the presence of a government task force that takes custody of E.T. and Elliot. Leading the taskforce is Peter Coyote, who actually plays a very benign scientist hoping to save E.T.
The end of E.T. is one of the most emotional last acts of any film in history. With admirable amount of action for a kid’s picture, tons of drama, comedy, one resurrection, and more movie-magic than ten Jerry Bruckheimer films.
E.T.may just be Spielberg’s finest film. The director has admitted himself that E.T. is the most personal film he has ever made. The emotional impact of the movie never loses its luster. Entertainment Weekly made the point that E.T. is almost the reverse Wizard of Oz. Instead of a child traveling to a far off wonderland of strange and magical creatures, the creatures come to us. No film shows off Spielberg’s facility to make a pleasing picture with an ample amount of underlying themes like a dysfunctional childhood, broken marriages, feeling disconnected, and even a Christ Allegory.
The last portion of the film is pitch perfect film making. Elliot and his brother scheme to save E.T. from the scientists planning on taking him away. They hijack a van in a really hilarious moment that Spielberg has set up previously in the story. Elliot’s brother Michael, played by Robert MacNaughton, has little experience driving which has been subtlety remarked upon by the script earlier, but suddenly is in the forefront of the whole story. At any rate they make their getaway and rendezvous with Michael’s friends, which begins the most remembered sequence of the movie. Elliot and friends continue their run from the police on bicycle. This is an extended chase that just when you think will end in tragedy, turns into a captivating moment.
None of this would matter without good performances from his actors. All cast members do top notch work and the children in this movie seem more genuine than any other child performances in memory. This film became one of the most successful box-office stories ever, with most of the movie featuring a 10-year old and a puppet. Henry Thomas’s Elliott is simply a marvel. It is the best child performance to be seen on screen that doesn’t involve Haley Joel Osment. Thomas doesn’t appear to be an actor pretending to feel like a young boy, he is a young boy in this film. His interactions with E.T. do not feel forced for a single moment of this picture. Elliot seems like a real child and not a convoluted character of Hollywood origins. Thomas’ best scenes come toward the end of the film. With E.T. suffering from his illness, Elliot helps to put a human face on the alien’s suffering. It makes the moment very personal. Not only are these characters enduring a terrible ordeal, it really seems like we, the audience, are watching friends going through this.
Is it fair to Drew Barrymore to consider this her best role? She’s been lovable in other films, but nothing like she is in E.T. Gertie is a picture perfect example of what a little sister should be. She is ready to get you in trouble at a moment’s notice, she is nosy, oblivious, but so darn cute you forget her other flaws.
Kudos should go to all involved for creating Peter Coyote’s Keys character. Instead of a run of the mill clich’d evil scientist, Keys comes off as a kind man who wants to help E.T. and Elliot. He seems like the man Elliot will grow up to be, and a father figure for a boy with no male parent in his life. Spielberg actually plays with the audience for most of the picture as Keys is only shown from the waist down and only identifiable because he always wears a big set of keys on his belt. This actually makes him quite ominous and at first implies a typical X-Files style villain, completely contrary to his actual character. This performance and Francois Truffaut’s Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind relate in my mind so closely because of the genuine love and wonderment both characters show for the strange journeys they are taking part in. Neither follows the normal cliche of a government agent, and both are better characters for it.
Supporting performances by Dee Wallace-Stone and Robert MacNaughton are quite good as Elliot’s mother Mary and brother Michael. Wallace-Stone is especially good at portraying the hardships of a single mother without drawing the focus of the film too much toward that theme. MacNaughton is also very believable as Michael. His relationship with Thomas was apparently very strong on the set and it is quite reflective in their relationship on screen.
The work done by the special effects crew to bring E.T. to life cannot be understated either. E.T. is not some silly puppet that sits in the corner and doesn’t say anything. E.T. is a fully realized, life-like character. There are moments in this film where life and death situations of this character have involved me as much as any human actor in any movie ever. Another key to the success of E.T.
as a complete film is John Williams’ score music. Williams’ cues in this film are not the overly sappy work he has done in the past with ham-fisted scores like The Patriot
. The score for E.T.
ranks right along with Superman
, Star Wars
, and Raiders of the Lost Ark
as John Williams’ best work. Like those other scores, Williams is able to elicit the picture in your mind of Elliot and his friends flying past the moon on their bikes. It is a score like this one that will be Williams’ legacy. There seems to really be something about Steven Spielberg that brings out the best in John Williams.
Spielberg made a landmark film with E.T.
. It went on to gross over $399 million at the box-office and was not only the highest grossing film of 1982, but became the highest grossing film ever at the time, beating out Spielberg’s close friend, George Lucas’ film, Star Wars
went on to be nominated for Best Picture, and although it lost out to Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi
it was the sentimental favorite of the night. On the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 films of the past century only two films of the last 25 years made it into the top 25. The first was Schindler’s List
at #9 and at #25 was E.T.
. The film is also in Roger Ebert’s list of the top 100 films and is #1 on Entertainment Weekly’s
list of the best children’s movies ever. The biggest accolade the film has probably gained is from the children who have watched it. E.T.
has lived on in the hearts and minds of a generation of children who have grown up loving the little alien. E.T. himself is a cultural icon of the same status as Yoda or R2D2. Spielberg may never make another film as touching as E.T., but the world has been enriched so much by it, that that sentiment may not be necessary.