Friday, July 15, 2011

1982 - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Well, I'm back from a week in Delaware, where I was shooting Fridays, a short film that centres on an 11-year-old girl named Jenny, who, once a week, visits her terminally ill best friend in hospital. I play Jenny's concerned and protective father, David, who is somewhat unsure how to help his daughter deal with such a sobering predicament. It was quite a rewarding, if a little exhausting, shoot, and I will certainly keep you all abreast of the film's progress on the festival circuit.

Back in New York, our desktop computer has been rather uncooperative of late, shutting itself down at seemingly random moments. The obnoxious whirring noise that used to fill the room each time the computer was in operation has now entirely subsided. Thus, it seems relatively clear that we have a lazy fan unwilling to fulfil its cooling duties, thereby allowing the system to overheat and pack it in.

Miraculously, though, the computer survived long enough for me to watch the entirety of the next Best Picture contender from 1982...

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg
Melissa Mathison
Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
4 wins, including Best Original Score

After his spaceship makes an emergency take-off before he has boarded, a lonely and frightened alien is stranded in northern California. Taking shelter in a nearby backyard shed, he is soon discovered by a young boy named Elliott (Thomas), who secretly hides him in his bedroom. Elliott introduces his new friend to his older brother Michael (MacNaughton) and his younger sister Gertie (Barrymore), who begin to find ways to communicate with E.T., as they come to call him, while keeping him hidden from their mother (Wallace). As Elliott and E.T. become psychically attuned to each other's feelings, Elliott realises that E.T. pines for his own home and helps him build a communication device that will signal his people.

This is how you make a movie. The epitome of modern Hollywood, E.T. is simply captivating on almost every level and I struggle to explain why (which is horribly inconvenient since that is precisely for what this blog is intended). Despite being almost entirely wordless, the mesmerising opening sequence is crystal clear and immediately moving. It is as great an example of the cinematic style of storytelling as you are likely to find. Smartly written, beautifully shot, intricately edited.

Although I endeavour to view the original theatrical release of each nominee for the purpose of fairness, Netflix delivered the 20th anniversary edition of E.T., which includes a slightly longer cut with additional scenes and visual effects enhancements. These modern additions make for an interesting experience. On the one hand, seeing E.T. as a CGI character is a little unsettling, aware as we are that such technology was not in existence in 1982. On the other hand, it allows for a much more expressive E.T., particularly when viewed alongside the comparatively limited facial animatronics of the original. As it stands, E.T. is an immensely accessible character. One can only imagine how much more lovable he might have been were the film made today. That said, there is something mysteriously charming and perhaps nostalgic about the now seemingly primitive puppetry. These minor distractions, however, do little to disrupt the story and it all simply confirms my notion that I should always watch the original theatrical cut during this project, making such discussions moot. So, feel free to ignore this entire paragraph.

Spielberg is quite honestly at his masterful best here. In collaboration with cinematographer Allen Daviau, each shot is exquisitely composed, crafting a moody and evocative atmosphere. Toss in the delicate editing by Carol Littleton and the magical score by John Williams and the result is a masterclass in the emotionally manipulative effects of movie-making that even the best film schools would struggle to teach. Granted, there is a glossy Hollywood feeling to the picture, but it is undoubtedly intended to be a fantasy film. In that context, the pure movie magic is overwhelmingly appropriate. The important thing, however, is that it is always rooted in reality. The circumstances may be fantastical, but the characters' reactions are deeply human.

As is his wont, Spielberg assembled yet another naturally gifted cast, including many children. Carrying the film with one of cinema's most impressive child performances is Henry Thomas, finding the perfect mix of childishness and maturity. Playing the big brother, Robert MacNaughton likewise delivers a nuanced performance, mature beyond his years, while Drew Barrymore, as the young innocent sister, is impossibly cute. As the only adult face we see for the vast majority of the movie, Dee Wallace is amiable and touching. For the keen-eyed viewers, C. Thomas Howell can be seen in his big screen debut as one of Michael's friends, and also in her film debut, that's former Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak as the young girl that Elliott romances.


  1. I know, I know. I can't wait to I can share ET with Clementine in a few years. Beautiful, beautiful film. We have the 20th anniversary edition of E.T. and it's so interesting to see the back story of how it was made and the casting process etc. Love it.

  2. Many great directors have their personal films; those that tap into their personal history and experiences. Martin Scorsese had Mean Streets, Oliver Stone had Platoon, Woody Allen had Annie Hall, or was it Manhattan, or was it Hannah and Her Sisters, or was get the picture. For Steven Spielberg it was ET. Schindler's list was personal from a cultural and historical perspective and Saving Private Ryan as a tribute to his father. ET was the story of a young boy from a suburban broken family, who dreamed big and was in need of a friend. It is both enchanting and entrancing, told from both a child's attitude and perspective. The adults are hardly seen, and when they are they're filmed mostly from the waist down, like a Charlie Brown Peanuts cartoon.

    Steven Spielberg has directed some very fine films. I don't know if ET is his best, but it is the closest to flawless as he has come.