It is universally accepted that while June 21st may be the solar beginning of summer, May marks the beginning of summer at the movie theater box office. Most of these films are best known for their wham, bang action, spectacles. However one summer blockbuster was given the simple tag-line of “The story that touched the world”. That film was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and this year that film is celebrating its 30thanniversary.
There are two experiences a person can have with a first viewing of E.T. There is the first type, like my cousin and most of my friends who saw it as children and were scared by the alien. Then there is the second type of experience, one that is considerably rare. That experience is had by those who were enchanted from the start. I was in the later group at the tender age of three. It is the kind of movie where, as I’ve watched it over the years, I’ve come to love it even more.
The film E.T. was born while director Steven Spielberg was taking a break on the set of one of his other big block-busters, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The original story featured a race of aliens coming down to destroy earth but one kind benevolent alien makes friends with a young boy. The malevolent alien thread was dropped and the story of the boy and the alien became the focus. Spielberg shopped the film around and a number of studios rejected it fearing it was just a stupid Disney movie. The original script even featured the boy Elliot using M&M’s to lure E.T. into his house, but they rejected the proposal and instead it became Reese’s Pieces.
The movie debuted and it became one of the highest grossing films of all time, knocking Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas’s Star Wars from the top spot. It is not too surprising. While many block-busters feature explosions (even the psychological thrillers of Chris Nolan have their share of explosions) E.T. is 100 % explosion free. It is a film that young and old can enjoy (with some exceptions of course).
The film is the story of a little alien botanist (later named Greibleips following his cameo in Star Wars Episode I) who gets separated from his reconnaissance team. He meets up a boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas) who keeps him safely hidden in his house. However the government is searching for the little alien, whom Eliot and his siblings call “E.T.”
Many times the film falls under fire from some viewers because of the language. The children are at times rather obscene. However a more then cursory glance at the movie reveals that Elliot’s father walked out on the family, devastating all of them. Every detail from how hard the mother, Mary (Dee Wallace) is working not just at providing for her family, but to try and hold it together, to how the children talk, to the way they behave is evidence of this absence.
The three children, Elliot, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and Michael are convincing in their rolls and give some of the best acting performances of child actors. They honestly feel like a family, they argue and bicker but you can tell that they love each other. Michael is forced to grow up too fast and become the man of the house, Elliot wants things back to normal and people to listen to him, and Gertie, well, she’s the precocious baby sister.
It is also the performances of these young actors that make this charming film so compelling. They seem to genuinely make a connection to the little alien, and that is in turn what makes E.T. so convincing has a character. In a commercial for the animated film Bee Movie Steven Spielberg tells Jerry Seinfeld, “ You know what E.T. was made out of? Some brown clay-dough and chicken wire.” Without those kids, as well as the work of the puppeteers, Stuart Freeborn’s amazing design work and the voice work and sound design by Ben Burtt there was no way E.T. would have been as “real”.
It is these performances that make the climactic moment when E.T. dies so heart wrenching, but also make his resurrection so jubilant .You, with these kids, come to love E.T. He becomes that friend you would always want. Steven Spielberg, in answering a question on the inferred Christian allegory of E.T. said that , “ There was no way I’d make a Christian allegory. My mother owns a kosher deli in Ohio, she’d disown me. I saw E.T. as the kind of friend I wished I had when I was a kid to help me heal from my parents divorce.”
Sure enough E.T. does that for Elliot. He not only heals Elliot’s physical wounds, but also helps heal his emotional ones. For example, it becomes easier for Michael and Elliot to talk about their father and they even plan to go and do the old things they used to do before he left. We even see Elliot given the offer to come with E.T. and decide to stay on Earth with his family.
Driving the movie along is an impressive score by John Williams. The theme from E.T. is probably one of his most joyous themes, second only to his Superman fanfare. Just try humming it while you are riding on a bicycle and it is going to make you feel like you are flying, just like E.T. and Eliot do in that classic scene from the movie.
The late Ralph McQuarrie designed the space ship for E.T., and it is nothing short of beautiful. It would be very easy to give E.T. your stereotypical flying saucer, but Spielberg wisely chose to commission some one to give us something different. In the end movie goers got a breathtakingly beautiful ship, one that is as iconic and memorable as the USS Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, and the mothership in Close Encounters.
At the end of the film before he leaves Earth, E.T. makes his finger light glow as he points to Elliot’s heart and tells him, “I’ll be right here.” In that moment he just doesn’t say it to Elliot but to all of us watching. 30 years later E.T. still continues to touch our hearts. Any film maker can blow up a planet for their summer blockbuster, but it took a truly talented film maker, Steven Spielberg, to touch our planet. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg. And thank you E.T. Happy 30th Birthday, little guy.