"E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" has entered the pantheon of American pop culture in such a way that any film critic approaching it has to declare his or her bias up front: it is as hard to be objective about "E.T." As it is about "The Wizard of Oz" or the original "Toy Story." It seems embarrassing to use the tools of serious film criticism on something like "E.T." simply because most people have an instinctive sense that children are actually fairly tough critics, and that anything that is so universally acclaimed as children's entertainment as Steven Spielberg's 1982 science fiction masterpiece can't really be a serious movie, simply because it happens to be slick and professional. But revisiting "E.T." is also a useful way for anyone with an interest in serious film criticism to watch a film that actually works. "E.T." is actually a remarkably effective film, in part because of Spielberg's counterintuitive approach on a number of particulars.
The genre of "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial" is, of course, science fiction -- but this is science fiction with a firm grounding in suburban realism. Minus the alien, the family in "E.T." might provide a particularly poignant sub-plot in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," and the milieu of West Coast working class life depicted in the Raymond Carver stories that Altman adapted: Elliott lives in a broken home, and his mother is clearly struggling. This is not the customary backdrop for anything we'd call "science fiction" even if the space-ship that we see immediately at the film's beginning has all the chromium grandeur of an Industrial Light and Magic special effect. But in the larger context of films being made at this time, George Lucas's "Star Wars" films -- the first two of which were released before "E.T" -- had clearly prepared audiences for the mix of whimsical comedy and stirring adventure that is common to both Lucas and Spielberg. (In terms of these switches, it's worth noting that Carol Littleton's masterful editing does a lot of the work -- it is purely her work that the sequence in which E.T. drinks the beer but Elliott gets woozy functions as narrative, let alone as comedy. Her touch is a little less deft with the more melodramatic touches of the film, such as the sudden intrusion of Peter Coyote and the quarantining of the house.)
But "E.T." is (crucially) not a "space opera" like "Star Wars" but is set on earth, and has to remain credible and down-to-earth about its schoolboy protagonist. Films with child protagonists often slip very easily into the mawkish and sentimental, simply because it is difficult to find a credible film story with a child protagonist in which the stakes are sufficiently high to engage our interest while at the same time not forcing the child to engage in age-inappropriate activities. But Elliott in "E.T." must help his new best friend to evade capture by U.S. government scientists and return to his home planet. The stakes could not be higher -- but what is remarkable about the film is how delicately (and realistically) the actual situations are dramatized. What could be corny or melodramatic is, instead, viewed from a child's eye view -- which, in Spielberg's universe, has a kind of stark honesty about it. Still, it is worth noting that the story and screenplay of "E.T." manage to negotiate some tough territory. Roger Ebert -- who endorsed the movie in the highest possible terms -- pointed this out as part of his praise for Spielberg's skill. Ebert noted of "E.T"
Some people are a little baffled when they hear it described: It's about a relationship between a little boy and a creature from outer space that becomes his best friend. That makes it sound like a cross between "The Thing" and "National Velvet." It works as science fiction, it's sometimes as scary as a monster movie, and at the end, when the lights go up, there's not a dry eye in the house (Ebert 2002).
Ebert's choice of words is deliberately emphasizing the strangeness of the plot, but that is part of what I would term the counterintuitive greatness of "E.T." In this sense, I think, the fact that I, like so many other viewers, carried with me the bias of having known and loved this film so early (without having re-watched it recently) was actually useful, because I was now able to view it and notice how much of the film was not precisely as I had remembered it. I recalled it as being positive and optimistic -- Pauline Kael describes "E.T." As being "bathed in warmth" (Kael 225), and that is precisely how I remembered it -- but I had not remembered that it hardly brings light to accompany that warmth. The overall lighting and the cinematography by D.P. Allen Daviau is more like film noir than I had remembered. So much of "E.T." is set at night or in darkness -- which seems, on the most purely technical level of the mise-en-scene, partly designed to keep Carlo Rambaldi's creature (with its goggle eyes and extendable neck) looking as realistic and plausible as possible.
That creature design is probably the most obviously counterintuitive aspect of the film: the creature is not immediately appealing or cuddly. John Williams supposedly stated that this was his starting point in writing the score -- that he would have to summon up sympathy for such an unlikely and unattractive title character. The score that Williams provided is (as usually) effective but hardly subtle. Still, it has a yearning character that seems to express the creature's wish to return home -- a yearning for flight that is satisfied beyond our wildest dreams when the bicycle takes up past the full moon, and again at the end when E.T. boards his spaceship. In addition, the creature's awkwardness -- and the fact that it just wants to return to its own family -- makes it more like Elliott himself: the empathetic bond that E.T. establishes with Elliott actually makes sense on the narrative level as well. They're in similar situations, and they allow Elliott the chance to perform an act of heroism in helping his friend. Pauline Kael spoke of the film's "fusion of science fiction and mythology" as "emotionally rounded and complete: it reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid, and rehabilitates them" (Kael 225). In that sense, the creature's plausibility is far more important than its cuddliness. Similarly the one element of sound design that truly leaps out is Ben Burtt's remarkable design for E.T.'s voice, which was supposedly compounded of various different sounds layered atop one another. It is a miracle of sound design that when E.T. delivers his final line to Elliott, we manage to respond emotionally to a voice that is, quite literally, designed to sound alien. But it is this paradoxical mix of realism with wild science fiction that Anthony Lane in The New Yorker singled out as the film's success (on its re-release in 2002): "there is nothing more real than sitting in your own back yard -- waiting for the unreal to come down, take a handful of candy, and fly you to the moon" (Lane 86). If we wanted to take a negative view of this creature design -- which I happen to think is uniquely effective -- we would have to take a negative and reductionist view of the film as a whole. It's hard to find negative reviews of "E.T.," but Don McKellar's review in the Village Voice for the 2002 re-release actually dislikes the whole film, but does so for reasons which are related to the counter-intuitive aspects of the design and mise-en-scene. McKellar writes that "E.T. is a dog movie. Genre-wise, I mean. It's about a boy meeint a dog, naming it, taming it, learning from it, and growing up. Of course the genre is superficially designed as science fiction, as was the fashion at the time" (McKellar 2002). But as my description of the creature design (and so much else) as "counterintuitive" should indicate, I think Spielberg takes great pains to avoid giving us something that is as easily befriended as a puppy -- E.T. is not like Elliott's pet, he's like Elliott's existential crisis as a child of divorce turned into a strangely realistic yet not particularly emotional frog-like creature. I think McKellar is deliberately groping for a sentimentality in the film that simply is not there.
It is certainly interesting to apply the basics of film study to an unapologetically commercial Hollywood film, and to analyze its effects in terms of the basics of film criticism. For example, my memory of the film as a child was that it was largely a hopeful and heartwarming story -- but viewing it I noted with some surprise that most of it is set at night or in the dark (which I had not recalled). Spielberg's lighting scheme is practically out of a film noir, and…