I love “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” It is one of those movies that has the power to simultaneously make me smile from ear to ear and break my heart. And I never tire of that emotional journey it takes me on. I also never tire of revisiting early Steven Spielberg films. Side note: If you haven’t seen his first theatrical feature “The Sugarland Express,” do yourself a favor and rectify that.
While I may love “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” is the early Spielberg film that I return to more often than any other. It’s so special to me that I love sharing it with others. Years ago, I showed it to my Media Studies class, and their CGI-addled minds couldn’t deny how great this practical science-fiction film is.
What I especially love about this movie, though, is that I notice or appreciate something new every time I watch it. My wife and I saw it in theaters on Saturday, and during our screening, I was captivated by the lighting, cinematography and score.
Spielberg and his director of photography, Allen Daviau, created an otherworldly visual aesthetic in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles for “E.T.” This is evident in most of the first act. In the opening shots, locations are enveloped in shadow and figures can only be seen because occasional bright lights slice through the darkness.
These lighting choices create a mysterious and frightening mood surrounding the titular extra-terrestrial and the government agents tailing him. E.T. skulks through the darkness, reaches his long fingers around doorways, and leaves behind three-toed footprints. The government agents are faceless silhouettes with blinding flashlights. They look nearly as alien as E.T. But as the lead character, Elliot (Henry Thomas), opens himself up to new experiences with these mysterious figures, his fear dissipates.
The lighting mimics this emotional dissipation. As Elliot familiarizes himself with E.T., the lighting reveals that the alien isn’t frightening. The young boy discovers that he is an intelligent and compassionate creature who needs help.
However, the shadowy aesthetic returns when the government agents barge into Elliot’s home. Suddenly, the agents seem more terrifying than E.T. ever was. But even their alien-like appearance is short-lived when we see compassion and curiosity in the face of Peter Coyote’s character, Agent Keys. In “E.T.,” everything around Elliot is initially terrifying and alien, but he discovers the humanity in all, and Spielberg masterfully captures that.
The other master of his art featured in this film is John Williams. What can I say about this award-winning composer that other critics haven’t said a hundred times? He skillfully taps into human emotion better than any living composer. This skill is even more impressive when you consider that he builds feeling around fantastical imagery.
In the final scene of the movie, E.T. embraces Elliot before he departs. Daviau perfectly frames the shots, and Henry Thomas’s acting is marvelous. That said, if you broke this scene down into its basic visual components, you have an animatronic alien hugging a little boy. On the surface, it’s all a bit silly.
Yet Williams manages to change what seems silly into something magical with his scores. He provides Spielberg’s imagery emotional resonance that can make an alien hug goodbye heartfelt. Moreover, his score is a stunning masterpiece because it captures both the childlike sense of wonder and the emotional devastation of loss Spielberg wanted present in the film.
Williams also doesn’t get enough credit for creating a suspenseful mood at the beginning of the film. Yes, he’s known for his musical choices during the iconic bike rides through the sky and the conclusion, but he also does a fantastic job with the opening of the movie. His build-up to the first time we see E.T. is nearly as chilling as what he does with the build-up before the shark attacks in “Jaws.”
The score, lighting and cinematography may have stood out to me this time, but depending on the day, I could latch on to any aspect of this movie. It’s perfect, and everyone who worked on it should be proud of their contributions. I always love revisiting this Spielberg classic, and I’ll never tire of the emotional journey with the iconic creature from another world Elliot affectionately calls E.T.