In a decade that had 3 Indiana Jones movies, 2 Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters, Batman, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rain Man, Top Gun, and The Little Mermaid, only onle movie came out on top of the domestic box office:
ET: the Extra-Terrestrial.
This is pure movie magic.
Steven Spielberg created a modern fairy tale for the ages.
This is really a movie that only Spielberg could pull off.
Many have criticized Spielberg's early work, saying that he had a childish way of looking at the world and that he had to out-grow his Peter Pan persona. This radically misunderstands the man. Spielberg is not childish; he is child-like.
A childish world-view is one that is completely centered on the self and the petty insecurities and wants of the immature ego. A "mature" movie like the most recent version of A Star is Born is actually an incredibly childish movie where all the characters lack the basic maturity to see beyond themselves.
A child-like world-view is one that sees how big, scary, and wondrous this world is in a way that rejuvenates the spirit with the right balance of wisdom and innocence.
ET is a movie that could only be told from the point of view of a child. And yet because of this, I think people tend to overlook how sophisticated the directing is. They get caught up in the sweeping, heart-felt adventure (because when you are a child, anything can be a sweeping, heart-felt adventure) that the sentiment overshadows the artistry. But ET is meticulously crafted to bring you into the child's world.
I watched the movie a few years ago as an adult and I marveled at how much I changed as a person. When I was young, I completely identified with Elliott. As a man, I would not have made any of his choices. If a strange creature of unknown origin was lurking around my home at night, I would become incredibly defensive. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. A man understand that the world is dangerous and that he has a responsibility to protect he people in his life. But a child, in his innocence, can see the potential unlikely friendship. And Spielberg draws you into Elliott's world.
Something I did not notice until a few years ago is that for most of the movie, the adult faces are absent. With the exception of Elliott's mom and The scientist played by Peter Coyote, we really don't see any adult faces. Look back at the science classroom scene and notice that we never see the teacher's face. Spielberg capture how distant and alien adults feel to us. Even the mom is kept at arm's length emotionally as she is outside the emotional journey until the third act.
Spielberg wisely doesn't not immediately make ET safe. He employs the lessons he learned from Jaws to hint at his presence with swinging swing sets and flapping gates in the dark. Much of the original action of the movie takes place at night because when you are a child, night is full of monsters. But Elliott confronts his fears because his sense of wonder and curiosity are too strong. Notice the wonderful child-like way Elliott makes friends with ET: candy. It is so simple and understandable (which is why we have try so hard to train children not to take candy from strangers).
Watch as he captures what it's like to have a real best friend. When you are the middle kid, you are too young to play with the older kids and you are old to be the baby. There can be some loneliness, even if you are not alone. But when you find a best friend, it feels like you are two halves of the same person, which is what you find in ET. The scene where ET gets drunk and it affects Elliott isn't just a humorous moment. It shows what it's like to make a bond with someone like this. You feel what they feel and your emotional journey becomes intimately tied. Their connection is so strong that they start become one. It is no mistake that the first and last letter of the main character's name are "E" and "T."
That scene also captures how Spielberg himself sees the world. Notice how ET watches The Quiet Man and Elliott mirrors the actions in real life. Spielberg was raised on movies and that gave him a frame of reference for looking and acting in the world. That is true of so many of us raised on movies and television: our images of who we are and what we should do usually find some reference point in a movie. I know that I would often think of how Luke Skywalker would act in a given situation if I wanted to act heroically. I'm sure many kids today think the same about Iron Man or Captain America.
As I said before the movie is magic. John Williams score enhances and solidifies what Spielberg put on the screen. Everyone remembers the night flight scene and it is so beautiful that Spielberg chose it out of all his shots to the be logo of his Amblin Entertainment. He captures the part of growing up where you have to encounter something scary only to discover the joy and exhilaration to be found. Spielberg doesn't have to articulate it in words, he just shows you in the visual the innocent ecstasy of joy.
And he brings you in to the heartbreaking agony of loss. As we grow up, we guard our hearts against the suffering of the world. We are not quick to embrace things for fear of what bad things may come of it. But children are whole-hearted. Elliott gives his entire self to ET, so much so that as ET gets sick, so does Elliott. When you are a child, anything you give your heart to has the potential to break it. I remember being in the theater for Avengers: Infinity War and hear all these children crying when their heroes died, especially Spider-Man. Some adults may have cried too, but we know how to put things in perspective and minimize the pain. But we forget that this also minimizes the love. The pain is so great because the love is so great with Elliott and ET. Spielberg makes you feel every moment of this loss. And it is only after ET dies that we finally begin to see the faces of all the other adults. At that moment for Elliott, childhood is over and the world is a little less mysterious and magical. The adult scientists are not monsters. They are just people. Ordinary, boring people. And Elliott is now one of them.
Or is he?
Here is where Spielberg's genius in executing Melissa Mathison's script can be seen. It also gives you an important insight into Spielberg himself. You cannot remain a child. You have to know that the world is going to hurt you. But then you have a choice: do you harden your heart or do you accept the pain that comes with love.
Elliott chooses love. It is no mistake that the final act involves the kids versus the adults. You can seen Spielberg's child-like innocence rebelling against the forces of fear and violence. It is here that Elliott can finally also see some adults as something like himself. His mom and Peter Coyote's character come down to his level. They embrace the emotional truth of the journey and meet him at the end. In fact, when you rewatch the movie as an adult, you see that Spielberg has given you a window into this single mother that you may not have noticed as a child. He gives you just enough to piece together her world but frames it through Elliott's eyes.
And the end journey is a journey towards heartbreak. As magical as the final adventure is, it leads to a final goodbye. Elliott learns that love is not the childish need for emotional fulfillment. Love is about sacrifice. The simple dialogue is so profound. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be schlocky. In Spielberg's hands you feel emotions so deep that pages of words couldn't express them:
"I'll be right here."
And as they embrace, Elliott looks at his mom, who has dropped to his height. It's seems as though they are really looking at each other for the first time. Elliott's friendship with ET has helped him see the love in his life he had been ignoring. The great friendships are not ones that draw you away from others but instead make you a more loving person to others.
You also cannot overlook the spiritual analogies. Spielberg is not a Christian, but he understands the power of that spiritual and mythic imagery. A visitor comes down from the heavens who brings love, friendship, and healing. He dies and he rises only to return to the heavens.
The final shot always makes me so emotional. It isn't of ET's ship flying off to some distant galaxy, as we saw in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Instead, it is a shot of Elliott. He is changed. The journey has turned into someone who has been hurt, but not broken. He has taken a step to become the man he should be, the man Spielberg wants to be too.
You leave ET rejuvenated and more in touch with the child-like wonder that you need to make your adult life magical.