Film Critic Sean Burns Reflects on Spielberg’s ‘ET’ Masterpiece 40 Years Later


I was 7 in the summer of 1982 when my family went to see “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” at what I’m pretty sure was the Showcase Woburn multiplex on Rt. 128. My dad had sworn off the movie theater General of Burlington a few weeks before, after he and I saw “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and the theater had the audacity to play a radio spot from Jordan’s Furniture after the lights went out. . Paying big bucks to be a captive audience for commercials was beyond pale, my dad made that clear to the director in no uncertain terms. (In retrospect, we weren’t sure how well we had it.) Anyway, our screening of “ET” was full that afternoon, as most screenings of the film had been during the most of the summer. Steven Spielberg’s harrowing story about a boy and his alien friend had become more than just a box office phenomenon, it was a cross-generational cultural juggernaut that would not be seen again until “Titanic” 15 years later. Unfortunately this meant we had to sit next to strangers.

As the older brother, I was deputized to be the buffer between my little sister and the empty seat next to us, which shortly before show time was occupied by a burly, bearded man in a denim vest. coupé which had arrived alone at the theater. I was terrified. To my 7-year-old eyes, he looked like a Hell’s Angel, whoever they were. I grabbed the armrest and stared straight ahead at the screen, trying to be brave. But after a while, I couldn’t help but notice that this tall, intimidating gentleman was sniffling a bit. As the film progressed, he began to cry, eventually transitioning into violent full body sobs for the film’s heartbreaking farewell scene in the forest. “ET” had made this sophomore and future film critic very sad, but the scary, hairy giant sitting next to me was inconsolable.

“ET” is one of the purest and most emotionally direct American films, without any adult condescension or self-protective irony.

Spielberg’s masterpiece is being re-released in IMAX for its 40th anniversary, and nearly every friend I’ve spoken to has had the same reaction: an initial thrill at the idea of ​​revisiting a favorite movie, followed by a pale admission to the effect of “I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle this.” “ET” is one of the purest and most emotionally direct American films, without any adult condescension or self-protective irony. Spielberg’s brilliantly subjective camera work forces even the most jaded and cynical viewers back to a child’s perspective, which might explain why he hits adults so much harder than children. Shot with a (relative) tight margin between Indiana Jones footage, it’s the filmmaker’s most unassuming work, anchoring interstellar wonders in the kind of everyday suburban rituals that made Steven Spielberg the Norman Rockwell of the ages. 1980. He conjured up an Americana of cluttered kitchens and messy rooms, sprawling housing estates that were havens for biking and playing Dungeons & Dragons after bedtime and ordering pizza without mom’s permission.

Elliott, 11, of Henry Thomas is the middle child, too young to be anything but the butt of jokes with his big brother Michael’s friends and too old to want to hang out with his little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, stealing the film precisely because she doesn’t act precociously.) It’s Elliott who feels their father’s absence most deeply, with the details of a recent divorce scattered in hushed conversations and whispered asides. Thomas breaks your heart right off the bat because his emotions are so tender and close to the surface. He never feels like a child actor playing for the camera. He’s a lonely little boy in need of a friend, so it’s a coincidence that this pot-bellied, pot-bellied creature with oversized, shriveled eyes ends up in Elliott’s backyard.

What is remarkable about “ET” is the lack of explanation and the lack of need.

“ET” is shot almost entirely from a child’s perspective, with the camera rarely more than four feet off the ground and the adults all seen in silhouette or photographed from the waist up like Charlie Brown’s teachers for all three first – the quarters of the film. The only exception is Elliott’s mother, Mary, played by cherub Dee Wallace as if she were a tall grand herself. (One of my favorite acting parts in the entire movie is how hard she tries not to laugh while scolding Elliott for calling her brother “penis blast.”)

What is remarkable about “ET” is the lack of explanation and the lack of need. Spielberg says he told “The Black Stallion” screenwriter Melissa Mathison about the idea on the Tunisian set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where she was hanging out with her future husband Harrison Ford. Six weeks later, she had fleshed out a first draft, which is what they ended up shooting the following year. Mathison’s screenplay remains an economics miracle – there’s no exposition at all. The boy’s physiological bond with the creature is established entirely through cross-functional and performance choices, such as the afternoon ET spills a few beers while watching “The Quiet Man” on TV and Elliott starts acting drunk and impersonating John. Wayne. One can easily imagine today’s studio executives demanding that someone stop the movie to tell us exactly why Gertie’s geranium wilts and blooms based on the health of our visiting friend. Spielberg and Mathison knew they just had to show it.

The whole movie works like this, existing almost entirely on a primal, emotional level. The chaotic home of these children – how nice to remember houses in movies that looked like people actually lived there – is filmed by cinematographer Allen Daviau with a richly reassuring golden glow that s suddenly turns off when government scientists arrive in their Hazmat suits, shrouding these once hot chambers in cold plastic and harsh white light. It’s the scariest scene in the film because it sticks in your mind like a violation, the sacred space of children invaded by these imposing automatons with indistinguishable masks. Likewise, bicycles have always been a means of liberation for children – it’s how you escape geographical and adult-imposed constraints before you’re old enough to ride – so it makes perfect sense that these bikes can fly . We don’t need to know how.

The final scenes of “ET” work more like opera than movie, hovering somewhere beyond words over the exultant strains of John Williams’ score. But during post-production, the composer struggled to conform his music to Spielberg’s cut patterns. In an extremely rare move, the director unlocked the image and asked Williams to record the score first without using his footage as a guide. Spielberg then re-edited the ending to Williams’ beats, allowing the music to take center stage and carrying the film into the starry evening sky. Like many of my friends, I’m a little worried it’s too much for me to handle on a huge IMAX screen. But maybe it’s my turn to be the big, sobbing beard of some kid in my row who’ll be writing in about 40 years.

“ET the Extra-Terrestrial” returns to IMAX theaters on Friday, August 12.


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