E.T. opens like a horror movie. What are we so afraid of? Aliens? People? Divorce? Growing up? Fear is everywhere - the alien screams when he sees the dog, the siblings scream when they see the alien, the mother pours out her coffee and covers her mouth. The men in space suits frighten the family when they break in to their suburban home, and they themselves seem frightened by their responsibility for this strange creature. These are the moments of dramatic fright, but a deeper, creepier sense of fear pervades throughout - present whenever Spielberg cuts away to those ominous men in blue jeans, shining flashlights and slashing through the foliage. Fear lingers in scenes of acute domestic unease, when arguments about doing the dishes turn into revelations of family secrets, or a visit to the garage turns up mementos of father-son bonding, now bygones of an extinct era.
Unlike most horror films, whose visions of the "other" are fundamentally conservative, E.T. seeks transcendence in a tentative escape from the normative, into the foreign. In the process it both domesticates the stranger and "alienates" the familiar; while the alien becomes more human, the knickknacks of suburban boyhood also take on a peculiar, curious quality, as if we are seeing them for the first time and realizing the surfaces we noticed before were merely illusions. This is Spielberg's gift, which most blockbuster filmmakers lack: an insight into the sublime qualities of the everyday, the mysterious in the mundane, so that elements many directors would treat in a banal, obligatory fashion are lingered over, savored and seen with new eyes - that of a child, or of an alien.
It is incredibly important that the first scene follows E.T., rather than Elliot. This achieves two aims: it makes us feel like aliens ourselves, a feeling that lingers into our introduction to the little boy; and it establishes the human world - specifically the adult world - as disturbing, threatening, and strange. These aims are fundamentally subversive. In its distrust of authority, fear of father figures, faith in intuitive imagination and the realm of emotions, portrait of a dysfunctional family and alienating environment, and identification with the alien, E.T. is closer to the hippie sensibility of the 60s than the Reaganite reaction of the 80s (the casting of Peter Coyote, former Digger, is an ironic nod in this direction - ironic since he plays the kind of governmental authority his movement reacted against).
Though the film obscures some of this critique at its feel-good conclusion (an effect grotesquely heightened when Spielberg erased the guns in agents' hands, feeling they were too threatening), I think too much has been made of its desires for reconciliation and comfort, forgetting that these desires are grounded in a very real world, and that very much is wrong with it. A wishful solution does not negate the fundamental critique. However, if the political claims against the film's sentimentality have been overstated, aesthetically I do have some problems with the film's approach. The whole middle section of the film - its supposed heart, as E.T. and Elliot bond, I now find to be too hasty and plot-encumbered; nonstop music, constant dialogue, and accumulating narrative developments obscure the more lingering, more magical tone of our first encounters with E.T. and Elliot (including their first encounter with one another). I felt myself held back by the busyness, rather than invited in.
Likewise, I wonder if it isn't a mistake to let E.T. speak, in English anyway - it makes him too human, too domesticated. In the very first scene (where he is represented only through fingers, silhouette, and burning red heart) he is completely alien, yet we are with him totally. This proves that it is not his "familiarity" (established via cutesy devices), but his outsider status, which endears him to us. A better balance, with E.T. taking the boy deeper into an alien world (as he initially seems to) might have mitigated the sense of making the alien "safe" which hinders the dreamy power of the opening minutes. As it is, E.T.'s use, as Robin Wood once noted, is fairly opportunistic - his personality shifting as the given scene demands, much like a child's invisible friend, responsive to the whims of the moment. That's my take as a grown-up anyway; as a kid it didn't bother me much.
Speaking of which, the strongest performance of the film belongs to Robert McNaughton as the older brother Michael - an unsung character, but an essential one, especially for older viewers. He is positioned between the world of the adult and the child, in which he must bear the burden of comforting the newly single mother while also relating to his siblings on their own level. As such, he is a gateway into the film (the mother is too out of it to be of much help, and the rest of the adults are severed above the waste in a in a kind of reverse castration - as Wood noted in his sometimes helpful, sometimes overblown critique of the movie, they're all Phallus). Incidentally, he's also a carrier of the film's more rebellious tendencies - from his Halloween costume to his No Nukes t-shirt to his humming of Elvis Costello.
The tenuousness of Mike's presence in either the adult or the child's world is often touching, as when he falls asleep in a room full of stuffed animals and wakes up to find the flower pot (indicative of E.T.'s life force) wilting away. It's not just E.T.'s death, but his own lost innocence (or rather, heightened, childlike awareness), that he mourns. It's also rather moving when he reaches out to touch the alien and E.T. instinctively recoils before relenting - even after their adventures, the alien is unsure if this boy-man belongs to the understanding world of children or the threatening world of adults. Ironically, the actor himself seems to have suffered similarly - he's hardly mentioned in nostalgic celebrations of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas, and on anniversary specials he hovers in the corner, awkward and ignored by the other cast and crew. It's as if in celebrating the movie, everyone wants to forget that children must grow up.
Yet this does the movie a disservice, because alongside its ultimate denial of death or dissolution is a tacit, fearful acknowledgement of their power. As previously noted, the death of E.T. does not just connote a death of innocence, but an extinguishing of emotion. "I know you're dead," Elliot tells the (soon to be reanimated) corpse, "because I can't feel anything anymore." This is why deriding this and other childlike films as "escapist" misses the fundamental point - here childhood does not represent retreat from the truths of adulthood, but engagement with a deeper strain of reality that the adults have forgotten. The film itself mixes this message by indulging in optimism and defusing antagonistic elements, but throughout its story the children are carriers of pain as well as wonder, confusion as well as clarity, deep fear (justified) as well as a longing for comfort.
E.T. was my favorite movie as a kid, because it seemed to fuse two strains of my love for movies: the desire to be swept away by illusion (in the alien himself, marvelously realized by Carlo Rambaldi), and the need to see reality itself more clearly, to appreciate and observe each moment in all its uniqueness (the texture and detail of the home scenes, where Spielberg seems to be making a documentary about suburban life as much as shooting a sci-fi film). These dual impulses were fed by Hollywood adventures on the one hand and personal home movies on the other, and they could be traced back to the root of cinema itself, with Melies and Lumiere. This time, contra to my past few viewings, it was actually the Melies element that most engaged me: I responded to the rich visuals, the special-effects wizardry, and the eerie moments of first discovery more than the domestic milieu (compromised, I'm beginning to suspect, by narrative momentum in a way Close Encounters was not). But it's the presence of both ways of seeing that makes the movie work, providing not sheer escapism, but a re-engagement with reality when the movie's over, seeing the ordinary with fresh, alien eyes.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial appears at 3:30 in "Searching for Answers," a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."