By Rachel Deahl
Some films remain forever in our collective conscious not simply as films, but as milestones of the past. These are films that we see at a particular moment in time and are forever bound to that moment: to the person we were with, the things we were doing, the people we were.
I was four years old when my parents took me to see E.T. It remains one of my earliest memories of "going to the movies." And, despite one or two incomplete viewings on television, seeing the 20th Anniversary Edition marks the first time I've seen Stephen Spielberg's alien opus in its entirety in 20 years.
What I remembered of E.T. was, well, limited (chalk it up to the difference in perspective between a pre-schooler and a 20something). I remembered Drew Barrymore's adorable Gertie. I remembered the pervasive catch phrase from the movie ("E.T. phone home"). And I remembered, perhaps more than anything else, the gut-wrenching feeling I had when I thought E.T. was dead. Suffice to say, I never recognized the cinematic qualities of Speilberg's film, qualities which were immediately apparent after this viewing.
From its opening sequence, shot entirely in shadow and without any dialogue, when E.T. is abandoned after losing contact with the mothership, Spielberg's film is expertly crafted and beautifully shot. Like Jaws, which showcased the wunderkind's ability to create suspense from the simplest scenarios, E.T. demonstrates a similar gift for simplistic storytelling accompanied by brilliant filmmaking.
And, as in Jaws, the director accomplishes a lot with little touches. From the slightly melodramatic, yet highly effective, shadowy framing of E.T.'s human captors to the scene in the kitchen when smoke from the hot water faucet mixes with the smoky environs of the forest E.T. lands in, Spielberg creates a distinctive and playful visual oeuvre.
What's most striking about E.T. after all these years, though, is how effectively Spielberg manages to tell this story from the perspective of his child stars. E.T. ‘s magic is that it manages to recreate the world with a child's sense of wonder, without ever compromising itself. The bad men are simply shadows, the realities of a broken home amount to little more than a mother's infrequent crying, and kids can fly to safety on their dirt bikes.
At one point in the film, E.T. listens from the closet as the mother reads Peter Pan to Gertie. The moment is compelling because it reminds us that Spielberg is our cinematic Peter Pan, a director who constantly strives to fix the world in that perfect, yet impossible, perspective a child has. In Spielberg's world, things work out and, ultimately, the nuclear family is saved.
It's fitting in many ways that E.T. should be re-released on the heels of Spielberg's first box office disappointment in recent memory: A.I. The dark, horrifying world of A.I. is a disconcerting one for Spielberg fans. As fractured as it is ambitious, the most discomfiting aspect of A.I. is that the director could not successfully tack on a happy ending. With A.I., for the first time in his career, against his best intentions, Spielberg offers up a film that is more pessimistic than optimistic, and his box office returns suffered accordingly.
Now, with the re-release of E.T., Spielberg reminds us of the warm, fuzzy director who staked his claim on happy endings. While A.I. closed with the devastating realization that Haley Joel Osmet would never be able to go home, E.T. closes by reuniting not one, but two families. Both alien and boy are returned to their mothers, with the addition of a new father (Peter Coyote) for the earthbound clan.