For a while, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had a nice friendly game of box office tennis going on. First, Spielberg took the crown of highest-grossing film of all time with Jaws in 1975. Then Lucas grabbed it in 1977 with Star Wars. Spielberg took it back in 1982 with E.T. Lucas edged Star Wars ahead with the Special Edition release in 1997. Then James Cameron came along and bought the tennis court and the game was pretty much over. But for a time, the all-time box office Top Ten looked like a Lucas/Spielberg filmography.
E.T. wasn’t the kind of blockbuster like we see today, ones that make over $100 million in their opening weekend, blitz their way to $200 or $300 million in a week or two, and then plummet down the charts when the next big thing comes along. E.T. opened in June of 1982, and ranked no worse than #2 in weekend box office totals all the way into October. It didn’t drop out of the Top Ten until February of the following year, and was managing to creep back into it as late as May 1983. I mentioned the frenzy over Jurassic Park in 1993, but while that was a sort of redemption, E.T. was a coronation. People didn’t just think this was a great fun movie, they loved the thing. There was genuine anger in some circles when it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Gandhi; I remember our local movie critic titling his Oscar commentary, “Hollywood Snobs Turn Oscar Into Peace Prize.” This adorably ugly little alien tapped into the feelings of everyone from kids to adults; we even managed to drag my grandmother to see it. It was that most sought-after of Hollywood commodities: the four-quadrant film, one that appeals to everybody. And in 1982, it sure seemed like everybody went to see it.
For all the great films Spielberg has under his belt, E.T. may have the most perfectly crafted script of the lot. The film isn’t even two hours long, and there’s not a wasted scene or bit of dialog in the thing. There’s no time taken to explain where E.T. came from or why his ship was here. We don’t get a detailed explanation of how his mental link with Elliot works, or exactly how his communicator functions. There’s not a moment that doesn’t develop a character or move the story forward. In fact, it’s such a well-built cinematic machine, you could conceivably take all the dialog out and still clearly understand what’s going on. I’m sitting here thinking of the scenes that stick out most for me, and it’s the ones that have almost no words: E.T.’s pursuit and abandonment; Halloween night; the bike chase; that grand, operatic finale. Where some would take the chance to insert clunky exposition or easy jokes, Spielberg is confident enough in his visual storytelling to just let things be. It’s remarkable.
Take for example the character of “Keys.” For much of the film, we don’t even see his face. He’s nothing more than a jangling set of keys on a belt, and we know he’s chasing E.T. for some reason. All it takes is the sight of those keys and some ominous notes from John Williams for us to feel a sense of foreboding. Yet when the character is finally revealed, his entire backstory is summed up in one line of dialog: “Elliot, he came to me too. I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old. I don’t want him to die.” Three simple sentences that reveal the motivation behind everything we’ve seen so far, and which deftly change a threatening presence to a friendly one, an Elliot who never found his E.T., and doesn’t want our Elliot to lose his. Melissa Mathison easily deserves as much credit as Spielberg for just how great this film is.
What’s also great is that you could easily make a much more somber reading of this film. We watch the end and feel all happy inside because E.T. is going home, but re-watching this a few months ago, my perception shifted a bit. Part of the reason for the strong bond between Elliot and E.T. is that Elliot is a pretty lonely kid. His father has left the picture, which has put a strain on the whole family. He’s too old to play with his younger sister, and not old enough to really fit in with his older brother and his friends. We really don’t see him with any friends of his own outside his siblings; even in school, he seems like a bit of a loner. So the scene where he shows off all his toys to E.T., while on one hand simply the excitement of sharing things with a new friend, also comes across as a bit of a desperate happiness to finally have someone else to show these things to. He’s bringing a blank slate into his world, someone who has no preconceptions about him, who he can make into the kind of friend he’s always wanted. He’s also kind of possessive; it’s not hard to imagine him feeling a little jealous when he finds out his sister has been dressing E.T. up in doll’s clothes. With all this in mind, the ending becomes even more bittersweet. Elliot’s best, perfect friend is leaving him, just like his dad did. But at least this time, Elliot gets to say good-bye.
For better or worse, E.T. would forever mark Spielberg’s career, the benchmark for comparison for all his films for nearly 11 years. He himself would go on to acknowledge this when he produced Gremlins in 1984; it’s no coincidence that when the evil Stripe emerges from a bunch of toy animals, it’s a stuffed E.T. he pushes out of the way.
Tomorrow: Next time, try sculpture.