By John H. Foote
And finally, the greatest film of the nineties …
1. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
Yes, I agonized over the choice for number one, and again the three listed as best of the decade could be interchangeable depending on the day and my mood. Why not Raging Bull (1980)? While I admire the artistry within Scorsese’s dark masterpiece, I have seen the film a total of five times since 1980 and it is always a very difficult watch. Almost too demanding in fact because Jake La Motta, brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro at the peak of his acting power, is such a repellant character. It is not a film I watch often, though I often recall its raw, visceral power. Raging Bull made me forever a believer in Martin Scorsese, but I believe, today at least, that the greatest film of the eighties is Steven Spielberg’s dreamscape of a film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Before I begin I will ask you to consider a few things.
First of all, the title character is a special effect, not an actor, a little creature made of latex and rubber, its eyes modelled on those of Albert Einstein, its movements created by a team of operators working in tandem. Second, the main actor in the film is a 10-year-old boy, who played out most of his scenes opposite that creation and was asked to see the creation as a little alien left behind accidentally by his ship. The visual effects were simply spectacular in bringing E. T. to life, the sound designers found the perfect voice for the creature, and the camera stayed on what worked best for the alien. The one thing the alien did not do well was move, so they avoided showing him walking unless it was absolutely necessary. The cinematography was magnificent, and that John Williams score was absolute perfection. Watching the film today, it has not aged at all, and in fact seems as plausible today as it did back then. I have shown the film to new film students who have not seen it (for shame) and the tears flowed as easily as they did the first time I screened this magical film. Like The Wizard of Oz (1939), this film transcends time. We are swept into the fantasy of the film, accept everything we see, and fall in love with a little alien with ancient eyes. It holds up, remarkably well, and like Oz hits the same emotional chords it hit when first released.
The film opens with a group of small alien botanists on earth in the middle of the night gathering samples to study. Alerted the authorities are closing in, they get back to their ship and take off, all but one, left behind by accident and now forced to find a way to survive in a world he does not know.
He is fortunate enough to find Elliott (Henry Thomas) a 10-year-old boy, bullied at school, left behind by his father who is off with his girlfriend, a much younger woman. Struggling with who he is, Elliott finds E.T. (the name he gives him) in their garden shed and entices him into the house with candy. The trick then is to hide him from his mother, and the rest of his siblings. Realizing he needs his brother and sister’s help to hide and protect E.T. he tells them and swears them to secrecy. The three children take care of E.T., teach him their language and he bonds physically and emotionally and physiologically with Elliott, so that the boy feels his feelings, his fears, his delight. They learn that E.T. can heal with just a touch of his finger, and when the creature tells them he needs to go home, they find ways to help.
On Halloween, E.T. and Elliott ride deep into the forest to find the right place to set up the device to call his people back to him. When the ride becomes too difficult for the boy and the creature on Elliott’s bike, we again see one of the creature’s miracles, when he sets the bike in motion and flies it high above the trees. Elliott rides, first terrified but then fully trusting his friend that no harm will come to him, looking down and realizing the miraculous event he is experiencing. They land and set up the device, but E.T. goes missing and Elliott begs his older brother to find him. He does but the little alien is sick, and strangely so is Elliott. It is at this point they know they must tell their mother, who is at once terrified and gathers the kids to leave, but the government has found the alien and moved in to isolate the house.
They begin to study E.T. fighting to keep him alive, just as they struggle to save Elliott who is as sick as his friend. As their vitals separate, Elliott gets better, E.T. dies.
Told he can have a few minutes alone with his friend Elliott says goodbye in a heartbreaking monologue that only a child could speak and mean. But as he is leaving the room where they are holding the body of E.T. he notices flowers beginning to blossom and goes back to the container and opens it to find his friend very much alive, and knowing his people are coming for him with a shout of “E.T. phone home” and as Elliott tries to silence him, he continually says “Home, home, home”. Elliott tells his siblings and asks them to gather their friends and their bikes at a meeting place, they are taking E.T to his ship. They manage to escape, and riding hellbent, try and elude the police and government agents trying to capture them. They eventually hit a roadblock to find armed men hoping to catch them, but E.T. performs a miracle and the bikes soar into the sky high about the police and heads to the forest.
The light from the descending ship tells us the aliens have arrived.
Each of the kids has a chance to say goodbye to their little friend, until finally it is Elliott’s turn. The little alien urges him to come “come” but Elliott knows he cannot and whispers, “stay”. Telling him his heart is breaking they whisper “ouch” to each other and then E.T. gathers the boy in his arms and holds him in a tight embrace. Knowing E.T. must be in the air before the government arrives, Elliott breaks the embrace, but E.T. whispers to him “I’ll be right here” and his finger lights up, touching Elliott on the forehead. With that the little creature walks up the walkway to his waiting friends on the ship and they take off into the galaxy, Elliott and E.T. connected forever by a deep love born of friendship.
Steven Spielberg has made many great, masterful films, movies for the ages, such as Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Jaws (1975), the Raiders of the Lost Ark quadrilogy (1981-84-89-08), Munich (2005), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but only his Holocaust drama Schindler’s List surpasses E.T. as his finest achievement. The film was a massive hit, breaking box office records and surpassing Star Wars (1977) as the greatest money maker in film history. Repeat viewings were frequent and it was not out of the realm to find grown men weeping in the cinema, in fact count me as one. That staggeringly brilliant goodbye scene still gets me every single time.
The Christ theme woven into E.T. can no longer be denied, from the fingers touching on the poster like the famous painting by Michelangelo of God touching Adam to awaken him, giving him life. Someone different among us, the power of healing Elliott’s bad cut with a touch, giving life where there was none (flowers), the gift of miracles (flight), death and then resurrection, and ascending to the heavens to be one with his people. You would be surprised how many people choose to miss that or just disregard it, thinking a film like this cannot have such depth. Wake up! It certainly can and it did.
Without the central performance of Henry Thomas, the film would not have near the brilliance it does, and I believe Thomas’ performance to be the single greatest performance ever given by a child. How he was not nominated for an Academy Award Best Actor I will never understand.
E.T. was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and Sound Editing, and Best Film Editing. On Oscar night I watched in stunned disbelief as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won an obscene eight Academy Awards including Best Director. As Attenborough walked to accept his Best Director award he stopped and whispered to Spielberg, “This should be yours”. How right he was. E.T. did win for that majestic score from John Williams, visual effects and both sound awards, but nothing else despite the fact it was the year’s finest film. Spielberg richly deserved Best Director and the cinematography was breathtaking. As Gandhi slipped into memory, E.T. is still fresh and wonderful.
Other awards came from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who awarded E.T. their award for Best Film (Drama) and Score, the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded E.T. their prizes for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, the LA Film Critics awarded it Best Picture and Best Director, the National Society of Film Critics honored Spielberg as Best Director, and the director was nominated for the DGA Award as Best Director.
Shooting the film from the point of view of a child, other than the mother portrayed by Dee Wallace, we only see one other adult from the waist up, the agent we know only as Keys, portrayed with sincerity and love by Peter Coyote who tells Elliott he was glad the alien found the boy first.
Rumors floated the voice of Debra Winger was that of E.T. and, while she might have provided some line readings, the true voice of the alien was that of Pat Welsh a little-known film actress. Her raspy delivery was the perfect sound for the creature. Winger does appear in the film as the nurse zombie during the Halloween scene. Harrison Ford also makes an appearance, but you will not know it is him as he is seen only briefly, and never his face, as Elliott’s enraged teacher during the boy’s drunken episode in school where he sets free the frogs and kisses the girl.
Carlo Rambaldi was tasked with creating the look of E.T. and he would use the eyes of Albert Einstein, knowing, gentle and wise, making three models of the alien, to be operated with a series of hydraulic pullies and gears operated off camera. The result was so exceptional that Drew Barrymore, as the little sister Gertie, thought the creature was real throughout the shoot.
Spielberg based much of the film on his own lonely childhood growing up, and writer Melissa Matheson incorporated stories he had told her into the script, so in many ways Elliott represents E.T.
Watching the film a week ago, the flight over the forest is still magical, a beatific sequence that has everyone watching the film thinking, “Yeah I would do that”. And yes, I wept again at that goodbye scene, who would not unless your heart is of stone?
An extraordinary work and profoundly moving message of love. It is ageless.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.