Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Eighteen


#18 — E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
The nineteen-eighties belonged to Steven Spielberg. Even those who react to the filmmaker’s name with an instinctual would surely concede that point. Considering he closed the seventies with 1941, a film that probably still stands as the clearest disaster in his career, he rebounded nicely with a slew of hit films that were also largely adored by the critical community, at least until the success of the films stirred an inevitable backlash, a need to asset, “Well, it wasn’t that good.” In fact, Spielberg was so successful that his name essentially became a Hollywood brand, attached as a producer credit to all sorts of movies that generally matched the tone of his pinnacle works. Arguably, he was the first director to really achieve that status since a couple decades earlier when Alfred Hitchcock’s name and image graced television shows, book series, magazines and other products trying to instill a promise of spooky chills. The film that most clearly helped him reach this point was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

With E.T., Spielberg didn’t just create a film, he created a phenomenon, much as he did several years earlier when Jaws practically knocked the movie business of its axis. The story of a lost space alien and the suburban boy he befriends reached a whole different audience than that earlier feature, though. There was a sense that practically everyone was seeing E.T., including the sort of older audiences who would normally be expected to altogether ignore a film with science fiction overtones. Elderly grandparents were taking their grandchildren with ages still in the single digits, and both of the drastically different demographic groups were connecting with the emotions of the material equally. One of Spielberg’s greatest strengths, especially at this point in his career, centered on the ability to strongly personalize any story he turned his camera on. Other directors might have played up the adventure or the otherworldly confusion of the same story. In Spielberg’s hands, it became a story about loneliness and friendship. E.T. was the secret best pal that was at the focus of every lonely little boy’s hopes. The special effects were dandy, but it was the simple human emotions that carried the film.

Beyond Spielberg’s unerring emotional rudder, his almost unparalleled command of the mechanics of directing was in prime form with E.T., especially when it came to the deceptively complicated art of shot construction. Considering his clear willingness to fill the soundtrack with layered, seemingly improvisational dialogue–many of the exchanges between the younger characters in the movie seem like Spielberg just wound the actors up and let them go–it’s often amazing at how precise and perfect the images are. Spielberg never needed to tell a story without handy support beams of dialogue, but E.T. is one of the films that demonstrates definitively that it was well within his capabilities. There a vast passages of the film in which the dramatic movement of the story is fully clear, even with the volume turned all the way down. This isn’t a indictment of the Melissa Mathison screenplay, which is insightful and wisely constructed. Instead, it’s an indication of Spielberg’s embedded understanding of the way that word and image are supposed to work together, each one bolstering the other, working in symbiosis. His job as a director isn’t to merely point and shoot, but to find the right visual approach to make the ideas, feelings and dramatic turns truly resonate. Spielberg understands the ebb and flow of a movie as well as anyone. It might look cool to send a bike cutting diagonally across the moonrise, but it’ll be so much better if the audience has cause to care about the kid spinning the pedals.

If Spielberg helped to change the parameters of box office success, arguably to the detriment of cinematic art, then he also had to watch as the industry shifted away from him. E.T. wasn’t a massive hit because the marketing department did their job expertly or because the right corporate tie-in promotions were carefully cultivated–in fact, it took a couple attempts to find a candy company even comfortable with the titular space traveler consuming their product onscreen–but because the film spoke to people and they served as advocates of its charms. Merit still had something to do with success, as opposed to the false promises employed these days to make sure people pile into the theater on opening weekend. Spielberg may have made hits, but I don’t think that was ever really his goal. He wanted to make great movies, the sort that transfixed him when he was a lonely suburban boy, wishing for a special friend who understood his oddities. That was what he set out to do, and that’s exactly what he accomplished with E.T.

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