Steven Spielberg couldn’t make E.T. today. Not that he’s lost his sense of wonder. He could handle the effects just fine and the pacing would be tight, and maybe he’d even cast the same way (using only non-stars, non-look-at-me actors), but you wouldn’t remember anything apart from the alien.
People remember that E.T. begins without words. There is a ten minute-or-so sequence that has justifiably become famous wherein nothing is heard but for E.T.’s breathing and the jingle of keys as his mysterious nemesis draws near. This is the sequence that sets up for us one half the movie’s premise: an abandoned alien pursued by shadowy government forces.
What makes E.T. great is that this isn’t the story.
E.T. is Elliott’s story. The first and last letters of his name are not mere coincidence. We meet him sat at the dinner table. He wants to play a game with his older brother and his brother’s friends. They aren’t listening. Elliott is around ten years old, scrawny, a fidget. He’s bright, but still a ten-year-old and he’s just as self-important and intensely vulnerable as any kid.
E.T.’s genius is how it depicts the family that meet the alien. If Spielberg was to falter anywhere in making the movie today, he’d most likely start with the real people. His recent work (pick anything from Hook through to Munich) doesn’t have the chutzpah to just let things happen on screen: everyone’s always telegraphing the moment nowadays, too many Names, too many famous faces.
E.T. is a movie that marries the best of the 70’s and the early 80’s: real people encounter the special effects in this movie and for the most part (‘til the flying bikes appear) their encounters are low-key and not given pre-eminence over the moments when no special effects are on screen.
Look at Elliott and the other boys round the dinner table. They don’t act like they’re in a big summer block-buster or a sci-fi movie. They don’t say anything that sets up what’s going to happen or establishes character or ironically references anything. This scene isn’t a hurry to reach the next big explosion. All we need to know here is that Elliott doesn’t have friends of his own at this gathering, that the other boys tolerate him, but aren’t above having fun at his expense, and that Spielberg takes an equal interest in these people as he does in bug-eyed aliens from outer-space.
Elliott’s mother offers further proof that this isn’t just an effects movie. Watch her at the dinner table when Elliott starts talking about his absent father, how she gets up without a fuss and washes dishes with the air of a mortician. See her sat alone waiting for her kids to come home on Halloween night, putting out candles with her star-capped wand; a moment that’s sad because no-one shares it.
Drew Barrymore will probably never give a better performance than Gertie, Elliott’s little sister. Ok, so maybe she is there to shore-up the cute-quotient, but she does so in a way that’s remarkably unaffected for Hollywood royalty. Elliott’s brother, Michael, would never get away with those snaggle-teeth in today’s Hollywood, but those teeth – and Robert MacNaughton’s take on the character – are authentic in a way casting some shiny-happy O.C. refugee simply could never be.
Is E.T. without schmaltz? Impossible. This is a Spielberg movie, and it comes with all the faults and the schmaltz that that entails. What counts it whether it contains anything more than schmaltz, and on that count I would argue that it offers an embarrassment of riches. Today, Elliott would be side-lined and the movie would leave his suburban home within minutes, not an hour and a half into the movie. But in 1982 Spielberg knew where his story was. Not in space, or the realms of conspiracy, but in a broken-home in California.
Nothing human is alien to E.T.