How E.T. Proves the Creative Range of Spielberg

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Shudipto Dip

When we talk about versatility in filmography, the combination of genres to pop in our mind would be something along the lines of Drama+Fantasy+Sci-fi+Horror+War. And when we talk of auteurs marking their territory, it’s always about a distinct style prevalent throughout their films. Most seminal auteurs only have around a dozen films spanning through their career, almost always sacrificing potential versatility.

Nevertheless, between Kubrick and Villeneuve, our generations are endowed with the range of one Steven Spielberg — whose quality does not falter with quantity. With war films like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, adventures like Indiana Jones or The Adventures of Tintin, sci-fi like AI: Artificial Intelligence, and historical drama like Munich or Lincoln, the statement is pretty self-explanatory even if we ignore the subgenres he created or a dozen classics he wrote and produced. E.T. The Extra-terrestrial is one such feather in his crown.

A signature Spielberg plotline is extraordinary among the commons. He sets ordinary people to experience extraordinary events or interact with otherworldly beings. Thus we have The Goonies, Jurassic Park, The Terminal, and as the title suggests: E.T

Around 39 years ago on this date (June 11), E.T was released in theatres. It has a fairly simple synopsis of a boy taking care of an alien left behind on Earth, having a striking resemblance with a Bollywood classic we’ve all watched as kids. While that is a remarkable event and interaction for a kid to experience, what makes it extraordinary for the audience? There are hundreds of stories out there that are similar (ref- Doraemon: Nobita’s Dinosaur), if not the same.

What makes E.T. stand out?

It’s easy to say it was the pioneer. But then again, do we have to conform ourselves into liking a simplified version of what we are enjoying now, just because it was released first? Fortunately no, because even with a handful number of acts for a two-hour film, Spielberg manages to make a riveting tear-jerker in every aspect.

So, how does he get us hooked for an otherwise predictable chain of events?

A solid introduction helps. But it’s always either philosophical monologues with cityscapes or clever dialogues with an act in play. E.T., on the other hand, has an eight-minute opening sequence with no talking and an orchestral score to relay the mood. It not only set the mystic ambience of the film, but also spoke for the isolation a character was facing in silence. And isolation during childhood is what drove Spielberg into making it an analogy.

The film score that evoked subtle emotions at the beginning made steady progress with the number of instruments involved to finally evoke goosebumps and tears — of both melancholy and joy. Hints of the soundtrack to be used in sequences later were layered beforehand. And tiny bits of upcoming pieces in the outro built a subliminal anticipation. This way the crescendo during the iconic flying bicycle scene felt so grandiloquent and euphoria inducing. It also helped the gothic visuals to not be distinguished as horror elements, thereby embedding the theme song in our hearts. The infamous collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams also helped pay a proper homage to Star Wars via incorporating the Yoda theme before and during an alluring sunset scene that resembled the binary sunset of Tatooine.

Spielberg is known to try and recreate the emotional state of the characters inside the audience. And a simple shift in framing or order goes a long way. After a character is shown in a wider angle to give us a perception of his position, it is customary to cut to a POV of the character for our momentary dive into his mind. Spielberg strips us off that custom, keeping us in the dark just as the character is about what follows. Thus, the first meeting scene in E.T. has an amplified mystery factor that is not outshined by the curious movements of one of the characters. In most other instances, a first-hand exposure of what the ‘freak of nature’ is diminishes the possibility of hostility or comprehensibility of shape, making for an introduction equal to that of an infant and an elephant. The camera being held low for the bulk of the film did not dehumanise the alien as a pet, rather added flavour to his dynamic with the kid.

Simple editing of the order of frames helped, too. Another signature Spielberg move is the Spielberg Face. Simply put, we are first shown the reaction of the character and then what caused it. It added the defining suspense in Jurassic Park. For E.T., it added to the innocent thought process and emotions children like the protagonist face. This kind of suggestive ‘wholesome’ factor can only be rivalled by his work in The Terminal. In this way, we are pre-dictated to feel how they feel about different outcomes.

As an exception, this signaling works both ways in the film. As Spielberg would like to call it a “double-rescue” arc, the simultaneous shift between both reactions of both characters placed in parallel in two beds had a two-way impact suggestive of the bond they developed. This development was experienced by the child actors too. The film was shot in the chronological order of the plot for them to feel their own growth, and in turn, enhance our dive into their minds. And we got to witness one of the finest child actor performances of the last century from Henry Thomas. Such impactful acting and camera angles is what made this film stand out among all the decent variations of this plot outline.

No matter how simple, this plot outline is designed to be a tearjerker feel-good. Hence, any adaptation or variation is a good one by default. Spielberg’s signature style of cinematography and the score by John Williams confirms that E.T. is not a film to coerce that default privilege. Another aspect that sets the film completely apart from variations is the lighting. Negative space, its respective blocking and vertigo effect are a few tricks he pulled off. The colour throughout the film can be categorised into shades of blue and not blue. That prevalent colour palette and the complementary ill-lit rooms during daytime throughout the movie provide for its uniqueness. The running fog in a static nightscape shot adds dynamics inspired from Akira Kurosawa. A red and yellow tinted glass in the closet provides for a dreamy hue, making the alien’s hiding spot their new point of interest. Appearance from negative space into the dim light shows the concern of a mother as she was alienated in the conversation before the transition. 

Blinding lights entering the dark rooms through windows or peepholes keep the focus on what we are required to see. No room in the movie is properly lit, providing for alternating contrast and silhouettes. This makes the moon the primary source of lighting that amplifies the mystery at the beginning and the sci-fi look throughout, providing knowledge of depth of field for 3-D storytelling. Such a distinct approach into lighting the setup is an exception in his filmography only to be comparable with Minority Report. While the artificial lighting there made for a great neo-noir, natural recurring moon shots kept a dreamy ambience in E.T.

Thus, a simple story became a fairytale.

This constant play with the light and darkness, this unique cinematography is what makes the classic a timeless one, no matter how outdated animatronic props are now. Jurassic Park now has to rely on the soundtrack while E.T. is also visually mesmerising enough to be labelled as the prestigious ‘timeless classic’. This way, Spielberg directs our eyes, via a unique lighting-oriented approach instead of an object-oriented one like in Schindler’s List. An alternation of lighting, progression of soundtrack and emotions through subtle editing have been consistent throughout the film. Every second, these small frames and the amount of thought put behind them keeps us reminding of the kind of story and characters we are dealing with. Hence, we never back off from relating with the goofiness of the child actors or the implausibility of certain plot armours. We are given an atmosphere, an emotionally suggestive musical score and subtle details here and there. We are thus compelled to dig our way into their world — a world we know to be ours with a sprinkle of sci-fi magic.

At its core, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is a story of loneliness and tolerance.

Unlike other versions of this story, E.T. does not rely on the protagonist being imperfect for us to sympathise with. Nor does it have to depend on the looks of the alien or the generic one dimensional characterisation of the authority figure for the story to have a drive to progress. This way, Spielberg managed to make the quintessential comfort movie — a hallmark we celebrate since its release in 1982 on this day. It developed a catchy theme to play in our minds, gut wrenching performances to reminisce, a visual experience to distinguish and the iconic frame of a mystic shadow pedaling by the resplendent full moon.


Shudipto Dip is a replicant with the emotional range of a labradoodle.

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