I just watched E.T. for the first time. It won best picture in 1982, and remains a revered (and oft quoted) cultural icon. What makes it so excellent? I will approach the question not by examining E.T. as a film, for I am not a film-maker (Don would be [rightfully] annoyed), but as a story, for everyone who’s ever relayed a bad day to a friend has tried their hand at the weaving of tales. We are all amateur story-tellers.
Below are four reasons I think the story is superb, and a few questions for further research.

Why E.T. is excellent
and
Questions I am pondering:

1. Elaborated simplicity – The movie ends at the same place it begins, literally and thematically. I say “the same place,” but not exactly. It begins in the clearing in the forest, a UFO, at first resting peacefully if eerily among the trees, suddenly taking off into the night, and ends in roughly the same spot, this time descending to the forest to retrieve the lost compandre. It begins with E.T., his constituents, and the scientific antagonists presiding, and ends with the roughly the same group, this time the only scientist in attendance stares at the ship as full of awe as the children. It begins with the tension of a creature lost in a strange world, it ends with an offer (“Come.”) for a young boy to go to one himself. There is a sense that the entire sweeping two-hour narrative has been a diversion, if a satisfying diversion, from this place and this moment. This technique of ending (almost) exactly the same place you begin has proven to be pleasing in music as well (think Beethoven’s 5th.)
How does something complex help us understand something simple? Why did Boethius write short poems at the beginning of his long discourses?

2. Universal appeal – The main conflict of the movie is the likeable little “goblin’s” journey home from the strange planet upon which his fellow aliens accidentally and unfortunately abandoned him. Like the Matrix, which builds an entire trilogy on one basic premise: “this is not the real world”, the “plot-A” of E.T. is something to which, I assert, all human beings can relate. There seems to be a pervasive and unshakable sense of restlessness in everybody you’ll ever meet. To put this restlessness in words, I would say “This is not my home.” Humans are notoriously exploratory, discontent with their present surroundings, nagged by the feeling that paradise is just on the horizon, just around the corner… Perhaps just at the end of the rainbow. Why do we feel this? That is a different story. The fact is we do feel it, and E.T., makes this feeling its premise.
Is there another way to explain this feeling than by concluding that this really is not our home?If this is not our home, where is my home?

3. Subtlety not grandiosity – Michelangelo said, “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.” E.T., attains the feel and texture of an epic. However, the story, if outlined, is fairly formulaic, almost humdrum. “A creature from another planet tries to find his way home.” The task of creating the power of the film, and now I dip dangerously close to film-making commentary, falls to the cinematography, the music, and the subtle trifles built into the script. Trifles such as Eliot’s empathy with E.T., the kiss at school, the drunken stupor; each of young Drew Barrymore’s lines, which, the point of view of plot-advancement, are almost throw-away, yet, by her adorable performance, serve to solidify the audience’s full interest in the story.

4. People and things – The thrust of the story is a mixture of what one might call “Event-narrative” and “Character-narrative”. It is a mix of stuff happening, and people relating. The relationship between Eliot and E.T. becomes the primary content of the emotional climax of the last five minutes. He loves E.T. Witnessing this love and friendship is captivating; this captivation explains the enduring power of the film.
Is it home that we really want, or closeness with another person? In what way do people themselves become a home?

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

3 Comments

  1. Keith, thanks for your insightful post. I agree with the “world is not our home” insight: that is an element we can all relate to. One potential danger in E.T. is that, like the Matrix, we become conspiracy theorists who become unduly skeptical about the “reality” that appears to us. Surely this reality isn’t Reality because our longings beg for something more – but we live in this (little “r”) reality and must make do. Spielberg’s film might exercise a bit too much wishful thinking…

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  2. “One potential danger in E.T. is that, like the Matrix, we become conspiracy theorists who become unduly skeptical about the “reality” that appears to us. Surely this reality isn’t Reality because our longings beg for something more – but we live in this (little “r”) reality and must make do. Spielberg’s film might exercise a bit too much wishful thinking…”

    Selby, I agree that over suspiciousness is a danger. I wonder, what kind of skepticism do you think might be beneficial? What distinguishes it from bad skepticism?

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  3. Keith, well done. You’ve put your finger on what makes many of Spielberg’s films great. May we all become better story tellers…

    By the way, Selby, I think this world needs more fantasy and not less… I saw that you posted a blog up there on your “skepticism” so I’ll hold comment until I check it out.

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