E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a 1982 science-fiction family story about a young boy who discovers a stranded friendly alien in his backyard and helps it return to its home world, building a meaningful friendship unlike anything anyone has ever experienced. A huge box office and critical success, it is one of the most influential movies ever made.
Igniting children’s imaginations by film has long been one of the great joys of cinema and one of its most impressive purveyors of such has been writer-director Steven Spielberg, a virtual magician in the art who has produced some of the most entertaining and endearing children’s movies of all time. In 1982, it seemed unlikely that he would be such a man given that he’d already created the first summer blockbuster, a horror movie about a man-eating shark and an epic adventure about a Nazi-fighting archaeologist. Not to mention a brain-twisting alien film about Earth’s first close encounter and a genre-bending poltergeist movie. It didn’t exactly seem clear that he was building up steam for crafting the greatest family film ever made. But he was.
E.T. -The Extra-terrestrial is told mostly through the eyes of Elliott (Henry Thomas), a middle child in a single parent home having trouble fitting in, too young to spend time with his fifteen-year-old brother and friends and too old for his five-year-old sister. One evening he hears noises from the backyard as he goes outside to pick up a pizza, discovering something hiding in the tool shed. Turns out, it is a little alien left behind by a scouting party. Both initially frightened, Elliott eventually uses candies to lure the being into his bedroom and quickly establishes an unspoken bond with the alien, whom he names E.T. Soon after, they learn to communicate and Elliott realizes that E.T. is trying to get home and needs his help. A powerful parable on imaginary friends, the film is a meticulously crafted work that genuinely inspires child watching and touches adults who long remember days of innocence. Beyond its technical achievements for the time, it is the attention to character development and narrative construction that has made it eternal. Let’s look closely at a particularly good example of this that showcases how well Spielberg builds a story.
Peter Pan and the Ouch Moment
What we see: Early in the story, E.T. is housed and hidden in Elliott’s large closet, which is connected between rooms, shared with Gertie (Drew Barrymore), his sister. One night, Gertie and her mother (played by Dee Wallace) are on Gertie’s bed reading Peter Pan. E.T. is tucked into the shadows, peering through the slot of the closet door blinds, watching and listening as Elliott silently enters with a box of gadgets he hopes can be assembled into a makeshift radio device to contact E.T.’s friends and rescue him. One of these parts is a serrated buzzsaw blade on which Elliott accidentally cuts his finger, causing him to bleed. He instinctively says, “Ouch.” E.T., watching over the boy, recognizes this as pain and uses his one elongated finger, now lit with a glowing tip, to instantly heal the small wound. It changes everything about what we suspect about the alien.
The suspension of disbelief is a necessary component of many films involving science fiction, and one that is the easiest to break if handled poorly. If we are to believe in the universe created on screen, we must be made to believe that the things existing in it make sense and conform to the rules it establishes. Often in science fiction, elements are introduced that task us with accepting or denying these behaviors or characteristics, and their success stems from how well the story allows ‘the thing’ to be integrated and used. With many sci-fi films, stories rely on things that are not familiar to us, or at least would seem as if they were impossible.
Writer and futurists Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote as one of his laws of technology that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ To us, E.T. appears to be magical, a purposeful intent by Spielberg, which serves two-fold in the context of the story: a) the alien possesses abilities beyond human progress or evolution by which we can, at our present development, not duplicate nor understand and b) re-enforces the position that E.T. is ‘magical’, thereby enhancing the fantastical precept of the imaginary friend. The wonder of the moment is its sheer simplicity, the point of a finger, something we can all identity with as an instrument for engaging technology, for E.T. the same. Basically, in modern terms, it’s point and click.
This is all overplayed by the clever and deceptively subtle insertion of the Peter Pan reading in the background as Elliott’s mother (Dee Wallace) enthusiastically reads a significant passage of the story where a sick Tickerbell is dying and the reader/audience (for the stage play) is told to clap their hands if they ‘believe’ in order to make her well. This Tinkerbell Effect has long been known to actually existence in a number of disciplines, and in psychology is most prevalent where people can be made to believe that something they believe in will occur. Little Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is told to clap her hands to believe in fairies while at the same time we are watching a being from another planet instantly heal a wounded boy. Spielberg makes no effort to mask the inference and in most other hands, would seem heavy-handed, and yet Spielberg deftly handles it here, allowing us just a brief moment with mother and daughter, with one inspiring imagination in the other, before pulling back and settling on the main story.
What makes the scene so effective, and why it has such lasting power, is its commitment to the theme. As an audience, we want to believe in a story’s premise, but default, having bought a ticket, we are invested and are open to the storytellers vision. With E.T., at this moment, we gleefully accept the ‘magic’ of the alien as real, led by the reminder of J. M. Barrie‘s enchanting childhood story. What’s better, we believe.