Active Ingredients: Child’s-eye view; Lighting; Exhilarating spectacle
Side Effects: Second act conflict
I’ll never not love E.T., so formative was its role in my own cinematic imagination, yet I was exhilarated and moved all over again rewatching it for the first time since my youth. It helps that E.T.—and indeed, most of Spielberg’s work—seeks to restore this sense of childhood wonder to viewers of all ages. This mode of storytelling then, becomes both text and subtext, and even informs the film’s visual style and sentimental machinations. It might have been easy to undercut this systematic naivety with the cynicism and fatigue of adulthood, but the triumph of E.T. is its profound respect for the emotional experience of childhood, for its joys and tragedies, its fears, and its own unique wisdom.
To animate this cinematic worldview aligned to the child, Spielberg uses low-angle shots flooded with dramatic light and shadows, strange sounds that provoke an unplaced anxiety, and the terrain of the domestic space with all its fragile comforts and acutely-felt disappointments. It’s telling that we never see the face of an adult, save Eliot’s quietly suffering mother, until the third act.
It’s through this totalizing perspective that we first encounter E.T., both a “goblin” and a “miracle,” and a force that only the young can comprehend. Spielberg is perhaps a bit vague in sketching the psychic connection between Eliot and E.T. and justifying the emotional swings the film takes, but it’s clear that the creature only properly belongs to the universe of the children: parents just don’t understand.
The key to this authority the children hold over the realm of the unreal comes in a late allusion to Peter Pan, a story eagerly devoured by Eliot’s little sister as E.T. watches on from behind the shutters. (Remember that the unfairly maligned A.I. Artificial Intelligence also places itself in direct response to a fable.) Both in Peter Pan and in E.T. the fairy world is dying, and only the affirmation of the reader’s belief in magic can save it. E.T. is just this type of story: an ode to the purity of a child’s sense of wonder. It may not be a complex emotion, but it’s all the more potent and intoxicating because of it.
Spielberg’s films are often modern fairy tales in disguise, using all the powers of the cinema to extract an emotional reaction. His detractors balk at this sentimental, even moralistic approach to storytelling, and they’re not wrong, but they may miss his serious treatment of the inner life of the child, and his understanding of both its pleasures and its pains. It strikes me as both satisfying and therapeutic to return this primal mode of storytelling every so often. When we do, we stoke the flames of the magic of childhood, and keep the fairy world alive.